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A Miracle of Biblical Proportions!

There are rare times in our lives that G-d performs miracles of Biblical proportions, and all we need to do is open our eyes and witness the incredible unfolding before us.

This past weekend was one such time.

As Shabbat ended, I turned on my phone and saw that a group of Jews had been taken hostage at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Like everyone else, I was glued to the news, latching onto every new snippet of information as it was released.

“Please G-d, let them be safe!” was all I could think, as I prayed, and encouraged everyone else to pray and do good deeds for their wellbeing and safe release.

Although this terrorist, may his name be erased, chose Jews in Colleyville, this was a personal attack against all Jews the world over. Which is why we are all shaken. This isn’t some distant happening; this happened to us!

We live in a dark world; one which conceals the face of G-d. Of course, we know He orchestrates everything that transpires, but He hides Himself. We don’t see Him at work. 

But on Saturday night, we did. G-d revealed Himself to us in an incredible and unprecedented way! The fact that the standoff ended without a single Jew being harmed is a miracle of Biblical proportions—one of those rare moments when G-d reveals Himself directly to us.

Think of the all the recent terrorist attacks and hostage situations. Unfortunately, there have been all too many: The Mumbai attacks, Toulouse massacre, Burgas, Sandy Hook, Charlie Hebdo, Orlando Shooting, Pittsburgh, Jersey City, Poway and so many more vicious attacks against us. Not one of them ended without blood being spilled.

And here, not even a scratch! It is nothing but a sheer, open miracle. Let’s take a moment to simply say “Thank you, Hashem!” for this incredible feat that unfolded in front of our very eyes.

And after that, how should we respond?

This terrorist just happened to take his hostages in Texas, but we were all his targets. So we all need to respond. Let’s commit to dramatically increasing our observance of mitzvot. Commit to putting on tefillin daily, lighting Shabbat candles every week, giving regular tzedakah, and making Torah study a steady part of our lives.

Most importantly, we cannot allow fear to cower us. This Shabbat, make it a point to go to shul. Show up. Be out and open and proudly Jewish. Let’s gather in thanks for the miracle we witnessed last weekend, and demand from G-d that this one-off revelation become the norm, with the coming of Moshiach, when we will see His hand at work openly at all times.

Thank you Hashem

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

 

Should I Sell the Ticket for 500 Percent More Than its Value?

We recently held a beautiful Shabbat dinner, geared towards young professionals. We had wounded IDF soldiers coming, as well as some celebrities.

Planning an event during covid involves a lot of guesswork and a lot of maybes and plan Bs. It’s hard to know when people will show up en masse and when people will stay home.

But we started advertising two weeks before, and the reservations came in swiftly. With a week to go, we were fully sold out; hundreds of tickets bought.

We even oversold a few tickets, assuming that some would cancel at the last minute, which they did.

And then the calls came pouring in.

“Do you have room for one more?”

“It looks like the website is down; why can’t I buy a ticket?”

“Are you absolutely sold out? You must have room for just one!”

“I tried reserving last week but there was a problem with the computer and now when I try, it’s sold out. Please help me. I really want to come!”

Then we received a one-of-a-kind call from Yankel. “I must come to the Shabbat dinner,” he said. “I am determined to buy a ticket and am willing to offer 500% more than the ticket price as a donation. Charge my card for $500 instead of $95.”

What an offer!

Should I have taken him up on it?

The more I thought about it, the clearer a lesson began to form in my mind.

We all have things we cherish, things we would be willing to pay a 500% markup to obtain or experience.

How about an airline ticket to your favorite destination in peak season?

What if there were a shortage of your dream car; how much extra would you pay?

How much would you offer for the latest iPhone this second? A new watch? Dinner at your sold-out favorite restaurant for a special occasion.

The fact that Yankel was willing to pay 500% more for a Shabbat dinner is actually incredible! That’s what he values—celebrating Shabbat with friends and community, and honoring our IDF soldiers. Far more important than vacations, cars, or iPhones.

We should all be willing to pay extra for spiritual matters! They are critical for our souls.

8 Lessons From Omicron!

Look around! Your friends are all either in quarantine, just exiting quarantine, or afraid of being exposed and having to quarantine. This new variant is spreading so quickly, there aren’t even enough tests! Got a cold? Feeling under the weather? Assume its Omicron.

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidus, taught that we should look for meaning in everything we observe. Here are a few lessons I’m taking from Omicron.

1. You can change the world
Omicron’s growth has been explosive! It spreads 70 times faster than the original strain, and has rapidly infected more people than at any time previously in the pandemic. The US is currently recording a million new cases per day!
But if Omicron can spread so quickly, just imagine how quickly our good deeds can spread. When you do a mitzvah, it literally reverberates across the entire world and has a ripple effect, spreading goodness and kindness, inspiring others to do good deeds as well.


2. You don’t need to do BIG mitzvot to have a ripple effect
Omicron, thank G-d, is quite mild. Most people who have it describe it as a minor inconvenience, much like a cold. But it's still wreaking havoc on our travel plans, our children’s schools, our vacations and our lives.
Likewise, even a small mitzvah can have a massive impact. You don’t need to do big things to change the world.


3. Love all Jews equally
Omicron does not differentiate. Religious, secular, orthodox, conservative, reform, unaffiliated … it doesn’t matter. We’re all in it together and we all have the same chance of catching it. Likewise, all Jews are equally Jewish. Let’s reach out with love to every Jew, regardless of how different our lifestyles and viewpoints may be.


4. Humility
We’re two years into the pandemic, and as much as we think we know about Omicron, we actually know very little. We don’t know when it will end, when we can start planning life again. In the meantime, we just have to take a deep breath and realize there is nothing we can do—humility!


5. Hashem is everywhere
A popular Jewish children’s song declares, “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere … right, left, and all around … here, there, and everywhere … ” What greater parallel than Omicron! It’s literally there, wherever you turn: school, work, shul, friends, vacation—there’s no avoiding it.


6. G-d is in control!
We’ve tried lockdowns, we tried closing our borders and airports, we tried everything in our power to control this thing, but still it rages. Ultimately, we are powerless; He is in control.


7. Our greatest weapon is prayer
Even if you are vaccinated, have had the booster shot, wear masks, social distance, and stay at home a lot, you are not immune to Omicron. Everyone can get it at any time and in any place.
Our greatest weapon is still prayer and good deeds. Wake up every morning and pray to G-d from the depths of your heart – this is still your best chance of warding it off.


8. G-d loves us
Nothing bad comes from G-d. He loves each and every one of us more than anything in the entire world. We have no idea why He brought us covid, but maybe, just maybe, by bringing us Omicron He has done us the greatest favor. Since so many are getting it, it may actually be the best chance we have at natural herd immunity that will finally end all this madness.

2021 was Gevaldik!

If I asked you to define 2021 in a single word, what would you choose?

My inbox (and yours, too, I’m sure) is flooded with year-end reports from every organization I’ve ever interacted (or not interacted) with. Every news site is sending out lists of their top news stories for 2021; Google sent out a report of the most Googled subjects; Peloton sent me a video summarizing all my workouts; Google photos and Facebook are not to be undone.

But if you had to sum up your year in just one word, what would it be? Think carefully. In fact, I actually tried this out on Whatsapp with a handful of friends and their responses included: “ineffective,” “blessed,” “expressive,” passionate,” “horrible,” and “depressing.”

Another person responded, “doomed.” Which made me think of a Whatsapp group some friends of mine added me to this year, which they called, “Hopeless, we’re doomed.” And have you heard of “doom scrolling”? The term was searched more this year than ever before. When you’re surrounded by bad news, it’s tempting to go to either extreme—a) avoid all mention of it, or b) obsessively collect every detail. The latter now has a name—doom scrolling.

But the truth is, at the end of the day, we get to decide how we define 2021. It’s what we made of it.

When I think about my year, the word that comes to mind is “gevaldik.”

Gevaldik because there were 365 days in 2021, and every moment of every day was an opportunity to connect with G-d in the deepest sense. A chance to fulfill my mission in life. And that generates the happiest and most fulfilling moments. Everything else that happened was secondary; background noise.

Interestingly, the most listened to song in Israel this year, popular among religious and secular Jews alike, was “Sibat Hasibot” by Ishay Ribo, which is all about our deep and resounding faith in G-d. Yes, we Jews tend to argue, and yes, we’ve had a rough year including a war, many tragedies, and deaths, but at the end of the day what are we listening to across the country? A song that describes our unyielding belief in our Creator and His plan.

If you think deeply about your 2021, surely you too will discover that it was gevaldik.

And if I ask you to define how you think 2022 will go, you can choose that it, too, will be gevaldik!

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

 

Have You Tested?

If you’ve been out in the streets recently, you’re sure to have seen the endless lines that stretch all the way around the block (and further!) at every testing site in this city. Wait times are longer than at any other point during the past two years, as the Omicron variant sweeps through the country, infecting people at a rate far higher and quicker than anything we’ve seen.

Are you positive or negative? That is the question on everyone’s lips.

Want to travel? Test before you go, test when you arrive. Been exposed to someone? Test. Not sure if your kids can go back to school? Test. Think you might need to quarantine? Test. Have a headache, cough, cold, fever? Test, test, test, test. 

It seems we are in an endless cycle of testing and retesting ourselves, but there must be something valuable—a deeper lesson—we can extract from this testing obsession.

Every day we are supposed to test ourselves. It’s called a “cheshbon hanefesh” - an accounting of the soul. In fact, it’s part of the extended Shema we say before bed every evening: “Master of the Universe, forgive me for my sins…” But when was the last time we stopped to actually contemplate those words?

When did we actually go through our day, and screen for spiritual viruses? Am I infected with “bad mood” or “chronic irritation” or “upset with the world”? I must test and get rid of it, since the Torah commands us to serve G-d with joy.

Do I have an ailment called, “don’t really like people with opposing views”? If so, I need to treat it so that tomorrow I can get back into the world and embrace my fellow Jews regardless of their opinions. Until I can manage that, I need to quarantine.

When you hop into bed every night, test yourself. Ponder: Am I inspired? Do I feel spiritually energized? Let me make sure tomorrow I will eat only kosher food, put on tefillin in the morning, and have kosher mezuzot installed on my doorposts.

Every day we need to plan how to do more mitzvot and be more spiritually connected than we were the day before.

And if we feel like we’ve failed the test, then let’s do some contact tracing.

Retrace your steps and find the person you shared your lousy mood with yesterday, and make sure this time they feel your warmth.

Retrace your steps and stop in at shul, if last time you walked right past.

Retrace your steps and make sure that the next time a mitzvah comes your way, you grab it!

The Omicron variant spreads 70 times faster than the others. So we need to up our game. We need to increase 70-fold in joy, mitzvot, and spirituality. We need 70 times more people lining up to pray in shul; 70 times more people banging on the doors of nonprofits asking to give charity.

Ask yourself: Are you positive? Are you happy? Do you feel inspired? Are you ready to go out and do mitzvot? If so, you can exit your quarantine. And when you do so, please infect everyone around you with your warmth, your smile, your laughter, and ask them to join you in doing a mitzvah and spreading joy.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Manhattan NY

Sold out Gala with 500 people!

We recently held our annual gala, with a sold-out crowd of 500 people in person and hundreds more virtually. To put that in perspective, it’s akin to have 2,500 people B.C.E. (Before Covid Era).

Hardly any events of this scale are happening now, but thank G-d people came. And they had an exceptional time! It went beyond all our predictions—we had a larger turnout than anticipated and raised more money than we thought possible. 

The logistics of arranging this year’s gala were unlike any other. Simple things like booking a hotel! Have you tried lately? Prices have skyrocketed. Many hotels shut down during Covid, and as tourists return to the city there just aren’t enough rooms to go around. Some hotels were quoting $1200/night!

Things that always went smoothly and quickly in the past, required superhuman effort this time. Like obtaining visas for our beloved soldiers. Two weeks before the gala we still weren’t sure if they would make it! And arranging their tour of the city required herculean effort.

Plenty of people told us no one would come because Sunday is the worst day for a large-scale event. And it was the 8th day of Chanukah when everyone wants to go to their family parties. Some people even bought tables they couldn’t fill. “What do we do?” they asked.

And then, just a week before the big day, the new variant from South Africa was announced. How’s that for timing! And we were suddenly flooded with calls. “Are we still on?” “Is the gala still happening?”

One of our guest celebrities canceled as soon as the new variant was announced. Oy vey! We were really relying on him!

And then we had to cancel an Airbnb we’d booked. If you’ve ever tried that, you’ll know how ironclad their cancellation policy is … I thought Covid would be an exception, but they are refusing to refund us any of the money at all. We may even need a lawyer.

And then, two days before the gala, more calls started to come in. “My child was exposed to someone…” “We have symptoms so we’re going to play it safe and stay home…” “We’re all in quarantine.” “We have to cancel, so sorry…” “We cannot attend, sorry.” Sorry, sorry, sorry. Well, we were sorry too!

But despite all the challenges—these and plenty more—we pulled off a most incredible and inspiring evening, with superstar singer Yaakov Shwekey, and stars such as Michael Aloni, Hadas Yaron, and Moran Rosenblatt. Our soldiers, the heroes of the evening, blew everyone away with their stories of courage and resilience.

Through all the obstacles we faced, we plowed forward, pushing ahead relentlessly. Ultimately, the evening was safe and the feedback we received made it all worthwhile. People left inspired, uplifted, feeling a strong sense of unity and purpose.

How did we do it? With deep trust in Hashem. Whenever things cropped up, or challenges seemed insurmountable, we kept Him in the forefront of our minds. Hashem is in charge. He is the boss, with full control. Nothing can change that. We prayed to him with full faith that things would work out, then sit back and let Him take the driver's seat.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

We Are All Eli Kay

This week the entire Jewish world was shaken to its core by the despicable cold-blooded murder of Eli Kay at the holiest place on earth – the Western Wall.

My favorite place in Israel is the Western Wall. The Western Wall is the last vestige of the entire Temple mount which belongs to the Jewish people. I know those alleyways intimately. Whenever I visit, I walk those narrow paths, like so many others. There’s something magical about being in the holiest place on earth.

And so when Eli Kay was murdered in cold blood by an evil terrorist on his way to pray at the Western Wall, prayer book in one hand, book of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Rebbe's sichot in the other, it shook every single Jew in the entire world. Not only because it could have happened to every one of us, but because it did happen to every one of us. We are all Eli Kay.

That terrorist, may his name be obliterated, was targeting every Jew in the world. He didn’t know Eli Kay. The hatred he taught his students and the venom he spewed was targeted at every single Jew, and had his AK47 been able to reach all of us, he would have done just that.

Eli Kay’s pain is our pain, his loss is our loss, his family’s suffering is our suffering. We are all in this together.

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

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

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

This tragedy has united Jews from across the spectrum of observance.  

Eli's family has called for all of us to be better people, better jews and to spread more light in the world. So let's do just that!

With Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, beginning next week let's resolve to spread more light throughout the world.

Let's pay heed to the call of the Kay family to put on tefillin: https://www.facebook.com/TefillinAgainstTerror.

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

Happy Chanukah!

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

The Greatest Real Estate Deal in NYC

After 10 years, we are relocating. The building that has been our spiritual home, our shul, on the Upper East Side has been sold, and we’ve been asked to move out.

We have so many incredible memories from that space. We’ve prayed, laughed, danced, cried, and witnessed so many good deeds and budding relationships take off. People have found their spouses there, helped each other network, and made friends for life. But now it’s time to move on.

Ten years ago we were able to negotiate the best ever real estate deal in NYC.

We needed a space for our shul, and the owner did a tremendous mitzvah and gave us the space for the High Holidays. I came back again and asked him if we could use it for Chanukah, and then for Pesach, and then for Shavuot and for a Friday night dinner … you get the picture!

By the time we needed the space every weekend, we were already good friends, and the owner gladly offered it to us as needed, with one caveat: When he wants it back, we must evacuate immediately.

We understood and gratefully accepted. We didn’t sign a contract; just shook hands and the deal was made. Of all the real estate transactions made on a daily basis in this city, this has got to be one of the best! We got our 13,000sf shul, and the owner got the merit of thousands of mitzvot that we did there.

Our deal worked smoothly all these years, the only issue was that we had no security, never knowing if the following week would be our last in this space.

I once shared the details of our deal with a fellow rabbi and he said, “There’s no way I could live like that! I need the security. I need to know that I have a space and won’t have to leave. Only a Chabad rabbi can live with such faith and be confident that come Shabbos he will have a shul to daven in!”

But our faith in G-d A-mighty is unshakeable, and we felt confident each week that we would have a shul. And we did.

So, now what? What’s our next step?

Well, we are moving the shul into the same space that our preschool uses. It’s a little smaller, but it will be warm and intimate, and we know that the same G-d Who gave us a space for 10 years, will find us a bigger venue moving forward. In fact, we’ve already outgrown the preschool building, but who knows, maybe someone reading this article will dedicate the first million dollars to our capital campaign!

Smaller or larger, cozier or more spacious, we are here for the long haul. We love our community and we aren’t going anywhere!

At 2am Avigayil Needs Her Toys!

A few weeks ago I was tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep. It was that coffee I’d had at 8pm—I needed an extra jolt to stay awake, but hadn’t realized it would keep me up till dawn! 

It must have been around 2am when I heard my three-year-old, Avigayil, come into our room and head straight for my wife’s bed. She was crying — hysterically — that she couldn’t find her toys.

Why does she need her toys at 2am?? I wondered.

I watched my wife get up groggily and follow her back to her room. The whole time Avigayil was crying hysterically that she needs her toys, and insisting that Shevy help her find them. You see, she likes to sleep with some dolls and other small toys next to her in bed, and they must’ve fallen out.

So Shevy got down on the floor to search for them, trying not to wake the rest of the kids. She found some of the toys and put them back in the bed next to Avigayil. But Avigayil noticed that one toy was still missing and started crying again, insisting she needs them all! Finally, with all the toys back in her bed, she lay down and fell asleep instantly. And my exhausted wife headed back to bed.

Watching all this, I first wondered: How on earth did she even notice her toys were missing at 2am? She was fast asleep. Why does she even need them at that time of night? I mean, she isn’t exactly playing with them! How did she notice that one small toy was still missing when all the others were there? Finally, how did she fall asleep again instantaneously?!

And I realized there is a tremendous lesson we can see in this encounter. 

For my daughter, her toys are the most important thing in her life. She loves them, cherishes them, so much that it jolts her awake when they fall off her bed in the middle of the night.

When something is off balance in your life, you notice and it keeps you up.

King Solomon writes in Shir Hashirim, “I am sleeping but my heart is awake.” Even when we fall asleep spiritually, our heart is awake. Yes, we live in a physical world and have to involve ourselves with physical things. We have to make money, eat, etc. Nevertheless, we should realize that our most precious possessions are the Torah and mitzvot G-d has given us. Even in the middle of the night, when we are groggy and distracted, we should be aware that “My heart is awake” to Torah and mitzvot.

Let us all prioritize and cherish the most important items in our lives!

A Favor Repaid 12 Years Later!

In January 2010 I took a phone call from *Leah, an Israeli woman living on the Upper East Side, asking if we could help with her son’s bar mitzvah. This is a pretty standard call and typical of what we do at Chabad – we help people! So of course we arranged the event. Rabbi Leibel Kesselman, who today is a Chabad rabbi in Greenville, was helping out at our Chabad house back then, and he agreed to tutor the child and prepare him for his bar mitzvah.

And so, on Shabbat Parshat Beshalach, we arranged a beautiful celebration at the Marriott hotel (where our shul was located at the time), and the child performed beautifully in front of family and friends. Shortly afterwards, Leah emailed me, “Thank you so much for your help with the bar mitzvah. We appreciate it tremendously. We didn’t imagine how we would enjoy it and thank you for making us feel so welcome and part of the community.”

The family moved back to Israel not long after the bar mitzvah and I lost touch with them.

Fast forward to this week. It’s the International Conference of Chabad Emissaries here in NYC, where Chabad rabbis from all over the world come together to enjoy, refresh, and learn from one another. 

I went to the Ohel, the Rebbe’s resting place, this week, as I frequently do, but because of the convention it was packed even at 6am!

And as I finished up the shacharit prayer, somebody came over to me and he said, “Vigler! I’ve been looking for you! I knew I would meet you at the kinus; I have a story to share with you.”

Nu, I love stories!

He introduced himself as Rabbi Meir Abayov and began: “I’m a shliach in Ramat Hasharon. It’s a small town in Israel with a strong anti-religious sentiment. Two years ago, right before covid, I took a group from my community to New York. We visited the Ohel and I asked the Rebbe for a bracha (blessing) that we should have success in establishing a new preschool and after school activities. We needed special permits and I was quite worried.”

That week Rabbi Shneor Ashkenazy came to speak at an event in our Chabad center on the Upper East Side. Rabbi Abayov heard about it and asked if he could join with the group he had brought to NY. Of course I agreed, and it was a wonderful evening. 

“When I was back at home, the next week,” he continued, “I heard there was a new woman in charge of approving the permits I needed for my preschool. With a prayer on my lips, I went to meet her, not knowing what to expect, but assuming she would likely be anti-religious and refuse to help.

“When I got to her office and stated my request, she said, ‘You look like a chabadnik! Are you Chabad?’

“When I confirmed that I was, indeed, she said, ‘I love Chabad! Do you know Rabbi Vigler from Manhattan?’

“I told her I had in fact been with you just the week before, and showed her a picture on my phone that our group had taken that evening in your Chabad center.

“I love Rabbi Vigler!’ she said excitedly. “He helped me bar mitzvah my son in his shul!’ ”

It was, of course, Leah!

She agreed to help Rabbi Abayov, went out of her way to fast-track his permits, and promised to help him with whatever else comes up, all because she remembers her experience with Chabad 12 years ago so fondly!

I was so inspired by this story. Living on the Upper East Side, much of our community is transitory. Literally thousands of people walk through our doors, but many only live here for a few years before moving on. Unfortunately, we often lose touch, but this story reminded me that we can never know how much we may have affected someone in our brief time together, or how far-reaching that effect may become. Here, 12 years after the fact, Leah was able to return the favor to a Chabad Rabbi across the globe!

As Chabad rabbis, we will sit together this weekend and farbreng, inspiring each other, refueling and recharging so we can continue to help and inspire others. There can be no greater gift to the Rebbe than seeing his children, the shluchim, getting along and helping one another.

L’chaim!

 

*Name changed to protect privacy.

How to Approach Our Annual Gala?

Our Belev Echad gala dinner is an annual highlight. It’s the place to be—fun, entertaining, and most importantly, the opportunity to raise money for a good cause. But that was all BCE: Before Covid Era. In 2020, like everyone else, we went virtual. And as fortunate as we are to have the technology to do so, virtual cannot compete with an in-person experience where people can meet, socialize, eat and drink together, and feel the energy in the room. There is no comparison.

Anyone running a non-profit shares the same dilemma. What do we do for 2021? Can we schedule our annual events or not? And it’s not something we can decide on a whim. These events take months of preparation, a large amount of money, and a tremendous amount of work to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
 
There was a point mid-summer where it seemed like Covid had finally begun to retreat and we started planning a beautiful in-person mega gala like we used to. We booked a hall that could hold 1000 people, a celebrity speaker, and were about to start putting down money when the Delta variant hit and all certainty was again lost. 
 
So we decided to wait until after the holidays were over to make a decision. We researched all kinds of creative ideas. We spoke to lots of people, all of whom had different opinions. We looked at what other organizations are doing, but there was no universal approach. Some have cancelled their galas, others are doing them virtually, some are doing scaled-down events, outdoor events, delayed till next spring…and so on there was no consensus.
 
So what do we do? Do we take the risk and schedule it in person? What if Covid numbers rise again? What if another variant emerges and people are afraid to attend? There are so many unknowns, and with so much money on the line it’s hard to commit. But there comes a point where we have to make a decision and go with it.  
 
And it’s at times like these that we need to take a step back, breathe deeply, and realize that we do not have full control of our lives. We think we make the decisions, but ultimately it’s all G-d’s doing.
 
We all love to feel in control. We like to know exactly what we will be doing and when we will be doing it. We like to plan our flights, schedule our vacations, and know precisely what we’ll be doing hour by hour once we get there. We love to be in the driving seat of our lives. But the truth, it’s all an illusion. The only one in control is G-d.
 
And this gala is just another moment where we see that clearly and undeniably.
 
So what did we decide?
 
First, we turned to G-d, and prayed sincerely that He lead us to the correct decision. Then we turned to our board members for guidance, and together we came up with a plan: A full, in-person gala, with the option to attend virtually, with all the technology to make it as pleasurable an experience as possible.
 
Do we know what will happen on December 5th, the night of our big event? No. Will it be successful? Will people come? Will we raise the necessary funds to help our soldiers? We don’t know. But we will put forth our best effort, secure in the belief that G-d will come through and help us.
 
So, good luck to us! Here is the link to our beautiful gala website: www.belevechadgala.nyc. We hope to see you all there. L'chaim!

Six Hours of Panic

On Monday morning we celebrated a beautiful Bar Mitzvah at our shul. I took a selfie with the bar mitzvah boy and his family and posted it on my Instagram and Facebook stories. I thought it would inspire others to pray and put on tefillin.

 
But when I checked to see how many people had viewed the story, the number was unusually low—barely 100, when it should be closer to 1,000. “How strange,” I thought. “Let me refresh the page.” But no matter how many times I refreshed, the number didn’t move. And it was a great picture!
 
Then I Whatsapped a community member to check on the status of her mezuzot and I noticed the message wasn’t going through. Then it dawned on me that my phone had been atypically silent for the last few minutes. Where were all the hundreds of messages that usually come in non-stop? I assumed the issue was my wifi, so I went outside and kept hitting refresh.
 
When that didn’t help, it hit me that something must be wrong, which a quick Google instantly confirmed.
 
As everyone now knows, Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram were down for a full business day, wreaking havoc on billions across the globe.
 
And I, like so many others, panicked. You see, I’m in the inspiration business, and social media is my primary tool. My job is to reach out and inspire people. To come to shul, to give charity, to get closer to G-d, to study Torah. And I communicate through Instagram, Facebook, and especially Whatsapp.
 
Whatsapp is my lifeline. Without it, I feel imprisoned. Constricted. Inhibited. I use it to communicate with my family in South Africa and Israel, to plan with my team, to collaborate with Chabad rabbis across the globe, and to reach out to individuals.
 
It felt like a snow day. Like Shabbat. Like the holidays all over again.
 
It was also a wakeup call.
 
Social media is here today but gone tomorrow, I realized. All those friends, followers, likes, and comments can disappear in the blink of an eye. And what did they really mean?
 
Does it really matter how many followers you have on Instagram? How many friends on Facebook? How many Whatsapp groups you’re in? For six hours, I, and billions of others, had time to contemplate that.
 
What we can ensure, I concluded, is that we have the one follower Who actually counts: G-d. It is He Who we need to impress. His comments we should be seeking. And no matter how many apps and sites go down, He remains equally available at all times. He won’t let us down.
 
So deeply have we come to rely on people being instantly available, that we may have neglected to communicate with the One Who is truly always there, at all times, in all conditions.
 
Let’s pause for a moment, think about that, and commit to talking to Him more. Unlike the internet, we can be assured He won’t let us down.
 
Shabbat Shalom
 
Rabbi Uriel Vigler

‘Rabbi, I Need a Hug’

It was Erev Yom Kippur, probably the busiest day of the year for any rabbi. I was in my office, stressed, trying to manage the constant inundation. The phone was ringing non-stop, I was receiving texts and Whatsapps with all kinds of halachic questions, and at the same time I had my own preparations to do. People were calling to ask about fasting. One wanted to know if he could take Tylenol, another called to ask about fasting while pregnant. Others were looking to donate before the holiday began, and I still had my speeches to write, which take many hours of preparation! 


And then Gilad* called. “Rabbi,” he said, “I need to meet you.”
“Sure,” I agreed. “How is the week after Sukkot, when I am stress-free and can give you my attention?”
“No, I need to meet you today!” he said. 
“Today? Are you kidding?” I thought. “Is it an emergency?” I asked. 
“Yes, yes it is,” he said. 

Well, my primary job is helping people, and if someone tells me he needs me urgently I drop everything to help. And if it happens to be one of the busiest days of the year, so be it. 

“Sure, come to my office,” I said. 
“I’m already here,” he told me, and rang the bell. 

We sat down and Gilad began to tell me his story. He served in the IDF and then came to New York, he explained. “Rabbi, I’ve had a really rough year,” he said, crying now. “It’s not easy. I’m in pain, I’m far from my family who are all in Israel. Do you know why I needed to meet you today, urgently? I need a hug.” 

Immediately, I got up and gave him a long hug. “Let me also give you a spiritual hug,” I offered, and helped him put on tefillin. I also invited him to join our community for the entire Yom Kippur, which he did. Over the course of the day I made sure to check in with him, hug him, and make sure he truly felt among family. Afterwards he told me he had an incredible experience. 

Throughout Yom Kippur, I couldn’t stop thinking about Gilad. I’m so glad he reached out! And I thought to myself: We are all like Gilad. We’ve all had a rough year. A tough 18 months in fact. The world has changed and no one has been unaffected. Don’t we all need a giant hug?!

G-d A-mighty, we are all Gilad. We demand you give us a hug — a warm, massive, tight hug. We don’t care how busy you are. 

In fact, this is what the holiday of Sukkot is all about. Our sages explain that the Sukkah is actually G-d’s embrace, and as we sit in it, he is holding us tight, telling us, “I got you.” 

A sukkah is considered kosher for use with only two walls, and a third wall the height of a fist. Just like a person who hugs with two arms and a fist, the sukkah is G-d telling us, “No matter what’s going on in the world, don’t worry, I’m with you, I’m holding you, I’ve got you.” 

May we all enjoy His embrace this Sukkot. 

Chag Sameach.

Rabbi Uriel Vigler


*Name changed to protect privacy.

Cutting A Tree In A Manhattan Park!

I Googled, “Can I cut down a tree in Manhattan?” and the first thing that popped up was:

According to Title 18, Chapter 1, Section 18-129 of the New York City Administrative Code, it is illegal and punishable by law for citizens to remove, kill, or damage a street or park tree, whether intentionally or accidentally. ... Anyone caught removing or otherwise harming a tree should be reported immediately.

Well, that got me nervous. You see, at the beginning of the summer I was in Ruppert Park for our outdoor Shavuot party, and I noticed that many trees now hang over the spot where we have built our Sukkah for the last 15 years or so.

I found it strange, because I would have noticed them the year before, and I hoped I hadn’t overlooked something which would make our sukkah unkosher. 

So two weeks ago I returned to take a better look and re-evaluate, and sure enough, trees and branches were hanging over most of the area where our sukkah would be. Perhaps on a regular year, when Sukkot falls out later, the trees are already bare and it’s a non-issue? Or maybe they’ve just extended over time and only recently become a problem… Either way, I had to take action.

Although a sukkah is only a temporary dwelling, there are very strict guidelines for how it needs to be built, and if a tree hangs over it, the part of the sukkah covered by the tree is not kosher. Our sukkah in Ruppert Park has become a neighborhood staple, and so many people rely on it to be able to perform the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah. We cannot have parts which are not kosher!

So I started researching how to remove a tree, which is when I realized it is not at all simple. I called a tree company and asked them to come and prune the trees, and they told me I need a permit. So I called every office I know of from the city and the parks department, and eventually made an appointment for an inspector to meet me at the park.

I explained the problem, and he asked why the tree would interfere. I explained that by hanging over the sukkah, it makes the structure unkosher.

He asked, “What are you covering the sukkah with?”

“Leaves or bamboo mates or date palms.”

“Then what’s the issue with the trees?” he wanted to know. “It’s the same thing.”

I explained that although it’s the same material, when it’s connected to the ground it makes the sukkah not kosher, but as soon as you cut it and place it on top, it’s ok.”

It made no sense to him, but somehow, thank G-d, we convinced him and he agreed to give us the required permit. A tree cutting company will be coming next week to prune the trees and ensure our sukkah is kosher for the holiday!

Sitting in the sukkah demonstrates our deep faith in G-d. We leave the security of our homes and sit in a flimsy structure, trusting Him to care for us and keep us safe, and remembering how he did so for 40 years in the desert. Thank G-d, now hundreds more people will be able to do the mitzvah correctly!

G-d gives us the guidelines and it’s our job to get things done exactly to His specifications. No shortcuts allowed!

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Vigler

20 Years of Training – Boom!

The American army was never meant to stay in Afghanistan long term. They were always there to train the local Afghan army and eventually withdraw. Our army, the mightiest and most powerful in the world, poured trillions of dollars into the effort. Twenty years, countless hours and resources, sophisticated weapons and strategies, so that when it counted, they would be able to defend themselves.

And after 20 years, America finally pulled out. Would all the effort pay off? Would the training work?

There may have been some doubt, but absolutely nobody predicted that things would backslide so miserably and so very, very quickly.

The world watched in horror as the Taliban overpowered the Afghan army in less than a week. All that effort, all that training, gone.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that there is a lesson for us in everything we observe. And I see a strong parallel to our lives from what’s going on in Afghanistan.

You see, each of us faces a similar moment of truth. We’re here to make the world a better place, to refine our surroundings, and combat the negative opposing forces. On top of that, each soul is sent down into this world for a specific mission. A pivotal moment. Something only we can accomplish.

And G-d, the supreme King of Kings, the One Who is truly in control, gives us His best, most powerful weapon—the G-dly soul. He spends years training us. Before we come into this world, our souls bask in Divine radiance, recognizing the truth and true pleasure, so that when it descends into this murky world, it will be able to recognize and pursue truth and G-dliness. 

He equips us with everything we need to succeed in battle. All the tools, training, and knowledge for our journey. And eventually, at some point in time, we will all face that moment of truth. Our battle. The time it counts the most.

We don’t know what or when it will be. Will we be asked to tolerate someone else’s opinion? Give a friend a ride even though it’s inconvenient? Will we be asked to give away our hard earned money to a good cause? Have unconditional love for those who challenge us the most?

Will we be challenged to light Shabbat candles and put away our devices for 25 hours even though an important deal is in the works? To forgo a non-kosher meal with someone who may not be as understanding as we would like?

And when that day comes, in whichever form we are challenged, what will we do? Will we utilize the tremendous arsenal of tools G-d has given us? Will we fight the battle until we overcome it? Or will we crumble and fade away?

We may question how much our personal battle counts in the greater scheme of things. But Maimonides tells us that we should view the world as a scale, at all times potentially hanging in equal balance between good and evil, mitzvot and aveirot. Our next deed could be the one that makes all the difference, and tips the scale, cosmically pushing the entire world over the edge to a better place. We are individuals, yes, but our actions affect the entire world.

With the High Holidays just around the corner, this is more important than ever. As we gear up to reunite with G-d, and recrown Him as our Eternal Monarch, we look to do teshuvah, and double down on our battle against lethargy, temptation, and evil. It’s time to dust off that toolbox He’s equipped us with, and get to work, so that when it most counts, we rise to the challenge and win the war.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

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