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Let go Zalman!

1xy2zh.gifA few weeks ago I took my kids to a play center called Jozi Eggs, where my fearless six-year-old insisted he wanted to attempt the very tall monkey bars. He climbed the ladder and swung from the first bar to the second effortlessly, but then he looked down and it hit him just how high up he was.

He froze.

Then he started crying.

I tried to help him, but he was too high up to be reachable from the ground, too far in to be reached from the ladder. The ground, however, was very well padded, so I encouraged him to let go and drop. For two minutes I tried, to no avail. He hung there miserably until he lost his grip and fell safely onto the cushioned floor.

                                                                        -----

It reminded me of the well known joke:

Jack was walking along a steep cliff when he got too close to the edge and began to plummet. On the way down he managed to grab hold of a branch, which temporarily stopped his fall. He looked down, and saw that the canyon fell straight down for more than a thousand feet.

He couldn't hang onto the branch forever, and there was no way for him to climb back up the steep wall, so he began yelling for help, hoping that some passerby by would hear and lower a rope or something.

"HELP! HELP! Is anyone up there? HELP!"

He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice.

"Jack! Jack! Can you hear me?"

"Yes, yes! I hear you. I'm down here!"

"I can see you, Jack. Are you all right?"

"Yes, but not for much longer! Who are you? Where are you? I can't see you."

"I am G-d. I'm everywhere."

"G-d, please help me! I promise if you get me outta here I'll stop sinning. I'll be a really good person. I'll serve You for the rest of my life."

"Easy on the promises, Jack. Let's get you down, then we can talk. Now, here's what I want you to do. Listen carefully."

"I'll do anything, G-d. Just tell me what to do."

"Okay. Let go of the branch."

"What?"

"I said, let go of the branch. Just trust Me. Let go."

There was a long silence. Finally Jack yelled, "HELP! HELP! IS ANYONE ELSE UP THERE?"

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Our lives are like the hectic flood waters we read about in this week's Torah portion. They toss us around from place to place, meeting to meeting, from Facebook to Instagram, to Whatsapp to Snapchat.

 We all have rising waters to contend with: The stresses of daily life, business deals gone sour, arguments with family members, work and social pressures... The tumultuous whirlpools of these daily pressures threaten to engulf us and take us down.

And that is when G-d offers us a lifeline. Enter the Ark, he says. I've created a sanctuary for you: There's Torah, there's Shabbat. Come inside. Give it a try. Turn off your smartphone, your computer, your TV, escape the hecticness for 25 hours. It is the greatest gift you can bestow upon yourself. Let go and leap, says G-d. Don't worry, I'll catch you. 

The Hebrew word for ark is "teiva" which can also mean "word," or more specifically, words of Torah. Just as Noach saved himself and his family by entering that structure, we can save ourselves by entering the haven that Torah creates in our life. 

I am Currently the Only Rhodesian-Born Chabad Rabbi in the World

Blog.jpgWhen I was born, my father was the rabbi in Bulawayo, so I’ve had “born in Zimbabwe” on my passport for the past 39 years. But in all that time, I can honestly say it’s never helped me get a visa or enter any country more easily. Coming from a bankrupt and destitute country is apparently no great claim to fame!

But this summer I travelled back to Zimbabwe with my wife to visit the Victoria Falls—one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

In the city of Victoria Falls everything is priced in US dollars, which are very valuable there. To enter the falls costs $30, a taxi from the airport to hotel was $30, a bottle of water for $2, souvenirs for $5. Someone must be raking it in because so many items were more costly than they are even in the US!

Upon arrival at the airport, every tourist is required to buy a visa for $30. This is not a real visa; there is no interview, no questions asked, no security or background check. It’s simply a stamp on one’s passport, given to everyone. But it’s another great way to make money.

When it was my turn, I was sure that this was finally my chance. The opportunity to proudly laud my Zimbabwean heritage had arrived! I happily showed the officer the “born in Zimbabwe” designation on my passport and asked her to waive the fee. Finally, a tangible advantage!

She carefully examined my passport and seemed puzzled how to proceed. On the one hand, yes, I was born in Zimbabwe. On the other hand, my US dollars were clearly enticing. After some thought, she decided, “It’s not enough to be born in Zimbabwe, you need to live here.” So I paid for the visa, and still await the opportunity to use my “born in Zimbabwe” passport to my advantage…

The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, taught us to look for the lesson in everything we encounter and every experience we have. I decided to look for something my airport encounter could teach me that would help frame my attitude as we approach the High Holiday period. 

On Rosh Hashanah we stand before G-d, awaiting His judgment. He is ready to issue us a “visa” for the New Year. Health, happiness, nachas from our children, whatever we need He can give us.

But are we doing our part to demonstrate our commitment to Him? Are we actively engaged in mitzvot? Do we give charity, go to shul, light Shabbat candles, and put on tefillin? Do we open our homes to those in need and properly observe Shabbat and holidays? Are we honest, moral, ethical people?

Yes, we are all born Jewish, but do we live as Jews on a day-to-day basis? Are we active citizens? Sure, we can claim nationality, like I tried to do in Zimbabwe, but that’s not enough. We need to actually live as Jews too.

If we haven’t been living that way all year, it’s not too late. There is still time to make some small changes before Rosh Hashanah, and by committing to increasing and furthering those changes in the New Year, we tell G-d, “I’m not just passing through; I live here.” 

Irma - I Am Not In Control!

Blog.jpgI love the feeling of being in control. I need my daily routine: I wake up at the crack of dawn, study a Chassidic discourse, get my coffee, go running in Central Park, come home, and continue with my scheduled day. I like order and predictability.

But control is an illusion. I may feel like I’m in control, but when it comes down to it, I am absolutely not. And if there’s any indication of that, it’s Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

We’ve all seen the devastation that Harvey left in its wake, and now Irma, a category 5 storm, is battering its way through the Atlantic, clobbering every island in its path. Winds of up to 185 mph have destroyed 95% of the buildings on Barbuda, with Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic also seeing extensive damage.

My colleague, Rabbi Moshe Chanowitz, the Chabad rabbi in St. Martin, moved his family to the Chabad center—a sturdier structure–while the storm raged. After the door shattered, they moved further in to the mikvah, a room with no windows, where they huddled together in terror. When they were able to leave, they discovered that their home had flooded completely, and the power will be out for weeks. Read the full storyhere.

Now Florida and millions of its residents are directly in Irma’s way, and the fear is palpable. Everyone who can is rushing to evacuate, gas is running low, flights are jam-packed, and those who are staying are doing their best to protect themselves and their homes while stocking up on enough water and non-perishables to last a while. People are nervous and panicky, and the president has already declared a state of emergency. “This is not a storm you can sit and wait through,” said the governor. “We can’t save you after the storm starts.”

Weather forecasters can identify the storm. They can track it, measure its force, estimate its trajectory and predict its impact. But they, and we, are powerless to stop or redirect it, despite the tremendous technological and scientific advances we have seen in the last few decades.

In this week’s Parshah we read about the mitzvah of bikkurim. Every farmer in the land of Israel was obligated to bring the first fruits of his harvest to the Temple for the priests to consume. Imagine! A farmer who tilled and prepared the soil, carefully planted, watered, pruned, and cared for his crop, was then required to give away his very first produce! Why should he? As a reminder that G-d, and G-d alone, controls our livelihood, and, in fact, every aspect of our lives.

Hurricane Irma reinforces this lesson. I am not in control of my life; G-d is. Let us beseech the Almighty to show compassion for all the people in the storm’s path and move the hurricane away from land. 

Let's Create A Hurricane Of Love

Blog.jpgThis past week Hurricane Harvey pounded the Gulf of Texas as a category 4 storm.

In order for a hurricane to form it requires two key ingredients: powerful winds and warm ocean water. In Harvey’s case the storm passed over an extremely warm part of the ocean called an “eddy” reaching 85 - 86 degrees Fahrenheit in places, pushing it from a category one to a category four. The hotter the water, the more energy it drives into a storm, and this storm’s powerful winds reached 132 mph.

We currently find ourselves in the month of Elul, during which we also need to create a powerful Hurricane with these two key ingredients: warmth and strength. During this month, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, powerful winds blow.

These winds require warmth to fuel their growth - the warmth of good deeds, of compassion, of helping another, of charity. And like Harvey, the warmer it is, the more energy will be driven into the hurricane that results.

During the devastation, we saw hurricanes of goodness and kindness being created. Stories and photos of strangers helping strangers were shared on social media. These acts create powerful winds. 

Hurricane Harvey affected 13 million people. The hurricane that we create could potentially reach all 7 billion humans on planet earth.

Harvey is the worst disaster Texas has ever seen, yet out of it are emerging forces of goodness and kindness, that with enough momentum, could build up into the greatest hurricane the world has ever seen. Here are some small examples of how:

32,000 people have been displaced, but one person alone, Jim McInvale, “Mattress Mack,” has turned two of his furniture stores into temporary shelters for evacuees, housing almost 800 people in total. Hundreds of others have opened their homes and hearts to complete strangers.

Harvey has already destroyed 40,000 homes. My friend and classmate Rabbi Yudi Horowitz, who lives in Plano Texas, opened his home to a family who had to evacuate New York a few years ago because of Hurricane Sandy, and now had to evacuate their new home in Texas. Together we will rebuild thousands of homes. 

8,700 flights have been cancelled since the storm began, but Nick Sheridan drove his big rig 200 miles to help rescue the stranded, dozens of members of the Louisiana “Cajun Navy” volunteer group hooked up their boats to their jeeps and joined the search and rescue efforts, and people all over the country have racked up countless miles sending help and supplies to the area. 

Chabad in College Station, Texas, led by Rabby Yossi and Manya Lazaroff, called upon students to help shop, cook, and pack enough food to fill two 20-foot trucks, with more to come. 

Rabbi Yitzchok and Malky Schmukler who direct Chabad of the Bay Area in League City, as well as many other Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins, have been out with neighbors and friends to rescue those still stranded, as well as visiting those in shelters to offer encouragement and support.

People have been donating funds from all over the world for the relief efforts. As soon as Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky of Bellaire, Texas, put out the word that his home had flooded, friends and strangers arrived to help. 

You too can help by donating to the relief efforts here: http://chabadic.com/hurricanerelief

Let’s take that inspiration and translate it into action. Together we can create a large-scale worldwide hurricane of kindness that will bulldoze the earth. And when we create that hurricane, it will surely penetrate the very Heavens and demand that our dear Father in Heaven bring the final and eternal Redemption—an era where we will know no more pain, sadness or suffering.

Let’s get to work and create one massive hurricane of love!

Wrong Turn

Blog.JPGI spent the week vacationing with my family in Knysna, South Africa, with plans to travel to Cape Town on Thursday—a drive of six or seven hours. Mid-drive we were running low on gas, so I planned to stop at the next gas station, fill up the tank, and give the kids a chance to get out and stretch their legs. Twenty minutes later we finally spotted one, but I was too far across the highway to get to the exit in time.

I moved over to the slow lane and stayed there until we next chanced upon a gas station, about half an hour later, in a town called Heidelberg. I paid for gas and purchased some snacks for the kids, and just as we were piling into the car to continue on our way someone tapped me on the shoulder and said “shalom aleichem” in a heavy South African accent.

It was Moshe and his wife Susan, excited to see other Jews in this far-flung town, hundreds of miles from South Africa’s established Jewish communities. Moshe gladly took the opportunity to put on tefillin, explaining that he had not done so in years. The more we talked, the more I realized why we had missed that first turn on the highway. It may have gotten us to a gas station thirty minutes earlier, but we would have missed out on the opportunity to meet Moshe and Susan. It’s always refreshing to see Divine providence so clearly at work!

In a sense, we’re all on a fast-moving highway: the highway of life. With the High Holidays on the horizon, it’s time to re-evaluate which way we are driving down that highway. Are we heading the right way? Are we traveling in the direction that will take us to where we need to be spiritually? Or are driving just as fast in the opposite direction, away from all that is holy and important?

If you discover you’re headed in the wrong direction, even if you’ve been driving that way for months or years, it’s not too late. You don’t need to reach your destination before the High Holidays, you just need to make the decision and turn the car around. You have plenty of time to forge ahead, but the first, most important, and most difficult step is to acknowledge that you’ve been going the wrong way, and to take that first step in the right direction. With four weeks to go, surely we can all manage to do that.

Rabbi Rides Ostrich

1u7xcl.gifThis week I visited the ostrich capital of the world: Outdshoorn, South Africa.

Before World War One, the ostrich feather trade was very popular, and many Jews moved to Outdshoorn to make a living from the business. 

While visiting one of the many farms in the area, I was given a tour and lesson about history of this majestic animal. 

The ostrich is the only bird that cannot fly, but G-d compensated it by giving it the ability to run faster than any other two-footed animal, up to 45 miles per hour!

So a popular sport in the area, believe it or not, is ostrich riding, which I was given the opportunity to do at the end of my tour.

I wouldn't quite call it riding, because there was no saddle and no reins. Two guides hoist you up and run alongside the ostrich to catch you in case you fall, while you hang on for dear life! There's no way to dismount, either. You have to slide off the ostrich’s back with the guides’ help. 

After the ride (which I survived!), I was offered an ostrich steak to complete the experience. I declined, of course, because it was not kosher, but it struck me that it is this week’s parshah that lists all the birds which are not kosher, including one referred to as “bat haya’ana” which many commentaries define as ostrich. 

While the Torah does not give reasons for why certain foods are or are not kosher, it does mention that the ostrich is considered a cruel animal because it mistreats its young. While I enjoyed my ride, I certainly do not wish to emulate the ostrich’s nature. 

With the high holidays well on the horizon, this is the time to begin looking inwards and evaluating our conduct. How do we treat those around us? Are we kind, cruel, or indifferent? Are we kind to our acquaintances at the expense of our families? Sometimes it's easier to be thoughtful and patient with those more distant, but aren't our families equally (if not more!) deserving of our best behavior?

If you look at your behavior with an honest eye and see that you are lacking in how you treat others, it's not too late. Start with doing or saying two kind things today: one to a family member or friend, and one to a stranger or acquaintance. Do it every day until it no longer feels like an effort. Then continue gradually adding or amending one behavior at a time.

Now, more than ever, the world needs more kindness and it's up to each of us to make it happen.

Record Run in Central Park

Blog.JPGThis morning I ran 5.1 miles around Central Park, in 90 degree weather, at 5:30am. For me, that was a record run. Now, before all you marathoners out there start laughing, keep in mind that I am a novice runner, whose maximum until now, when I really push myself, has been 3 miles. My extra 2.1 miles is proportionally like you adding an extra 20 miles to your marathon!

Why did I push myself today?

I wasn’t running alone. I was with James*, an elite IDF soldier wounded in combat three times. He has no vision in one way, experiences perpetual pain in his hand, legs, and ribs, and suffers with chronic PTSD. The only thing that helps him forget his pain is running. And so we ran.

At the two mile point, I felt like I had run as much as I could, but then I looked at James and thought to myself, if he can do it, how can I stop? So I kept running. After four miles, my entire body was aching, but I managed to get to 5.1 in decent time.

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the Jews’ travels through the desert. Our sages teach that their journeys represent our spiritual journeys. Each mitzvah we do is a journey, each time we push ourselves to do something outside our comfort zone we travel closer to our destination—the Final redemption.

When you are used to putting on tefillin once a week, and then you increase to twice a week, you are surging forward. When you don’t keep Shabbat but commit to lighting candles each week at the correct time, you are closing in on the goal. When you are accustomed to giving 5% of your earning to charity and you start giving 10%, you are bridging the distance between exile and redemption.

We all have a spiritual comfort level, and sometimes we need an extra push to get us to the next level, just like I did with my running. It’s hard. It’s scary. It’s different. We haven’t done it before. There are so many reasons not to. But when we push beyond what’s familiar, beyond what’s easy and comfortable, that’s when we progress, like the Jews in the desert, towards our destination–the final Redemption and the coming of Moshiach.

Shine Your Light

Blog.jpgThis week I toured the United Nations together with 12 IDF soldiers who were wounded while protecting Israel's freedom. It's no secret that Israel and IDF soldiers are highly unpopular at the UN. In fact, right outside we saw a large sign about the Holocaust, and right next to it another sign likening Israel's "crimes" to the atrocities of the Holocaust.

This is the place that the Lubavitcher Rebbe called a house of lies.

In 1984 the Rebbe told Benjamin Netanyahu, "Remember that in a hall of perfect darkness, if you light one small candle, its precious light will be seen from afar, by everyone. Your mission is to light a candle of truth for the Jewish people."

I was glad to have the opportunity to visit the UN with the IDF soldiers, bringing our own light to this hall of darkness.  

The midrash compares the Jewish nation to a lone sheep  among 70 wolves. Indeed, we are surrounded by those who wish to destroy us, which is more apparent than ever at the UN.

In this week's Haftara we read about the prophet Jeremiah who led the Jewish people in the years leading up the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people—at a time of immense spiritual darkness.

Jeremiah did not feel equipped for the task, protesting, “Alas, O L‑rd G‑d! Behold, I know not to speak, for I am a youth.”

G‑d reassured Jeremiah, promising to grant him the power to lead through the tempest: “Say not, ‘I am a youth,’ for wherever I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak.”

Like Jeremiah, we often question our ability to bring light and spiritual warmth to the world. But we know that G-d's words of reassurance apply to us too.

Each and every soul is like a prophet, carrying the Divine message to this world. Each of us has the power to inspire all those we touch. We were sent to the world to do just that. 

Solving the Western Wall Controversy

Blog.jpgIf you follow Israeli news, you've probably seen much controversy regarding prayers at the Western Wall as of late. The discussions have become so heated that leading American donor, Isaac Fisher, has suspended all philanthropic contributions to Israel until the issue is resolved.

Today, 12 Tammuz, is the birthday of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, and also the day he was released from prison years later, making it a day of significance and celebration for Chassidim.

As a child of 13, the Previous Rebbe asked his father, the Rebbe Rashab, "Why do we say, 'I am ready to fulfill the obligation to love my fellow Jews' at the start of each day before morning prayers?"

"When a father has many children," the Rebbe Rashab explained, "his greatest pleasure is to see his children getting along." So before we pray to G-d and ask for His blessings of health, happiness, financial security, etc., we tell Him that we are committed to loving our brothers and sisters—all our fellow Jews—which is G-d's greatest pleasure.

The Kotel is the holiest Jewish site in existence. It’s the place where Jews have been praying for thousands of years. The place which King David purchased fair and square, where Jacob lay down and dreamed of the ladder with angels ascending and descending, where King Solomon built the Temple in which we gathered and served G-d for hundreds of years. It's the place that has been central to our prayers for 2,000 years.

As Jews we have different opinions, as we have had since the beginning of time. And that's ok. The key to resolving our current “Kotel conflict” is to collectively recite that “I hereby am ready to fulfill the commandment of loving a fellow Jew.”

When we overcome our differences and come together in unity and peace, we give our Father in Heaven the biggest gift possible. Especially at the Kotel. Let's commit!

Bar Mitzvah in the Sky

Blog.jpgA close friend and community member was getting married in Israel and I very much wanted to be there to share in the joy of his simcha. But oi, the 10-hour flight, not to mention all the time spent waiting in lines and going through security, was enough to make me reconsider. I vacillated for a few days, but in the end I decided to go. I booked an in-and-out flight, giving myself just 20 hours on the ground in Israel, which meant I could be back with my family for Shabbat.

My departing flight was a day-time flight, so after the seat-belt sign was turned off, I began walking the aisles looking for tefillin "customers." "Excuse me sir, are you Jewish?" I convinced 15 people to do the mitzvah of tefillin right there on the airplane, culminating in a bar mitzvah for one of them—Mark, who had never put on tefillin before in his life.

Mark was flying on a birthright trip together with about 40 others. I explained to them that while I've performed many bar mitzvahs over the years, this would be the very first at 30,000 feet above ground!

I asked the flight attendant, who is also a close friend, for some whiskey. We said l'chaim, sang some songs, and celebrated in style.

My favorite moment was when one of Mark's friends, after seeing me run around the plane asking people to put on tefillin and getting into some intense conversations along the way, said to me, "Rabbi, you don't really have a wedding in Israel, do you? You just like to ride the plane back and forth for the tefillin thing." If only she knew how much I detest travelling!  But it was all worth it, for the wedding I got to attend, as well as all the tefillin moments along the way.

We are all travelers, journeying through this transient world. This is the message of this week's parsha, when the Torah describes the Jewish people's journeys through the desert. Every day is a journey, every moment a priceless lesson that we should treasure. Every day of that journey, everywhere we go, we should search for the opportunity to create meaningful moments and encounters, so that we live each day to its fullest. Every moment wasted is one we can never recoup.

And oh, the flight ended up being so much fun. Hope the passengers enjoyed it as much as I did :)

What Does an Injured Soldier Ask For?

Blog.pngThis week, we said goodbye to Yarin Ashkenazi who we hosted for 10 days as a guest on our Belev Echad trip.

Yarin is a sergeant in the Givati Brigade and he was injured 18 months ago when a terrorist rammed his car into him at 70 miles an hour. Yarin was able to shoot at the car, causing it to overturn, but it still crashed into him, injuring him severely in the head and legs. The terrorist then exited his car and went after the other soldiers with an axe. Fortunately, one of the other soldiers was able to shoot and neutralize him, preventing more injuries and deaths.

At the end of the week, I asked Yarin what had been the highlight of his trip. I assumed he would choose the helicopter ride, motorcycle trip, or one of New York’s famous tourist attractions, but he surprised me by choosing our visit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Ohel in Queens. 

“It was a very moving experience,” he explained.

“What did you pray for?” I asked.

“I prayed for a blessing to be strong in Torah and mitzvot.”

“Did it work?”

“Yes! For the first time since my injury, here on the Belev Echad trip, I kept Shabbat fully! I did not answer my phone or check my emails. I kept Shabbat 100%.”

I was astounded!

Here is a man who has suffered tremendously over the last year and a half. When he arrived at the hospital after the attack, the doctor’s tried to revive him three times without success. The head doctor indicated they would try once more before giving up, and it was that final time that brought him back to life. After that he had to undergo tremendously risky surgery, where the doctors reattached his skull. He had to re-learn how to walk, talk, eat, laugh, smile, and perform basic daily functions that every child knows how to do.

And when presented with the opportunity to pray at the Rebbe’s grave and ask for a blessing, what does he choose? He asks for strength in Torah and mitzvot!

On Simchat Torah 49 years ago the Lubavitcher Rebbe told a story. He had received a letter from a young student in Russia, who was stuck behind the iron curtain, persecuted for being Jewish. In the letter, he asked the Rebbe to bless him with the ability to properly focus on his prayers.

As he told the story, the Rebbe cried profusely. The boy did not beg for an easier life. Even though he was suffering tremendously in Russia, he didn’t beg for freedom. All he asked was for help in serving G-d better. 

I think the Rebbe received another such letter from Yarin last week!

Next week we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, when we will receive the Torah for the 3328th time. This is an opportunity to emulate Yarin, and ask Hashem to grant us strength and clarity in our understanding of the Torah, and excitement and motivation in our fulfillment of the mitzvot.

A True Hero!

Blog.jpgThis week I met a true hero.

Gabi Shoval, 43, has served as a Staff Sergeant in the Combat Engineering IDF unit for the past 23 years.

During Operation Protective Edge, Gabi’s unit was responsible for destroying Hamas tunnels. Thank G-d, they successfully obliterated 29 tunnels, saving countless lives, and earning a medal of honor for his courage and bravery. But while destroying the 19th tunnel Gabi’s luck ran out. Hamas terrorists fired an anti-tank missile at his unit and three soldiers, including Gabi, were severely injured.

Doctors performed 65 complicated operations to try and save his right leg, but despite their best efforts, five months ago they were forced to amputate.

Gabi’s 18-year-old daughter is now being enlisted into the IDF, and guess which unit she will be joining? The same unit in which her father served for 23 years—Combat Engineering.

As for Gabi, what does he plan to do with the rest of his life? His desire is to recover and go back to serving in the IDF!

The Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke often about the tremendous merit of the IDF soldiers, who put their lives at risk for the sole purpose of protecting their brethren and their country. Their portion in the world to come is guaranteed!

What a privilege to meet this hero, who is so dedicated to his country that wants to return to service despite a life-altering injury. A true hero, in every sense. 

Lost My Car!

Blog.jpgA few weeks ago we took the kids to Six Flags, anticipating a fun family day. Because it was Passover, thousands of others had the same idea and the place was jam packed. We found a parking spot quite far from the entrance, and my wife asked me to look around and make a note of where we'd parked, which I did. We were in section three, near the trees, far from the entrance. Easy! Or so I thought...

Fast-forward several hours, and after an exhilarating but exhausting day, we were ready to leave. I left my wife and oldest four children at the front gate to save them the walk, and I took the baby and went to find the car. Well, I went straight to section three and looked around but...no car! I walked up and down the rows, but there was no sign of it.

I tried to call my wife but her phone was dead, so I had no way of letting her know why it was taking so long. I was also carrying my baby who was getting heavier by the minute, and this little misplaced car issue was turning into quite a problem.

Fortunately, my brother happened to have had the same idea and brought his family to the same park, so he was able to give me a ride through the parking lot in his car, to look for my missing car, but still we couldn't find it. 

After waiting a while, my wife and older kids walked to the car. She knew exactly where it was and she borrowed someone's phone to explain to me that there are dozens of section threes at six flags! Apparently I had parked at section three of a particular cartoon character and now I was in section three but the wrong one. She even texted me a picture of the right cartoon character to make it easier to find, and finally, I found them!

3329 years ago the Jewish nation stopped roaming the desert and parked at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, G-d revealed Himself to us in all His glory. He gave us our mission statement, the reason for our existence. He gave us the tools with which to live in the physical world—the Torah.

But fast forward 3329 years to the holiday of Shavuot in 2017, and some of us are struggling to remember where we parked. In fact, some of us have even stopped looking! Every day from Pesach until Shavuot we count down in anticipation of the holiday. The counting is intended to remind us of the day G-d entrusted us with His Torah, and to build anticipation for Shavuot, when we will re-accept the great gift He has bestowed upon us.

He gave it to us so we would live with it and use it to elevate our material world. It's our job, as we count the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, to keep doing those mitzvot that will bring us closer and closer to our parking spot. Take the opportunity to put on tefillin, keep Shabbat, give charity, love your fellow Jew, etc. Each mitzvah brings us closer to finding that spot–remembering how and why G-d gifted us the gift of all gifts, His holy Torah.

I’m Addicted

Blog.JPGThis week the internet went crazy, and I mean crazy! WhatsApp, which is used by over one billion people, went down for two hours, and people were panicking.

We addicts rely on WhatsApp to communicate with absolutely everyone, but it is more than just a messaging app. It tells you when your friend is online, when your boss read your message, and it gives real time reports of when others are responding.

Now, I am in the inspiration business. It is my job to inspire Sarah to light Shabbat candles, to convince Mark to marry a Jew, to persuade Harry to send his son to Hebrew school, to inspire Michael to come to shul, to explain to Rebecca the importance and value of giving charity, and even to excite you about the Torah message you are reading right now.

What better medium to use than WhatsApp? When I send Jennifer a picture of a wounded soldier wearing tefillin, it is instant. It travels across the globe and I can see when she opened my message.

I also love WhatsApp when it comes to our Sunday morning minyan. I send a message out to my congregants “Can you make it to the minyan at 9am?” and WhatsApp will actually tell me who is still sleeping and who has woken up but is ignoring my message. It’s that good!

The reason it is so popular is because there is nothing like it. It’s free. You can communicate in groups, in chats, across the globe, with family, etc. Distance means nothing.

So, understandably, when it went down, the world freaked out.

But it got me thinking. Could there be a parallel here, to our relationship with G-d?

G-d is constantly online; His status is always set to ‘available’. He never goes to sleep. He always reads our messages. Send him a message from any country in the world, in any language, at any time, and He will receive it instantly. His Wi-Fi is constantly on.

Would you freak out if for two hours you thought you didn’t have a connection to G-d?

Can you (and I) become addicted to G-d?

Here’s an idea: This Friday evening, around sunset, join me and make yourself a G-d-imposed 25-hour WhatsApp outage. You might even enjoy it. 

P.S. I hope you are reading this message on WhatsApp

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

 

What Would My Grandfather Say?

Blog.jpgWhen my mother was 16 years old, she discovered a paper in her father's Talmud which read, “In memory of my wife Chana, and my daughters Esti and Zlata.” Shocked, she asked her father to explain. His face lost all color and he froze, completely unable to answer.

My grandfather never spoke about his experiences at Auschwitz. Never! He took the horrors he witnessed and pain he experienced to the grave.

I know the memories stayed with him–vividly, because I used to hear him scream in his sleep. The suffering he experienced is indescribable, his misery unimaginable. Today, it is clear that he almost certainly suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

My mother was able to find out from her uncle that her father had previously been married, and his wife and both daughters were murdered by the Nazis. On May 18th 1944, my grandfather was deported from Hungary with his wife and two daughters, Esti, 4, and Zlata, 7. Pushed out of the cattle cars at Auschwitz, Dr. Joseph Mengele immediately sent the children to the left and their parents to the right. Their mother refused to part with her children and within hours the three of them had been gassed and cremated. May G-d avenge their deaths.

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Last weekend I attended a Belev Echad reunion in Jerusalem, with all the participants from all our past trips. What a pleasure to catch up with these heroes and witness the remarkable amount of progress they have made in their mental and physical recovery!

On Friday we visited the kotel, driven in style on 30 motorcycles. One of the soldiers with us was my dear friend Ohad Ben Ishay, who came to New York on the 2015 Belev Echad trip. Ohad was one of the most severely wounded soldiers of the past war, Operation Protective Edge. He suffered major injuries to head and to his body, and he lost the ability to speak. On his trip in 2015 he put on tefillin but was unable to say the shema.

Well, fast forward to 2017 and I asked him if he'd like to put on tefillin at the kotel, which he did, and lo and behold he was able to say the shema! These are the first words I have heard him say since his injury. I was incredulous at his progress; he is able to speak a little, and to hear him say the shema was deeply moving.

I wondered, if he were alive, what my grandfather might say.

Most certainly he would say Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad!

I feel certain he would look with pride and gratitude at our incredible and courageous IDF soldiers who put their own lives on the line on a daily basis to keep us all safe and to ensure that "never again!" actually means "never again!"

He would say the shema, expressing his gratitude to the Almighty for the transformation that has occurred since that fateful day in 1944. He would thank G-d for the super power that Israel has become.

And he would look with wonder upon the many living, healthy descendants he has from his second marriage, something that at one point surely seemed unimaginable.

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