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Our Triplets Are Turning Three!

Three years ago G-d gave us the greatest blessing any parent could ever wish for: triplets! Our lives changed immeasurably, and we remain eternally grateful and bless Him every day for entrusting us with this gift.

Time has flown; it’s hard to believe they are already turning three. What a journey it has been!

Raising children is never easy, and raising triplets (in addition to five other children) comes with its own unique set of hurdles. Try to imagine ever sleeping again (don’t worry, I can’t either!), bedtime routines, meals, getting everyone out the door in the mornings, family vacations, tuition bills… all are exponentially magnified.

Truth be told, some things were easier when they were infants. Bedtime, for example. At least then when we put them in their cribs they couldn’t get out. Now, they are expert escape artists of the highest order, and we are outnumbered! We put them to bed, say Shema with them, help them relax, stay for a few minutes, but as soon as we leave the room, all three will have jumped out of their beds and are running and dancing excitedly around the house. We tried crib covers and those worked for a few weeks until they figured out how to maneuver their way out of those too. So now I’ve bowed out and handed bedtime over to my wife; somehow she prevails.

But the nachas and joy they give us makes it all worthwhile. In fact, if G-d would bless us with another set of multiples I would again consider it better than winning the billion-dollar powerball!

This week they’ll be reaching an important milestone: turning three. At three, a child’s formal Jewish education begins. Our daughter will begin lighting Shabbat candles every Friday evening and will continue doing so for the rest of her life. And our sons will begin wearing their kippahs and tzitzit at all times.

A child is likened to a tree. Just as a tree needs roots to grow, children need a solid foundation to flourish. And the same way we are instructed to leave fruit trees untouched for the first three years, we leave our sons’ hair uncut for the first three years of their lives. This week, we will be cutting their hair for the first time.

You see, from birth till three a child is a “receiver,” receiving their parents’ love and dedication with little ability to give anything in return. But from the age of three a child transforms into a “giver,” so we begin to educate them and introduce them to the mitzvot they will continue for the rest of their lives. So Avigayil will shepherd light into the world every Friday when she lights Shabbat candles, and Dovid and Yehuda will proudly wear their kippahs and tzitzit from now on. They will all recite blessings and the Shema going forward.

As for all of us who are long past the three-year milestone, it’s a good reminder that life is about giving, not receiving, and we should make it a priority to focus on what we can give to others: How can I improve the world? How can I positively influence those around me? What can I do for G-d? How can I help those in need? There is always something we can do; someone we can benefit.

Please join us on Zoom this Monday evening, January 18, as we celebrate this important occasion.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

My Tennis Injury

As a teenager, I used to play tennis regularly. We had courts at the school I attended, South Africa Torah Academy, and I was quite a good player. So I was pumped to have the opportunity to get back on the court and play against a good friend, Itche*, last week. Exercising one’s body is a Torah requirement, and what could be more kosher than a solid game of tennis with a buddy?

 Unfortunately, I haven’t even touched a tennis racket or ball in at least 25 years, so it took some time to warm up. Soon enough, however, I found myself back in the groove, tapping into the skills I acquired so many years ago. But as I was down 4-0, Itche hit a drop shot and I had to sprint all the way from the back of the court to reach it. As I ran, I must have torn a ligament in my calf, because I instantly fell down in excruciating pain. I literally couldn’t move.

Of course, the game ended then and there, and I figured I would sleep it off and be back up and running the next morning. No dice. I spent the next week hopping to shul, hopping to my office, and certainly doing no running.

Now, thank G-d, I am fine, and can probably even schedule a rematch!

You see, this was bound to happen. I haven’t played in 25 years, haven’t exercised those muscles in the same way, and a short warm up just wasn’t enough. Without regular training, it’s that much harder to play.

The same is true of our souls. We need to keep exercising our spiritual muscles to keep in shape spiritually.

What does that mean?

It means keeping in mind that G-d runs the world. It means taking time each day to contemplate deeply about this concept and realize that every single thing that happens in this world is directly orchestrated by Him. It means making the effort to pray daily, put on tefillin, light Shabbat candles, give tzeddakah, study Torah, and turn off the phone for the 25 hours of Shabbat.

The good news, however, is that even if you haven’t flexed your spiritual muscles in 25 years (or more!), you can still get back into the game. It’s not too late for a win!

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

*Name changed for privacy.

Which Word Best Defines 2020?

Unsurprisingly, Merriam-Webster has chosen “pandemic” as their word of the year. It has been the most researched, analyzed and studied word in all of 2020—a year that has certainly left its mark on the world.  

But may I humbly suggest that perhaps the word “humility” better represents the year we’ve just endured?

If there’s one thing 2020 has hammered into our consciousness, it’s humility.

This time last year, we had grand plans for 2020. Certainly none of us could have predicted what happened next! In fact, as we ushered in the New Year, the pandemic had already begun in China.

As it spread, the world was shaken to its core. We were entirely unprepared; we had no tools to handle the situation foisted upon us. Without doubt, the events of 2020 will feature heavily in history books.

We thought we had the mightiest weapons in our arsenal, including F16s and hydrogen bombs, and then we discovered just how powerless we are against a tiny, invisible virus. Humbling.  

Even as it spread, we thought by summer life would be back to normal. We could send our children to camp and go on our planned vacations. But we discovered that we are not in control. Humbling.

We thought our jobs and income were secure and that we could easily afford our mortgages and rent, only to be shown that our income comes directly from G-d. Humbling.

We put so much thought and planning into choosing the best schools for our children, only to have them home for months on end. Humbling.

This was the year we realized we don’t need theaters, Broadway shows, bars or clubs to entertain ourselves. We can be happy at home with our families.

This was the year we realized that as much as we value our savings and our stocks, at the end of the day health is paramount.  

This was the year we realized we don’t have the answers to life, and that’s ok. G-d does and we surrender ourselves to Him. And, more than ever, we turned to G-d, to prayer, and to Torah study.  

So which word best defines 2020? Humility.

G-d, we are in Your hands. Please be gentle with us as we enter 2021.

Shabbat Shalom and happy new year!

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Yankel’s Tesla!

I woke up at 4am last week to go to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ohel with my dear friend Yankel to pray for abundant blessings. I was outside my house on 92nd street at exactly 4.30am, when he pulled up in a fancy-looking car.   

As I got in, I took stock of the many gadgets—far more buttons than I’m used to, and a massive screen almost as if I were in an airplane, not a car!

Yankel noticed my curiosity and said, “Watch this!” I nearly fainted as he let go of the steering wheel with cars whizzing by on either side smack in the middle of the FDR. At the best of times I am a terrible backseat driver; I need to be the one in control. And here I was in full panic mode, clinging to my seat for dear life! Yes it was 4.30am, but this is NYC and there are always other cars on the road. I was screaming and this Yankel guy was as calm as they get. “Are you crazy?!” I exclaimed. “Hold the steering wheel!”

“Rabbi, this is the latest Tesla,” he calmly explained. “Elon Musk has created the dream car.” He showed me the cameras and explained that its reaction time is actually faster than a human’s and then I saw it with my own eyes: someone cut us off and our Tesla reacted immediately! The car slowed down for traffic lights, recognized construction zones, adjusted for speed limits, and even parked itself. I was astounded. Oh, and the best part is that the car won’t let you sleep. If it senses you’re sleeping, it will wake you up. It also doesn’t allow you to watch its built-in Netflix while in motion. Incredible! 

I was sure there must be a spiritual lesson somewhere in this experience, and I realized that in life we all have to work extremely hard. We toil to make a living, to provide for our families. We wish we could sit back and relax - like in that Tesla - and let our problems leave us and dollar bills miraculously enter our lives. But that’s not how it works. Success only comes with hard work. Nothing is automatic.

The truth, however,  is that G-d is in the driving seat of life, and actually, we can sit back and relax, assured that He is in full control. No panic. No need for nerves. G-d is the boss and fully in control. So when you think life is throwing you a curveball, when things seem totally unfair, remember that you trust the Driver.

As we sit and watch those beautiful burning Chanukah lights, let’s focus on that long-ago but still relevant miracle, where despite all the odds a handful of Jews managed to defeat the mightiest army of their day. How? Because G-d was driving that Tesla!

Happy Chanukah!

I Have A Special Power To Bless You Right Now

It's 2am Monday morning, and I’m participating in the longest Zoom call in history… Chabad rabbis from across the world have been connecting at all hours of day and night, in a call that has been going strong for 120 hours with no sign of letting up. How do I begin to describe the tremendous energy pulsing through the chat? How can I convey the sense of connection we feel, the inspiration we share, the strength of this brotherhood?

It’s 3am on Tuesday morning and there are 651 other Chabad rabbis with me on this call. A rabbi from Florida is sharing a very personal story about his son’s illness. He describes how the doctors had given up all hope. He refused to listen and went to pray at the Rebbe’s ohel. Then he went from doctor to doctor with unyielding faith, and ultimately found a doctor who agreed to operate. Today, thank G-d, his son is well and healthy! The doctor who operated calls it nothing short of a miracle.

It’s 7pm on Tuesday and I am back on the Zoom. There are now 1000 Chabad rabbis in the room with hundreds waiting to join when space allows. This time, a rabbi is sharing the challenges he faced when he first moved to his remote town with his wife and young family. With tremendous faith and blessings from the Rebbe, he persevered, and over the years has built a thriving community.

It’s 4am Wednesday and there are 700 rabbis on the call. A colleague in Europe shares a story of his personal encounter with the Rebbe in the 1980’s which transformed his life.

It’s now Thursday, 10am, and the moderator asks all 750 of us to please say l’chaim and pray for the speedy recovery of a number of ill people, whose names he reads aloud.

None of this was planned. It was the annual farbrengen that we usually have in-person after the concluding banquet at the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, but the days’ long continuation happened organically. The official Zoom account even tweeted “wow!” when they heard!

Think about it. How long could you stay in a chat with your closest family and friends? An hour? Two? Three if you’re lucky? Yet here I am, 120 hours in, with my colleagues and friends from across the world, and at no point have there been fewer than 300 rabbis in the room! I’ve seen friends from Cape town and Sydney, Cambodia and Nigeria, Argentina and Russia. The language changes from Hebrew to Yiddish to English, with translation in the chat box.

It’s the common denominator we share: an insurmountable faith that we will overcome our challenges and fulfill our mission to make this world a better place. We are the Rebbe’s army, dispersed across the globe but unified by a single, shared goal. This is our chance to fortify our troops. To share, to bond, to be in a space with others who understand our daily struggles. And struggle we all do. But despite the challenges we face, we know, without a shadow of doubt, that everything will ultimately work out according to G-d’s plan.

There’s a well known saying, “A chassidic farbrengen can accomplish that which the angel Michael cannot accomplish.” A chassidic gathering is so powerful it can pierce the very heavens! When Jews unify, it unleashes a power that can blast through all barriers.

And having been part of this 120-hour-long (and counting!) farbrengen, I feel the intensity of that power, and would like to take the opportunity to bless you all with health, happiness, nachat from your loved ones, and everything you need and want. May we merit to witness the coming of Moshiach right now - even before I hop back on the Zoom call for my next dose of inspiration!

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

I Demand To See My President in Office!

It cannot be any other way; my candidate must be elected. He simply must.

I feel unbelievably passionate about it!

I’m so anxious about what might happen. We’re getting closer. It’s been a long and arduous race but the end is finally in sight.

Please, G-d, let my candidate be chosen!

I cannot think clearly. I’m totally consumed. I just know that if my president governs, all our problems will be solved.

I want to end COVID-19 in the world. No more masks, no more social distancing. I know my candidate can accomplish this.

I want to bring prosperity to the world and I know my president can make that happen.

I want to live in a world without crime.

I want the best health care system that actually functions and is available to everyone.

So every conversation I’ve had for the past couple of years has been focused on convincing my friends to vote for my candidate.

Every prayer I’ve said has included my wish for his appointment.

And every sermon I write is dedicated to making sure he can begin his work expeditiously.

So please, join me. Do a mitzvah today to hurry the process along, so my candidate, King Moshiach will finally reveal himself and get to work governing the world.

In fact, in this week’s Torah portion, G-d reveals himself to Abraham. Our sages teach that each of us should demand, with a fiery passion, that G-d reveal himself to us as well. When we achieve that, with the coming of Moshiach and the final redemption, all our problems will be solved, and we will live in peace and harmony. If that’s not a goal worth campaigning for, I don’t know what is!

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

10 Reasons I Love Living in Manhattan (Yes, Even Now)

We’re all living under a constant barrage of negative news, so I feel compelled to write this post, inspired by my colleague—Rabbi Levi Avtzon—who wrote 10 reasons he loves living in South Africa. Despite the covid restrictions and the huge number of people feeling, I love this city. Here’s why: 

1. There are literally tens of thousands of Jews on the Upper East Side alone. And despite news reports of thousands of people leaving the city, there remain more Jews living in Manhattan than I could possibly meet in my lifetime! For a Chabad rabbi, this is a gold mine. So many people to help, so many mitzvot to accomplish, so much opportunity, so much potential. Where do I even begin?!

2. The vibrancy of this city is unparalleled. Yes, Broadway, Times Square, and other iconic spots are shut down and desolate, but the city that never sleeps still bustles. The action, the energy … it’s palpable just walking down the street. I absorb this energy every day, and it propels me to connect with others and keep doing the work I moved here to do. 

3. There are enough shuls in the neighborhood, probably at least 25 just on the Upper East Side, that you can take your pick. Try a different one every day of the month. Not thrilled with one rabbi? Move on to the next. Kiddush not to your liking? Just hop on over to the next shul. Even now, with COVID, you can find the minyan that works best for you.

4. Manhattan is home to some of the finest kosher restaurants in the world, and they have gone to great lengths to remain accessible. Whatever you’re craving—meat, dairy, Israeli, Morrocan, fast food, fine dining, breakfast cafe—this city has it. I love to treat myself to the occasional cappuccino and Manhattan has the best one I’ve ever tasted. 

5. This city is a hub of kindness and caring. Despite the stereotypes, New Yorkers do care and help each other. They may be a bit more abrupt than Wisconsinites, for example, but that’s just the packaging. The help is real and sincere. Walk into any hospital in this city and you will see chessed rooms and bikur cholim volunteers ready to provide you with virtually anything you need. 

6. We have Central Park, an oasis in a city of brick and steel, smog and noise. And no matter what time of day you get there, you won’t be alone. I love starting my day at 5am with a run, and there are plenty of others up and running at that crazy hour, too. Its natural beauty never wanes, and I never tire of it. It vitalizes my day.

7. No one here is apathetic. New York Jews are passionate, opinionated, and always ready for debate. This kind of thinking sharpens the mind and creates the perfect vessel to study and analyze the intricacies of the Talmud.

8. New Yorkers are unusually hard working. Whether from home or the office or on vacation, they put in the hours and rise steadily. It’s a motivating environment to be in every day. 

9. New York Jews are extremely charitable. Despite the economic downturn, New York remains the financial center of the world, and philanthropy continues. In fact, it may have even increased during this trying time, as people go to great lengths to assist those struggling due to COVID.

10. I’ve saved my favorite for last: Manhattan sits shoulder-to-shoulder with Brooklyn, home of Chabad Headquarters, where the Rebbe inspired his followers to move all over the world in service of others. And the Ohel, theRebbe’s resting place in Queens, is just a 30-minute drive from my house. Whenever I need an infusion of inspiration, I jump in my car and go there to pray. It works wonders! 

Now tell me your ten reasons that make you love your life!

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

The Greatest Simchat Torah Ever!

This week I felt a little down, which is not in my nature. It’s ingrained in me that everything comes from G-d, Who is intrinsically good, so I’ve developed a thick skin when things don’t go as planned. No matter what life throws at me, I trust in His plan.

But with Simchat Torah on the horizon, I found myself struggling. Simchat Torah is one of the highlights of our year. A day of pure joy and one of our most-attended events. We have close to a thousand people each year to celebrate as we complete the annual Torah-reading cycle and immediately begin the next one.

We go all out, offering a lavish feast with steak, brisket, ribs, gourmet sushi, salad bar, burger bar, and most importantly—drinks galore! We have it all! Who wouldn’t come to that? We even have 50 students walk three hours from Brooklyn to dance and sing and celebrate with us.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are far more serious days, where we accomplish great things through prayer. But on Simchat Torah we can be just as effective through sheer joy and dancing.

This year, things are different. How can we dance with the Torah and still adhere to strict social distancing protocol? How can drink and say l’chaim while wearing masks? How can we pass the Torah around? How can do our famous somersaults? We have to drastically limit our attendance to fit with capacity guidelines, and even then, who will come with the fear of COVID hanging over us? In fact, many shuls across the world are completely closed, while others will have just a few minutes of hakafot.

With all this in mind, I seriously considered cancelling.

But then it dawned on me, that this year will be the most joyous Simchat Torah we have experienced to date!

We have every reason NOT to celebrate this year. We can all list so many reasons to be sad. The country is deeply divided, COVID-19 continues its rampage, so many are struggling financially and in other ways. Can we really celebrate Simchat Torah in this condition?

It all depends on how we define happiness. We tend to have a very narrow definition. A new car, a great vacation, a successful business deal. But true happiness does not come from external stimuli, it comes from deep inside our souls.

True happiness is a decision we make each and every morning. It’s about realizing we have a mission to accomplish in this world and G-d has given us the strength to do so. Regardless of what’s going on around us, we can choose to be happy.

So although we love our regular Simchat Torah celebration which includes all kinds of external trappings, sometimes all that sushi, socializing, and l’chaim can make us lose focus on the main thing.

But this year, G-d has sent us a reminder. When we strip away all the trappings, what is left?

This year, we have the opportunity to focus on what truly makes us happy. At home, alone, we can allow the joy of our souls to pour forth unrestrained. We can dance at home, even alone, tapping into the pure joy that is not dependent on good food, alcohol, shul, or other people.

Our sages tell us that joy breaks all barriers. True joy can pierce the heavens and surely bring an end to the COVID crisis.

So dance at home. Dance in a room by yourself. Be safe, but dance you must. Focus on your relationship with G-d and the Torah, and allow this to be the greatest Simchat Torah ever.

Lady Tears Down Our Yom Kippur Sign

Screen Shot 2020-10-01 at 6.32.21 PM.pngWhen I locked up the synagogue and headed home after services this past Friday evening, all seemed well. When I returned on Shabbat morning, I noticed that the beautiful sign advertising our Yom Kippur services—which we had spent a long time designing and printing—had been torn down. At first I assumed it must have been a strong wind overnight, but upon closer examination it became clear it had been torn deliberately.

Fortunately, we have good security cameras, and after Shabbat I was able to examine the footage. I could clearly see a person stop in front of the sign at 4:30am and tear it down vigorously.

I posted the video on my Facebook page and many people suggested I file a police report.

The next day was Yom Kippur and I didn’t have much time, but later in the week I did file a report and the police confirmed that the incident fit their definition of a hate crime. They took it seriously, even sending the video to local media in the hope that someone would identify the perpetrator.

Many people asked why I would bother with such a trivial matter. It’s just a sign and the monetary loss is probably under $100. The woman in the video seems a little off, so why bother? Perhaps it could even be considered a waste of the NYPD’s time when there are far bigger problems plaguing the city right now.

But here’s Judaism’s take, which is fresh in my mind because my 7th-grade son just started learning the tractate Bava Kama, which discusses the intricate laws of damage to property.

Is it a small crime? Well, the Torah does not distinguish between a crime that involves damages of $100 or damages of 1 billion. A crime is a crime and must be dealt with.

But more than that, the Torah teaches that the evil inclination never starts by tempting a person to commit a large crime. First the person is lured into doing something that seems minor and trivial, but then the next day it entices the person to commit a worse sin and then it advances every day until the person is committing terrible sins and crimes. So surely it is worth the NYPD’s efforts to catch this person while they are still doing small crimes, so they can be stopped before they progress to something more serious.

As to the argument that the woman appears deranged or in an altered state of consciousness, the Torah does say that a “shoteh” (lit. a fool) is absolved from mitzvot, but does she fit the definition? The Torah defines it as “one who goes out alone at night, sleeps in the cemetery, and tears his own clothing.” She seems to fit part, but not all, so I am not sure she would be considered a “fool.”

But most importantly, I think, is contemplating what gives a person the temerity to commit a crime. Primarily, it’s the notion that nobody is watching. If we educate every American to truly understand that G-d is always watching—something that Jews and gentiles alike need to know—then I am certain that crime would decrease exponentially, even at 4:30am when no humans are around to see.

Happy Sukkot!

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

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

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