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Do Jews celebrate Halloween?

Growing up in South Africa, I had never witnessed the drama of a typical American October. Houses on the block have been transformed into a scene straight out of a gruesome horror movie with ghosts and goblins, spider webs and skeletons spilling out onto front yards, each intended to scare the life out of every passerby. With such intriguing displays which no doubt provide hours of entertainment to their creators, one wonders what it is about the leering pumpkins that dismally fails to entrance the Jews.

Halloween is rooted in primitive pagan rituals dedicated to the “Sun God” and the “Lord of the Dead”. The festival glorifies concepts relating to demonic forces, haunted hovels, witches, ghosts, goblins and general occult practices. One of Halloween’s main themes is ‘trick or treating’. Reserved for children dressed in costumes, they proceed from house to house, greeting each person with an ultimatum: “Trick or Treat?” If the individual fails to hand over the coveted treat, he must resort himself to a trick on either himself or his property.

This week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sara details the marriage of our forefather Isaac to Rebecca. The tale starkly contrasts the classic fairytale where after falling totally in love, the prince and princess marry and live happily ever after. Isaac took Rebecca home, and in the Torah’s words, “she became his wife and he loved her.”

True love can only be experienced within the context of marriage. Love develops when two physically, emotionally and psychologically different individuals devote themselves to one another, loving each other because of their differences and despite them. Today’s society has hopelessly confused love with lust, often building relationships and marriages on that powerful but fickle attraction. Love is all about giving, lust is about taking. Love results from living day in day out with a spouse and completely devoting oneself to them. The general rule is, the more you give, the more you fall in love.

The Jewish counterpart to Halloween is celebrated half a year earlier on Purim. The demons are challenged by holy sages, the nightmares are replaced with rejoicing, and most importantly, our fancy-dressed children do not demand candies from their neighbours, rather, they hand out treats to them in the form of mishloach manot. Purim teaches our children that as Jews, we give, we do not take.

Our kids are our future, so this year, you decide. Halloween or Purim: which of the two messages do you wish to impart to your precious child?

Blistering heat

In the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion we read “Now the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot”.

Wanting Avraham to rest and recuperate after his circumcision at the tender age of 99, G-d created a scorching heat wave to ensure no passerby would venture through the desert highway and disturb Avraham in his tent. Nevertheless, so devoted was he to his mission of spreading monotheism, that Avraham was devastated. He wanted to seize any opportunity to entertain guests despite his fragile state. He was waiting anxiously by the entrance of his tent to see if there would be travellers on the road despite the blistering heat. G-d finally relented and sent three angels disguised as Arab travellers. Avraham was absolutely thrilled, and true to his passion, he rushed out to invite them into his home.

The tale reminded me of my very own heat wave several weeks back.

Preparations for the event began weeks in advance. We rented a hall; ordered the tables, met with caterers and organized the deco for our Simchat Torah dinner-dance program. We printed leaflets of popular songs, organized the hakafot, and ran a publicity campaign. By the time the evening arrived, we felt pretty accomplished. Satisfied with our weeks of effort, we walked into the hall....only to be greeted by a blast of hot air. I ran out to find the super, who casually informed me that the air conditioning had malfunctioned. In fact, the building department had left just before I arrived to shut down what they deemed a hazardous AC. Great!

As the disappointment bubbled inside me, a number of questions chased around my brain. Why couldn’t it have happened the day before? Why today of all days? The one day of the year that we rent this hall and the AC has to break down...And it wasn’t just hot – it was boiling hot.

Once the initial frustration died down, I resigned myself to the fact that G-d runs the world according to a master plan, and that everything happens for a reason. I had no idea why He had to pick tonight of all nights, but either way, we went on with the program. In the end, the evening proved a massive success, with energy pumping through the nearly tangible air. We learnt from Avraham that joy has no barriers- not pain and definitely not heat.

I learnt that day to prepare myself for any eventuality. We can work as hard as we want, but in the end, G-d runs the show and determines its success or failure. Who knows, maybe that night G-d was testing our perseverance?

Welcoming strangers

On Friday morning of Simchat Torah, I was slightly surprised when I walked into shul at the Marriot Hotel and was greeted by two Yeshiva students from Brooklyn. Ori and Shai explained that upon the completion of their army service, they became religious and decided to study in a Yeshiva. They had spent Sukkot at Chabad’s World Headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

As is the custom instituted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, yeshiva students all over the world branch out to different communities on Simchat Torah to join in the dancing and liven up the atmosphere, as only young blood can. Ori and Shai, still fit from their army days, chose to walk to the furthest shul within walking distance. They gathered a group of twelve other guys to make the five hour trek to the Bronx, remain there for three hours and then return home. As it turned out, all twelve copped out.

After dancing the night away, Ori and Shai set out to Brooklyn at 10pm. It wasn’t long before the blisters started swelling painfully and desperation began to sink in. The plan was to seek out a Chabad House and spend the night there. At around 2am, they somehow found themselves in a rain- drenched Upper East Side and were directed by a local to the “Jewish Center” at 206 E 95th. Not knowing a word of English, they struggled to communicate with the baffled doormen of both our preschool building and our home, both of whom denied them access. Resigning themselves, they sought shelter under a canopy just outside the Chabad House where they spent the remainder of the night in the unfriendly storm. With the arrival of morning, Ori and Shai headed to shul where we pampered them with great food and real beds.

During one of our many conversations, I asked the two to please convey my regards to a friend in Israel, who, as it turns out, they also knew. When I asked them how they would remember my name, they replied in all seriousness, “Are you kidding? The entire night we wondered how we would wake up Vigler, where is Vigler, Vigler, Vigler... that’s not a name we’ll forget too fast!”

The hero of this week’s parsha (Lech Lecha) is none other than Avraham Avinu. Renowned for his unprejudiced generosity and intense kindness, Avraham took great pride in his desert hotel... an all-open tent servicing all wayfarers, religion and affiliations irrelevant. In our generation, we too were fortunate to witness an Avrahamic compassion. The Lubavitcher Rebbe made it his mission to reach every Jew worldwide, establishing over 4 000 Chabad Centers headed by enthusiastic young couples ready to sacrifice the luxuries of home in favor of building thriving Jewish communities in the remotest corners of Earth. Thanks to the Rebbe’s tireless efforts, a Jew may travel to any destination with the knowledge that he will be greeted by brothers and friends at the local Chabad House.

Just as it was for Ori and Shai, an Avrahamic tent of warmth and light awaits each Jew, no matter where he may find himself, thanks to the Rebbe’s tireless efforts.

Post Holidays

I woke up on Monday morning feeling depressed and somewhat empty. After a jam packed month of non-stop chagim, the vacant week ahead of me seemed rather anti-climatic. I didn’t have a moment to spare between stirring Rosh Hashana services, fasting on Yom Kippur, Sukka construction in various parks and joyful Simchat Torah dancing. For the first time in a month I managed to relax, and all that accomplished was to make me feel like a deflated balloon.

What now?

I rang my friend Mendel, a fellow Chabad Rabbi in Doylestown, PA, suggesting we get together to study some Torah over the phone. As it worked out, that session was the perfect antidote for my dejection, for what we learnt not only soothed my soul, it also stilled my agitation.

This week’s Torah portion of Noach presents the well-known tale of the flood that wiped out the corrupt society that inhabited earth at the time. The timelessness of Torah means that the 4000-year-old flood still holds relevance in our day and age and retains a lesson even for our ultra-modern generation. Each of us, at some point in our lives, finds ourselves drowning in a flood. The waters are created by the anxiety and stress of daily life: business deals don’t always go the way we planned; an argument with a spouse leads to frustration. The tumultuous whirlpools of these daily pressures threaten to engulf us and take us down. And through it all we find ourselves clutching at whatever we can get hold of, only to find we’ve been grasping at straws and sticks.

The key to floating, however, is to enter Noach’s ark. The word used by the Torah for ark is “teiva”, which also translates as “word”. Or more specifically, words of Torah. Just as Noach saved himself and his family by entering that structure, so too are we to enter the haven of Torah. Studying Torah, praying and living the mitzvot form the only boat sturdy enough to keep us afloat.

It was then that I realized that the closure of a lively holiday season need not be cause for gloom, on the contrary, the inspiration and joy experienced over the month serve as oars, steering our boat faster through the raging sea of life.

Ship ahoy!

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