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The 10-Year Challenge

Screen Shot 2019-01-17 at 5.40.52 PM.pngI’m sure you’ve all seen the new internet meshugas by now—the 10-year challenge. It’s a bona fide viral sensation.

Millions of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter users have participated, posting side by side pictures, from today and from 10 years ago, to show how they’ve aged. The challenge generated 5.2 million engagements on Facebook in just three days! Celebrities, of course, love the opportunity to show how little they’ve aged, but people from all cross-sections of society have joined the trend.

It’s kind of like a game, and the goal is to show how closely you resemble your 10-year-older self. The less you’ve changed, the more points you get.

But something seems jarring about this challenge. Is the goal really to stay the same? Shouldn’t we be changing, evolving, growing, over a 10-year period?

In spiritual terms, if you haven’t aged in 10 years, you’re behind—you’re downright losing the game!

So let’s do that challenge instead. Examine what you’ve done over the past decade. In this game, the more you’ve changed, the more you’ve increased your spiritual engagement and mitzvah output, the closer you are to winning.

Think deeply and ask yourself, what have I accomplished in the last 10 years? How many times did I come to shul? How many people have I helped? How many mitzvot have I done even when it was hard for me? How much time did I devote to those less fortunate? How many times did I stop myself from doing or saying something I knew I shouldn’t?

In fact, every night when we go to bed we’re supposed to take stock of what we’ve accomplished during the day and commit to doing more the following the day.

In Judaism, if we’re not progressing, we’re regressing. There is nothing to celebrate about staying the same from one day to the next, let alone for a 10-year stretch!

So, how much have you changed in the last 10 years?

$10,000 Leak?!

Twin-Cities-Leaky-Pipe.jpgOver the last few weeks I noticed a small leak in our Chabad center. I called a repair company who sent someone to examine the leak, and then sent me a proposal for $10,000.

Not having an extra $10,000 to fix a leak, I decided to try a local handyman instead. After an hour on the roof he comes down and tells me, “Done.”

I was incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘done’? Like, done? No more leak?”

“Yes,” he confirmed.

“Wow! How much do I owe you?”

“Well, the work cost me $40 and you can tip me whatever you want.”

Of course, I was willing to tip generously!

“Can I pay you now?” I asked.

“Let’s wait a few weeks until it rains again to make sure the leak is fixed,” he suggested.

I thought about it. The first guy quoted me $10,000 but the handyman was able to fix it for a mere $40. How could there be such a massive discrepancy?

There are two ways to fix a leak. The first guy wanted to remove the ceiling, get to the source of the leak, plaster it, install new tiles and new equipment, and the fix will probably be permanent.

The $40 fix was more like putting a Band-Aid on the hole, but the underlying problem still exists. In a few months, or—if I’m lucky—a few years, I’ll no doubt have to fix it again.

And so it is with the holes in our lives.

We all have them. Things we need to fix. Perhaps we need to improve our character—be kinder, more optimistic, develop empathy and compassion. Or maybe we struggle with anger, laziness, or temptation. No one is immune.

Our Chassidic masters explain that there are two ways to fix these issues. One is the $10,000 method. It requires effort, investment, toil, meditation, prayer, study, etc. It’s a long process, but if we stick with it, we will have a permanent fix.

The other way, the $40 method, is the quick and easy immediate fix. It’s that flash of inspiration you feel when you hear or read something that inspires you to change. It may fire us up in the moment, but that kind of inspiration rarely leads to lasting change. We quickly revert to our old habits because we haven’t put in the work.

When it comes down to it, we need both methods. We need the $40 fix to get us going, remind us that we can feel inspired and moved to change, but then we need to the $10,000 fix to really do the deep work and make those changes stick.

I may have fixed my leak for now, but I know down the line I’ll have to put in the real work and fix the underlying problem.

Perhaps you’re not ready to do the deep personal work just yet, either. That’s ok. Allow the short bursts of inspiration to keep you going until you’re ready to take that plunge. That’s what they’re for.

How Was Your 2018?

CROP-shutterstock_1048634258.jpgAs 2018 draws to a close, it seems everyone is recapping. The news sites are putting together lists of the most talked about stories of the year, my Strava app sent me a report of how many miles I ran over the past 12 months, and Facebook has created a “year in review” video highlighting my most liked pictures and posts.

But does this really represent my year? Are social media status updates and pictures a good indication of my 2018 highlights?

I often think that Facebook is the upside down world the Talmud speaks of.

When my Facebook friends post how happy, or deeply in love, they are, I question the authenticity. When they are on vacation and sharing every detail about the exotic surroundings and how much fun they’re having, I wonder if it’s true. When they’re out to dinner with their spouses and posting carefully posed pictures of each dish from multiple angles, I wonder if they are actually enjoying themselves at all.

Because if they were truly in love, truly happy, and truly enjoying their experience, would they really need to post about it?

We read about the most sublime individual spiritual revelation ever to take place, in this week’s parshah, when G-d appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush. What happened? Moses was shepherding his flock when a lamb escaped. He pursued it for miles, realized it was thirsty, and took care of its needs. When G-d saw how devoted Moses was to a single sheep, He was certain that Moses was the leader the Jews needed.

If not for the story of the burning bush, no one would know about Moses’ act of kindness. He took care of that sheep away from prying eyes. No one was there; certainly no one was filming him and uploading it to YouTube or Facebook. He didn’t do it for publicity or acclaim. He did it because he cared. As a result, he merited Divine revelation.

So, think about how many sheep you have helped when no one was watching:

How many times have you visited the sick this year?
How many dollars have you donated to charity?
How many hours did you spend with your children?
How many hours of Torah study did you rack up?

These are the things we should be tallying at year’s end. The things we do without fanfare and publicity. The things we do simply because they’re the right things to do. These are the things that G-d counts in our “year in review” and ultimately, in our “life in review.” But we’re not there yet! There’s still plenty of time to put the cameras away and focus on doing the right thing simply for its own benefit. 

Have You Seen the Moon? I’m Still Looking…

 WhatsApp Image 2018-12-20 at 12.41.02 PM.jpegEvery month it’s the same story: I have to locate the moon for the mitzvah of Kiddush Levanah, sanctifying the moon. (Of course, we’re not praising the actual moon, but its Creator—for His wondrous work we call astronomy. The moon has the most obvious monthly cycle of all the stars and planets, so we take the occasion of its renewal to make a blessing for the entire masterpiece.)

Growing up in South Africa, it was easy. And in my traveling years—in Brazil, Thailand, Katmandu, Australia, Europe…I never struggled either.

The formula is simple: you go outside between the 7th and the 15th of the month, look up at the moon, face east, and recite the prayer. Easy. Done.

But all that changed when I settled on the Upper East Side 13 years ago. You see, to say the prayer, you need to be outdoors and able to see the moon directly. Manhattan, home to more skyscrapers than any other city in the US, is not particularly conducive to that. The buildings obscure the moon, making this previously easy mitzvah into an ongoing challenge.

This month, I started looking on the first possible date, the 7th, but it was cloudy, so I waited for the 8th. Same story. By the 11th, I still hadn’t been able to say the prayer, so when I woke up at 3:00am I decided to get an early start on my day, take a run, and search for the moon. Lexington Avenue, where I live, is smack in the center of the skyscrapers, so I ran to Central Park, where I’m often successful. Alas, on this night, the moon was not visible from Central Park either, so I headed to the East River, where I also often have a clear view, but not on this night.

So, on the 12th I travelled to the Rebbe’s Ohel in Queens. I needed to go anyway, and it seemed like a good opportunity to tackle two tasks at once. Surely there I would be able to see the moon!

But, as luck would have it, it was a cloudy night with no moon in sight. As of writing this article on the 13th, with just two days to go, I still have not said the blessing!

Being Jewish requires going out of our comfort zones. We have to go above and beyond, always doing something extra, whether it’s waking up early to pray each morning, setting aside money each month for charity, visiting the sick even when we don’t really have time, or running through the streets of Manhattan in search of the moon…

Lately, I’ve noticed something that seems counterintuitive. It would be understandable if I had developed a dislike for this mitzvah that has me jogging around the streets trying to spot celestial bodies at all hours of night, but in fact the opposite has happened: I have developed a particular affinity for this mitzvah of the moon, more than many other mitzvot. Because it’s so tough, and I have to work so hard for it, I have become fond of this monthly ritual.

In our lives, a little struggle is healthy. It’s hard to appreciate things that come easy. When we have to put in the effort, the payout is magnified. According to the Talmud, “To bless the new moon at the proper time is like greeting the Divine Presence.” Certainly, that’s something worth fighting for!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Unsolicited $100,000 Donation!

money.jpegLarge donations never come out of the blue. They are generally from people we know and have an ongoing relationship with. But this past Sunday I received a notification from our website that a $100,000 donation had been made to our Chabad Israel Center, allocated towards our new preschool building. The transaction, however, had been declined.

My initial assumption was that this was not a real donation. There is an endless litany of online scammers who try to hack credit cards and I figured it was probably someone from Nigeria playing around with our website.

But upon closer inspection, I noticed that the donor used a real name­—Todd Cohen*, a local NYC address and phone number, and when I Googled him, he was very much findable. This was no Nigerian scammer.

So when our office opened Monday morning, the secretary phoned Todd to thank him.

“It’s my pleasure!” he said. “I love Chabad and the work you do. I know you’re getting a new space for your preschool and could use some money for the renovations. I know the transaction didn’t go through; I’ll try again soon.”

A few minutes later we received another notification of a declined transaction for $100,000. An hour later he tried again—a third attempt, which was again declined.

So we emailed him, “We have your credit card number and can submit the donation in two parts, which might solve the problem and enable it to go through easily.” But Todd said he would prefer to try again online.

After several more attempts—each of which was declined, I emailed Todd to thank him profusely for his $100,000 donation—including the time he spent trying to put it through!—and offered to call him later to work out the credit card information over the phone. I also invited him to the preschool open house so he can see all the children getting a solid Jewish education and know that his money has been well spent.

Less than two minutes later, Todd replied to clarify that he intended to donate $100, not $100,000, and that he will mail a check, and to please make sure we don’t charge his credit card for the remaining $99,900! I assured him we would not charge his card and thanked him for the $100. We greatly appreciate his gift and support.

Aha. Mystery solved.

You see, in life there are no short cuts. We have to work hard. Judaism teaches that if results come without effort, they will not last. If you earn your livelihood by some gimmick, be careful because it may disappear.

Getting a $100,000 donation from an individual requires trust. It requires building a relationship, a partnership, and developing confidence in who you are what you do. It takes time, effort, and hard work. It’s the only way.

The most rewarding things take the most effort. Looking for a spouse requires sustained hard work. Making a living requires ongoing toil. Raising children—that’s hard work too!

But that’s why G-d made us.

This world was created for us to work hard. G-d wants us to toil, to refine the world as we know it and make it into a better place. There’s no quick and easy shortcut for that. It’s a lifelong mission.

*Name changed to protect privacy. 

Visit to the ER

emergency.jpgLast week my son began complaining about pain in his leg. After a few days with no relief we

decided it was time to see a doctor. The doctor examined him and said, “This is a very serious

disease. He definitely needs surgery. Please take him to the emergency room right now.”

As a father of eight, I am unfortunately no stranger to NYC emergency rooms. I hate them, but

an order is an order. I double checked but the doctor assured me that she knows what she’s

talking about, and even agreed to record a message for my wife regarding the urgency of the

situation.

 

So there I found myself, on a busy Sunday, already in the midst of dozens of deadlines and other

urgent matters, and all that has to be pushed aside because my son’s health obviously takes

priority.

Thank G-d the ER was mostly empty and we were able to see a doctor immediately.

 

Imagine my surprise—and relief—to hear this doctor tell me that my son absolutely did not have

the disease the other doctor diagnosed, and would certainly not need surgery. Nevertheless, since

we were there already, they insisted on running some time-consuming tests. Protocol.

 

After an x-ray, blood work, and a few other medical exams, we got a clean bill of health and

returned home.

 

I began to wonder why I had trusted that first doctor so much. Why didn’t I just march my son

back home to bed?

Because the doctor has years of medical training, and I do not. So I trust her opinion.

 

I just wish others would listen to my rabbinical advice the same way I listen to the doctor! After

all, I too have years of training and years of experience working in the field.

A guy comes to me with marital problems. I advise him to schedule a date night (or morning) out

of the house with his wife every week, and make sure nothing gets in the way. Stop shouting at

her, treat her well, and you will begin to feel lovingly towards her again. I also suggest they

begin keeping the family purity laws, but they confidently reassure me that there is absolutely no

chance of that.

 

Another guy comes to me with serious business problems. I recommend he pray and put on

tefillin daily, but he argues that he sees no connection. I ask myself, do I argue with my doctor

when she sends me to the ER which is a lot more inconvenient than putting on tefillin each

morning?! I do not. I follow orders. So why is my advice questioned? Why am I not trusted?

 

To a woman with heart problems, I suggest installing mezuzot on all the doors in her house.

“I just bought one for the front door,” she argues.  

“We need them on every door,” I insist.

I beg and I plead and begrudgingly she agrees.

Why must I fight? Why doesn’t she listen?


This is how it is with spirituality. We struggled to accept what the Torah says. That’s our

challenge. But by reframing it, and realizing how readily we accept advice from other experts,

surely we can become better at readily accepting the Torah’s wisdom. It’s for our own benefit,

after all!

Pittsburgh: Shaken to Our Core

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 3.00.24 PM.pngParis. Tel Aviv. Toulouse. Mumbai. Brussels. Djerba. Copenhagen. Jerusalem. Kansas City. And now, Pittsburgh.

The incomprehensible murder of 11 Jews this week has violently ripped open a permanent hole in the lives of the families and friends of those killed, and indeed, Jews across the world.

Like so many others, I find myself asking, “What now?”

How do we process this tragedy? How do we return to our lives in its aftermath? Do we cower in fear? What changes do we make?

Our sages teach that the power of goodness and kindness is infinitely stronger than the power of evil. “A small amount of light dispels much darkness” is not merely an adage—it is the starting point for illuminating our lives and ultimately transforming the entire world.

About the Jewish people, Song of Songs says, “I am sleeping, but my heart is awake.”

 

When I look at the way the global Jewish community has reacted to the Pittsburgh massacre, I see an awakening. And if an anti-Semitic lunatic, through a single act of baseless hatred, can awaken the hearts of Jews in Singapore, Cape Town, Sydney, New York, and across the entire globe, can you imagine what we can accomplish with any single act of baseless love?

If Robert Bowers, a high school dropout, can sow fear across the entire world with darkness and violence, can you imagine how much joy and peace we, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, can spread throughout the world by lighting Shabbat candles this week?

 

If a deranged lunatic with a rifle and two handguns could perform the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history while shouting “Death to all Jews!” imagine what you and I could accomplish while shouting “I love all Jews!”

This tragedy has united Jews from across the spectrum of observance. We are all mourning the 11 holy Jews, killed because they chose to celebrate their Judaism in shul, on Shabbat, as Jews have done for millennia. Can you imagine how much unity we can generate, and how many Jews we can bring to shul with love, a phone call, and a bowl of warm cholent? 

This is our responsibility now: to reach out to any Jew we come across and welcome him or her with open arms and an open heart. We cannot allow Robert Bower’s act of terrorism to scare us away. We must go to shul, wear our Judaism outwardly with pride, engage with the community, and remember that although our people have faced deep anti-Semitism since the beginning of time, we have not—and cannot now—allow it to prevent us from embracing our heritage.

My Best Fundraising Week Ever!

1280x720_81023C00-QLMRC1.jpgOdds of winning the 1.6 billion dollar lottery were 1 in 302.6 million, yet staggering numbers of people lined up to try. In California alone, 5.7 million tickets were bought in just the first half of the day. And according to one newspaper, tickets were selling at a rate of 400 per minute on Friday.

As the anticipation grew, I noticed an interesting trend. Many of my friends tried to increase their odds of winning by pledging some of their earnings to the Chabad center that I run.

One person even pledged the entire 1.6 billion dollars to us if he won! Without a doubt, that is the largest pledge I received to date. Though I must wonder if he would have actually followed through…  

Another pledged 400 million dollars to be used for charity work, several pledged 1 million, another 50 million… Even my family hopped on the pledge train. Friends and relatives from overseas asked me to buy them tickets and promised to split the earnings.

This meant that my chances of winning changed from 1 in 302.6 million to more like 1 in 75 million. Much better, but still not good enough. We won nothing.

But it did feel good to receive so many 7, 8, 9, and even 10 figure pledges. Surely it must have been my best fundraising week of all time!

The sentiment, however, is not uncommon. It happens often that people call me, “Rabbi, if the deal I’m working on goes through I will give 1 million dollars to your building campaigns” Or, “Rabbi, if my stock goes up remember you are getting half!” It’s like if they make the pledge G-d will make them win.

The chassid Reb Yekusiel Lepler, an extremely poor man, once won the lottery. The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, called him over and said, “I want to bless you with great wealth.” Surely that is akin to winning the lottery! You would think he’d be the happiest person alive, and yet, he refused the Rebbe’s offer. Why? “It will distract me from my service of G-d and my mission on this earth,” he explained.

Avraham Avinu, the first Jew, who we read about in this week’s Torah portion, bequeathed us the essence of Judaism. He gave us a love of G-d and a love for kindness. We have 4000 years of spiritual riches and moral achievement to look back on. We are inspired by the teachings of our Torah and it serves as our moral compass. Our mandate and mission is to make this world a better place. Our Torah is worth more than all the money in the world. Our mitzvot are priceless: every time we put on tefillin, that’s a billion dollars in value. Invite a guest for a meal and you made two billion! Think of the all the countless mitzvot you do daily – each one adds to your wealth.

Yes, it’s fun to get distracted by the lottery once in a while and dream about how it might change our lives, but let’s focus on our real purpose and go back to winning the real lottery by accumulating spiritual wealth with vigor!

Unsolicited Parenting Advice

23156_20150922031516_fn0_real.jpgWhenever I walk through the streets of Manhattan with my kids, I receive droves of unsolicited advice. It’s the strangest thing, but for some reason New Yorkers seem to feel the need to help me with my parenting.

Just the other day we were heading to Central Park, my kids racing ahead on scooters, and a woman stopped to tell me, “Your son’s helmet is not on correctly. You should really secure it more tightly.” I thanked her and assured her that all the helmets were properly secured.

Now, this would not be so strange if it only happened once in a while, but it happens all the time.  

 My two-year-old will be having a tantrum in the park and a stranger will undoubtedly come over to tell me how to deal with it. And I’m left thinking to myself, “Do you realize that before 6:00am today I changed seven diapers and fed breakfast to five babies?”

Or we’ll be biking in Central Park and somebody will stop to tell me that the kids are too far ahead and it’s dangerous and irresponsible, and all I can think is, “I’m not exactly an inexperienced dad! I have eight kids!”

And then there’s the weather brigade. It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s raining, it’s windy, there’s snow in the forecast (perhaps for three months from now…) and people are sure my kids are not suitably dressed, “Your child should be wearing a raincoat!” “Where’s his sunhat?” “She’ll be cold, she needs a scarf!” And while I appreciate their concern, inwardly I roll my eyes and wonder, “Do you think I don’t know how to keep my kids comfortable and safe?”

Ironically, I probably have a lot more hands-on childcare experience than most of the people who approach me! I know how to dress them, feed them, keep them safe, maintain boundaries and still give them a good time. Imagine that! Their concern is genuine, but I doubt any of them are raising eight kids, including triplets.

When I think about it, however, I realize that we treat G-d the same way.

He tells us to put on tefillin every day, and we tell him we know better.

He says Torah is your life–learn it every single day, and we say, “I already have a life, I don’t have time for that.”

He says keep Shabbat, a day of rest, and we say, “Nah, we have other ways to rest.”  

But G-d is the expert. He is the one who created the world, created us, and knows what we need. And still we think we know better! How ironic.

Excuse Me, Are You Jewish?

Mivtozoim.jpegMy kids and I spent lots of time patrolling our Upper East Side neighborhood this week, offering people the opportunity to do the mitzvah of lulav and etrog.

Years of experience have given me a pretty good sense of who to ask, and I’ve found that approximately 90% of Jews are happy to see us and want to do the mitzvah. There are always those, however, who are uninterested, and some who are downright hostile.

I knew we would undoubtedly encounter some who might be angry with us, and I didn’t want my kids to be disheartened, so I told them the story of Yankel* who is a regular in our shul.

On his way to work 25 years ago, Yankel was approached by two Chabad students in a mitzvah tank on the streets of downtown Manhattan. “Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?” they asked. Not expecting to be asked so publicly, Yankel was outraged and vociferously denied his heritage. “No, I am not Jewish!”

By the time he arrived at his office, guilt had set in. Although not a practicing Jew, he still felt strongly connected to his roots and regretted telling the boys he wasn’t Jewish. Alas, what’s done was done, but the guilt continued to niggle at the back of his mind for 25 years.

When I first moved to New York, I met Yankel on the street and asked him, “Are you Jewish?” Thrilled for the opportunity to fix the mistake he had made all those years ago, he answered with a resounding, “Yes!”

And so began a beautiful relationship. I asked him if he would like to study Torah and he gave me his office number to follow up. Because it was a holiday and I couldn’t write it down, I memorized it and called him a couple of days later to set up a study date. He is now a regular at Chabad.

You never know how you will affect another person, I told my kids. Just by being visible with our lulav and etrog, we might be reminding people of their Judaism. Even if we don’t speak to them and they don’t approach us. Who knows what that might trigger in their soul? And even when we think we’ve really messed up—perhaps angered someone and distanced them even further—something good might blossom from that encounter years later, and we may never know.

Happy Sukkot!

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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

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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.

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