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I Finally Joined the COVID Club!

I Finally Joined the COVID Club!

It’s been six months since COVID-19 was unleashed and our lives became instantly unrecognizable. Like everyone else, I did everything in my power to avoid the virus, but alas, when G-d decrees it’s your turn, nothing helps. And I guess G-d finally decided it was my time.

It was toward the end of summer that I started feeling weak. First a headache and a fever, and I didn’t think much of it. It was only when I performed the havdalah service for my family after Shabbat that I realized it might be COVID. I made the blessings over the fragrant spices as I do every week (we smell the spices to comfort the soul which is saddened by the departure of the “extra soul” it receives for the duration of Shabbat), but when I tried to smell them, nothing registered.

At first I thought there was something wrong with the spices, but when I saw my wife and children smelling them as usual, I realized I must actually have COVID.

I ended up extremely weak for 10 days, mostly in bed, with fever, chills, headache, stomach ache, general loss of appetite and noticeable weakness. Although I didn’t lose my sense of taste, many of the foods I previously enjoyed suddenly tasted terrible to me. I couldn’t stand to drink my morning coffee which I usually love. Same with my breakfast yogurt and other favorites. I had to stick to bland foods like toast and dry pretzels to get through.

I quarantined for the full time required and miraculously no one else in my family caught it. Thank G-d, I had a relatively mild case and recovered quickly. I tested negative and was able to come out and rejoin the world before the summer was even over.

But I couldn’t stop thinking that there must be a lesson here that can help us with our Divine service.

Most of us take the small things in life for granted, things like taste and smell. Every morning I drink my coffee, enjoy it greatly, but that’s it. I don’t think much about it, I don’t feel particularly awed or overly grateful. I move on with my day.

G-d gives us these small gifts on a daily basis, and we can easily fall into the trap of taking them for granted. Waking up each morning is a gift from G-d. Every breath of air we breathe is a gift. There are blessings we recite each morning, acknowledging and thanking G-d for opening our eyes, for waking us, for enabling us to go to the bathroom, for giving us strength… if we really pay attention to what we are saying each day, we will become accustomed to thanking Him for even the tiniest things.

The Hebrew acronym for the upcoming year of 5781, which we have just begun, is "פלאות אראנו" which means "I will show you miracles!" May G-d shower us all with revealed and recognizable miracles, and may the new year bring tremendous blessing upon all of us, most urgently an end to the terrible coronavirus. I’m already feeling the positive energy of the new year; I’m certain that very soon we’ll see those miracles!

G’mar Chatima Tova!

Rabbi Uriel Vigler 

 

It's a War Zone!

Like millions of children across the world, mine started school this week. Finally, after almost half a year at home, the day we’ve all been waiting for arrived! I love Zoom, but we all know it’s just not the same as in-person communication. 

My kids go to four different schools, and each has its own policy and plan to protect the children. Across the board, parents are super anxious. Some schools are requiring negative COVID tests before the children begin. Each day they’ll have their temperature taken; some schools even have thermal cameras that can check up to 100 kids’ temperatures at once! 

There’s a full time nurse on site, high-tech filters to clean the air of micro-bacteria particles, and endless amounts of Purell and Lysol wipes. The kids have to wear masks in the hallways and anytime they’re not sitting at their desks. When seated, they are boxed in by plexiglass. Lunch is served individually in the classroom and there is no more group play at recess or in the gym. Some schools even have the children wearing monitors that will vibrate when coming within six feet of one another! 

Clearly, we are going to great lengths to keep our children safe. It almost feels like a war – an endless battle against an invisible but potent enemy. 

I found myself wondering… all of this is being done to ensure our children’s bodies are protected from physical disease, but what about spiritual protection? What are we doing to ensure the safety of their souls—something infinitely more important than their bodies?

Do you know how detrimental non-kosher food is to the souls of our innocent children? Forget about micro-bacteria! That pork will do far more damage than any coronavirus!

What can we do to ensure our children’s spiritual health, just as we have done to protect their physical health?

We can pray with them each morning. We can start their day by giving a few coins to charity. 

We can be conscious of how much time we spend talking about the meaningless parts of life, and try to introduce more spiritual connectedness.

When our children learn Torah, they purify the surrounding air in such a powerful way. Let’s try to find time to learn Torah with them, even just for a couple of minutes, each day. Saying Shema together at night will add to their protection. 

We’ve invested so much effort to protect them from a virus whose risk to children is so minimal; we should spend at least as much time ensuring their souls are protected. 

So this Friday night, seated around your Shabbat dinner table, please don’t talk about COVID. Discuss the parshah and the upcoming High Holidays. With time, you will see how much better off your children (and even you yourselves!) are faring.  

Fleeing My First Camping Experience

A group of friends I grew up with in South Africa go camping regularly, and I’ve been wanting to join them for a while now. They talk about it so often, and with such passion, that I wanted to see what it’s all about. I went to Walmart and purchased a tent, flashlights and other essential supplies. Then I packed myself, two of my sons, and all our gear into the car and we drove upstate to Woodland Valley.

The veteran campers among us showed me how to set up the tent and make sure the cover is firmly secured. Then we built a bonfire, had a barbecue, and bonded over drinks. Living in the city, the kind of darkness we experienced out there is unlike anything my kids know. There was not a solitary light around. They loved it!

For an addict like me, the lack of phone and internet was challenging, but I do it for 25 hours each week over Shabbat, so I knew I could manage.  

Then we all went to bed. At home, bed is my favorite part of the day! But here I was squeezed into a tent that barely fit the three of us. No comfortable mattress, no thick blanket, no electricity or indoor plumbing. Just us and nature and a flimsy tent between us. 

After tossing and turning for a couple of hours, I finally fell asleep, only to be awakened by heavy rain at 2am! I couldn’t sleep, so I went outside for a walk. I was tired, dripping wet, and deeply missing the comforts of home. I tried to fall asleep again, with my kids kicking me in their sleep every few minutes as they tried to get comfortable themselves. I thought of taking shelter in the car, but I couldn’t find my keys in the dark. 

By 6:00am when dawn broke and the rain kept coming down in buckets, I realized my seasoned camping friends were still in their tents loving this, bad weather and all! I took the opportunity to make my move. I packed up all our bags, disassembled the tent, hastily filled the car and headed for home with my boys. Two hours later, we were back in the comforts of home. We were supposed to be there for at least two nights but I lasted barely one!

We find ourselves now in the month of Elul. All year, we roam, often finding ourselves distant from G-d, the Torah, and spirituality. But now, as we approach the High Holidays, it’s time to come home. 

Our soul is uncomfortable in the body, as I was in the tent. It’s an agonizing exile for something so sublime. It longs to return to the lofty comforts of heaven, especially when we starve it of spirituality. Now’s our time to feed it, to make it feel at home here in our bodies, in this earthly world, as we engage in increased Torah study and mitzvah observance. It longs to reconnect and so do we. Our soul yearns for the comfort of its spiritual home!

As for camping… will I give it another try? Who knows! I may be willing to brave it down the line, but will my friends ever let me join them again?! That’s the real question. 

I Am Leaving Manhattan Soon. Permanently!

Yes, you read that correctly. I am leaving the Big Apple, the city that I so dearly love.

But don’t worry, so are you.

Manhattan has real problems right now. Rampant homelessness has taken over large swaths of residential areas, businesses cannot sustain themselves without the working crowd, and there remains residual damage from the protests and looting. So many people have left and continue to leave the city, some temporarily and some permanently, and the media can’t stop talking about it.

A friend asked me if I’d be leaving too. A legitimate question. So here’s my response.

I love Manhattan.

When my wife and I married in 2003, we were ready to move anywhere in the world to live and work as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, igniting the (sometimes latent) spark of Judaism within every Jew, wherever he or she may live. We considered places like London, Ukraine, Florida, and Johannesburg, but ultimately ended up on the Upper East Side under the leadership of Rabbi Benzion Krasnianski, and I’ve had no regrets.

Coming from South Africa, New York was unlike anything I knew, but when I first visited in 1995 I fell in love immediately. Five years later, I moved here for good. I’ve lived here through the 9/11 terror attacks, the 2008 financial crisis, and I’m here for COVID-19, COVID-20, and what is increasingly looking like COVID-21!

Why do I love Manhattan?

Not for the same reasons most people love it here. I’ve never been to a broadway show or comedy club. I haven’t been to Madison Square Gardens or MOMA. I haven’t even visited the Freedom Tower or Statue of Liberty. But still, I love NYC.

You see, my mission is to be a lamplighter—to ignite the spark of Judaism is my fellow Jews. To spread goodness and kindness. To teach Torah and mitzvot. My role doesn’t depend on New York’s nightlife. As long as there remains a single Jewish family in Manhattan, I will be here guiding them.

Just as a soldier doesn’t abandon his or her post, my colleagues and I will not abandon ours. We are here to serve others. I love waking up each morning with that knowledge.

Now, connecting with the Jews in this city involves tapping into the adrenaline and fast-paced energy of the city, which I love. And that has become a lot more difficult during this corona era.

How do you attract Jews to shul without a kiddush? Without Sunday morning bagels and lox? Without a warm hug from the rabbi? This is how people feel connected, feel community. It’s what propels so many of us to get up and out and into shul. These obstacles feel most daunting, especially as we turn our focus to the upcoming High Holidays. Our shuls are supposed to be warm, vibrant, nurturing places, not cold, masked and faceless. But we are working hard to combat these challenges and find safe ways to keep people feeling close and connected.

So ... why don’t I join the thousands of people moving to Florida and Arizona, working remotely?

Well, Zoom is great, and we are fortunate to have the capability to connect online, but so many things cannot be replaced. Yes, I can give a class over Zoom, but I cannot host a minyan. The shofar cannot be blown on Zoom. High Holiday services cannot happen on Zoom. I cannot marry couples over Zoom. Kaddish cannot be said over Zoom. All of these things are part of my duties as an emissary, so, no, I cannot move away and work remotely without abandoning my community, which I will never do.

And yet, I will leave. Soon even. But so will you, and so will my entire community. We will leave together. The forces of darkness have been so powerful this year. We’ve all struggled in unimaginable ways. But that means Moshiach is about to come. The darkest part of the night is the short stretch just before the sun breaks over the horizon. That’s now. We’re living in dark times, but that breakthrough—the final Redemption when we will ascend to Israel with Moshiach, reunited with our loved ones who have left this world, and rebuild the Holy Temple—is in sight!

So start packing your bags.  But until then, see you on Fifth Avenue! 

My Relationship With G-d Deepened During Corona

Dear G-d,

If pressed to describe my relationship with You this past year, I’d have to say it was complex. And if asked to sum up the entire year in a single word? I’d simply say “corona.” 

This week we sanctify the new moon, ushering in the month of Elul, the last on the Jewish calendar. Once we enter Elul, we know that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are just around the corner. This is the time of year we begin blowing the shofar daily, Sephardim begin reciting selichot, and the air of the High Holiday season and the imminent near year permeates our thoughts and interactions. It’s palpable. 

This is when I reflect upon my relationship with You and the year we’ve had. It started quite peacefully. Things were looking good for the world. The economy was booming. 

What happened next, none of us could have foreseen. We had no idea that while we were blissfully ushering in the new year, a pandemic had already started in China. About half-way through, just before Purim, the world was shaken to its core as corona hit us like a ton of bricks. We were entirely unprepared, had no tools to handle it, and simply shut down. I try to imagine how we will explain this period to our grandchildren… it’s hard to picture. But 2020 will certainly feature prominently in history books and in our stories. Will we ever be able to truly convey the extent of the shutdown? I’m not sure. 

But that wasn’t all. Then we had protests, riots, crime, looting and mass exodus from major cities like Manhattan where I live. The pandemic is far from over, people remain anxious and schools are struggling with decisions over how to structure the upcoming academic year. 

Surprisingly, G-d, despite all the havoc You wrought upon us this year, I feel closer to You than ever. Do I understand Your actions? Absolutely not. I don’t understand why so many had to die. I don’t understand why so many had to lose their jobs. I don’t understand why You brought so much pain to the world, as well as all the animosity that has come in its wake. Nevertheless, I think I love You more than ever. 

You see, this year I spent a lot more focused time communicating with You. Since the world shut down, I’ve had more time at home, more time to learn Torah, meditate, and pray. I’ve had more time to think about You and contemplate why You did this. And even though it’s painful and difficult, and I know that I will never understand, I know that You have the answers. 

The pain and suffering does not make me turn away from You. Yes, it feels chaotic down here, but I know You have a plan. My trust in You, if anything, has only grown stronger. My love for You has increased. We will get through this and come out stronger than we were before. In the darkness, we will find and embrace light. 

I am looking forward to coronating You as our King on Rosh Hashanah.

When I recited the Avinu Malkeinu prayer during the High Holiday season last year, I did not pay particular attention to the words, “Our Father in Heaven, prevent a plague from coming amongst us.” But I can assure you that this year, I will have an entirely new focus. 

When I say the words, “Bring peace amongst us,” I will be praying for a resolution to the division that fighting that tears us apart. And when I read, “Who will live and who will die?” I will think of the many tragic losses we experienced this year, and put new intention into the words. 

We pray for Moshiach, when we will finally understand how this was all for the ultimate good. Until then, we continue to believe and to pray. 

Yours truly,

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Hurricane Isaias Kicks Me Out of My Torah Class

Every Tuesday, for the last three years, a couple of friends have gotten together for a weekly “lunch and learn” Torah class. This week, at the beginning of the class I commented that it's actually incredible that since COVID-19 started, we haven’t missed a single class. It used to be in a Midtown office, and there were weeks that many people were away so we’d postpone till the following week. But now that we’ve taken it online, everyone can attend no matter where they are. 

During our class, Hurricane Isaias was unleashing its fury upon millions of US residents, but I didn’t think we would be affected. Yet literally as that sentence – “we haven’t missed a class – came out of my mouth, I lost power and was booted from the Zoom class. I was able to log back in after a few minutes, but after being knocked out two more times, I gave up. Fortunately, we were still able to cover most of the material of the Torah class.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I frequently use the expression, “bli ayin hara” – “without the evil eye.” For example, when my children do well in school, or when our gala dinner is attended by over 1000 people, or when my brother has his 11th child, or when a friend makes a multi-million dollar deal, I say “bli ayin hara” – “without the evil eye.” 

Do Jews really believe in the evil eye? You bet!

Not only is the Torah rife with stories of people harmed by the evil eye, but many practices we do today are to ward off the evil eye. For example, when we need 10 men for a minyan, we don’t count them, “1, 2, 3…etc.” because of the evil eye. We don’t have baby showers because celebrating the baby before its birth can summon the evil eye. When we finish learning, we make sure to close the book, because if left open the powers of demons can cause harm. Yes, really. 

But when I commented on how well our class was going, I forgot to say those important words!

How does the evil eye work?

If we flaunt our blessings and draw undue attention to ourselves, especially if it causes ill will among others, it invokes the notice of the Heavenly court who may reevaluate: Do we really deserve this blessing?

It is something to keep in mind, but not something to actively worry about. Ultimately, connecting to G‑d through meditating on His greatness, learning His Torah, adding in mitzvahs, and making sure to be sensitive to others, is a tried and true remedy. There is no reason to live in fear of an evil eye or try any other hocus pocus means of protection.

So ultimately, why was I kicked out of my class? I have no idea. But the more we focus our efforts on G-d and on delving into His Torah, the less we need to concern ourselves with the evil eye and its effects. 

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Dear Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook Headquarters 
1 Hacker Way
Menlo Park, CA 94025

Dear Mark,

I’ve been using Facebook for a very long time, and I am grateful to you for creating a platform that allows me to keep in touch with people all over the world, including congregants and friends who have left New York City. 

You see, I use Facebook for my job. I use it to spread Torah and mitzvot and try to do my part in bettering the world, which is why I was absolutely astounded to discover I’d been banned this week! 

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been giving my Torah classes online. For maximum accessibility, before each class I log into Zoom and connect it to Facebook. This allows me to reach more people. But this week, you cancelled my class, shut me out of Facebook, and sent me a message claiming I had violated your community standards!

What?! To say I was thoroughly confused would be an understatement of the highest order. 

I have never posted anything hateful or political in the 12 or so years I’ve been using your platform! As a rabbi, I serve a community comprising people on the right and people on the left, so I stick to my job—promoting and spreading Torah and mitzvot; I don’t dabble in politics. So what could have possibly led you to shut down my account? 

I took a closer look at which classes apparently violated your community standards. There were four, and the one that sent me to “Facebook jail” was this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEn7zRQDO6Y&t=760s - “The cure for COVID-19 is to be found in this week’s Torah portion.”

I wondered, what could possibly be in violation? In the video, I explained that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of hatred for one another. I explained that the Talmud equates that hatred to the three cardinal sins: idolatry, adultery, murder, and that to rectify this and rebuild the third and final Temple, we need to love each other more. True, expansive, unconditional love will lead to the Redemption, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the end to all ailments and illnesses, including COVID-19. 

This is one of our most basic beliefs, found in our holy Torah. So yes, the cure for coronavirus is in fact in the Torah!

Your message claimed, “We have these standards because misinformation that could cause physical harm can make some people feel unsafe on Facebook.” Well, I can assure you that there is no message the inhabitants of this universe need to hear more than what I shared! Unconditional love - it’s what we all need, the US more than anyone! Not only can this not possibly lead to physical harm, it can lead to great healing and unification. In fact, Mark, you and I probably disagree on about 99% of things, but that does not diminish my love for you. I love you, heart and soul, like a brother.

Misinformation, you say? I can assure you there is no book more authentic than the Torah. In fact, you and I were both present at the foot of Mount Sinai over 4000 years ago. You and I both heard the voice of G-d. You and I both received His Torah at the exact same moment. This is a proven historical fact. 

Mark, in this week’s Torah portion we read about the 10 commandments—G-d’s precious gift to us. In that spirit, I invite you to study Torah with me anytime. We can easily do it over the powerful tool you’ve created: Facebook! I also invite you to attend services at my shul, have an aliya, and be called up to the Torah. You see, Mark, despite our differences, my love for you is unconditional, and that is the message my classes promote. 

Our Triplets Escaped!

Nothing is normal about having triplets, including bedtime. But we have a routine that’s been serving us well. We sing the Shema and say the 12 Torah pesukim together while they lie in their cribs. We leave the room and we hear them chatting together (sometimes till quite late; they must be having deep conversations!), but eventually they fall asleep and stay that way until the morning. They wake up and chat happily some more, until we’re ready to take them out and start the day.

But this week they mastered a new trick. Avigayil discovered that she could easily climb out of her crib. Her two brothers watched and quickly realized they too could climb out on their own, and suddenly our mornings and evenings look very different!

No longer is the old routine effective. We put them to bed as usual this week, and within five minutes they were roaming around the kitchen, yelping with joy! The same scene repeated itself in the morning. One woke up at 6am, woke the other two, and they marched out of their room waking the rest of the family an hour earlier than usual.

Clearly, we need a new strategy.

And while the rest of us may have long ago graduated to real beds, the truth is that we are all stuck in “cribs” of our own. We all have things that are blocking us on some front, holding us back, caging us in, making it hard for us to succeed in life. We are stuck in our habits and routines, our fears and anxieties, and we haven’t yet figured out how to escape.

Now, more than ever, we are consumed by our anxieties. What will be when we wake up tomorrow? It seems impossible to predict. But one thing we know for certain, one thing we can latch onto, is that G-d is in charge, He controls the world, and He would never send us a challenge that we cannot conquer.

But we can break out. Resolve to wake up each morning and trust G-d. Really trust him. And you will see that you start to escape your prison of fear, and feel the relaxation slowly flow over you. It’s hard. It’s scary. But the results are indescribable.

And how about committing to a new mitzvah? Start lighting Shabbat candles each week on time. Or put on tefillin and say morning prayers. Set aside 30 minutes a day to study Torah, make sure your house has kosher mezuzot, commit to sending your child to a Jewish school (real or virtual!), or take on the huge commitment of keeping kosher. There are so many things you can do to break out of your prison of habit. Each step you take makes the next one seem a tad easier, until you’re jumping out of your “crib” with ease, without thought, day after day.

By doing this, we will help the world jump out of its "crib," habits and routines with the coming of Moshiach.

Imagine the Cure for Coronavirus … but Why Stop There?

Imagine waking up tomorrow morning to the breaking news that despite the 10-15 years it normally takes, we’ve been able to accelerate the research and testing for the COVID-19 vaccine, and it is now safe, effective, approved, and already widely available. 

Close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine, really imagine, how happy we will all be! Imagine the joy of being able to send our kids to school safely again. Think of the celebrations we’ll be able to attend! Weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, graduations … all the things we’ve missed these last few months. We could go shopping, fly, vacation—all the things we used to take for granted! We will all be ecstatic! The entire world will be filled with laughter and happiness!

But if we’re already dreaming, why not dream even bigger? We’ve eradicated COVID-19, why stop there? We still have cancer, heart disease, alzheimers, depression, anxiety, terrorism, anti-Semitism and enough other ailments to fill several volumes. So close your eyes again and this time imagine waking up to discover that the world has been cured from all diseases. 

And while there are scientists working around the clock, exerting tremendous effort to find a COVID-19 vaccine, our sages teach that it’s up to each and every one of us to find the cure for all of the world’s diseases. 

To that end, we can learn much from the race: 

The first step towards finding any vaccine is research. Scientists need to understand as much as possible about the disease, how it works, and how the body’s immune system can be catalyzed to fight it. 

What is the root of all pain and suffering in this world? The Talmud (Yoma 9b) teaches that baseless hatred is to blame. G-d, like a father, abhors seeing His children in conflict. In fact, the Talmud goes so far as to equate baseless hatred with the three cardinal sins: idolatry, adultery, and murder. That’s how bad it is! It is, in fact, the thing that caused us to be banished from the Beit Hamikdash, our home with G-d. 

So how do we combat and cure baseless hatred? With unconditional love, of course! By resolving to remove the judgement and dislike that are so familiar and intrinsic to our thinking, and replacing them with acts of care, concern, and love—regardless of the person’s habits, opinions, or political learnings. This will bring the ultimate redemption and will rebuild the Holy Temple.  

We now find ourselves at a time on the Jewish calendar known as the Three Weeks—the annual mourning period for the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. What better time to work on rebuilding it? 

Lest you think that your simple act of unconditional kindness won’t make a difference, think again. COVID-19 started spreading when a guy in Wuhan sneezed, and look how that has rippled and ballooned across the world. Your good deed can have the same effect!

So let’s stop limiting our imaginings to a cure for COVID-19, and start imagining a cure for the entire world. It is within our power! 

It’s Too Dark; I Cannot See

It’s 2.30am and I’m fast asleep when four-year-old Mussya and six-year-old Sara come barging into our room, crying hysterically. Waking up in the night is not atypical, but usually they go straight to my wife and I don’t stir. This time, however, they were agitated, had woken each other, and were now both wailing. Their cry? “It’s too dark; I cannot see!” 

This was a first. Usually it’s a bad dream and we coax them back to bed by helping them think of pleasant things. Or “I’m thirsty” which is easily solved with a drink of water. But this I’d never heard before. I sat up groggily. “It’s the middle of the night, Mussya. Of course you cannot see. The lights are off, it’s dark outside, how do you wake up from that? And maybe the middle of the night is not the best time to test your eyes…” 

“Just close your eyes and fall asleep,” I cajoled. 

“But when I close my eyes, it’s too dark,” she insisted. 

It took some time and convincing and calming, but eventually she agreed to close her eyes and fall asleep in the darkness. 

The experience got me thinking. 

We’ve been in our current exile for close to 2000 years, and a lot of those years have been dark. But our sages teach that there is no darker period than ours. And we are surely feeling it, with the coronavirus and unrest causing so much fear and uncertainty all over the world! But the reason it’s so dark right now is because we are right before the breakthrough. The night is darkest just before dawn emerges onto the horizon, and that’s where we are right now: on the precipice of the Redemption. So yes, it’s dark, yes it seems like it will always be dark, but that’s good news! It means we’re on the verge of the greatest spiritual revelation—the one our people have been anticipating for millennia! 

We just started the annual period on the Jewish calendar known as The Three Weeks—a time of mourning for the destruction of our two Holy Temples. But this year we are ready, readier than we’ve ever been, for that third and final Temple. 

My daughters’ wails should be echoed by every single Jew. We need to cry out to our Father in Heaven and awaken His heavenly mercy: “It’s too dark! We cannot bear this anymore! Get us out of the exile; usher in the era of light.” 

May it happen immediately. 

Rabbi Uriel Vigler 

I Bumped Into A Huge Bear!

This week I bumped into a bear. Yes, an actual lumbering, extremely large and ferocious-looking American black bear. 

We’ve been staying in a house just outside the city, and as I stepped out the other day, I immediately jumped back, startled to see a huge bear casually roaming around sniffing for food. I wasn’t more than 3-4 feet away! I quickly retreated into the house, locked the door, took out my camera, and started filming. 

Now, I grew up in South Africa, home to plenty of wild animals (baboons, lions, tigers, elephants), but we only ever saw those in the Kruger National Park, never just roaming the streets. Plus there are no bears in South Africa, so they are unfamiliar even to me. But apparently this is a common occurrence in rural America, as we’ve discovered in recent weeks. 

The bears aren’t only massive, they have huge claws, sharp teeth, run at 30 miles per hour, climb trees, and even swim well! So if a bear attacks you, there’s pretty much no escape other than praying to G-d to save you. 

But here’s the thing. The first time I saw this bear, I was terrified. But after speaking to the locals and doing my own research, it turns out these bears are actually quite timid and are probably more afraid of us than we are of them. Black bears are not grizzly bears or brown bears. They are quite gentle. 

Black bears are ruled by fear and food—in that order. Researchers are frequently surprised by how cautious these powerful animals are in response to the tiny rustling sounds of squirrels, mice, or birds. They are known to have retreated from butterflies, mallards, even a moth! Hunters can chase the biggest black bears with their smallest hounds, and many small, yapping dogs have chased black bears out of yards. Bear Center researchers have never encountered a black bear they couldn’t chase away. 

This weekend we celebrate the 12th of Tammuz, the day the Previous Rebbe was freed from imprisonment at the hand of the Soviets. Stalin forbade any kind of Torah study. Shuls, mikvahs, and yeshivas were not allowed to operate. Observance of the mitzvos was strictly prohibited. But the Previous Rebbe stood up to the raging beast of communism, confident and unafraid. Stalin killed millions of people, but the Rebbe knew the truth. He knew that G-d runs the world and he stood steadfast and strong even when arrested and tortured. Not once did he waver. Today, 92 years later, as we celebrate the Rebbe’s release from prison, we see the truth. The Soviet Union is long gone, Stalin is now remembered as one of history’s worst mass murderers, but Torah, Judaism, Chabad, the Rebbe’s legacy and chassidim—we are all still here and still going strong. 

What’s the message for us?

At times, it seems like our challenges are insurmountable. There is so much fear and anxiety in the world right now. But it’s like the ferocious-looking bear that is gentle at heart: We really have little to fear, as long as we realize that G-d runs the world. None of it can affect our souls. Our souls are part of G-d; they are eternal and untouchable. So instead of allowing fear and anxiety to consume us, let’s focus on strengthening our connection to G-d, so that when the beast of anxiety rears its ferocious head, we can talk it down and remind ourselves that we are safe, things will work out, and He has a plan that will ultimately be to our benefit.  

Coronavirus Is Over - Yay!

This week I Googled, “When will the coronavirus end?” and received no fewer than 5.2 billion results! My next question, “When is the coronavirus vaccine coming out?” narrowed it down to a mere 1.7 billion.  

Considering every conversation we have these days is about our fears and concerns over the great unknown… it’s hardly surprising that we’re all fruitlessly Googling the same questions. 

This week I found myself preparing our annual calendar, as I do every summer. Only this year, I don’t know where to start. When should we schedule our annual gala? Will we even be able to have a gala? What kind of Simchat Torah should we prepare for? Will we be able to have our usual High Holiday services? Which Friday nights will we be able to host community meals? What theme should our Purim party be? Each year we plan these events meticulously and mail out a schedule in September so people have ample time to prepare and save the dates. But this time, I found myself putting down, “I don’t know!” “I have no clue” and “no idea!” Question mark after question mark after question mark… 

It was one thing when the end of the year was in sight; not knowing from March till June was manageable, but now as we head into a new year, the not knowing feels insurmountable. 

One of the things we cherish most is control. Even those who aren’t usually Type A personalities are realizing just how much we are used to feeling in control. We feel at ease when we have plans. Having a vacation on the calendar makes it easier to get through the stressful winter. Knowing our job is stable, knowing which schools our kids will be attending at each stage, and what kind of party we’ll be making for their bar and bat mitzvahs in three years time gives us the sense of stability we all crave, whether we realize it or not. 

But at this point it’s been nearly four months since we had any clue what to expect, or any possibility of planning for the near or distant future, and we’re feeling the effects. 

So when will the coronavirus end? Whenever you decide! It’s that simple. You can end it right now if you want.  

You see, what we don’t realize is that we were never actually in control. Even when we feel like we are, it’s just an illusion. The only one running the world is G-d, so breathe deeply, meditate, contemplate His existence, place your trust in Him and let Him lead. You’ll be astounded by how quickly your fears and anxieties are allayed! 

I can assure you that the worldwide coronavirus will only end when the One Who is truly in control chooses, in His infinite wisdom, to end it. But we can end it right now for ourselves by placing our full trust in Him. 

This week we marked the 26th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. One of the things the Rebbe emphasized again and again, in all his talks, letters, and private audiences, is the importance of placing our trust in G-d and thinking positively. When we think optimistically, we can actually generate the positive outcome we’re hoping for. 

As I write this article, the news headlines read, “US sees single day record of coronavirus cases, suggesting the sacrifices made by millions of Americans were in vain,” “COVID-19 outbreaks are popping out across American farms,” “United States of Infected,” “World Putting America in Quarantine,” and “Houston Facing Apocalyptic July 4th.”

As Shabbat begins this evening, I look forward to turning off my phone for 25 hours and disconnecting from the onslaught of anxiety-inducing media. But we don’t have to wait for Shabbat. We can shut out the noise and the headlines every day, by placing our trust in the One Above. Let yourself have that experience, this week and beyond. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Would The Rebbe's Message To The World Be?

Dear Rebbe,

I miss you. It's been 26 long years since we last saw you, and more than ever, we need you now. We need your voice, your leadership, your far-reaching and unconditional love.

What would you say if we could hear you speak? What message would you convey to us and to the rest of the world? I try to imagine. 

You’d see the chaos and unrest on the streets of New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. You’d see the boarded up stores, the angry protestors, the rioting and the looting. 

But you’d look deeper. 

You’d see the frustration and exhaustion, years in the making, that are bursting to the fore. You’d listen, really listen, and understand how fed up with the system people are. You’d gaze into the eyes of ordinary Americans and feel their immense dissatisfaction with the leadership, being locked down with no income for over three months, and you would recognize the deep and growing—seemingly unbridgeable—divide in this country. 

Dear Rebbe, I have lived with your teachings every day for the last 26 years, reading and re-reading your talks and letters, and I can picture you addressing us at a farbrengen this very Shabbos. 

While I don’t know exactly what you would say, I know you would reassure us. Your words would both calm and empower us. You would remind us that there is a Master to this Universe, Who is choreographing every move. You would emphasize the importance of good and the power of each individual to effect change. 

You would teach us to alter our perceptions and look beyond the surface. Beyond the frustration, we would see hope. Beyond the exasperation, resilience. Beyond the anger, determination to change. And beyond the hatred, we would see deep love for humankind and a desire to better the world for everyone. 

You would bring the kind of clarity we can only dream of! 

I know you’d tell us not to panic at the thought of the second wave that medical experts are predicting. You’d remind us that G-d is in charge, and you’d inspire us to place our full trust in Him. You’d encourage us to think positively, because doing so can actually change our reality. 

Dear Rebbe, I hear your voice in my head. I hear you crying at this bitter exile from which we have not yet broken free. I can hear you insisting—demanding!—that G-d send the immediate redemption. 

I can imagine your message to the world: Hang tight! We are at the very last moment of darkness; redemption is within reach, when we will understand that the chaos is just part of the Divine plan, and we will watch all the pieces fall into place.

Looking forward to reuniting with you physically real soon!

Rabbi Uriel Vigler 

Stuck Without Gas on the West Side Highway

This past Sunday I was sitting on my couch when a text flashed across my screen with a message from Rabbi Chaim Alevsky, a friend and colleague on the Upper West Side. Two teachers from Chabad of the West Side, Shternie Bulua and Dorit Gafni, were stranded on the West Side highway, their car stalled in the middle of traffic. Was anyone in the area and available to help?
 
I must say, my initial reaction was: “How does one get stuck in 2020, in NYC where there are gas stations everywhere, without gas? Can you not check your gas meter? There’s even a flashing light that warns you when you’re running low!” 
 
But within seconds I remembered that I had found myself in the exact same predicament just a few months ago: stuck without gas at Lexington and 92nd, despite the ample warning my car gave me!
 
We humans are so skilled at identifying faults in others, but more often than not, we are blind to our own. This was a powerful reminder for me to love others as we love ourselves. When I was in the same situation, I didn’t blame myself. I just filled up and went on with my day. 
 
Once that registered, I decided to jump in and see if I could help. I wasn’t in the area, but I posted on our community WhatsApp group, and within seconds my dear friend Shay Zach offered to help. He was on the Upper West Side, heading downtown, and was happy to stop and assist. I put him in touch with Rabbi Alevsky, who put him in touch with the stranded women, and sure enough, he found them, gave them a ride to the gas station, and they were on their way. 
 
I learned a couple of lessons from this story.
 
At first I wanted to ignore the message. I was happy to let someone else do the mitzvah. Helping takes time and effort and I was in my comfort zone. But that is a battle we face every moment of our lives. The good and evil inclinations are constantly at war. The evil inclination thinks only of itself; the good one wants to do the right thing, even when it’s difficult or time-consuming. 
 
A mitzvah and a sin both have an “oy!” and an “ahhh!” component; the difference is in the timing. While doing the sin, it’s so pleasurable that you feel “ahhh,” but when you realize what you’ve done, you’re hit with the “oy!” When you do a mitzvah, on the other hand, it’s hard, and you first grapple with the “oy!” But when it’s done, you can enjoy the “ahhh!”—the good feeling that comes from knowing you did the right thing. 
 
Going out of one’s way to help a stranger takes effort, but the reward is immense. Now, in my case, I hardly did a thing. It took minimal effort—just a phone call and a text. For Shay, it was about 30 minutes out of his day—a more significant contribution. And I can tell you that he definitely got a boost from the encounter. This pleasure that we experience when we help others is better than any Netflix show can make us feel … try it and see! 
 
When I talked to Shay afterwards, he told me how thankful he is for life slowing down these last few months. Pre-Corona he would have ignored the message, sure that he didn’t have time to help. But with nowhere to rush back to, he was happy to step in. “I hope to take this lesson back to my life even when things ramp up again: Slow down and help others along the way.”        
 
And when you help others, you won’t lose out, G-d promises. In this case, when Shay told the women he’s involved in packing and distributing packages to healthcare workers, they offered to come and help, so it’s a clear win-win all around. 

Miracle at the Rebbe's Ohel

Going to the Rebbe’s Ohel in Queens gives me a tremendous boost of energy. It enables me to really connect and focus, and before COVID-19 hit I prayed there at least twice a month. 

This week, I went again, weighed down by the overwhelming financial burden our Chabad center is facing. All our programs are on hold, and as the economy has taken a dive so has fundraising. Even for those who are still able to give, it’s very hard to solicit people when both parties are in quarantine. So much of fundraising needs to be done in person. It’s tough. 

As I prayed, I had a very large number in mind to cover immediate debt. But where could that possibly come from at a time like this?

And then—I kid you not—the phone rang. 

I had one psalm remaining and the caller ID said “restricted number.” In the era of sophisticated spam calls I rarely answer the phone unless I recognize the number, but since I was at the Ohel I took the plunge. Lo and behold, it was my friend Ilan*.

“Hi Ilan, how are you? What’s going on? It’s been a while.” 

We made small talk for a few minutes and then he got to the point. 

“It’s been a while since we connected, and I’d like to give your Chabad center some charity,” he explained. 

I’m always touched when people think of us, especially in hard times, but when I heard how much he wanted to give us, I couldn’t believe it. 

It was the exact amount I needed plus ten percent

Wow! I was blown away. This felt like a genuine miracle! 

I said, “Ilan, do you know where I am right now? I’m at the Ohel!” And he started to cry on the phone. 

I hesitated before sharing this story. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s personal. I’m exposing myself. But if it inspires one more person to go to the Ohel, to pray to G-d and connect with the Rebbe, it’s worth it, especially in these uncertain times. 

The Talmud talks about one “who believes in G-d and so he plants.” Planting will naturally yield results. The farmer’s hard labor will be rewarded when he eats the resulting fruit. So why must he believe in G-d and pray for success? The Talmud explains that all our financial worries and successes come from G-d, even when the delivery appears natural. 

Yes, we are living in treacherous and uncertain times. We’ve been in isolation for almost three months, hundreds of thousands have been sick, and now we’re seeing civil unrest on an unprecedented scale. The entire world seems to be in turmoil. But as our forefather Abraham discovered, there is a Master of this universe and He is in charge. It’s His job to sustain us and bring us to better times. We need to strike a balance between surrendering to Him and creating natural pathways for His blessings. 

I am so grateful to my friend Ilan for his incredible generosity, and to G-d for sending the blessings through him. But I cannot relax yet. This check only takes care of the immediate issues; I will be back at the Ohel next week with a lot more on my mind. Will you join me? 

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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