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Does G-d Hear My Prayers?

godspeaking.jpgMy two boys are 7 and 10, and I’ve been trying to educate them about the meaning of prayer and how to pray properly. Regular Shabbat services are not too long, so it’s easier, but Rosh Hashanah is an entirely different experience. To keep them motivated, I created a system of raffle tickets as an incentive, with promises of an enticing prize for the raffle winner. I was pretty generous with the tickets – I even gave them some for announcing the page numbers because that kept them engaged.

My older son, Mendel, really persevered. He spent hours in shul, reciting Tehillim (Psalms) and following along with the prayers. In total, he accumulated about 80 raffle tickets!

Zalman, on the other hand, lost interest earlier on both days and spent most of the time playing games. He still collected some raffle tickets, but only about 20. 

As promised, after Rosh Hashanah I held a raffle for them.

Mendel was so certain that he would win because he had many more tickets, and it’s true, the odds were stacked heavily in his favor.

But, when I closed my eyes and pulled out a random ticket… lo and behold it belonged to Zalman!

Zalman, of course, was ecstatic, while Mendel was understandably disappointed.

Then Mendel turned to me and said, “You know what, I’m not going to pray anymore. When you pray a lot, you still don’t win. I can just pray a little like Zalman did and still win!”

His question, couched in a child’s terms, is really the same question so many of us battle on a regular basis.

Sometimes we do so much good and we don’t see the reward. If I give so much money to charity, why I am I not a millionaire? I go out of my way to pray and put on tefillin regularly, so why do I still have so many problems? I’ve been lighting Shabbat candles every week for my friend to have a speedy recovery, why is she still ill? My uncle was the most kind and generous person I know, why did he have to die young?

I don’t have the answer for Mendel or for the adult versions of his question, but our sages assure us that G-d never, ever remains in debt. He will always pay up. He notices every good deed we do and adds it to our tally.

He may not pay us back immediately. He may not reward us for quite some time. We cannot always expect an instant miracle. But rest assured, He has not forgotten.  

As we approach Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, let’s keep this in mind: G-d never remains in debt. Surely He will repay us at the right time in the right way.

(Now if only I knew how to explain this to my Mendel!)

 

 

Are You Short On Cash? It’s Not Too Late!

61mNMRSewEL._SX425_.jpgLast week I took my kids on an end-of-summer trip to Bailiwick Animal Park where they offer horse rides, a petting zoo, an elephant, parrots, and more. It’s the kind of place I love, because proximity to animals reminds me of my childhood in South Africa.

We pulled up to pay and the woman at the desk told me it would be $92. I handed over my Amex and she told me they only take cash. “What wrong with Amex?” I asked. “How about Venmo? Paypal?” She didn’t know what I was talking about. Cash only.

“There’s an ATM here,” she offered, but my credit card is not set up to withdraw cash. I don’t carry cash on me as a rule, and it is never a problem. In 2018 everything and everyone is set up to accommodate cashless transactions. Even when I travel to South Africa I pay only with my credit card—I take no cash.

My kids realized we were going to have to leave, and were understandably disappointed. Just then, a complete stranger who had apparently overheard my conversation walked over and handed me a $100 bill. “Here’s my email,” she said. “You can Paypal me later.”

I was astounded! $100 is a significant amount of money, and she had no way of knowing if I would actually pay her back. (I did, of course.) I was so touched. How many people would do that? The kindness of random strangers can restore one’s faith in humanity.

The next day we set off again, this time to a go-karting place. I again pulled out my Amex and again I was told, “Sorry, cash only.” Two places in two days? This has never happened before.

What is it with upstate New York not taking credit cards?! I was frazzled and looked around, but alas, there were no kind strangers just waiting to come to my aid this time!

I looked at my kids who were so eager for this outing, and felt terrible. It’s not their fault their father has no cash! Something compelled me to appeal to the woman at the entrance booth. I told her about our brand new triplets, and showed her a picture, and asked if she could possibly allow us to go go-karting “on the house”. To my surprise she readily agreed and we had a wonderful afternoon.  

The following day I made sure to take out cash and we returned to the go-karting place. I thanked the lady for her kindness the day before, and told her I wanted to pay for it, as well as for an additional day since we had had so much fun yesterday. She refused my payment for the previous day, telling me it was a gift to our family. Another stranger, another dose of kindness, wow!

Rest assured, in addition to being reminded of the value of unexpected acts of kindness and generosity, I have learned my lesson and will make sure to always carry some cash with me from now on.

This week we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, when we re-crown G-d as our King and beseech Him for mercy and kindness and a good, happy, healthy, sweet year ahead.

 But it doesn’t come for free. We have to do our part and cough up the cash. We cannot tell G-d,

“Oh, I’ll pay you later.” We must have cash with us, on hand, at all times. What is the cash?

Mitzvot we have accumulated throughout the year. When we ask Him for what we want, we have to give Him what He wants.

So let’s spend the next few days making a little extra “money” so we can go into Rosh Hashanah with something to show for ourselves. Give some extra charity, and review your books for the past year—make sure you’ve been giving 10% of your earnings consistently. Come to shul this Shabbos—the last Shabbos of the year. Light Shabbat candles this week and encourage your friends to as well. Pay extra attention to those around you and find ways to help them with their needs.  Take a break from frivolity and gossip and spend some time engaged in Torah study. Put on tefillin–you have just three opportunities left to do so this year (today, tomorrow, Sunday).

Think of a mitzvah you feel you’ve been particularly neglectful of this year, and find a way to do it in the next couple of days. It’s not too late!

May we all be blessed with good health, happiness, and all the blessings we need and desire for the upcoming year. Shana tova.

Our Encounter with an American Black Bear

Bear-banner.jpg

We spent last week vacationing at Hunter Mountain, a beautiful area just two hours away. We rented a house on Airbnb, packed up everything we would need for the week (no easy feat!), and headed off, upbeat and excited, to spend some quality family time together surrounded by glorious views and raw nature.

A friend of mine owns a summer home in the area and warned me that there are plenty of bears roaming the woods (more than usual, this year), and cautioned us to be careful since, although by and large they stay away from people, they can be dangerous.

My kids heard me listening to his voice note, and they were struck with fear—a fear I struggled to relate to. Growing up in South Africa, wild animals, rough nature, hiking—it’s all second nature and I enjoy every second of it. Now here we were, in this wonderful place, surrounded by forests, hiking paths, brooks and lakes, not to mention the incredible views, and my kids could think only of the bears.

I had to coax and almost beg them to go on hikes, which they enjoyed, but at all times they were on the lookout for those scary bears. They couldn’t relax. They armed themselves with big sticks, although I’m not sure exactly what they thought they would do with them…

They locked the doors of our house every night, double and triple checking them, and they were rigorous about picking up every scrap of garbage or food so as not to attract any bears.

Despite the obsession, at the end of the week we still hadn’t spotted a single one—not even during our rainy, four-mile hike to shul on Shabbat morning. Soon the kids were questioning if in fact there really were bears in the area at all.

But as we packed into the car to head home, I noticed that the two garbage cans at the end of the driveway had been ripped apart. Decimated. The owner of the home had warned us to make sure the bins were locked at all times so the bears can’t get to the food, and we’d been extremely careful to do so, but they’d gotten in anyway. A closer look showed they’d eaten right through the plastic.

We may not have seen the bears, but we saw clear evidence of their existence.  

Such is the story of our lives...

We know that G-d exists. We know He is out there. But we cannot see him.

Nevertheless, when we open our eyes we can see clear evidence of His existence.

Look into the eyes of your newborn, and you will see G-d’s hand, clear as day. That person you just happened to meet the other day? That was G-d directing you to your soul mate. Look carefully at the job you were fired from and you will see G-d’s hand directing you to a better one. The house that just fell through? That was G-d, too, directing you away from a neighborhood He knows you would not be happy in. When we examine our lives with this lens, it’s impossible not to see G-d’s footprints wherever we go.

With Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, when we coronate G-d as our King once more, this is the perfect time to start re-evaluating how we view the world and our experiences. So open your eyes, and start looking—really looking.

I Lost My Passport

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 15.06.16.pngThis summer, my ten-year-old son went to overnight camp in Montreal for the first time, and my wife and I booked tickets so we could see him on visiting day.

I asked my travel agent to use my global entry number so that we wouldn’t have to wait on line at the airport, and for that he needed my passport number. But when I went to get it, my passport was not where I usually keep it.

I searched the house, the car, my office, and anywhere else I could think of, but there was no sign of the errant document.

When I asked my wife if she’d seen it, she had me think back to the last time I used it—when I went to Israel a month ago. “And where did you put it when you came back?” she prodded.

It was then that I realized I had never unpacked it, and it was still in the suitcase I traveled with. Unfortunately, that very same suitcase was now with my son, in camp, in Montreal…

A problem, indeed.

So I phoned the camp, and lo and behold, the staff member who answered happens to be my nephew! Perfect.

I asked him to check my suitcase, but he explained that all the suitcases are stored away for the summer, and finding mine would be quite a task. Fortunately, we have a particularly bold tag attached that makes it easy to identify quickly, and he was able locate it and send me a picture of the passport. Whew! At least now I knew that it was definitely there. Progress.

My next step was to arrange for a FedEx pickup but the next day was July 4 th so there was no movement. The following day (Thursday) I called FedEx to follow up, and they explained that the earliest they could get it to me would be Monday, since the camp is remote and would require a special trip. That was a problem, because my flight was scheduled for 5am Sunday. Monday would be too late. I spent several hours on the phone with them, but we weren’t able to work anything out.

At this point, I turned to my trusted Whatsapp group and sent out the SOS signal. Within minutes, I had:

1. A driver willing to go to the camp and bring my passport back to the city.

2. A guy travelling from Montreal to Brooklyn on Friday, who was happy to deliver it.

3. A friend who offered to pick the passport up from Crown Heights and bring it to me before Shabbat so that I would have it ready, in hand, at 5am Sunday morning.

So despite much drama and stress, thanks to good friends and helpful strangers I was able to be on that early Sunday flight with no hiccups.

Naturally, all this passport business got me thinking…what’s the deeper lesson here?

This Shabbat we bless the new moon for the month of Elul, a time when we scramble to look for the “Jewish passports” that we may have misplaced during the year.

What is a Jewish passport?

What is the purpose of any passport? Without it, how would I prove to the Canadian border officials that I am who I say I am? And how would I prove to the American border officials that I am entitled to come back into the country? Passport is proof of identity.

Our “Jewish passports” are our very identities and it’s vital that we proudly carry that with us at all times. When we do business, we do business as a Jew–with honesty and integrity. When we travel, we don’t shirk our Jewish responsibilities. Anywhere we go and anything we do, we represent the Jewish people as a whole.

As we enter the month of Elul, let’s look inside and make sure we are proud to project our Jewish identity and represent our people with pride and dignity at all times.

Blog

Blog.jpgI texted my friend Jack* last Friday, “Hi, can you make it to shul on Shabbat morning?”

An hour later, he still hadn’t replied so I asked again. Still another hour later, I began to worry. “Is everything okay?” I asked. “We’d love to see you tomorrow.”

Then I noticed that he hadn’t even read the conversation, so I figured he must be out of town. But lo and behold, Shabbat morning he was there bright and early.

“What happened?” I asked. “Why didn’t you answer me?”

“Oh, you won’t believe it!” he explained. “A few months ago I made a firm commitment to begin attending morning services. I’m not religious, but I’m making an effort.

“This Wednesday, I woke up late and saw that the time read 6:57am. Services begin at 7:00am and I wondered if there was any point in going so late. But I’d made a commitment and I was determined to follow through. I was doing it purely for G-d, and I knew He would be pleased with my decision.

“I quickly dressed and was downstairs by 7:04am. Instead of walking as I normally do, I grabbed a cab to save time. I arrived at 7:11am and joined the prayers. Several minutes later, I realized I didn’t have my phone. Turns out, I left it in the taxi. And I was not thrilled. I called it multiple times with no response, and since I paid cash for the taxi, there was no way to trace it. Like most people these days, my phone is my everything. My contacts, messages, info—it’s all in there! Losing it is scary and disorienting.

“Most of all, I don’t understand why this would happen now of all times. My whole life, I didn’t go to shul. Now that I started going regularly, and I went even this morning when I woke up late and it would have been a lot easier and more convenient to skip, this is what G-d does for me in return? This is how He pays me back? What’s going on?!”

In this week’s parshah, we read, “You shall not heed the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of a dream; for the L-rd, your G-d, is testing you, to know whether you really love the L-rd, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul.”

G-d tests us. Often. We know that. What we don’t always realize is that the test is for our own benefit, to push us to delve deeply into ourselves and find the strength to persevere for G-d.

We want to send our children to Jewish schools, but…the money. We want to keep kosher but there’s no kosher steakhouse in town. We want to go to the 6:00am minyan, but we need time to sleep and time to get ready for work. The challenges are 100% real. G-d wants us to serve Him, but then He makes it hard for us. It’s only natural to wonder why.

So I told Jack*, “We don’t know why G-d places obstacles in our path, but in this situation perhaps he wanted to test your resolve. Are you really committed to attending daily services? How firm is that commitment? Can it handle being tested? “And look, you passed with flying colors!”

Every morning we beseech G-d, “Please do not test me,” but He does and we know He will continue to do so. So let’s use those opportunities to reaffirm our commitment to Him, strengthen our resolve, and continue serving Him with utmost devotion.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

I Turned Down $3200!

Blog.jpgLast weekend my wife and I flew to Montreal for visiting day. It’s the first time our son has gone to overnight camp and we were determined to visit despite the immense amount of time and coordination it took to make arrangements for the rest of our children. We needed a night nurse and a day nurse for the triplets, as well as a close friend to sleep in the house and care for the next three children, getting them to day camp the next day.

Certainly we were nervous about leaving them all, but we did it. We flew to Montreal, spent the day at Camp Gan Israel with our big boy, met his counselors, and most importantly, showered him with undivided attention. We stayed overnight at an airport hotel, ready for our early-morning flight the following day.

When I checked the computer screen at the airport, there was a note about our flight. “The flight is overbooked. Would you consider giving up your seat and being compensated for it?” I didn’t even consider it. We needed to get home immediately to our other six children!

We arrived at the gate with plenty of time to spare so I began my morning prayers. Then the announcements began. “We have overbooked this flight by 18 people. We are offering gift vouchers of $600 to anybody who wants to give up their seat. We will book you on the next available flight.”

We looked at each other, but as tempting as $1200 is, we knew the trouble we had gone to when arranging childcare for 24 hours. We couldn’t push it more than that, so we ignored the announcement.

Minutes later, they announced that they still needed 12 more people to give up their seats, and they increased the compensation to $1000 with the option to use it on Amazon. The offer just became immensely more attractive! We buy virtually everything on Amazon, so that money was now the equivalent of cash, not just airline vouchers.

“Will we do it for $2000?” we wondered. But just thinking of the logistics back home, we knew we had to decline. I returned to my prayers.

Not long later they announced that they were now offering $1300 for six more people to give up their seats. This really grabbed our attention—$2600 cash is no small matter!

When I was a student I used to jump on these offers even for $100, but things are quite different now!

The next announcement was the last chance. “We need two more people to give up their seats. We are offering $1600 per person.” At this, I was overcome. How could we turn down $3200? I ran to the counter and inquired when the next flight was, assuming it would be within the next hour or two. To my chagrin, all the flights for most of the day were full, and the earliest we would be booked was for a 5pm flight. They also offered meal vouchers to tide us over for the day. As tempting as it was, we turned it down. It would require making complex arrangements — from a distance — for another entire day and evening. We couldn’t do that.

As we boarded the plane, we discussed what number would have really pushed us to do it. I felt that at $1800 I could have justified either making the necessary arrangements, or just buying a ticket on a different airline. Perhaps even renting a car and driving to New York!

Our sages teach that there are three things guaranteed to change a person. If you’ve sampled them and not been affected, it simply means you haven’t yet discovered your limit.

1. Alcohol. Everyone has a limit. For me, it’s little more than a sniff and I’m ready to pass out. For others it’s a cup or even a bottle. But every person has a limit.

2. Money. Everyone has an amount that will change them. As I saw in the airport, for some it’s $600, for others it’s $1000 or $1300 or $1600, and for the many people who didn’t offer to switch their flights, it’s obviously more. For me it would have been $3600 ($1800 each).

3. Torah. If a person has studied Torah and not been positively affected, it simply means they haven’t studied enough.

Torah changes a person. If it hasn’t made you a better person yet, the only solution is to learn more, study harder, invest more deeply.

This weekend we mark Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of our current exile. Even exile has limits. We must convey to G-d that we can no longer tolerate it. We’ve reached our limit! We’re ready for the third Temple and the final redemption right now!

The Ultimate Cave Rescue

Blog1.jpgThe entire world had been collectively holding its breath awaiting the rescue of the 12 Thai boys and their coach, and after 18 long days every last one is out.

The miraculous rescue by a dedicated team of divers from multiple countries is unlike anything we have seen since the rescue of the Chilean miners in 2010. And perhaps this one struck an even greater chord because it was a group of children.

Just imagine being stuck in a winding cave, 3000 feet underground, 2.5 miles away from the entrance, in total darkness and flooding waters for 9 days without knowing if you will ever be found, or even if anyone is looking. And then, even after being found, the uncertainty about if and when and how you will get out… It’s almost unfathomable. 

But although we may not be physically stranded like they were, the Chassidic masters explain that we too are trapped in a cave. The only difference is, we don’t even know we are stuck!

Before we are born, we live in the real world, fully immersed in G-dliness and Divine spirituality. And then, G-d sends us to live in this cave. Earth. We may not see it that way, but that’s exactly what it is. New York, the city that never sleeps, a cave? Los Angeles, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Miami—all caves! Because we’ve been living in this darkness for so long, we no longer recognize it for what it is. We’re used to it. We know no differently.

The Thai boys grew up with sun and light and fresh air. So they knew they were stuck and they knew what to hope for, wait for, and expect on the outside.

We, on the other hand, know no differently. Generation after generation, we have been born into this dark labyrinth, and we are so far removed from the real world, we no longer wish for it. We think we already live in it. We can’t imagine pleasure beyond the luxuries we know. The ultimate vacation or car… these are nothing in comparison to spiritual bliss. 

And just as the entire world witnessed the rescue of the Thai boys, our rescue will also be tremendous. Just as theirs was urgent, to beat the imminent monsoon rains that could have trapped them for another four months, we require urgency too, before we are completely consumed by the world we live in. Their rescue was inordinately complex and dangerous, as is ours. What helped the boys stay alive and keep their spirits intact? Unity and cohesion. We too, can only survive by demonstrating unity. 

Moshiach is our navy seal diver. He will swim through the rushing murky waters to redeem us. In fact, the midrash explains that those buried outside of Israel will travel through underground tunnels to Israel and be resurrected there. 

The same way we felt sorry for the trapped boys, we should feel sorry for ourselves. It’s vital that we recognize and keep in mind at all times that while we may think we live in a vibrant, rich world, we are in fact stranded deep underground. And the elation that we—along with the whole world—felt when we watched the dramatic and unexpected rescue, that is the feeling we need to hold onto for when we are finally rescued with the ultimate redemption and the coming of Moshiach. 

Triplets: Out of Sync

Blog.jpgFor the last few months our lives have revolved around the number three. G-d blessed us with triplets, and we now think, breathe and complete each task in sets of three. Of course, when everything is in sync, it’s a lot easier.

When we go out we need three car seats, three sets of hands, three bottles, three (more like 30!) diapers, and three changes of clothing. When we put them to sleep, it’s three baths, three pairs of pajamas, three babies to rock and say shema with. When they wake up it’s three sets of hands to wash negel vasser, three clean outfits, and again three bottles. On Friday night there are three babies to bless, three sets of Shabbat clothes to dress them in…you get the picture! 

A couple of weeks ago we became concerned that the babies seemed to be fighting off a cold. The doctor sent us to the hospital and it turned out that they all had the same virus and needed to be hospitalized together. After two nights we were able to bring two of them home, but the third needed to stay. Suddenly, we weren’t thinking in threes anymore! Doing each action three times was manageable albeit hectic, but deviating from that pattern made things feel off balance and infinitely more challenging.

Thank G-d it was only for one night. Then the third baby was ready to come home too, and we soon fell back into our pattern of threes. But the incident left me wondering…is there a deeper significance to the number three?

Our sages certainly thought so. They described the ultimate set of “triplets”—the Torah, the Jews, and G-d. Our job is to perfectly synchronize the three, creating the ultimate state of unity the world needs in order to facilitate the final redemption. 

Three is a number of prominence in Judaism. There are the three forefathers and three daily prayers, the Torah was given in the third month and is divided into three parts, and the entire nation is divided into three groups—Kohen, Levi, Yisrael.

How do we unify the three pillars—us, G-d, and the Torah? G-d created the world for us and gave us the Torah as our guide. By delving into the Torah and fulfilling His commands, we develop a deep relationship with Him. Each good deed we do, each act of kindness we show another, helps cement and unify that three-pronged relationship that will ultimately usher us through to the next state, the era of Moshiach, and the eternal redemption.

Stranded on the Highway

log.jpgLike most students, I didn’t have access to a car during my yeshiva years in Israel. This meant riding multiple busses and hitching rides anytime I needed to go out. Often I’d end up waiting at the side of the road for long periods of time before anyone stopped, and I promised myself that in the future when I would be in the position to do so, I would make sure to give rides to people I saw waiting.

As it turns out, I usually have a full car when I travel, and although I see people who need rides and really wish I could help them, I cannot. But last week we travelled to Monsey for Shabbos for my brother’s sheva brachos. We no longer all fit into our minivan, since the blessing of our triplets a few months ago, so my wife drove the minivan with all the car seats, and I borrowed a car and took two of the older kids with me.

On the way, we passed an accident at the side of the road that had stranded a chassidic couple. I stopped the car to see if I could help. They, too, were on their way to Monsey for Shabbos, passengers in a taxi which had been rear-ended. The driver had phoned police to file a report, but as we all know, small accidents are not police priority and it can take a long time for them to show up. In the meantime, this couple had a young baby and might not be able to get to Monsey in time.

So, I offered them a ride.

The taxi driver panicked and refused to let them go, insisting the police may need them for the report. After checking and assuring him that this was not the case, he allowed me to take them. I drove them to their door, about 20 minutes out of my way, and I felt good being able to give a ride just as I had needed all those years ago. I haven’t forgotten the feeling.

There are many pleasures in life. You can eat a good steak, watch a beautiful sunset, engage in intellectual debate…but one of the deepest pleasures that exists is that of giving to others.

Giving makes us G-dly, because G-d is the ultimate giver. By giving of ourselves to others we 1channel our innate G-dliness and bring it to the surface, which is what makes it so rewarding.

However fortunate we may be now, let us not forget what it feels like to need, and may that be the impetus to seek out others and help them, allowing us to experience the true pleasure of giving.

Kites: Friend or Foe?

Blog.pngFor most, kites bring to mind breezy summer afternoons and carefree, childish delight.

Certainly, they are not commonly associated with terrorism. But in Israel right now, that’s exactly how they are being used.

Terrorists in Gaza have been flying fire-bearing kites across the border into Israel at the height of harvesting season, obliterating over 7000 acres of farmland in some 450 blazes resulting in millions of dollars in damage.

Israel is hot and dry, and it doesn’t take much to ignite a fire. A small kite attached to some hot coals or a Molotov cocktail is more than sufficient to do tremendous damage.

There is no question that Israel’s security systems are among the most advanced and high-tech in the world. They can detect and intercept air missiles and underground tunnels with record precision, but the kites are so small and light they are virtually undetectable. A simple child’s toy has managed to confound one of the world’s most advanced militaries.

So far, Israel has no solution.

Often, the simplest things can be the most powerful.

Surely the IDF will quickly figure out how to combat this new threat, but in the meantime, is there something we can learn from it?

For me, it’s that sometimes the smallest things—the ones that are so easy to discount—can be the most powerful.

When it comes to our relationship with G-d, we look to cover ourselves with the big things. Fasting on Yom Kippur? That’s a huge one! Of course I’ll do that. Making a Pesach Seder? Definitely! Brit Milah for my son? What’s the question? I am Jewish! 

But when it comes to the things we perceive as small, the day-to-day commitments, it’s easier to bow out. Learning Torah? That’s not for me. Praying daily? I’m busy in the mornings. Putting on tefillin? Once in a while is enough. I don’t need those—I do the big things!

“I am a good Jew in my heart,” people often tell me. “I feel G-d, I love Him. Why do I need to do the small things every day?”

While the big things are certainly important—and doing something is always better than doing nothing—let’s not discount the power of each small action, each mitzvah, that we do every day.

A mitzvah is what connects us to G-d. It’s how we ignite and maintain our relationship with Him. Just like a small plastic kite can instantly ignite a field, burning 1400 acres of wheat, by firing up our connection with G-d multiple times a day we can create and sustain an unquantifiable spiritual fire fusing our relationship with Him in a way that only sticking to the “big things” cannot.

So, nu, fire up your connection to G-d today!

Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump, and Moshiach

image1.jpegThis week, along with much of the developed world, I watched the most powerful leader on Earth—President Donald Trump—meet with the most evil one—North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un.

The US and North Korea have been at war since 1950, and in recent years tensions have risen, giving serious indication that nuclear war might be on the horizon. Just months ago the countries’ leaders were publicly hurling insults at each other!

So what changed? How do you go from Trump calling Kim “rocket man” and threatening “fire and fury” to a historic summit where you shake hands and make radical commitments to peace? 

Every single event that transpires in this world is orchestrated by Divine providence. Nothing happens without G-d’s involvement. And especially events that occur with world leaders and nuclear powers.

It is clear that this meeting indicates the imminent coming of Moshiach.

When Moshiach comes, there will be world peace. No murder, rape, crime? It’s hard to imagine, given the current state of the world. But in Isaiah G-d promises, “...they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against another nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Indeed, this is what happened this week. President Trump showed Chairman Kim a video that instead of having weapons of mass destruction, he could build beautiful, profitable condos on his beaches, and engineer medical breakthroughs and innovative technologies, precisely as the verse promises.

Since we are in the period immediately preceding the coming of Moshiach, we can already see the influence Moshiach wields over word leaders. The hearts and minds of all rulers are in the hands of the Almighty and He alone put into their heads the desire to denuclearize.

This Shabbat we mark the 24th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe promised us that the coming of Moshiach is imminent; we are the last generation of exile. Every day we pray, “I believe with complete faith in the coming of Moshiach, and though he may tarry, I await his coming every day.” May our prayers be answered, and may the process that has begun snowball so that there truly will be no more war, no hatred, no violence or animosity. May the prophecies awaiting fulfillment come to fruition before our eyes, so we can celebrate together in Jerusalem very soon.

* This essay is based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s talk on Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim 1992. 

Sometimes It’s Okay to Speed

o-POLICE-SIREN-facebook.jpgIt was close to midnightSaturday night, as I drove from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on my way back from the Kotel.

I noticed a police car behind me, but I wasn’t concerned. I was wearing my seatbelt and driving below the speed limit. I was not using my cell phone or doing anything else wrong.

The police car continued to trail me, so I switched lanes to let it pass. But it didn’t. 

Still, I wasn’t fazed. I knew I was driving safely and legally.

Some minutes later, the lights began to flash and I pulled over, wondering, “Really? What did I do?”

A policeman approached my window. “License and registration,” he barked.

“Good evening, officer, is there a problem? Did I do something wrong?” I asked in English.

“Oh! You are from America,” he said. “That explains it.”

Apparently, I had been driving too well, following the rules a little too closely, to the point that he assumed I must be hiding something!

What a lark!

The Baal Shem Tov taught us that we should seek the spiritual lesson in every encounter, and so I found myself wondering what the takeaway is here.

In terms of our spiritual growth, we cannot become complacent. We need to remain vibrant, alert, never satisfied with our current standing. While driving within the speed limit is honorable, when it comes to spirituality it’s vital that we accelerate, accomplishing mitzvah after mitzvah.

We cannot be content to cruise along in our relationship with G-d and the Torah. We must put the pedal to the metal!

Saved by Tefillin—Literally!

Blog.jpgWhen I asked Shimon Yifrach—who was injured by terrorist gunfire in 2016—to put on tefillin last Friday, he proudly told me that he already had. In fact, he had a tefillin story he wanted to tell me.

“I used to serve in the Border Patrol Unit, and in early 2016 I was stationed in a place called Aram in Kalandia,” he began. “One morning I had the urge to put on tefillin but I didn’t follow through. It weighed on my mind and later in the day an inner voice told me, ‘Go put on tefillin!’ I brushed it off but it persisted. I told my fellow soldiers that I was stepping aside for a minute, and I moved away from the massive concrete security block I had been standing behind.

“Literally seconds after I stepped aside, a terrorist driving a heavy commercial vehicle drove full-speed into the concrete slab, hitting it with such force that it moved at least six feet! I was so close that the vehicle grazed my hand. Imagine what would have happened had I still been standing there! There’s no way I could have survived that.

“I have no doubt the tefillin saved my life. Since then, I try to put on tefillin every day, including today!” The Torah (Deuteronomy 28:10) proclaims, “The nations of the world will see that the name of Hashem is upon you and they will fear you.” The Talmud explains that this refers to tefillin which have the power to inspire fear in the hearts of our enemies.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated the tefillin campaign right before the six-day war, calling upon Jews worldwide—regardless of religious affiliation—to begin putting on tefillin, even if they had never done so. He directed his chassidim in Israel to visit army bases and put on tefillin with the soldiers. Days later the war began, and Israel defeated the heavily armed Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies with record speed.

Indeed, tefillin have the power to literally save lives. We saw it with the six-day war and my friend Shimon experienced it himself.

So, what are you waiting for? Go put on tefillin! 

What Do You Hear?

Laurel vs. Yanny.

It’s arguably the most controversial internet sensation since the white-and-gold vs. blue-and-black dress debate of 2015! People are hooked. 

When you sit next to someone and listen to the same clip, you expect to hear the same words. To hear something so vastly different is eerie and disconcerting.

The explanation, however, is simple: "People who are more attuned to the high frequencies are picking up on things that make it sound more like Yanny. If you're not picking up on those higher frequencies then it sounds more like Laurel," explains linguist Ben Zimmer. 

As unusual as it seems, this very idea is present in our everyday lives. Kabbala teaches that there are two ways to hear everything we experience in life: lower frequency (daat tachton) and higher frequency (daat elyon).

Imagine losing your job. One way to hear the news is through pain, despair, and frustration. Alternatively, one might hear: “This is G-d’s will and is ultimately for the best. Nothing bad descends from above. G-d loves me and will provide a new and better opportunity.”

Imagine being dumped by a long-term partner. Hearing via the lower frequency will fill you with thoughts of, “Why did he do this to me?! I’m doomed to be alone forever.” The higher frequency will convey messages such as, “Obviously that was not the right person for me and G-d will send me the right husband in due time.”

Imagine that Hamas spreads lies and falsehoods, claiming that Israeli soldiers are butchering  their innocent civilians. Newspaper headlines all over the world scream, “Israeli Soldiers Kill Innocent Palestinians.” One way to hear is to despair. The other way is to recognize that this is an opportunity for Jews to bond, unite, pray, and trust that G-d will help as He always does.  

This weekend we celebrate Shavuot, when G-d married us in an incredible display of affection. We became and remain His eternal bride. That everlasting union guarantees He will not forsake us, even when things seem bleak.

Unlike with the Laurel/Yanny clip, over which we have no control, we can determine how we perceive world events and G-d’s presence. So as we begin the holiday which commemorates the exact moment we became His nation, what will you hear?

I Won the Powerball!

Blog.jpgEach spring for the last nine years 40 motorcycle riders have volunteered their time to treat our Belev Echad wounded soldiers to a picturesque bike ride through the Bear Mountains, followed by a hearty barbecue. My dear friend Yoske is one of them.

Yoske and I share a mutual love and passion for Israel, and anytime I need anything at all he is just a phone call away, always happy to help. But despite our deep respect for each other, when it comes to religion and G-d we are worlds apart. No matter how many times I’ve asked Yoske to put on tefillin, he has always refused. 

In the days leading up to this year’s bike ride, all weather forecasts predicted a 90% chance of rain, which meant we would have to cancel the much anticipated activity. If it rains, no one wants to spend the day riding through the mountains! But no matter how many times I refreshed the page, the forecast stayed the same: dismal.

Two days prior to the event, I bumped into Yoske and noticed—to my shock—that he was wearing a kippa. Not only has he never worn a kippa at any of our events over the last nine years, when I slip one on his head he slips it right off again.

“Why are you wearing it?” I asked.

“We need help for a dry Sunday,” he explained.

“Let’s make a deal,” I suggested, sensing a moment of opportunity. “I will pray that it doesn’t rain, but you have to promise to put on tefillin if it doesn’t.”

He agreed. We shook hands and parted ways. 

Now, when a Chabad rabbi gets somebody to put on tefillin it’s like winning the jackpot. When a Jew puts on tefillin, we are connecting him to the deepest levels of G-d—a level of connection even the highest angels cannot attain. So, if putting on tefillin with a Jew is like winning the jackpot, then putting on tefillin with a Jew who has refused my advances for the last nine years is like winning a double jackpot, and putting on tefillin with a Jew who has not done it since his bar mitzvah 57 years ago… that is like winning the powerball! 

I mentioned my deal with Yoske in my Shabbat speech. “We all need to pray for rain so that I win the powerball!” I beseeched. And pray we did, but when I checked the forecast after Shabbat, rain was still in the plan. The likelihood did decrease from 90% to 60%, but 60% is still significant.

When I saw no sign of rain Sunday morning, I was thrilled, and asked Yoske to put on tefillin. 
“We have to wait until the end of the day to make sure it stays dry,” he insisted.

Well, G-d helped, and the day proved dry and completely rain-free. True to his word, Yoske put on tefillin and said the shma—triple jackpot!

I hope he will put on Tefillin again the next time I see him, even without any bets!

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