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Mr. Mayor, I love you!

Dear Esteemed Mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai,

I must thank you. You have succeeded in a way that I, as a Chabad rabbi, have not. Jews all over the world are putting on tefillin at an unprecedented rate, in reaction to your policy. It’s called Operation Ron. Even here in Manhattan, Jews who have never done this mitzvah before are stopping me on the street and asking me to help them.
 
So I’m grateful to you. But you’ve also made me happy on a personal level. Allow me to explain.
 
As a yeshiva student in Kfar Chabad in 1998, I studied from 7:00am – 11:00pm every day, but Friday afternoons we closed our books and hit the streets, tefillin in hand. My 250 colleagues and I would spread out across Tel Aviv, erect temporary “tefillin stands,” and spend hours trying to entice people to don the tefillin and say the shema with us.
 
The people who passed us generally fell into three categories:
 
1.     Our weekly clients, always happy to see us and grateful for the opportunity to pray and do this important mitzvah. On average, we probably had about 70 of these steady clients.
2.     The handful of angry ones who stopped to shout and spew venom at us, telling us we have no right to stand in public putting tefillin on people.
3.     The vast majority who simply ignored us, walking right past, taking no notice of our pleas. These were the toughest clients, the ones who made us question if we were wasting the precious time we had taken off from our learning.  
 
You, Mr. Mayor, fell staunchly into the third category. You became mayor in 1998 and walked past our stands dozens (if not hundreds) of times, and always ignored us.
 
Ironically, we preferred the people who yelled at us to the people who blindly walked past. When someone cares enough to work up the anger and shout, it means they are, in some way, affected. Something has touched them so deeply it has triggered a response. Consider when one spouse yells at the other. Yelling back is not ideal, but it’s certainly better than ignoring the spouse completely. Responding in some way demonstrates that you have a relationship, even if you vehemently disagree with the other person’s behavior.
 
Every Jew has a soul, a neshama, deep within, but often that soul is buried under layers of dirt and grime. Sometimes it’s so covered up it cannot be touched. Rage, frustration, anger, even mild irritation—all show that the soul has been reached. You, Mr. Mayor, were the cold type who walked right past our stands for 22 years, ignoring our pleas for you to put on tefillin. For 22 years we tried to penetrate the layers of dirt and reach your soul, but for 22 years you continued to ignore us.
 
But now, finally, you have moved up a category. By coming out so publicly against our tefillin stands, you have demonstrated that you do care—deeply! After 22 years, we’ve touched you. We’ve reached your soul. We know now that our work was not in vain.
  
And I know, with full confidence, that you will eventually move up yet again, this time into a category-one client, and become a stead tefillin-donner. And when you do, Mr. Mayor, please be sure to send me a selfie at your local Chabad stand. I’m looking forward to it!
 
Yours truly,
 
Rabbi Uriel Vigler
Manhattan NY

Coronavirus: Let’s Infect the Whole World!

As I took the NYC subway this week, I noticed multiple people wearing masks, presumably in response to the coronavirus, and I thought to myself, “I should get one of those too!”

By now scientists are pretty sure the coronavirus originated with a single person who ate pangolin meat in Wuhan, China. Currently, 60,000 people are infected and 1,370 have died. 

Think about it: One individual, whose name we do not know, in a province in China that most of us had never heard of, eats meat from the pangolin—a mammal that is also unfamiliar to most of us—creating mass hysteria and a new disease termed COVID-19 with which we are ALL now very familiar. 

The actions of this single person have rippled across the entire world, creating massive waves of fear and panic. In Japan, 3000 people are stuck on a cruise, forced to spend 23 hours per day inside their rooms. Tens of thousands are stuck in makeshift hospitals in China without adequate medical care. Millions are afraid to travel by airplane, and dozens of countries have limited or entirely refused to accept flights originating from China. Almost every country in the world is feeling the impact. The coronavirus has already caused billions of dollars in damage and has the potential to reach trillions. 

Our sages teach that the power of goodness and kindness is infinitely stronger than the power of evil. “A little light dispels much darkness” is not merely an adage, it is the starting point from which we can transform the entire world. 

And so, I ask you: 

If one anonymous individual eating pangolin meat can unintentionally cause so much fear and panic across the world, can you imagine how much intentional love you and I can spread across the world by doing one mitzvah—eating kosher meat?

Just like patient zero in Wuhan, nobody knows our names and nobody sees us doing the mitzvot, but we can still have a massive effect on the rest of the world. Our mitzvot—eating kosher meat, or anything else—spread out into the world creating ripple effects whose end result we ourselves may never know.   

The coronavirus may be an invisible monster, but our sages tell us that when we do mitzvot, we create invisible angels that fan out across the universe. So let’s get out there and start infecting the world with goodness and kindness. There is no place for quarantine here!

Scared Triplets!

I recently noticed that whenever our triplets walk from the bedroom to the hallway they make sure to step over the threshold. Never on it. And once I noticed, I couldn’t un-notice it! It’s cute the way they avoid it, but I felt compelled to find out why.

I watched them toddle through every other doorway in the house with no qualms. It was only this particular threshold that they painstakingly avoided. But this week, I finally discovered the reason: residual fear!

A few months ago, there was a tiny nail sticking out of the floor right in that spot, which we discovered when they stepped on it and hurt themselves. That doorway now instinctively reminds them of that experience, and they automatically step over it.

Even when I try to coax them to step on the floor there, knowing the nail is long gone and they will not hurt themselves, they still avoid it. It’s a reminder of the past they cannot yet overcome.

It made me think of this week’s Torah portion, when the Jews find themselves facing the Red Sea after G-d virtually decimated their Egyptian captors with the 10 plagues. Finally free, they now found their path forward blocked by the Red Sea, with the Egyptians hot on their tail. They were trapped and afraid, divided as to how to proceed. Some wanted to die by drowning in the sea, some others preferred to return to Egypt in surrender. Still others wanted to try to fight the Egyptians, while another group felt they should drop everything and pray for Divine salvation.

To all these groups, G-d said, “Move forward!” Don’t give up, don’t be distracted by a fight, and don’t return to Egypt; just march ahead.

And that’s something we can all apply to our own lives anytime we’re afraid (which is pretty often for most of us!). Perhaps we’re afraid of committing to marriage, jumping into a new job, opening a business, having another child, taking on a religious commitment… It’s normal to feel afraid, and almost always the fear is based on a prior negative experience that is imprinted on our psyche and tries to prevent us from forging ahead.

But that’s exactly what G-d wants us to do. Go! Overcome your fears. March forward. Push past those negative experiences and take a chance. Commit. You’ll be surprised to see just how much you can accomplish when you learn to let go of the fear. 

Farewell, My Friend Charles

I’ve officiated many funerals and given numerous eulogies in my time as rabbi, but it’s different when it’s a good friend. And looking around the packed room this week at Charles’s funeral, it struck me that everyone there considered Charles a close friend; he had that unique ability to reach out and connect with each person intimately. 

An infant comes into this world with its fists clenched, signifying its intent to conquer the world, explains the Talmud. When we pass, however, our hands are open, showing that we can take none of the power, riches, or fame into the next world. Only the good deeds we performed during our lifetime accompany us, and Charles had no shortage of those.

He joined our shul as a founding member 15 years ago, and as long as he was in the city he never missed a Shabbat. In fact, he beat me to shul every week, and before we began services he would stand before the ark and have his own private moment of deep connection with G-d.

Every week he brought a bottle or two of scotch for the kiddush. He never arrived empty-handed. Even after he had been diagnosed with the disease that ultimately took his life, he kept coming to shul, scotch in hand, making sure we finished at exactly 11:30am. When we finished on time or ran a few minutes early, we were rewarded with his beaming smile. When we didn’t, he would point to his watch and give me “the look.” Since he was such a devoted member, I did my best to stick to the timeline!

Charles was the one who looked out for others and made sure everyone felt comfortable. One Friday night the conversation was going on in Hebrew, but Charles turned around and noticed that there was a congregant present who does not speak or understand Hebrew, and he immediately switched to English. I later heard from that person just how good it made him feel. This was Charles - always conscious of others, making sure no one felt excluded or uncomfortable.

And he cared deeply for our shul. Before the High Holidays, year after year, he would let me know he’d had all the talleisim cleaned and hired a professional cleaner to come in and take care of our carpets. Anyone else would hand me a check and say, “Here, rabbi, you get it done,” but Charles wasn’t like that. He rolled up his sleeves and got to work himself.

Years ago, I walked into shul on Shabbat mevarchim and told Charles I was a few minutes late because I had recited the entire book of Tehillim per Chabad custom, which takes over two hours. “Oh,” he exclaimed. “I read the entire Tehillim every Shabbat morning!”

Charles was rushed to the hospital on Simchat Torah this year, and just two nights prior, on Hoshana Raba, he asked me what he needs to recite. I explained that it’s traditional to say the entire book of Devarim as well as the whole Tehillim. I was shocked the next day when he casually informed me that it had taken him six hours, but he’d said all of it!

Charles was someone who loved life. He loved people. He loved their company. He loved living. He loved his family. He was deeply devoted to his wife Gili and their children Jade, Brittany, and Courtney, may they find comfort in due time.

My dear friend Charles, as you move on to the next world, may the kindness and warm feelings you generated here in this world, accompany you, and may all the mitzvot you did stand you in good stead. We will miss you deeply, but we take comfort in knowing that the heavenly court is welcoming you with open arms.

Moving Day

Last week we hired a moving company to pack us up and move our Chabad center to its new location. As thrilling as the prospect of a new and larger space was, I found the experience bittersweet.

I knew we had to move. We had long outgrown our previous space, and would now have nearly double the capacity. For years we had been turning away families we will now be able to accommodate. I’d been working in an office that didn’t even have space for a second chair for meetings. So this move was long overdue, and we’d been able to design the new space to our specifications. We are moving onwards and upwards; this was the sweetness.

But there was also a tinge of sadness as we said goodbye to the space that had housed us for 12 wonderful years. It was painful to watch the movers packing up 12 years of memories. We met so many people here, accomplished so much. So many meetings, so many celebrations, so many mitzvot, so many Jewish families. The space served us well for many years.

So it was with mixed emotions that I watched the movers pack it all up.

It’s easy to become comfortable and attached to the familiar, even when better things await.

After 210 years of slavery in Egypt, it was time for the Jews to leave. Moses repeatedly asks Pharaoh to let them go. He doesn’t ask for freedom; he asks for three days in the desert. Common belief is that he thought Pharaoh couldn’t handle the thought of true freedom, but the real reason Moses asked for three days was for the Jews. He knew it would be difficult for them to leave Egypt. They had been slaves, exhausted and brutalized, but still there was comfort in the familiarity, and Moses knew that. Even though he told them they would only be leaving for three days, 80% of the Jews refused to go along!

This is the story of our lives. It’s normal. We get comfortable where we are. But we cannot stay in our comfort zones. We need to push ourselves ahead, as difficult as it may be. Think about your life and where you can push through. If you’re comfortable davening once a day, try adding a second tefillah. If you’re comfortable with the amount of tzeddakah you’re currently giving, push yourself to give a bit more. If you only wear your kippah in certain environments, push yourself to wear it in places that may feel less comfortable. If you usually only keep kosher in the home, try keeping it outside too.

Every day is moving day when it comes to our spiritual lives.

This is also what Moshiach is all about. The thought of leaving our current lives and reaching for Redemption may feel uncomfortable, but we need to embrace the move and prepare for it imminently.

Coffee Check

Two weeks ago my friend Yankel*, who’s had a rough year, gave me a call. Yankel is a lawyer and for some reason 2019 was a hard year for him financially. He asked to meet with me on December 31st, and imagine my surprise when he presented me with a check for $1800! I was stunned. I knew that was a huge amount of money for him. I’ve known him for long enough to know how generous he is, but I also knew it had been a challenging year for him monetarily, so how or why was he donating $1800?! 

He explained that he had been listening when I talked about tzedakah in my High Holiday sermon. I mentioned that everyone is obligated to give something, regardless of their financial situation. Young, old, rich, poor… no one is exempt. And it led him to wonder how he could give. 

I was definitely pleased and touched that at least one person listened to my sermon and was even moved to do something practical!  

So how did he pull it off?

Yankel loves his coffee. Any coffee lover knows how important that caffeine is for your day! I mean, I love my morning coffee, too. But Yankel does not drink just any coffee: he relishes the fresh coffee he buys from his favorite coffee shop in Brooklyn for $5.50 every day.

So he made a calculation. Let me sacrifice my coffee in order to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah. 

And he did.

Instead of the delicious store-bought coffee, he has been drinking instant coffee in his office. It doesn’t taste the same, but the joy he received when he was able to give that charity tasted better than any $5.50 coffee ever could. 

Moreover, when he told his wife Rochel* what he was doing, she joined him in his effort and together they saved $11 per day, leading them to present me with the $1800 check on December 31st!

I was absolutely speechless. Not only did he listen to my sermon and take it to heart, he sacrificed every single day to fulfill this important mitzvah. It’s incredible. 

In Kabalistic terminology, this is known as “iskafya.” Iskafya is the term we use when a person sacrifices for a mitzvah. It’s the term we use when someone stretches beyond the norm, beyond the regular, to do a mitzvah. Exactly what my friend Yankel did.

Chassidism teaches that when a person has iskafya, it draws G-d’s Divine presence down into this world. It is the most powerful expression a person can do.

So my message to Yankel is, thank you! In the merit of his tremendous sacrifice, I wish him and his wife good health, success, nachas from their family, and financial freedom in 2020 and beyond. 

*Names changed to protect privacy.

We’re Being Evicted?! But Why?

 Almost two years ago, on February 14, 2018, I received a notice that we had 30 days to vacate our Chabad center. We had been occupying our Chabad center for 10 years, where we had established a thriving Chabad center and preschool. The eviction notice caught me entirely by surprise and I consulted with lawyers as to our options.

It soon became apparent that this was the work of a disgruntled neighbor who disliked children and had used every opportunity to undermine us from day one. As the saying goes, “Every good rabbi must have an enemy combatant,” and we certainly had ours.

There is nothing in this world that is not Divinely ordained. Everything comes from G-d, even an eviction notice from a disgruntled neighbor.

And so I asked myself, what does G-d want?

Now, although we had established a thriving preschool, we had also run out of space. Every year we had to turn away many families whom we simply could not accommodate. And every year we’d been telling ourselves we need to move, but with Manhattan prices and the dearth of available spaces, finding a place was next to impossible. In fact, I wasn’t even sure which was harder—finding the money or finding an appropriate space! Neither seemed doable.

But when this eviction notice and subsequent lawsuit came, we had to take a closer look and ask ourselves what G-d really wants. And it was clear that the time had come to search aggressively.

So I called our trusted broker, and told her we need to find something ASAP. And guess what? We started re-examining spaces that we would have dismissed previously. We eventually found a place that had issues, but could work. Had we not been facing a pending lawsuit, we would have never negotiated so aggressively, and we most certainly would not have signed the deal.

It took us 10 months to locate a space and negotiate the lease, and another 14 months to do the construction and receive the permits. Thank G-d we were blessed with incredible friends—architects, lawyers, expeditors, and contractors. And through it all we’ve been in court, negotiating.

But not for one second did we think that this was anything but the work of G-d. Even when we were forced to make tough decisions and compromises, we knew it was all from G-d. His messengers come in mysterious ways!

Was the lawsuit a bother? Absolutely! Was it a pain in the neck? For sure. Was it a headache? An aggravation? Most definitely. But there is also no way we would have pushed ourselves so hard to work through this exhausting process to find a new space had we not been forced.

And the result? Well, it’s been two years and we have finally received our final permits. It’s brand new, state of the art, and built exactly the way we wanted. Best of all, it’s double the size we had until now, which means we can accommodate so many families we previously had to turn away.

We look forward to sharing many occasions and blessings in our new facility, at 1766 2nd Ave.

It Doesn't Matter What The Goyim Say, It Matters What the Jews Do!

I love jew.jpgIt has become blatantly obvious that we are witnessing a full-fledged epidemic of Anti-Semitic attacks. In the last week alone, there has been at least one incident each day. For the first time in modern US history, Jews are afraid to shop at kosher stores, afraid to go to shul, afraid to send their kids to Jewish schools. Simply walking around dressed Jewishly is making people uneasy, cautious, and frightened.

David Ben Gurion said, “It doesn’t matter what the non-Jews say, it matters what the Jews do.”

So, what will we do? How will we respond?

 Yes, we need to demand apologies, sign petitions, and organize protests. We need to insist on a sustained, get-tough, zero-tolerance policy by local and state officials. We need a policy that takes each incident equally seriously. Anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism, and should not be tolerated, no matter who the perpetrator is.

But what else can we do to combat this toxic undercurrent seeping through society?

First, we need to understand and recognize the root cause of the hatred.

We know they don’t hate us because we’re successful; Jews have been persecuted back in the shtetls when they had nothing at all. They don’t hate us for being poor, because wealthy Jews have never been exempt.

They don’t hate us because we established the State of Israel; Hitler killed 6 million of us before that ever happened. There is nothing we can point to and say, “That’s why! That’s why they hate us. If we fix or change that, there’ll be no more anti-Semitism.”

Anti-Semitism is irrational. It’s a hatred that has always existed, and will continue as long as we remain in exile. There is no reason. It simply is.

So what should we do in the face of the current crisis? How can we combat the hatred staring us down?

 As counterintuitive as it might seem, by being prouder Jews!

They hate us? They hate Judaism? Well, let’s examine our own love for it. Do we feel it with a fiery passion? How can we reignite that, instill it in our children, awaken it in our friends, and show it off proudly?

By increasing our Jewish engagement.

Commit to putting on tefillin daily, and when you say Shema, remind yourself of your eternal and everlasting link to your ancestors, all the way back to Abraham. Picture the unbroken chain connecting you; it’s powerful!

Commit to lighting Shabbat candles every single week, and when you do, picture the light dispelling evil and hatred from the world. A small amount of light dispels great darkness. You may not see the significance of your two candles, but they are powerful!

Log on to Chabad.org and study Torah. Educate yourself and your children, reignite that passion and love for G-d and His Torah.

We have to be a light unto the nations. We have to inspire each other to be strong in our Jewish observance and proud of our identity. We cannot cower and hide away in fear. We must stand strong, proud, and united; it is the only way to fight the current upsurge in anti-Semitism.

We’re about to conclude the best decade in human history.

best decade ever.jpgIt’s hard to see in the moment, when we’re consumed by the constant churning of events. But now that it’s over, we can step out, look back, and analyze what really happened in the past 10 years.

There are two ways to look at it: From our own perspective, and through G-d’s lens.

From our view, a lot has gone on. There have been massive milestones and terrible catastrophes. Technology has accelerated beyond what we could have imagined. In 2010 Uber and Instagram launched, and it’s now hard to remember a time before they existed. Islamic State leaders Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr el Baghdadi were killed. The World population reached 7 billion people.

We’ve also struggled through devastating earthquakes and hurricanes, and the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. There have been far too many devastating mass shootings and terror attacks, including Sandy Hook elementary, Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, Charlie Hedbo in Paris, the Boston Marathon, Orlando, Las Vegas, Chabad of Poway, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the shooting in Jersey City last week.

Although it seems terrible and chaotic to us, from G-d’s perspective things look very different. There is a plan, a Boss, and reason for every event.

Of course, there were times that we clearly saw G-d’s intervention. Like when 12 young boys and their soccer coach were rescued from the cave in Thailand after being stuck for two weeks, or when two 16-year old students went missing in thick forest terrain in Florida, and were found safely the next day. Or for me personally, when my triplets were born, or when the entire Jewish world celebrated the bar mitzvah of Moishy Holzberg who survived the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

But from G-d’s perspective, all the other happenings—the ones we can’t understand—are connected, deliberate, and ultimately good.  

We don’t see it, but to G-d there are clear connections between Occupy Wall Street and the Pokemon Go craze; the murder of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali who were kidnapped in Israel in 2014, and the Arab Spring that sprung up across the Middle East; the election of Donald Trump and the ALS Ice Bucket challenge; the royal wedding and the world’s obsession with the gorilla Harambe…

So, when will we see the connection? When will we finally have the clarity to connect the dots and understand these events for what they really are? When will we look back at the dark and confusing moments and recognize G-d’s presence and purpose?

When the Baal Shem Tov asked Moshiach, “When are you coming?” he replied, “When your well springs shall be disseminated.” Over the past decade we have created unprecedented levels of access to Jewish learning. Chabad.org, WhatsApp, TorahCafe, and so many other sites are replete with free Jewich classes on virtually every subject.

So we are getting closer.

And when that time comes, we will be able to connect the dots and see how this was truly the Master Plan, even though it may not seem that way now.

This decade has brought us so much closer to the coming of Moshiach; without doubt, it has been the greatest 10 years in human history. 

Jersey City – Let’s All Target Kosher Supermarkets!

Leah Mindel Ferencz. Moshe Deutsch. Douglas Miguel Rodriguez. Detective Joseph Seals. Don’t just read their names; stop and say them out loud. Think about them. Their lives brutally ended far too early. Think about their families—their parents, children, friends, extended family… the number of people affected extends far beyond the four victims.

The Jersey City attack this week is one of the deadliest against Jews in U.S. history. Had the perpetrators succeeded in detonating the pipe bomb found in their truck, the carnage would have been even worse.

My dear brother-in-law Rabbi Moshe Z Schapiro runs the Chabad center in Hoboken and Jersey City with his wife, Shaindel. He often frequents the J.C. Grocery store where the attack took place, and regularly prays at the synagogue next door. He knew the victims and told me they were the loveliest individuals, full of life, who enjoyed providing kosher food to the locals—a vital service for any burgeoning Jewish community.

Surveillance footage shows undeniably that this was a targeted attack. The perpetrators can be seen driving through the city without stopping or shooting indiscriminately. Even when they jump out of the truck, they bypass everyone on the street and head straight for the store, where they sent out a hail of bullets, killing three and seriously injuring a fourth.

How do we respond to such devastation? To being clearly targeted by cold-blooded, anti-Semitic murderers?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught us to transform our pain and tears into action.

Although the temptation may be to avoid Jewish places - like shuls and kosher stores - we should do the opposite. Jews all over the world should make a point to patronize their local Jewish businesses and institutions.

Yes, there are challenges in keeping kosher, but if anti-Semites targeted kosher supermarkets, so can we—with love and support and our pocketbooks.

They went out of their way to find the kosher grocery; we can do the same. Wherever you live, seek out that store. And if you can’t find one, contact your local Chabad center and they’ll be happy to connect you with their suppliers.

This is how we can avenge the blood of our brothers and sisters, and fight the evil monstrosity that allowed this to happen. We pray for healing and comfort for all the families who have lost their loved ones.

Together with the Greenville Jewish community, Chabad of Jersey City has set up an emergency fund to help support the families of the victims. Please donate generously at www.JerseyCityVictims.com. May G-d avenge their blood.

Help! Triplets Locked in the Bathroom!

It was Shabbat morning and my one-year-old triplets were messing about—playing, laughing, giggling… nothing out of the norm. Their favorite hangout these days seems to be the bathroom, and two of them disappeared inside. Before we knew it, we heard the door slam. We jumped up and ran over, but just as we got there, they locked themselves inside.

To get them out, we tried talking through the door, coaxing the one who had turned the lock to do it now in the opposite direction. Alas, although he had managed to figure out how to lock himself (and his sister!) inside, he was unable to extricate himself. In the meantime, his sister started to cry. 

This was a classic case of pikuach nefesh, when one is not only allowed but actually obligated to violate the Shabbat. So I called the building super who dashed over and broke the lock and the door, enabling us to get the kids out. Whew!

After we calmed the kids (and ourselves!), I started to think, isn’t this the story of our lives? We get ourselves stuck in bad habits but struggle to extricate ourselves. Sometimes it seems like we really cannot get out at all. 

It’s easy to get into the habit of waking up late, but it’s a lot harder to get back on track. It’s easy to get used to running late; it’s far harder to become punctual. We can complain and complain, but how do we actually fix it? It’s no secret most of us make endless resolutions to improve our behavior and break bad habits, but how often do we succeed in following through? It’s a lot harder than it seems!  

In this week’s parshah, Yaakov is 63 years old when he is forced to begin a new life, away from everyone he knows and loves, away from his mother and father, and everything that is familiar to him. He has to break his familiar cycle and start new habits elsewhere, in a foreign environment, among people he doesn’t know.

To make such changes after 63 years would require immense effort, he knew. So what did he do? He lifted his eyes Heavenward and says, “G-d, I will do this with your help.” And that’s what we can and should do, too. We need to put forth our best effort, but also acknowledge that we can’t do it without His help. When we humble ourselves, recognize that we are not really in charge, and ask for His help, we can start to make strides in the right direction. Try it; you’ll see it works. 

Locked out of Shul!

LOCKED-OUT-OF-HOME-HOUSTON.jpgWe had just celebrated a month of holidays, which can definitely be called “busy season” for rabbis. Between writing sermons, raising funds, inspiring worshipers, blowing shofar, building sukkot, visiting the ill and housebound, and hosting yom tov meals, there’s nary a minute to breathe. And then the first Shabbat after Simchat Torah we had a huge bat mitzvah celebration.

So I decided to take a Shabbat off.

This may sound like a simple feat, but the arrangements that need to be made make it anything but. I have to ensure there is an assistant rabbi—someone who can give a decent sermon, read from the Torah, and lead the services. I have to call around and make sure there will be a minyan for all services, and I need to order the kiddush and check that it has been delivered.  

I asked my brother, a newly graduated rabbi, to fill in for me, and got to work on the rest of the preparations. I made sure our weekly newsletter and stories were printed for the congregation. I ordered the kiddush and ensured it was delivered. I sent out the times for services. I ran through every detail of the 25 hours to ensure that Shabbat would proceed smoothly in my absence, and then I set off for the weekend.

Just as I was settling in, minutes before candle lighting, my phone rings with an unfamiliar number. I hesitated. Should I pick up or should I ignore it?

It was my brother. “We have a massive problem!” he said.

“Oh no. Don’t tell me…” I groaned.

“When I tried to unlock the shul,” he explained, “the key snapped off. Half is in the lock, half is in my hand, and we can’t get in!”

Are you kidding me, I thought to myself. What on earth am I supposed to do now? There’s no other way to get in! There will be no services!

I began making a series of frantic calls to any locksmith I had in my phone, and any congregants I could think of who might be connected to a locksmith. But time was not on my side. As the 18 minutes ticked by, I came to the sinking realization that even if I found someone now, they would not have enough time to get there and fix the lock before Shabbat.

And that is when I realized that you can prepare and prepare and prepare, you can do everything in your power to ensure that things run smoothly, but ultimately it’s not up to us. We think we are in charge. We think we are the ones making decisions, making money, making plans…but when it comes down to it, there is G-d Almighty who is in charge of the world. He decides; not us. He plans; not us.

So I took a deep breath and let the One Who is truly in charge of the world continue to control it. I turned off my phone for Shabbat and disconnected from the world. What a gift He has given us! No internet, no phone, no Wifi, no stocks, no problems. Just us and G-d and Shabbat. Every week. No distractions.

As for what happened with the shul…one of our congregants managed to use the half key that was still inserted to break the lock and let everyone in. When they left that night, they had to leave the shul open, and when our cleaner arrived the following morning and saw the broken lock she hired her own locksmith, which meant everyone was locked out again the following morning until she arrived with the new key. At the end of the day, all is well! Shul ran in my absence, albeit with some hiccups, and I came back rejuvenated and ready to jump back into rabbi mode.  

5 Things we Learn From the Election

blogisrael.jpgIsrael held an unprecedented election redo this week, making it the second election in a single year.

The Baal Shem Tov, whose birthday we celebrate this week, taught that we can learn a lesson from everything we see. Here are five I’ve taken from the Israeli election that we can all adapt during this spiritual election season as we prepare for the High Holidays.

1. Never underestimate the power of an individual. We see how one individual has the power to decide the fate of an entire country, and on a personal level, the mitzvah of a single Jew can decide the fate of all Jewry forever. Never think that your good deed does not count. It counts and it counts a lot! 

2. In life, you always get a second chance. Just because you did not get the vote the first time around, does not mean you cannot get it the second time. G-d always give us another chance. Even if we sinned the whole year, it’s OK. G-d offers us the opportunity to come back, cast our vote differently, and regain His trust. 

3. Never take your voters for granted; just because they voted for you once does not mean they will vote for you again. Likewise, just because G-d voted for you last year, don’t assume you can sit back and coast through this election season. His vote is not guaranteed.

4. By the time the election rolls around, the candidates are hoarse from lack of sleep and constant campaigning. Politicians work hard, day and night, doing everything in their power to find favor with their voters. We need to work just as hard to curry favor with G-d and secure His vote for the upcoming year.

5. One of the greatest obstacles politicians face is apathy and voter fatigue. Yes, the voter may like the candidate and agree with his or her policies, but that’s not enough. The voter needs to be motivated enough to actually go out and vote on the pivotal day. We also struggle with apathy in our service of G-d, and we need to find ways to overcome that so we can serve Him with joy and vigor. Apathy is dangerous. 

 Each of us wants to go into Rosh Hashanah and say, “You chose us from all the other nations,” but we have to earn it. This is the season. We have the entire month of Elul to campaign and make commitments. We tell G-d we’ll pray more and give charity more generously in the coming year. We repent and hear the shofar every day this month. “Choose us!” we beg G-d. “Give us life, give us health, and make sure all our needs are met. We are worth your vote.”

As for Israel, who will lead? At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. G-d is in charge; He runs the world. We’re just along for the ride. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

“Tatty, There’s a Snake in my Room!”

It was 1:00am.

“Tatty! Tatty!” I hear through layers of heavy slumber.

“Tatty, Tatty, there’s a snake in my room!” my daughter pleads desperately.

Even in my groggy state I was able to articulate, “There is no snake in your room. Go back to bed.”

But she stood her ground. “No, there is a snake! I can’t sleep, Tatty, I’m scared.”

“What makes you think there’s a snake?”

“I can hear it!”

“Did you see it?”

“No, but I can definitely hear it and I cannot go back to my room until you kill it!”

So I got out of my bed, realizing she didn’t wake my wife because apparently I am the superior snake killer in this house. I followed her back to her room and said “OK, show me where the snake is.” But I was not getting off that easy, it seemed. “You find it, Tatty,” she insisted, and she hovered in the doorway watching me.

I went through all her drawers and closets, squeezed under her bed, and searched every nook and cranny of the room until she was satisfied there was no snake. Only then were her anxieties quieted and she was able to go back to sleep (as was I!).

We all have “snakes” in our lives: Fears. Anxieties. Worries. Concerns.

Perhaps you’re afraid of vulnerability or commitment, worried about your children’s futures, anxious about your livelihood, feeling uncertain about your marriage and what the future holds…but you are not alone. We all battle the same “snakes” at one time or another.

So how can we manage our anxieties? Who can we wake at 1:00am to deal with the “snake”?

During the month of Elul, which we have just begun, our Father in Heaven is particularly accessible. During the rest of the year, He is like a king in the palace—harder to reach. But during Elul He is like a king who travels through the fields to meet with his subjects—anybody can speak to Him.

That’s all we need to do. Talk to Him. Trust in him. Share our burdens and supplications with him, and ask him to remove the “snakes” from our lives so we can feel relaxed and energized and serve Him with purpose.

I’m Scared (Terrified!) of Heights

blogvigler.jpegI flew to Montreal on Sunday, to visit my son in camp. You may not know, but I have an intense fear of heights. I stay away from mountains and cliffs, and although I do fly frequently, every time I board a plane I am gripped with fear. Add in a smaller-than-usual aircraft and the fear increases exponentially. 

There is a prayer to say when travelling—Tefillat Haderech, and boy do I concentrate on saying it with the proper intention as the plane leaves the ground...

This time, I was traveling with my 8-year-old son. Thankfully, he has not inherited my fear of heights and requested a window seat so he could have a clear view—something I would never do!

He could not contain his excitement. “Tatty, look how small the cars are! Look at the clouds! See how little those buildings look!” I certainly don’t want to pass my fear on to him, so I forced myself to look and enthuse, all the while silently praying that we don’t crash. 

All I could think was, “What happens if we crash?” As we began our descent, I was busy calculating, “Would this be a safe distance to fall?” until the plane finally touched down and I breathed a sigh of relief. Safe at last. 

So how do I cope? It’s not like I can just avoid flying—I’ve traveled internationally three times in the last two months! I try to lay eyes on the pilot as I board, and I tell myself I have to trust the pilot’s training and experience. I tell myself that it’s safer to fly than to drive, and I try to relax as much as is possible. I don’t think I’ll ever be a calm flier, but I’m managing.

In this week’s haftarah, the prophet Micha describes the Jews as people who don’t rely on man. We rely only on G-d. All of us are on a journey, and we all have fears—health, livelihood, child-rearing...there is no lack of challenges.  

Although, of course, we are expected to make an effort, it’s important to recognize that it is G-d, our pilot, Who provides us with our needs. Yes, we need to go out and work, but ultimately the work doesn’t generate the income—G-d does. Yes, we need to take care of our bodies, see doctors, engage in healthy behaviors, but health is a gift from G-d. It is not a direct result of our efforts.  

No matter what life throws at us, the only one Who can help us is G-d. He is the one we have to turn to—in times of distress, and also in times of plenty. It is our responsibility to have utmost faith that He will take care of us, no matter what challenges come our way.  

So relax on your flight, G-d is the greatest pilot!

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