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Guns versus Prayer

This week, friends of Chabad raised their glasses in celebration, marking 60 years since Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn assumed leadership of the movement. Since then, Chabad has risen to become the largest Jewish outreach organization in the world. The thanks are due entirely to the Rebbe’s unwavering commitment to the rebuilding of the Jewish nation, a mere five years after the holocaust. He worked tirelessly reaching out to every Jew, inspiring them to reawaken their commitment to G-d.

My grandfather was born in a small town on the border of Hungary and Transylvania, known as Siget. Upon Germany’s invasion of Hungary, he was deported to the infamous death camp, Auschwitz. It was there that he witnessed the slaughter of his first wife and their three little daughters. The agony and degradation that he suffered during those turbulent times affected him so greatly that he could not bear to speak of his experiences. His nightmares haunted him till the day he died.

In time, he met and married my grandmother, a fellow survivor. They found comfort in one another and built a beautiful life together, surrounded with children and grandchildren. These two survivors, although no longer alive, have most certainly triumphed in the war, for every additional branch added to their family tree is a stunning blow to Hitler and everything he stood for.

In this week’s Torah portion of Beshalach, G-d commands us to totally obliterate the nation of Amalek. In a bold move that flared G-d’s anger, Amalek attacked the Israelites upon their redemption from Egypt, just when the nations of the time had been so inspired by G-d’s wondrous miracles.

This week, during a ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Benyamin Netanyahu compared the Nazis to Amalek. He said that today we have a more modern yet equally lethal Amalek whose sole mission is to massacre innocent children and non-believing infidels. Furthermore, he stated, "We, the Jewish people, have internalized our lesson well after losing a third of our people, and have learned that the only guarantee for our nation is a strong state and the IDF.”  

A congregant in our shul recently asked me what is more important, to learn how to fight or to learn how to pray?

While freely acknowledging that a physical army is crucial to the survival of our state, I must disagree with Netanyahu’s conviction that it is our only guarantee. I believe that the true strength of Am Yisrael lies solely in their commitment to G-d. The triumph of a Jewish soldier is entirely dependent on and directly influenced by the shul’s occupancy. When we commit to His Torah and to His will, G-d in turn looks favourably upon us, fuelling our tanks and steering our planes.

During the Six Day War in 1967, Israel eradicated six hostile armies in a feat so far unparalleled in modern history. Israel was heavily outnumbered. It didn’t take a military general to conclude that the odds were entirely against them. Our pilots were well trained and our soldiers fought bravely but our victory can only be attributed to the fact that G-d was on our side. It was nothing short of a miracle.

The Nazi’s ruined my grandfathers home. They stole his livelihood. They destroyed his home. They slaughtered his parents. They butchered his siblings. They massacred his wife and three daughters. They crushed his body. But they could not touch his soul. They could not shatter his spirit. His faith remained intact and undefeatable.

Our spirit and essence can never be shattered by our enemies and it is this faith in our Creator that ultimatley leads to our victories in battle.

 My thanks to Efrat Schochet for her editorial assistance.

Should I move back to Israel?

Dear Rabbi, 

When I originally moved to New York I was a young man with big dreams. I planned to set up a business, amass a couple million dollars and then head back to my native Israel without a care in the world. Ten years on, the Big Apple is still my home and I haven’t quite hit the jackpot. Should I move back to Israel?

A regular in your shul

Dear Friend

I love Israel. What’s more, I’m proud of Israel. This week CNN reported on the Israeli effort in Haiti. Israel managed to erect the largest field hospital amid the devastation, utilizing state of the art equipment and treating up to five thousand patients daily. 

When I was growing up, my parents had close friends who were congregants in my father’s shul in South Africa. They were very traditional, keeping kosher and attending services every Shabbat. After several years, they decided to move to Israel. Once there, they struggled to fit into a community and slowly lost touch with their Judaism. Their marriage fell apart and today they are what Israelis call “chiloni”- totally irreligious. Unfortunately, this occurrence has become a trend. Why does this happen in the Holy land?

As one who associates with Israelis on a daily basis, I find that those of them living outside of Israel are far more inclined to get involved with the spiritual side of Judaism. The reason for this is because they feel that merely living in the country that defines Judaism provides sufficient spiritual sustenance. This past Rosh Hashana whilst blowing the shofar. I noticed a woman crying. She confided in me afterwards that although she grew up in Israel, she had never heard the shofar before in her life. It was such an emotional experience for her. Such stories are not uncommon among Israelis; indeed, many of our dear congregants would never dream of stepping into a shul were they living in Israel!

This week’s Torah portion details the Israelites grand exodus from Egypt after 210 years of bondage. It is a known fact that every word in Torah has a contemporary moral for each generation. How exactly do we define freedom in our day and age?

Ten years ago whilst still a Yeshiva student in Israel, I returned to South Africa to spend Pesach with my family. On the third day of this festival of freedom, my father was requested to visit Soweto’s maximum security prison to circumcise the baby of a Jewish prisoner. At the time, the township of Soweto was notorious for its riots. I remember passing through dozens of security checks as we made our way to the women’s prison.

Upon meeting the woman, she explained that she had been incarcerated for possession of drugs during the early stages of her pregnancy. As she handed the infant to my father, we were surprised to learn that his was an extremely dark color, unusual among the lighter locals. She had no idea who the child’s father was, but thought perhaps it might be an old Nigerian friend!

This was the child who entered the Covenant of G-d on that day. This was the child whom my father named Menachem Mendel, after the Lubavitcher Rebbe (as the mother did not know any Jewish names). This is the essence of freedom. Despite the fact that this child was born in the squalid cells of Soweto, he became free that day. For freedom has little to do with walls and barriers, and everything to do with religion and faith…

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair in August of 1969 began a revolution of what our depraved society terms ‘freedom’. The legacy of ‘free love’ and experimentation with unlimited quantities of drugs has been proudly upheld by our generation, only too eager to maintain this wanton behaviour. 

Judaism at its best has a far more different and deeper lesson to impart. Freedom does not entitle one to do as he pleases. Such a person merely becomes a slave to his desires and addictions. A Rabbi once summed up Judaism in one word: totality. True freedom is having instruction in every area of one’s life, be it business, relationships, getting dressed or simply eating. True freedom is waking up in the morning with a purpose and a guide as to how to fulfill it.

Perhaps children best illustrate the idea. Imagine a child were allowed to do as he pleases. He may go to bed when he chooses, eat what he wants and roam wherever he wishes. The only outcome will be mayhem and havoc! Children can only thrive on routine and order. Likewise, an ox who is allowed to roam free and unencumbered in a field will surely destroy it, but place a yoke on that same animal and guide it along, and eventually you’ll have perfect rows of lush and abundant produce. True freedom must contain restraint, for only then can beauty result. This is why G-d gave us the Torah, so that it should serve as our restraint, instructing every aspect of our lives, providing us with routine and liberating us from within.

Moshe Rabenu tells Pharoah in the name of G-d, “Let my people go that they may serve Me.” G-d may have redeemed the Israelites from Egypt, but their true redemption could only come about through their own actions. When a Jew abides by the Torah and Mitzvot, he follows G-d’s instruction to him and thus frees himself, revealing his essence, the G-dly spark inherent within him.

So yes, my friend, by all means move back to Israel. Just remember that living there is not enough to liberate you spiritually, only your actions can achieve that!

Uriel Vigler

Thank you to Efrat Schochet for her editorial assistance.

Bomb Scare - Tefillin!

The following story published in the New York Daily News is incredible. I was once on a plane from Kathmandu to Thailand and I was forced to put Tefillin on the plane. The same thing nearly happened to me.

Jewish teen's tefillin sets off bomb scare that diverts US Airways flight from LaGuardia Airport


A US Airways is escorted by police after being diverted to Philadelphia International Airport Thursday when passengers reportedly mistook a Jewish passenger's teffilin (below) for a bomb.

Holy mixup!

The diverting of a US Airways flight after a Jewish passenger's prayer box was mistaken for a bomb is:

A Jewish prayer box worn by a teen passenger caused a Thursday morning furor on a flight from LaGuardia Airport, forcing an emergency landing in Philadelphia, authorities said.

The mix-up involved the 17-year-old boy's tefillin, a black box filled with Biblical verses and tied with leather straps to his head, said Philadelphia police Lt. Frank Vanore.

Fears of a potential terrorist attack led the Louisville, Ky.,-bound flight to instead land at Philadelphia International Airport just before 9 a.m., authorities said.

All 15 passengers and 3 crew members aboard U.S. Airways Express Flight 3709 were safely evacuated after the sudden landing, said airline spokesman Jim Olson.

Although the teen explained the significance of the tefillin to the crew, the pilot opted to land the plane in Philadelphia anyway, Vanore said.

The tefillin-wearing youth was traveling with his sister from New York to Louisville. The boxes - a second one is tied around the arm - are typically worn by men in certain Orthodox Jewish communities.

The flight was met by law enforcement personnel and officials from the Transportation Security Administration.

The teen was interviewed and the plane swept for explosive devices, with nothing found, the TSA said in a statement.

Vanore said the unidentified youth was cooperative with authorities after the plane landed.

To learn more about Tefillin please visit www.chabadic.com/tefillin.

Our belief in G-d

The crushing news from Haiti this week has left many of us stunned. With the death toll reaching into the thousands and an additional three million people affected, the scale of the relief effort will be colossal. About a third of the island’s GNP is foreign aide. It's had its share of disease, war, hurricanes and now, earthquake. Our thoughts & prayers are with the victims and all their families.

We have no idea why this tragedy happened. We know that G-d rules over the entire world. Our first question is “Why, G-d? For what purpose must so much suffering be inflicted upon us? Why, why, why?” Yet despite our lack of answers, we continue to steadfastly believe…

In this weeks Torah portion the Jewish people are called “ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim” – believers the sons of believers… In fact in the merit of the Jewish people’s belief in G-d they were able to leave Egypt.

The Talmud relates a story about Rabbi Akiva on one of his travels. He reached a town at dusk, and finding no local inn, he approached the first house hoping to be welcomed for the night. Alas, hospitality was refused him. After several similar attempts yielded the same results, Rabbi Akiva, forever optimistic, declared, “Gam Zu Le’Tova - Everything Hashem does is for the good”. And with that, he headed into the forest on the outskirts of town, intending to rest there for the night.

Three items the great sage would always pack with him when he travelled: a donkey to carry his parcels, a rooster to wake him at dawn, and a lamp by whose light he could study late into the night. As Rabbi Akiva made his way through the thicket, a lion suddenly pounced on his donkey and devoured it. Shortly after, his rooster was attacked and killed by a fox. And to top it all off, a gusty wind abruptly extinguished his candle. While the average traveller would likely feel very disheartened following three such episodes, not so Rabbi Akiva. Once again he adamantly declared, “Gam Zu Le’Tova - Everything Hashem does is for the good”. And with that, he fell asleep.

Upon awakening, Rabbi Akiva discovered just how agreeable his seemingly hopeless situation had been. He was astonished to learn that the village he had visited the evening before was in shambles. During the night a Roman legion had attacked the town and taken all its inhabitants captive. Had his donkey or rooster been alive, their braying and crowing would have attracted the attention of the attackers, as would the light of the lamp. And how fortunate was he for not being invited into anyone’s home, for then he too would have suffered the terrible fate of the helpless villagers!

A few months ago, a woman called me and tearfully described her father’s dire medical situation, wondering what she should do. I replied that I would pray for him, and suggested that perhaps she take on a mitzvah or two in whose merit her father would recover. She dejectedly told me that she had not called to ask how to ensure a recovery, but rather how to go about arranging his final hours as well as the funeral.

I informed her of our sages’ wise counsel that even if one has reached the point where a sword is pressed to his neck, he should not lose hope and always trust that G-d will redeem him from his plight. She thanked me very much and hung up.

The story moved to the back of my mind until last week when I received a donation from this same woman. I called her to thank her and inquired after her father. She excitedly told me that the doctors had misdiagnosed him with Parkinson’s disease and were therefore treating him for it. The medication was killing him. As soon as they discovered their error, they ceased giving him the medication and he recovered fully!

Long before Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 best-seller “The Secret” bewitched the world, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, made a declaration that has now become an old Yiddish favorite, “Tracht gut- vet zayn gut! Think good, and it’ll be good!”  One’s thoughts have a tremendous impact on situations and greatly affect their outcomes.

We all have our share of troubles. Many of our friends here in the Upper East Side struggle on a daily basis. No matter how desperate the situation seems, whether it’s a couple struggling to have kids, or a business in the decline or a constant battle seeking a suitable spouse, a person’s thought process, together with his firm belief in G-d, can literally generate positive results.

I was able to personally experience the depth of a Jew’s belief this week when I attended a gathering marking the 30th day since the death of our friends’ three year old daughter. The little girl had passed away just nine months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. The grieving mother addressed those present and described her unwavering faith in G-d despite her loss. I was utterly dumbstruck and moved to the point of tears when she pronounced, “Thank you G-d for allowing me to be the mother of my daughter for three years…”

Rabbi Akiva was fortunate enough to see the good that came out of the bad. For the rest of us we await the coming of Moshiach to see the revealed good in every situation. In the meantime Think Positively! 


My thanks to Efrat Schochet for her editorial assistance.

How many children do you have?

Whilst the Jewish people were living in Egypt, an incredible childbirth-related phenomenon occurred. Rashi explains that the Jewish women would give birth to six children at one time. Seeing this, the local Egyptians became anxious that these strangers would multiply so much that they would eventually take over their land. They therefore decided to curb the growth by enslaving the Jews, torturing them and killing them. Despite their efforts, the more afflictions the Jews suffered under the Egyptians, the more they flourished.

Four years ago, I visited a woman who was in a terrible state. She had recently suffered a shattering marriage breakup, after years of having it all. She and her husband had lived in a sprawling mansion in Long Island, together with their teenage daughter. The fairytale rapidly dissipated when business suddenly declined, resulting in the loss of his entire fortune. The divorce was one of the unfortunate consequences. She moved into a tiny studio apartment on the Upper East Side together with her daughter, and worked long and strenuous hours trying to support them. They somehow battled their way like this for three years.

Several months later, she met an Israeli man and life seemed to pick up. But after discovering that she had fallen pregnant, he deserted her. By the time I met with her; she was several weeks into the pregnancy and was an emotional wreck. The last thing she needed was a new baby to further complicate matters and so she cried to me that she planned to terminate the pregnancy.

I patiently created an image for her of the wondrous being developing inside her. I explained to her that although it would be terribly difficult raising a second child in her current circumstances, a child is never a “mistake”, and always a blessing. Besides this, I clarified Judaism’s vehement opposition to abortion. The unborn child possesses a beating heart. Just as one is prohibited to murder a person, so too one may not slay a fetus. The fact that it was her body did not give her any claim over the child’s life or death.

Despite my efforts, she became very frustrated with me and quite pointedly told me it was her life and she would be making the decisions.

After the story we lost touch and so I did not know what became of the pregnancy until several weeks ago when I bumped into her in the street. I was pleasantly surprised to see her pushing a stroller and she in turn, excitedly showed me her beautiful three year old son inside. With tears in her eyes she said to me, “I want to thank you from the depths of my heart for convincing me to have this child. He is truly the greatest gift I could ever have hoped for.”

Turns out that with the birth of her child she was able to rearrange her life, remarrying and acquiring a new job with stable income for her and her family.

As the fourth child in a family of nine, I have always felt blessed. I would never trade the warmth and closeness that defines my family. I admired my parents for having so many children. I have no doubt that it was difficult and extremely challenging. My mother always put her kids and their needs in front of herself. My father would constantly say to us that he felt so wealthy. He was a millionaire nine times over.

Every child is both a blessing and a challenge from G-d. And for each of these `blessed challenges`, G-d equips us from an emotional and financial view. I have friends here on the Upper East Side that have two kids and they will not think of having a third for the simple reason that they will not be able to afford the cost. To these people I argue: in every marriage there are three partners, man, wife and G-d. If G-d has seen fit to bless you with an additional child, He will surely provide you with the means to support it.

I always thought I came from a big family until I met my wife. Shevy is the twelfth child in a family of fifteen. She has seven brothers and seven sisters. At my wedding, my father-in-law was asked how it feels to marry off a twelfth child. Surely it must be no big deal, I mean twelve times over pretty much maxes out the experience barometer. He astonishingly answered that each child is a precious and unique gem. In essence, each child is an only child…

One of the great things about such large families is that there is always a reason to rejoice. Our schedule, G-d willing, in the next six weeks is quite an eye-catcher! For starters, we’ll be in South Africa celebrating my sister’s wedding. Two weeks later we get out our dance shoes again for the marriage of Shevy’s younger sister (that is, number fourteen) in New York. We barely catch our breath before Shevy’s niece`s wedding bash in Palm Springs, California, and from there we move right on to Atlanta for the wedding of a second niece.

At the bris of his eleventh son, a Rabbi was asked “When will you be done?” He replied simply, “ Only once I reach six million.” `Be fruitful and multiply` is the first Mitzvah in the Torah. Every child we bear is the loudest response possible to all the Pharoahs, Hitlers and Stalins that have risen up against us since the birth of our nation.

So how many children do you have (or want to have)?

(My thanks to Efrat Schochet for her editorial assistance)

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