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The voice of the bride & groom

married.jpgThis week, my sister Chanee got married in South Africa. The following is an excerpt of my speech:

3 300 years ago, G-d made a most dramatic proposal of marriage to the Jewish people whilst they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. In an elaborate gesture of romance, He suspended the mountain over their heads, declaring, “Today is our wedding day! If you agree to marry Me, you will receive the Torah and the Jewish nation will be born. If you reject Me, however, I will release this mountain and you will all die!”

Chassidus teaches us that this narrative does not imply that G-d physically held the mountain over their heads, but rather that He displayed His love so absolutely that the Jewish people could not resist His offer. When a man falls in love with a woman, he pursues her endlessly, lavishes her with gifts, wines and dines her until all her resistance melts away. Just like the Jewish nation, she, in a sense, is forced to marry him.

Close to one thousand years later, the Jewish people accepted G-d purely because they desired to, and not because they were forced to. It was during the Purim saga that “Kiy’mi vekiblu” – “they accepted what they had agreed to at Matan Torah.”

During that tumultuous period in their lives, when a most horrific decree of annihilation hung over their heads, the Jewish people turned to G-d with stark sincerity and pure devotion. Over the course of an entire year, the practice of Judaism in the kingdom of Persia held a penalty of death. It was against this backdrop, when G-d was almost totally concealed from them, that the Jewish nation reaffirmed their wedding vows. No mountain hovered above their heads, no thundering Heavenly voice demanded a union and no shattering displays of love coloured their vision, yet it was precisely at such a bland time that they accepted G-d and His Torah. The marriage was reinstituted out of pure love and nothing else, so it became more real and meaningful.

Every marriage follows a similar pattern. At the start there exists what we call “kol chatan vekol kalla” – “a special voice of the chatan and a special voice of the kallah.” Practically what this means is that during those early days when the love is overwhelming each spouse is exceptionally willing to go out of their way for the other. No arguments over who takes out the garbage, sweet nothings are murmured regularly, and tasty hot dinner is served at precisely 6pm. Each responds to the other with beautiful words and pleasant names, “Sure sweetheart I’ll mow the lawn three times over until you’re 100% satisfied!” the elated groom declares.

At a wedding we bless the couple that their entire lives should be permeated with the kol chatan vekol kalla. Reality hits once the glitz and glamour of the celebrations have died down, and it’s just plain Chosson and Kalla setting up a home and establishing a routine. It is during this monotonous flow that we bless them that their faces should always radiate the way they do now, their stares of longing and love should continuously be exchanged and the sounds of their sweet whispers should perpetually fill their ears. Because it is precisely when all the dazzle has been stripped away that each can best accept the other not because they have to, but because they want to.

 

Regards from South Africa

I arrived in South Africa this week for my sisters wedding. I just got back from a beautiful trip to the Pillansberg National Park where my kids saw Giraffes, Zebras, Elephants, Rhinos and Lions for the first time in their lives.

While on board the fifteen hour plane ride, I found myself thinking how intriguing it is that when one decides to board an airplane, one practically entrusts one’s life to the hands of a stranger. No background checks on the pilot, no queries regarding his reputation, and yet the passage is fraught with potential dangers and disasters. Luggage all packed, passports safely stowed, we board the plane with blind trust.

Yet when one undergoes a surgical procedure one will not so much as enter the hospital without having completed extensive research. After all, who would allow an amateur to knife him and then operate on his insides? Furthermore, even after merely receiving a negative diagnosis we seek a second opinion!

The answer to the puzzle is brilliant in its simplicity. We have no problem boarding a plane with a layman precisely because he boards with us. Since he entrusts his own life at the same time that we entrust ours, our fates are intermingled. But a surgeon risks nothing when he operates on the patient, and so we must establish his credibility.

“Ve’asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham” this week’s parsha commands us. “Make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” Chassidus teaches that every person on this earth has his own personal mission to accomplish. Generally, this amounts to infusing the world with extra goodness and kindness by permeating physicality with spirituality. By so doing we build G-d the sanctuary He so craves. Let none of us think that he is independent from his fellow and thus free from his obligation. We are all in it together!

 

 

Snowed in...

This week Shevy and I flew out to Atlanta for the wedding of our niece. It was scheduled to be a brief visit, a little less than 48 hours. Due to the historic snow storm, all flights back to New York had been cancelled. At first I was very upset and frustrated. I had meetings scheduled as well as deadlines to complete. Before I became extremely angry and really annoyed I recalled a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov.

Everything that happens to us in this world is by Divine Providence. Every incident, every event, every occurrence is backed by a purpose. Even if a leaf falls off a tree in a specific location this is Divinely ordained. Obviously there was a reason that our flight was delayed. As such, I embraced the situation and waited to learn why G-d had seen fit to extend our stay in Atlanta.

Each soul that descends into our world is tasked with a specific mission that none but he can accomplish. As such, the location and occupation of each person at every moment is orchestrated by a higher power. Hazardous weather conditions may indeed shift flight schedules, but somebody up there decides when and where disastrous weather strikes. I have friends living in our community who are from Israel. Many of them came to New York only for a couple of years to save enough money so that they can return to Israel with savings in their account. The real, mystical and kabbalistic reason that they end up here is because their souls have a unique mission to accomplish in New York and that’s why G-d orchestrates the events down here below to bring them to New York. Once their mission is completed they can return to Israel.  

My own parents moved from Israel to South Africa nearly 40 years ago. Initially they agreed to go only for 2 years. They managed to build a beautiful community in Johannesburg and have touched the lives of hundreds of people. G-d caused a chain of events to happen so that they should find themselves in such a far place and accomplish their mission in the world.

The founder of Chassidism, the Baal Shem Tov, was an ardent follower of this concept. He would often exclaim, “A soul may descend into this world for seventy or perhaps eighty years with the sole purpose of doing a favour for a fellow Jew…” Who knows, perhaps G-d knew that the only way I’d write this article was if I’d stay in Atlanta an extra day?

Please help save the life of Martin Grossman

There is a Jew named Martin Grossman who is set to be executed on February 16th in Florida. He committed a terrible crime for which he deserves to be punished but not with the death penalty. My friend Rabbi Menachem Katz has been giving Martin counselling and guidance for the last 15 years. He is heading a petition to have his sentence changed. Here are the facts: 

Martin Grossman, in 1984 was a 19-year-old drug-addicted high-school drop-out with a juvenile record for trespassing. He and a friend, Thanye Taylor, drove to an isolated nature reserve to fire a found handgun.

A wildlife officer stopped them, searched their car and confiscated the gun. Martin,who is reported to have an IQ of 77, panicked and began pleading with the officer not to report him as he would be in violation of his probation. When she reached for her radio a struggle ensued, which resulted in the officer reaching for her own gun, whereupon Martin panicked, snatched her gun and shot her.

A psychiatrist who evaluated him concluded, from his psychological and medical condition, that he could not have formed the intent to kill. Taylor served less than three years in prison while Martin was sentenced to death.

Mr. Grossman has been on death row for over 25 years.

The petition argues that the death sentence meted out to him is disproportionate in the extreme and that his defense was inadequate. Only one percent of murder sentences end in capital punishment, crimes commonly referred to as "the worst of the worst."

The petition further argues that Martin's crime, considering the lack of premeditation, his drug addiction, his IQ level, and several other compelling factors does not qualify for the death penalty, and that the court ignored mitigating circumstances. Only four of thirty-three available defense witnesses were used in the sentencing phase.

Additionally, there are allegations of prosecutorial misconduct as well. A fellow prisoner and key witness for the government swears that he lied at trial, and that he was rewarded by having his own charges dropped. Martin Grossman's appeals regarding these issues have been rejected without hearings, but they could be considered in a clemency petition.

"Martin has shown deep and profound remorse over the years, and is no longer the same wild reckless person he was 26 years ago," argues Rabbi Menachem Katz from the Aleph Institute, who has visited him regularly over the past 15 years.

As of this release, Governor Crist has not agreed to grant a stay. Execution is set for February 16 at 6:00 PM.

Please add your name to the petition so that we can change the Governor's mind. Sign the online petition.

Why are we infatuated with football?

superbowl.jpgThis past Sunday I very abruptly found myself quite friendless. Those of my mates who had not carted over to Miami remained resolutely indoors, their noses glued to their flat screens, drinking in the football.

Super Bowl Sunday has evolved into a national religious holiday. Indeed this morning CBS reported that due to the massive snow storm that ravaged Washington, all power lines had been damaged. Residents were warned that it would be several days before electricity would be restored, and that, quite tragically, they would likely have to forfeit watching tonight’s game. I often find myself wondering what can possibly be so intriguing about a ball being kicked across a field. I have since concluded that perhaps it is indeed the odd shaped ball that attracts over 90 millions viewers, with 30 second ads selling for a staggering $3million.

Perhaps the reason is because G-d Himself together with the angels have been watching Super bowl for the last 3300 years. Ever since the giving of the Torah where the Jewish nation was given its mission statement, we have been playing the game.

Each Jew contains his own personal field. The teams are comprised of our two warring souls: the G-dly and the animal. Each side battles for dominion over the body, craving sole authority. The war trumpets sound every time we use our senses, for everything can be experienced through the eyes of the spiritual soul or the physical soul. One may choose to gaze at the blazing billboards of Fifth Avenue, skim through glossy magazines, or one may feast his eyes on the inspiring pages of the holy Torah. Similarly, one may use his hands to strike his fellow, or more positively, to don Tefillin or light Shabbat candles. A two point conversion would be if after putting on Tefillin you pray with a minyan as well.

Many times over the years, due to our slackening skills on the field, G-d has been tempted to abandon the game. At times He came pretty close, even destroying two Temples. Once G-d even caught the Satan roaming aimlessly around the Heavenly Court. “Why are you not working?” G-d admonished him. “There is no work for me to do. I merely suggest a sin and the Jew has already gone ahead with it.”

We know that ultimately purity & morality will triumph over the forces of darkness & evil - that is what Moshiach is all about but in the meantime let the teams that plays best win!

 

Do you know how to criticize?

hmm.jpgBefore we started our weekly Shabbat services at the Marriot Hotel, I would pray in other shuls in the neighbourhood. Every Shabbat morning I’d traipse through the bustling streets of the Upper East Side, sticking out like a sore thumb in my tallit and Shabbat clothes. One week, while walking down Third Avenue, I noticed a store whose owner happened to be Jewish. I immediately approached him, extending my hand and wishing him a Shabbat Shalom. We exchanged a few words and from then on, every week without fail, I would pass the store and wish him a Shabbat Shalom. After several weeks, he became embarrassed that his business operated on Shabbat so he tried hiding in the back room. Unmoved, I simply followed him and wished him a Shabbat Shalom there.

Today, this Jew is one of my close friends and comes to our shul every single week. Recently he confided in me that my weekly greeting was what pushed him to suddenly start attending services. He explained that I never criticized him, never condemned him. Not once did I accuse him, “Why is your store open on Shabbat morning? Why are you not coming to shul?” I simply walked in there, accepted him for who he was and genuinely wished him a Shabbat Shalom. It was this non-judgemental attitude that inspired him to start attending every week. Thank G-d he still joins us every Shabbat morning…

The single greatest moment in all of history took place 3300 years ago at Matan Torah. The solid bond between the six hundred thousand Jews present was so acute that the Torah tells us that the nation stood “ke’ish echad belev echad” – “as one man with one heart.” The intense spiritual light of the event penetrated the heart of each man to such an extent that he totally dismissed any personal grievances or animosity that he held against his fellow. Each man was able to connect to his friend on a much deeper level, for all outer inhibitions had been stripped bare, leaving the inner self entirely exposed.

At the core of every Jew, we share an intrinsic connection with every one of our brothers and sisters. Ours is a single essence, a unified soul. Every difference, every discrepancy and every argument that separates us is rooted in our physical bodies. Focus on our material and mundane pursuits and you become your own lonely entity. But take that same energy and channel it inwards, acknowledging the soul within, and you become a part of a much greater whole, a thread in a most colourful tapestry. Each of our souls forms an additional link in the grand chain that unites us as one. 

Just this morning I read a story about an illegal immigrant charged with arson and murder in a Brooklyn house blaze that killed five people. He purposely instigated a fire in his neighbors’ baby carriage to settle a score. He was angry with his them for leaving the stroller in the hallway of the Bensonhurst building. He had asked them several times to move it but since they had nowhere else to put it they just left it there. How tragic!

A friend of mine living here in the city hasn’t spoken to his sister in forty years. They had a fallout years ago and have not been able to make up since. I explained to him, “There is so much more that unites you with your sister than what divides you. The animosity and resentment you feel for each other pale when you focus on the inner essence that unites you.”

If a person behaves foolishly and then chastises himself saying, “I am such a fool”, he won’t be insulted even though he is aware he just did a very foolish thing. But if his friend were to rebuke him with the very same words he would be upset and possibly very hurt. The reason for this is simple: when one reprimands oneself, he knows that the rebuke arises from the greatest innate love for oneself. While his friend’s rebuke may likely also stem from goodwill, it definitely is not accompanied by the same level of personal love.

In a similar vein, a wife frustratedly exclaims, “My father is so lazy!” The very next day, her husband will make the same declaration about her father. She will get insulted. Why? Because she knows that her statement is mellowed by her inborn love for her father, while his is purely an expression of resentment, lacking her inherent devotion.

Imagine buying your first Lexus. Your wife takes it out for a spin, only to return with a gaping dent on the shiny new hood. If you react the same way you would have, had you been at fault, rest assured that you are well on your way to falling in love. It is this degree of love that we should aspire to actualize in our relationships: loving our fellow as much as ourselves. And the first step to achieving this is to focus on what unites us, not on what separates us.

Matan Torah marks the marriage of G-d with His people. It was against the backdrop of a flaming mountain and thunderous lightning that G-d singled us out as His bride. Since then, as in every marriage, we have had good times and bad times. Times when we turned to G-d, pouring out our hearts in prayer and commitment, and times where we shunned Him, indulging ourselves in our own pleasures and amusement. No matter what we do, G-d continues to love us wholly and unconditionally. G-d loves each and every single one of us as if we were His only child. Let us take a note out of G-d’s book, for to have attained this degree of love for our fellow Jews is to have mastered the art of criticism. 

My thanks to Efrat Schochet for her editorial assistance.

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