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Blog1.jpgI met Jack* a couple of weeks ago when he walked into our preschool office to pick up his granddaughter. He was 10 minutes early so we chatted and eventually, like any good Chabadnik, I asked, “Have you put on tefillin today?” He hadn’t, and politely declined. “I don’t have time,” he said. “Dismissal isn’t for another six minutes and this will only take two,” I cajoled. He agreed.

We began and I asked if he had ever done this before at all and he hadn’t. It is a mitzvah every time someone puts on tefillin, but the very first time is a particular privilege, so I was thrilled. He started to repeat the blessing after me, but something was niggling at the edge of my mind. “Hold on, are you Jewish?”

I hadn’t asked earlier, just assumed. But my sudden bout of intuition proved correct, because Jack confirmed that he was not at all Jewish.

My initial reaction was, “What a letdown!”

But then I reframed my perspective and realized there is definitely something here to rejoice. Here is a woman who drifted so far from Judaism that she married a non-Jewish man, and raised her children in a secular environment. But her Jewish daughter sought out a Chabad school for her children. She wants her jewish children to receive a sound Jewish education, and this reason to celebrate!

This is the message and the spirit of Chabad, which I witnessed in full force this past weekend at the annual conference of Shluchim where 5,000 Chabad rabbis come together to learn, share, inspire, and refuel. At the grand banquet which concludes the weekend, it was announced that Chabad has now reached 100 countries, with its latest outpost in Uganda.

Uganda! How many Jews can there possibly be in that far-flung country? But this was the Rebbe’s relentless mission. Find those Jews, wherever they are, and help them do a mitzvah. One Jew at a time. One mitzvah at a time.

You don’t have to be an official shliach to do it either. We can all reach out to those we interact with in our day-to-day lives and influence them to be kinder, more giving, attend a Torah class, join a minyan, give some charity, help another Jew in whichever way they can. That mission belongs to ALL of us.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

I love you! Oops. No I don't.

Blog.jpegWe all know the feeling: That first flutter of concern, the fleeting hope, the quick scramble to double and triple check, and the elevated heart rate turned full blown panic as we realize it's done, sent, no way out.

Yes, I'm talking about the universal and undeniable panic that sets in upon realizing you've sent a text, email, or voice note to the wrong person. 

We've all done it. And it happened to me again this week. I accidentally messaged "I love you" to the wrong person. Ouch.

I was Whatsapping with my dear friend Jack* about our upcoming gala dinner. He had questions, I had answers, I asked him to buy a full table, and by the end of our conversation he had committed to two tables—double my initial request! Thrilled, I wrote back, "I love you!"

But, like virtually everyone else in 2017, I was doing multiple things at the same time, including having other Whatsapp conversions with different people on entirely different topics. 

And that's how it happened. The "I love you" message intended as an expression of appreciation for Jack (with whom I have been friends for many years) ended up being sent to someone who would have certainly been taken aback to receive that from a Chabad rabbi.

So I panicked. Panicked hard.

But then I remembered that Whatsapp has a very new and highly useful feature you can use to un-send messages within seven minutes of sending them. I could see the person had not yet read my message, so I quickly deleted it, and the only remaining evidence was the "this message has been deleted" that Whatsapp replaces the erased message with.

Crisis averted. Whew. Wipe brow; resume life. 

But what if we could mimic Whatsapp's un-send feature in real life? Imagine if we could un-send the harsh words we spoke, undo our poor decisions, and retract actions we regret? 

What would life look like if we had a window—even just seven minutes—to re-evaluate our behavior before it hits the other person?  Would we do things differently?

The truth is, we do have that feature! The Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya that we have the ability to transform our sins into mitzvot. It takes time and hard work, but if you do it correctly, you can literally undo all your past misdeeds, erasing any signs of them from your soul.

It requires deep soul searching, sincere apologies and regret, forgiveness from those you've hurt, honest repentance, and a determination to behave differently when faced with the same situation again. But it is doable. 

So who's in? I know I am!

The Ultimate Love Story

Blog.jpgMazal tov! This week I flew to Israel to officiate at the miraculous wedding of a very special couple: Sarah and Ido. 

I met Ido Kahlon last year, when he came to New York with fellow wounded soldiers as part of our Belev Echad program. Ido served in the Golani Brigade and was severely injured in 2003. He lay unconscious for many months, and when he woke up he required more than two years of intensive rehab. 

I first met Sarah Morgan on Sukkot a few years ago at Chabad of Chester County where we were spending the holiday with my brother-in-law and his wife, Rabbi Yossi and Mrs. Tickey Kaplan. 

Later, Sarah moved to the Upper East Side and began attending our events and parties. She found she had a soft spot for our Belev Echad program and volunteered her help wherever needed with each new group of soldiers. 

On one occasion a soldier had a medical emergency and I needed someone to accompany him to a local hospital. Who was on my speed dial? Sarah, of course, who dropped everything and came running. 

As it turns out, all that volunteering paid off….

In March 2016 we hosted another delegation of wounded soldiers and Sarah offered to take a day off work to help. I took her up on the offer. She joined us on our trip to the Statue of Liberty, and it was there that she met Ido. The attraction was instant. They spent all day together. 

Days later, Ido spoke at one of our events, about both his injury and his recovery. He described how difficult it had been, and his choice not to let his injuries overcome him. Sarah listened, captivated by his strength and optimism, and they spent much of the remainder of the trip together. 

As they say, the rest is history. 

Sarah and Ido fell in love. Sarah made Aliyah, and her mom plans to join her before the year is up. 

I was honored to attend the wedding in Hadera this week, along with my brother-in-law Rabbi Kaplan, and my other brother-in-law Rabbi Moshe Schapiro, who runs the Chabad center that Sarah’s mom attends in Hoboken NJ. 

Ido’s father was choked with emotion and gratitude for the opportunity to see his son not only alive after being so severely wounded, but standing under the chuppah with a wonderful woman like Sarah. A dream come true! 

Our sages teach that when a person gives, he/she receives much more in return. Sarah’s story of love demonstrates just that. For years she volunteered with our wounded soldiers, and ultimately through our program she met her wonderful life partner. Mazal tov!

We wish the couple blessings for mazal, health, children, and success in all their endeavors. 

Who Was the First Terrorist?

Blog.jpgTerror struck again this week, this time in my own backyard. 

Unfortunately, terrorist attacks are only becoming stronger and more frequent, but it’s always different when it strikes close to home. I’ve driven down that road countless times, many of my friends ride their bikes there on a regular basis, and just blocks away the deadliest terror attack in US history took place 16 years ago.

Sayfullo Saipov clearly intended to martyr himself. He left a handwritten note proclaiming, “The Islamic State will endure forever!” Not “I love you, Mom” or “Remember me, dear children”. He wanted to be remembered first and foremost as a caliphate soldier.

As shocking as we find each new incident of terrorism, it is nothing new. Allow me to introduce you to the very first terrorist in history: the giant Og.

We read about him in this week’s parshah. He was the strongest man alive, giant in physical stature as well as in power and influence. He was the only person outside of the Ark who survived the flood. He gripped onto the outside and held tight throughout the thrashing waters, the hot and cold waters, the rain, the wind, and the many days and nights. A legend!

But Og hated the Jews and he made no secret of it. For years, he took every opportunity to badmouth them, making public speeches against the Jews, and claiming that the Jewish nation was destined to die out. And he had proof! Abraham was already 100 years old, Sarah was 90, and they had no children. Og was positively gleeful. Judaism was almost over! Yippee!

But then, as we know, G-d miraculously granted Abraham and Sarah the child they had so longed for—Isaac, whose brit milah is celebrated grandly in this week’s parshah. And the people asked Og, “What now? It looks like Judaism will survive!”

“With my little finger I will crush Isaac, and the Jews and all that comes with their lifestyle, will be well and truly gone,” he maintained. And he was a real, credible threat. A tiny newborn being threatened by the largest, strongest man alive!

But G-d refused to allow Og to completely wipe out our nation. Moreover, He promised that we would destroy Og, which later came to fruition with Moses.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe once wrote a letter to a bar mitzvah boy, and he mentioned the story of Og, explaining that if there is ever another terrorist who threatens us, we needn’t worry, because G-d’s promise to Abraham still stands: evil will cease to exist and the Jewish nation will last forever.  

And so, we can confidently proclaim to any terrorists who threaten us: We will prevail! We will overcome. We are stronger than you and we are stronger than you think. New Yorkers are resilient and New York is a strong city. We won’t give in to terror; we will continue to live our lives without fear or drastic changes. You will not win.

Emergency Landing!

Blog.JPGA few weeks ago I received a phone call from Boaz*—who joined our Belev Echad program after being severely sounded in Gaza a few years back. I was thrilled to hear he was visiting New York with a friend, and I began to plan some exciting activities for them.  

I called my good friend Robert Keleti, a pilot with over 40 years experience who has never yet turned down my requests to treat our wounded soldiers to private plane rides over New York City. As predicted, this truly kindhearted pilot readily and graciously agreed to take Boaz and his friend up for a spin. 

I asked Robert about the danger involved, and he said "Yes, it's very dangerous and I mean the ride from the city to the airport!"

With my well-known fear of heights, it would take a lot—and I mean a lot!—to get me up in one of those tiny planes, and I always cringe when sending our soldiers up. Will they be ok? What if something happens? But I remind myself that Robert is one of the best pilots out there and he was even awarded Best Flight Instructor of Republican Airport in Farmingdale, Long Island. That, and a prayer, and I bite my nails until they return. 

As it went, this time something did happen. The front wheel jammed and the only option was a belly landing which carries risk of damage to the aircraft possibly resulting in a fire or even a complete 180 flip of the aircraft. 

My worst fears were realized but fortunately Robert quickly tapped into his immense knowledge and experience and landed the plane nose down with ease. Everybody emerged from the aircraft safe and sound having had the experience of a lifetime! 

Later, I asked Robert if he had been afraid. "I've trained for this so many times," he explained. "There are precise protocols and procedures in place, and it is vital to remain calm and composed to execute a safe landing."

In this week's Torah portion, we read about Avraham who found himself in a precarious situation with all odds stacked against him. He was 100 years old and physically incapable to having children. But he maintained his faith in G-d, followed the "protocol" laid out by G-d Himself, and ultimately was blessed with a miracle son. 

We all face upheaval and challenges in our lives. Maintaining our belief in G-d can help get us through the hard times. 

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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?"

                                                                        -----

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 :)

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