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A Muslim Helps a Rabbi

Blog.jpegThis week I had dinner with Daniel Fish and his brother Tal. The Fish brothers are alumni of our annual Belev Echad program which brings severely wounded IDF soldiers to NY for ten days of excitement.

Daniel was severely wounded by Hamas terrorists in Operation Protective Edge last summer. He was in a UN clinic near Khan Younis when a huge explosion collapsed the building, killing 3 soldiers and wounding 26. Later, a tunnel filled with explosives was discovered directly under the building.

Shortly after Daniel was rescued from the rubble, he lost consciousness, and a respiratory path was opened in his throat to help him breathe. The rescue was incredibly quick but very complicated, because Hamas terrorists continued firing mortars at them, causing yet more injuries and putting the rescuers' lives in danger as well.

Daniel, and his brother Tal who has taken care of him since his injury, were back in New York, so we had dinner together. I very recently had albums of our trip printed, and after dinner I gave 15 copies to Daniel and Tal to bring back to Israel for the rest of the group.

We said our goodbyes, and they hopped in a taxi and headed to their hotel. Their driver's name was Mohammed Islam, a religious Muslim from Bangladesh. Seeing Daniel's wheel chair, the taxi driver asked him about his injury, and when Daniel explained that he was injured in the war, he was visibly shaken.

Back in their hotel room, Daniel and Tal suddenly realized they'd left the box of albums in the back of the taxi! Hands full with the wheelchair, they'd simply forgotten.

Daniel panicked. This wonderful gift—with which he and the rest of the soldiers could relive their trip over and over—was gone. He called me and apologized profusely.

Based on my own experience losing cell phones in taxis, and knowing that Daniel had paid cash and not taken a receipt, I knew the likelihood of tracking down the albums was close to zero.

But, by Divine providence, the albums were sponsored by a woman in Texas who had flown in to participate in the Belev Echad trip in May. Her phone number was on the back of each album, so that the soldiers could thank her.

I called her and explained the situation, in case by some miracle the taxi driver called her. And, indeed, that's exactly what happened. Mohammed Islam, the taxi driver, called the woman in Texas, who gave him my address. He made a special trip all the way from his home in Queens to deliver the albums personally. Thank you, Mohammed! We chatted for a few minutes, and he told me that he feels strongly that Jews and Muslims should not be at war with one another.

Israel and the West are currently fighting radical Islamic terrorism. We are used to seeing Jews and Muslims fighting against each other. Almost weekly there is another terror attack against us in Israel. What a breath of fresh air to meet this lovely gentleman, Mohammed Islam. May the world be blessed with many more righteous people, and may we all get along just fine!

Bar Mitzvah at 53, at Starbucks

11270216_966764273357788_6521311114280157886_o.jpgDear Amit, Nir, Daniel, Dvir, Amit, Ohad, Amir, Shai, Elnathan and Meir,

You have been back in Israel for several weeks now, but we continue to feel the impact of your visit. You thanked us for the trip, but you have made a tremendous difference to our community, and for that I thank you.

Let me tell you a story:

John* is a 53-year-old Jew who grew up in New York with very little Jewish upbringing. No day school, Hebrew school or bar mitzvah. Despite growing up in one of the most vibrantly Jewish cities in the world, John grew up with virtually no Jewish experiences or education.

When he heard that we were bringing a group of severely wounded IDF soldiers to New York through our Belev Echad program, John decided to attend one of the events. He wanted to hear your stories of bravery and heroism. When he found out how young you all were when you joined the army to protect us and our land, he was in awe.

Although John had never before attended any of our programs or step foot in our shul, when he heard about you guys, he came right in. You caused a Jew to step foot in our doors—somebody who would never otherwise have attended. If not for you, John and I would likely never have met. So, thank you!

After chatting with John for a while, I realized he had never had a bar mitzvah. When I offered him one, he said, "I'm 53 years old! How can I have one now?

But, as we know, it's never too late.

We met at Starbucks this week and started learning Torah. John thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and we made plans to learn together regularly. Then we stood up, in the middle of Starbucks, and John put on tefillin and recited the Shema. I explained to John that by doing so, he is helping the IDF soldiers, because it says in our Torah that, “...when the nations of the world see that the name of the L-rd is upon you they will fear you.” So, he is, essentially helping the IDF from thousands of miles away.

Starbucks was quite crowded, and when I explained to the curious onlookers that we were celebrating John's bar mitzvah, they cheered proudly and respectfully.

So thank you Amit, Nir, Daniel, Dvir, Amit, Ohad, Amir, Shai, Elnathan and Meir for providing us with the opportunity to host you, and thank you for inspiring us and our community. Thank you for leading John to his bar mitzvah, and thank you for all the other mitzvot you inspired us to perform. 

This week we mark the 21st yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe taught us to love every Jew, and to appreciate and value the G-dly soul that is inside each of us! The Rebbe taught us that it is never too late to learn, never too late to do a mitzvah and never too late to celebrate a bar mitzvah. The Rebbe taught us to view each mitzvah as the one that may potentially tip the scales and bring Moshiach.

The soldiers didn't meet John and had no idea how profoundly they had changed his life. Likewise, we can and do influence those around us, both knowingly and unknowingly. Let's make sure we do so positively.

*Name changed to protect privacy

Lost $22,000

Blog.jpgA close friend and congregant, Paul*, was in Vegas recently on business.  

Now, Paul does not keep Shabbat, but he recently committed to turning his phone off each week. While it may sound easy to those who do it regularly, it is certainly not easy in the beginning! For somebody who is used to texting, emailing and Googling at any time, going 25 hours without is supremely difficult.

So, there was Paul, in Vegas, on a Friday night, on his way back to his hotel room which happened to require walking through a casino. Walking through the very non-kosher, non-Shabbat-like environment was tough. From the bar, to the music, to the slot machines...everything is made to entice.

Just as Paul was nearing the end of all these temptations, he happened to bump into an old friend from the East Coast. They sat down, near the slot machines, chatting and catching up on old times. His friend was in a gambling mood and encouraged Paul to join him. "Just throw a few coins in that slot machine," he said. "...see what happens!"

Paul was torn. Gambling is fun and enticing, and of course he wanted to play the slot machines. But, when he thought about his phone, which he had recently started turning off for Shabbat, he managed to control himself and refrain.

An hour or so later, Paul and his friend parted ways and Paul stood up to leave. He saw a young woman immediately seat herself exactly where he had been sitting. She put a few coins in the very machine he had stopped himself from playing, and voila! She won $22,000!

Paul was flabbergasted. He so easily could have won that $22,000. He sat in front of that machine, so tempted, for over an hour. And this is his reward? He kept Shabbat and lost $22,000? How can that be?

When he returned from his trip, Paul came to me quite distressed. "I could have gotten that $22,000!" he said. I don't understand. It's like G-d was telling me if I hadn't kept Shabbat, I would have got that money!

I explained to my friend Paul, that every year on Rosh Hashanah the amount of money we will make during the coming year is decreed. We cannot make more than G-d has allotted to us. We do, of course, need to make sure we create a vessel through which that money will arrive. ie. we cannot sit at home, with no job, and wait for the money to fall from Heaven.

That money, I explained to Paul, was not money allotted to you. So don't feel like you missed out. That money belonged to the other women, even before she entered the casino. But the money that G-d has planned for you? He will get it to you through kosher channels.

It's our job to create a strong, kosher vessel for G-d's blessing, which includes keeping Shabbat, as Paul did. When we do our part, surely G-d will do His.

*Name changed to protect privacy

United We Stand

Blog.jpgAbout a year ago, I received a group email from my wife's family. Their grandmother had passed on, and they were asking the extended family to join in studying Talmud in her memory. My wife has 15 siblings and a very large extended family, so they decided to ask everyone to commit to collectively completing the entire Talmud.

Now, the Talmud contains 63 tractates and over 6300 pages. Under normal circumstances, completing the Talmud requires intense study several hours each day for a full seven years! But in this case, if everyone agreed to chip in, and we were to divide it between so many willing participants, we should be able to complete it in just one year.

Asking people to study Torah in memory of the deceased is very common in Judaism. By learning something, or doing a mitzvah, specifically in that person's memory, we help elevate their soul in the higher world.

At the time, I was under a lot of pressure at work and unable to commit to anything, so I deleted the email, assuming they could do it without me.

But a few days later my wife's cousin called me. "I didn't see your name on the list!" he said. "We still have tractates available. Can you please commit to one?"

I tried to get out of it. Studying a tractate of Talmud is a serious commitment which takes hours and hours of time. Finally he wore me down and I agreed to take half the tractate of Berachot. 

Months passed, and while I kept intending to start studying, somehow I got no further than the first page. As the end of the year drew near, I kept getting reminder emails but I simply ignored them...

...until the last minute! Sound familiar? We all leave things till the last minute occasionally.

But here I was, with everyone depending on me. Out of the 6300 pages of the Talmud, only my 80 pages hadn't yet been studied! And this wasn't simply an hour or two of reading. Each page requires hours of study to be understood.

What could I do? I refused to let the whole group down. I had made a commitment and I intended to honor it. So I turned to my trusty Whatsapp groups. I have a few family groups and a group of South Africans, so I posted in all the groups that I desperately need people to help me complete my pages of Talmud. Lo and behold! Within minutes, I had dozens of people agreeing to take a couple of pages each, and within a few hours we had finished my entire section. Mission accomplished!

In this week's Torah portion we read about the Jews carrying the Holy Ark through the desert. Every time the Jews camped, they collectively assembled it, until it was again time to travel, when they collectively dismantled it.

There are times in life when a burden is too big to carry alone. But if we work as a team, the task becomes suddenly surmountable. In this case, collectively completing the Talmud is what made it doable. When we unite, we become a powerful force, able to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

I Want Somebody Normal!

Blog.jpgThis week I went to dinner with my close friends Shirley* and Simon*. After a pleasant conversation, I turned to Shirley and said, "You have a wonderful daughter. Nu? Isn't it time to think about marrying her off?"

Shirley let out a big sigh. "Oy, you've hit a raw nerve. Rachel is 25 years old, gentle, kind, intelligent, well-educated and absolutely beautiful. So many eligible young men want to date her—in fact, they chase after her! She has only one requirement, but has yet to find someone."  

I thought to myself, only one requirement? That should be easy enough! What could it be? The guy needs to be wealthy? Kind-hearted? Harvard-educated?

But, no. According to Shirley, her daughter's single requirement is for the guy to be NORMAL!

That's it. Somehow, though, none of the young men she's been dating have fit the bill.

Interestingly, I hear this from many young men and women. "I just want somebody normal."

What do they actually mean? Has everyone they've met until now really been abnormal? How do you even define normal? Am I normal? Are you normal? What IS normal?

According to the dictionary, normal means "usual or ordinary".

In this week's parshah we read about the 12 princes of Israel—the heads of the 12 tribes. The prince of Yehuda was Nachshon ben Aminadav. Nachson's sister, Elisheva, was married to Aaron, the high priest and brother of Moses. The Torah tell us that Aaron heard Elisheva had a brother who was "abnormal" and he liked that.

When the Jews left Egypt, and stood at the edge of the Red Sea, unsure how to proceed, Nachshon was the one who jumped into the swirling waters. Deeper and deeper he waded, until finally the waters split and the entire nation was able to pass through on dry land. No one else risked their lives like that—certainly, he was not "normal" (i.e., ordinary), and therefore Aaron married his sister.

Perhaps we should learn from Nachshon to be a little less normal. It's good to stand out and be different from the herd—for the right reasons. We need to identify closely with our Judaism and strengthen our connection with G-d. Then, surely, finding a spouse will become easier.

"So really, your daughter doesn't want someone normal and average," I said to Shirley. "She wants someone  unique and special." 

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

I Want To Fight

meir.jpgMeir Raginyano, an IDF soldier and member of our most recent Belev Echad trip, shared his story with our community at our Friday night event.

Meir was born without fingers on his right hand, and spent much of his life fighting to be like everyone else. His parents insisted that he not be treated differently, and as a result he learned to work around his disability and keep up with his friends.
When he turned 18, Meir went to the draft office. They took one look as his hand and gave him an exemption. But for years Meir had dreamed of serving his country and he refused to be deterred. He trained and trained. He showed the draft officers that he could run as well as anyone else. He taught himself how to hold a gun. He even spent eight months training on one specific exercise until he mastered it just as well as everyone else, despite his lack of fingers.
Eventually, he proved that he would be of tremendous value and they agreed to draft him into active duty. Time and again, Meir proved he could stand ground with the best of them.
Unfortunately, while fighting the recent summer war, Meir was severely injured. Anti-tank missiles were fired at the building he was in, and he was seriously wounded in his leg and right hand. Shrapnel was scattered throughout his body. He was taken to Soroka hospital where he underwent several complicated operations. He currently still undergoes treatment and rehabilitation at Tel Hashomer hospital, but his greatest wish is to return to the army and once again fight alongside his comrades to protect his nation!
As I listened to Meir sharing his story, I realized it holds a tremendous lesson for all of us in our own lives.
This weekend we mark the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah. When G-d gave us the Torah, He drafted us into His elite army. He gave us a mission—conquer the world by spreading Torah wherever you may be. Perform acts and kindness and encourage others to do so as well. Remember Who you represent and sanctify G-d's name.
Unfortunately, we are not all as determined to embrace our draft as Meir was. We may prefer to shirk our responsibilities and let others take the lead.
But we can learn from Meir how fortunate we are to have been drafted, and how hard we should work to embrace our mission. We can't just give up and expect others to take over! We need to fight the Good Fight, spreading goodness and kindness and Torah and mitzvahs wherever we go!
Meir wanted nothing more than the opportunity to join the army. We have that. Each and every one of us was automatically given that chance—all we need to do is implement it.
Go ahead! You are in the army—fight!

Turning Jews Away?!

10373834_964832746884274_4467211020526507506_n.jpgOver the last ten days our community hosted our 8th Belev Echad trip, where we welcome a group of severely wounded IDF soldiers and give them an incredible New York experience. One of the highlights of the trip is the Friday night dinner—hundreds of community members join for evening of inspiration with our heroic guests.

Knowing how popular the Friday night event has been in the past, I made sure to publicize it early. I sent out emails with all the relevant information, reminding people to get their reservations in early to ensure they had a spot. I posted multiple times on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus over several weeks.

Reservations came in steadily and I kept warning people that if they don't reserve soon, we might have no space left. When we reached capacity, we called the caterer and arranged for more space and more food, because we knew how much our community wanted the honor and privilege of spending Shabbat with the sounded IDF soldiers. So we opened up more seats. But eventually, those, too, were reserved, and we reached the point where we couldn't physically accommodate another person.

We closed the online reservation form and wrote clearly in red text, "We are sold out."

And that's when the drama began. Emails and Facebook messages poured in:

"Rabbi, check your website, I think something's wrong."

"Rabbi, did you get my reservation?"

"Rabbi, check your website immediately; it's malfunctioning."

In case it wasn't clear from our website, I posted to Facebook: "To all the dozens of people asking me, sold out means just that—sold out. And no, we cannot squeeze in even one more for tonight's Belev Echad Shabbat dinner of thanks and recognition. So sorry about that, please book earlier next time."

But even that didn't stop the barrage of phone calls, emails and text messages. In fact, once people knew that the event was really sold out, they realized it must be quite a special occasion and they wanted to join even more! 

"Rabbi, do you have room for just one more?"

"Rabbi, I just heard about this event, please, please can I come?"

The best call of all came late Friday afternoon, after all my office staff had already left for the day. I was half way out when the phone rang, and I knew I shouldn't pick it up, but I did anyway.

As expected, it was someone wanting to join the dinner. "Rabbi, do you have room for me?"

"I'm sorry, we're completely full." 

"Rabbi, you are Chabad, right? How do you, as a Chabad rabbi, turn a Jew away from experiencing Shabbat?"

How do I answer that?!

Some of these people were incredibly determined. Many people without a ticket showed up and just sat in any empty seat. Assigned seating? Apparently it didn't bother them and they assumed the person whose seat they took would just take someone else's assigned and paid-for seat! 

In fact, the assigned seating created its own problems. One woman emailed asking to sit with a particular friend, but the "friend" emailed in no uncertain terms that she absolutely will not sit with her! When the first woman arrived and realized she wasn't seated with her friend, she was fuming.

Again and again, who gets the blame when people are upset? Who can they yell at? The rabbi, of course! 

But then I realized, there's an important lesson here: If where we sit for two hours is so vital, how much more careful we should be about where and with whom we spend 70 years of our lives!

Moreover, we often don't appreciate things until we can't have them. When the event is sold out, it becomes much more attractive. When I can't have something, it becomes that much more valuable.         

We are about to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Each year, it's as if we are receiving the Torah all over again—this year for the 3328th time.  This will be a grand event, unlike any other. The Torah is more precious than anything else in our lives. We will stay awake all night in anticipation and excitement!

Now, unlike our Shabbat dinner, G-d's event will never be sold out, and He'll always have room for one more.

But don't wait until the last minute to get your seat for this grand event.

Start planning now.

Book your ticket! Come to shul! Do a Mitzvah! Prepare yourself to receive the ultimate gift—G-d's Torah.

Let's Create Earthquakes

Fifteen years ago I visited Nepal with a group of friends to conduct a Pesach Seder for 2000 Jewish (mostly Israeli) backpackers. 

In Nepal, everyone and everything is relaxed. Everything is "sababa." Many Israelis travel there after completing their army service, to climb and hike and simply "switch off." Surrounded by the most beautiful mountains, rivers and hiking trails, one can truly relax. 

This week, much of Kathmandu and the surrounding villages were devastated by a severe earthquake. The loss of life is unimaginable. The full scope of the destruction and tragedy is not yet known, but there are already 6,100 confirmed deaths, including 19 hikers on Mount Everest who were killed by avalanches triggered by the earthquake. 

We mourn for the dead and pray for the recovery of the injured. 

An earthquake is caused by the build-up of energy in the earth’s crust, which creates seismic waves. It’s like leaving a pot of water over a high flame. At first it sends up just one or two bubbles, then it simmers gently before coming to a rapid boil and ultimately overflowing from the pressure. 

In the aftermath of the tragedy, another earthquake was unleashed—another build-up of energy. Good energy. 

Fifteen years ago, I enjoyed my Nepal experience, but I was more than ready to head home at the end of the week. Rabbi Chezki and Mrs. Chani Lifshitz, on the other hand, have made Nepal their home since 1999, raising their children far from the family and Jewish infrastructure they grew up with. I’ve often wondered how they do it. I mean, I also run a Chabad center but it’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side! Certainly we have our challenges, but they don’t even come close to the challenges of raising a family in Kathmandu. Would I be able to do the incredible work they do?

This week, Rabbi and Mrs. Lifshitz unleashed an earthquake of love, care and devotion.  Their Chabad house instantly became a shelter for hundreds of people to whom they are serving hundreds of meals daily. In less than a week they have served over 5000 meals. Rabbi Lifshitz even took a helicopter and went out to rescue 25 Israelis stuck in the mountains, while his wife Chani ran the Kathmandu operation (and they sent their children to stay with their grandparents in Israel temporarily). He was able to pinpoint their exact location because they had satellite phones which had been donated specifically for him to lend out to hikers. 

Israel, too, joined the aid effort, sending food, water, medical supplies, and 270 workers to create and run the largest field hospital. 

We are currently in the period of time known as Sefirat HaOmer—the counting of the Omer. Sefirat HaOmer is a period of mourning for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died because they didn’t have enough ahavat yisrael—love for their fellow Jews. During this time we focus on helping those in need, and developing and maintaining our ahavat yisrael. It’s a time to unleash spiritual energy into the world. If the build-up of energy in the Earth’s crust can wreak such havoc and devastation, can you imagine how much love we can spread across the world with our acts of goodness and kindness? 

Let’s take that inspiration and translate it into action. Together we can create a large-scale earthquake of kindness which will permeate the very Heavens and lead to the final and eternal redemption, when we will know no more pain, sadness or suffering.  

Let’s get to work! 

Please donate here to the relief efforts of Chabad in Nepal. www.chabadic.com/nepal

Would you Convert for the Perfect Guy?


Jane* walked into my office this week, wanting to talk about her relationship with Chris*:


"When I met Chris, I thought I'd finally found The One. I'm 30, and we met through a mutual friend. Chris is warm, friendly and charismatic—everything I could have possibly wished for. He is charming and intelligent too. As soon as he walks into a room, he makes everyone feel comfortable instantly. He has an excellent job, a warm, loving family and a fabulous sense of humor. He's always happy and can make me smile no matter what else is going on in my life.


"Chris was everything I could have dreamed of in a partner. I knew he wasn't Jewish, but that never bothered me. I just felt so fortunate to have found him. I grew up with virtually zero Judaism observance. I never kept kosher or Shabbat or went to Hebrew school. I did visit Israel pretty often, but would not consider myself religious in any way, shape or form.


"So it didn't bother me or my family that Chris wasn't Jewish. My parents loved him, my siblings loved him, and my friends who married non-Jews all seemed to be perfectly happy.


"After two years together, Chris and I went on a vacation. We began discussing engagement, marriage, having a family, where we might live, where to buy a house etc. After we'd worked out a lot of the details, Chris told me he needed me to do one small thing—convert to Christianity.


"In his eyes, this was a minor request; he didn't think it would be an issue at all. But my reaction was instant and virulent. Absolutely not! Convert? Renounce my faith? Betray my G-d? There's no way I would even consider it. Never!


"And so, the very next morning, I packed my bags and flew home. I cried the entire way, feeling like my world had come crumbling down. "


Here was Jane, in my office, two months after the break up, still deeply pained. "Why did G-d put me through this?" she asked. "Why did I have to meet Chris at all? He was so perfect. I still want to marry him, but I cannot convert. Wouldn't it have been better if I'd never met him in the first place?"


I listened as Jane poured her heart. "I don't know why you had to meet Chris," I said, "but maybe, just maybe, the reason has something to do with this:


"Each of us has two souls—the G-dly soul and the animal soul. The animal soul desires instant gratification. Whatever is good or comfortable right now, the animal soul wants. Food, fun, vacation, etc. The G-dly soul, on the other hand, wants to connect to its source in heaven. It wants to be nourished by its Creator, our Father in Heaven.


"Until now, you have suppressed your G-dly soul. You haven't allowed it to express itself. But your G-dly soul is connected to G-d in a most powerful way and that is what stopped you from converting. When your soul's connection to G-d is threatened, it expresses itself in the deepest way, and I think that's what happened here.



"So why did G-d make you go through this? To allow you to connect with your soul. To allow your soul to express itself, paving the way for you now to reconnect to G-d. Now you can learn about your heritage and your faith, and understand why you rejected the notion of conversion so virulently. "


Let's learn from Jane's experience and make sure to feed the G-dly soul.


*Names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals 


Afraid of a Haunted House?

Blog.jpgLast week my kids were home from school for Pesach vacation and we took a CholHamoedtrip to a Long Island amusement park. My kids were thrilled and the first ride they chose was the spooky ghost ride.

I had my nine-year-old, six-year-old and three-year-old children with me, and I noticed that they were petrified from the moment the ride began. First the lights went out. Then a woman who looked like a ghost started moving towards us and there was a spooky man playing the piano. The voices, sounds and darkness all amplified the experience and my kids were terrified, shaking with fear.

As we continued, I thought back to my childhood and the ghost rides I used to go on in South Africa. I remember the fear I used to feel then, so why am I no longer afraid? Why are my kids shrieking but I am completely calm?

Now that I am older and wiser, I understand that the “ghosts” coming at me are not real. It’s simply an illusion. The man playing the piano does not actually exist. The woman is just as fake. Because I understand the reality, I feel absolutely no fear. My kids, on the other hand, who don’t yet have that understanding, cling to me and shake with fear.

This week one of my congregants called me. “Rabbi, I terrified!” he said. “I have a very lucrative business deal I’m hoping to close, but I’m worried I might lose it to one of my competitors.”

I explained to my friend that when the Baal Shem Tov was a small child of four, he was orphaned from his father. As his father lay on his deathbed, he told his son, “Yisroel, do not fear anybody except for G-d.”

“Of course,” I explained, “you have to do everything in your power to secure this deal, but at the end of the day put your trust in G-d and He will provide. Our fears are nothing but illusions.

Yes, we all have fears. Some of us are afraid that if we don’t work on Shabbat, we won’t make enough money. Others worry that by giving charity they won’t have enough for themselves. The worries are endless. But just like the ghosts in the haunted house, these worries are not real. We are like children who perceive real fears when they are really nothing but illusions.

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Shemini. Shemini means eight and represents the supernatural. The number seven represents the natural cycle of the world. For example, G-d created the world and its natural order in seven days. Eight, however, is above and beyond nature. For example, we circumcise our sons when they are eight days old, because the britmilah symbolizes our nation’s logic-defying covenant with G-d.

Seven is the perceived reality, and eight is our faith and belief. Eight is what makes us realize we have nothing to fear in this world, but G-d alone. 

My Daughter's First Taste of Ice Cream

Blog.jpgThis week, my family and I traveled to Crown Heights to do some Pesach shopping. While we were there, we stopped at the local ice cream store. Everyone got ice cream, including my youngest daughter, Sara, who had her very first taste—and she loved it! She finished her ice cream so quickly, that the rest of my kids were only halfway through theirs. When she noticed, she had an adorable tantrum wanting more ice cream.

This was her first taste of the sweet stuff, but she had certainly seen it before. My other kids have eaten ice cream in front of her previously and she has never shown any desire it for it. Yet here she was flying into a tantrum over it. Where was she until now? Why hadn't she wanted it before?

The answer, of course, is simple. Although she'd seen ice cream before, she'd never tasted it. Once she had her first lick, and realized how good it is, of course she wanted more and more.

According to our sages, there are three things in this world that change a person. The first is alcohol. When a person drinks, they change. And if you have a drink and feel unaffected, it just means you can tolerate a little more. But after you have another drink, you will certainly be affected. 

The second thing that changes a person is money. Some change for the better, others for the worse. But if a person has made or inherited money and it has not yet affected them, it simply means they have not yet reached their tolerance level for money. But money will affect a person just like alcohol. Some people will change with $10,000, others $100,000, others with 1 million and some only with 1 billion

The third item, explain our sages, is Torah. Torah will most certainly affect us all—for the better. We will think differently; it will change our reality. And if we have studied Torah and it has not yet affected us, it simply means we have not yet studied enough Torah.

Torah is like that ice cream. It is delicious. Why did my daughter Sara never desire ice cream previously? Because she had never tasted it. And so it is with Torah. Learning and studying Torah will cause us to love G-dliness and spirituality. Why don’t we love spirituality? Because we have never really tasted it! But rest assured, once we do taste it properly, it will change us and touch us forever.

As we usher in the holiday of Passover and settle down to the Seder, let's pass on our beautiful heritage and delicious Torah to the next generation. The Seder is all about “Vehigadata Levincha,” telling our children the story of Passover. Let your child taste the deliciousness of the Torah. Let them love it. Let them savor it. Make the Seder fun and exciting for them. Give them a lick.

Chag sameach!

Trust Your Pilot?!

pilot.jpgThis week the world was shocked when a large aircraft crashed in the remote French Alps, instantaneously killing all 150 people on board. Based on the available information, the airline has declared the accident deliberate—the copilot took 150 lives along with his own.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims as they mourn their loss. It is a tragedy beyond words.

Admittedly, I’m afraid of heights, and have been ever since I can remember. When my wife and I married, we honeymooned in Cape Town, famous for its Table Mountain. When I saw how excited my wife was to go up the mountain in a cable car, I didn’t want to dash her hopes so I went along, but every minute was torturous.

I often need to travel, either for family events or to perform weddings for congregants. Every time I get on a plane, I force myself to calm my fears. I tell myself that the pilot is in control and he is surely qualified and experienced. I recite a chapter of Psalms and try to relax. In fact, on my last trip to Florida we hit a long patch of turbulence, but I forced myself to remember that someone else is in control. Although it’s well documented that flying is safer than driving, I still prefer to drive. In my car, I feel in control, whereas on the plane I need to put my full trust in someone I don’t even know.

The tragedy of this week’s plane crash is that the passengers and the airline placed their trust in someone who ultimately let them down. Surely, the lesson airlines will take from this tragedy is the need for ongoing evaluations to ensure the pilots are emotionally sound and trustworthy.

We all encounter turbulence in our everyday lives. Perhaps we have familial discord or financial worries. On a global level, Iran’s nuclear program concerns us all.

The same way we need to relax and trust the pilot when we fly (and 99.9% of the time, we do arrive at our destination without incident), as we go through life we need to relax and realize that there IS someone in the cockpit we can trust. The world has a Boss. He is in control, and although we may not see Him, we know that He is there. We need to do whatever we can on our end to overcome our problems, and trust that He will do the rest.

We are about to celebrate the festival of Passover, when we mark the birth of our nation. We know we have somebody we can trust—our dear Father in Heaven.

So relax. G-d’s driving.

Who Really Won the Election?

blog 2.jpgThis week Jews around the world watched the Israeli election with bated breath. When the results came in, my Facebook feed exploded. Some of my friends furious and devastated that their party lost the election. It was as if the world had fallen apart. My other friends, however, were jubilant, because despite all odds their party won.

And I asked myself—who really won the election? 

* * *

As a small child, Reb Zalman Aharon (the “Raza”), the older brother of Rebbe Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch (the “Rashab”), often complained that he was noticeably shorter than his younger brother.

One day, the Raza snuck up behind his brother and pushed him lightly into a small ditch. As the Rashab stood up in surprise, the Raza seized the moment and pointed out that now he was taller.

Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch (the "Maharash"), the father of the two boys, observed the entire episode. The Rebbe asked for a chair, ordered the Raza to stand on it, and asked him, “Tell me, who’s taller now?”

The Raza answered excitedly that yet again he was taller.

 “Aha!” said Rabbi Shmuel. “There you are! To be bigger than your friend, there is no need to pull him down. Simply elevate yourself!”

* * *

When it comes to our nation, we Jews all ultimately want the same things—peace, security, comfort. And when election time comes, we argue and debate endlessly about which path will bring us to that shared goal.

But all too often we get caught up in the debate, and make the mistake of degrading and belittling those who feel differently. Instead of lifting ourselves up, we push the other person down. We all have faults, and it's easier to point out the other person's faults than to elevate and fix our own.

So, in that sense, we all lost the election.

Now we are finally post election and can begin the healing process. We need to rekindle the love we feel for each other, the love that may have become hidden over the last few months because we were so busy debating our election choices.

But we are about to mark the festival of Passover, where we celebrate our nation's freedom. After 210 years of slavery, hardship and suffering, we were finally able to become a nation. Our nation has been through a lot. But despite the strife, at the end of the day we know how to be there for one another. We know how to unite and use our collective strength to reach tremendous goals.  

Let's use this Passover season to strengthen our unity, and then we will have all won the election together.

Should Bibi Speak in Congress?

Blog.jpgIf I were to ask you, a recipient of my weekly email, whether you think Bibi Netanyahu should speak in Congress next week, I would probably get the full gamut of responses.

Some would insist that of course he should speak;after all, we need to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear power. Others will say that Bibi is wrong for angering the White House and Obama; we need Obama on our side. Still others feel that nothing will be achieved by this speech, so why bother?

In fact, on Facebook I have friends voting for Bennet, friends voting for Likud and others for Meretz, Yachad, Shas and Livni. I even have a relative who tells me she cannot identify with any party and is not going to vote at all. I’ve been watching raging arguments break out on social media as people express their outrage and try to convince everyone to see things the way they do.

You know the old joke about the Jew who gets stranded on a deserted island. Finally, after many long months, he is rescued. His rescuers are surprised to see two rather large buildings on the island.

“What are these?” they ask.

He points to one of the buildings. “That’s the synagogue I built when I first arrived.”

“What’s the other one?” they probe.

“That’s also a synagogue.”

“But why do you need two synagogues? It’s only you here!” they asked.

“Are you kidding me?” he replied angrily. “That one over there, I wouldn’t walk into if you paid me!”

It’s ok for us Jews to have differing opinions. That’s perfectly acceptable. But when the difference of opinion leads to venom and animosity, then it becomes a problem.

Loving our fellow Jews means loving them regardless of which party they vote for. It means loving them even if they hate Bibi Netanyahu. I may disagree ideologically, I may know that he or she is 100% wrong, but I love and respect the person nonetheless.

Do I think Bibi should speak in Congress? Do I think it will stop Iran from developing their nuclear bomb? That, I don’t know. But I do know that the Jewish nation has an invincible weapon that can certainly protect us from it. Unity. When we are truly united, we cannot be destroyed.

Of course, we need the IDF. We need a strong army and powerful weapons. We need to do everything in power to protect ourselves, but ultimately G-d decides. And when He sees that despite our vastly differing opinions we are united, we become indestructible.

We are about to celebrate the holiday of Purim, when it’s traditional to disguise ourselves with costumes and masks. Why? When we dress up we show that there is a part of us that remains hidden. My outer self, the one usually on display, is not everything. The real me, and the real you, we are unified. We love each other. It’s only our external selves that are currently arguing. 

Try to recall the incredible unity our nation displayed last summer as we prayed for the missing Israeli boys. And the incredible unity we showed at the funerals for the lone soldiers. That is when we showed our true colors. We have done it before and we can do it again. We are, at heart, a nation that cares. 

Should we all Move to Israel?

Blog.jpgA Jew killed in Denmark.

Jewish graves vandalized in France.

A four-year-old girl buried in Israel this week as a result of a terrorist attack.

Four Jews killed in a supermarket in France.

A nuclear bomb being built in Iran which threatens Israel's very existence.

Anti-Semitism is rampant. Where are we safe? What should we do?

Some leaders are calling for European Jewry to emigrate en masse to Israel.

Is that the answer?

We are currently in the Jewish month of Adar, during which we celebrate Purim and read the Book of Esther.

At that time, the Jews were facing an existential threat. All Jews living at the time were included in  Achashverosh's dominion, and hence in Haman's decree. Every single living Jew was threatened with annihilation.

And when Mordechai and Ester found out about the decree, what did they do?

"Go, and gather all the Jews!" Esther said. "Fast, pray, learn Torah, do mitzvot and return to Hashem."

So Mordechai gathered the Jews and rekindled their faith and their love of G-d.

The answer is to display our Judaism proudly. To increase our faith in our Father in Heaven. It saved the Jews from Haman's decree all those years ago, and it is our answer today.

Whether we live in Denmark or France or Israel, we can learn from Mordechai and Esther.

Let's be proud of our heritage. Let's display it proudly and not hide it!

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