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What if I messed up?

Just today I read the story of a New York truck driver, Frank Sterling, who spent nearly nineteen years behind bars for a 1988 slaying he didn't commit. He walked free on Wednesday after DNA testing exonerated him and instead pointed to another prison inmate.

The article got me thinking. Here is a guy who spent his prime years behind bars, and all for nothing! Then suddenly one day, he is released. Is it too late for him? Surely with a history of years spent reflecting on his non-crime, with outrage and resentment as his constant companions, he was beyond hope. Could he still make it in life?

Uri R. was born in Ethiopia and arrived in Israel at three years old. At eighteen he enlisted in the IDF. During a Gaza raid in Operation Cast Lead, while standing guard as a night sentry, ten RPGs were aimed at the building his unit had occupied, one of which struck Uri himself. His friends were killed instantly. The impact of the blast threw Uri against the wall under the window of the room he was in, shielding him from further assault. As he looked up at the bullets soaring overhead, Uri took a moment to assess the damage to his person and realized his hand had been torn off, and that his leg, oozing copious amounts of blood, seemed to be hanging on by mere threads. A wave of despair crashed over him as he thought: how would he manage without a hand and a leg? It was then that Uri made a lightning decision: with all these injuries, life was simply not worth living for. He was going to commit suicide.

Raising himself to stand directly in the window’s line of fire, Uri chanced another glance at his leg. He noticed that while severely wounded, the leg was still attached and could perhaps be saved. Within ten seconds of his first, Uri promptly made his second life-altering decision. “At this very moment, I may choose to live or to die. I choose to live.” He reasoned that while the horror of losing two limbs certainly warranted his own death sentence, the loss of just the hand seemed somewhat manageable in comparison. Uri walked out alive and today talks about how happy he is with his hasty decision made during those fateful moments.

This week we celebrated the holiday of Pesach Sheini. The story goes that on the night preceding the Exodus from Egypt, the Jews were commanded to offer a sacrifice, a Pascal lamb. This presented a difficulty for some, as they were at the time ritually impure, barring them from performing that specific mitzvah in such a state. About a month later while travelling in the desert, these same Jews approached Moshe requesting the right to reoffer the Pesach sacrifice, for now they had attained ritual purity. After consulting with G-d, Moshe confirmed that they would indeed be given the opportunity to offer the sacrifice.

Pesach Sheini therefore signifies the concept of a second chance. No matter how bleak the picture looks, there’s always a way out. Many times we find ourselves locked in our own prisons of mountainous debt, relationship crises or bad judgement. But we need not wallow in a sordid cell, for Pesach Sheini represents our personal release. And although our problems may not seem as dramatic as Uri’s, we may still learn from him. When faced with possibly the toughest decision, he chose life. He chose to give it another shot. Although it rolls around only once a year, the message of this special chag is one that we should live with daily: in every error there’s an opportunity, it’s just about stepping out into that sunshine shackle-free and with a firm goal in mind.

It is never too late!

P.S. Uri R is part of a delegation of Israeli soldiers coming to Manhattan in June. For more details click here. 

Soldier - shrapnel engraved chai on his head

After weeks of cleaning every nook and cranny of our home for Pesach, co-ordinating a colossal Pesach seder, running a bustling preschool and organizing several Chabad events, my wife Shevy was quite understandably wiped. That’s when we started planning her long awaited getaway. A full kids-free week in London was her perfect idea of relaxation. So to say that she was disappointed when an angry Icelandic volcano picked this exact week to erupt, thus shutting down several major airports, would be an understatement. Personally, I found it hard to conceal my glee at this perfect solution after weeks of wondering exactly why I had agreed to a seven day stint of round the clock babysitting. Unfortunately I celebrated too soon.

The flight was booked for Tuesday night. The day was spent in a frenzy of uncertainty as the airline was unable to confirm its departures until the eleventh hour. Finally at 5:30pm we received a phone call: the flight was scheduled to leave in just two hours. Within minutes Shevy had packed her bags and was on her way.

Amidst the strange quiet that followed Shevy’s exit, I could almost hear G-d laughing. Here hundreds of thousands of passengers had taken months planning their itineraries, thinking they had everything under control, when in a sudden flash everything came crashing down. To think that a mere volcano could thwart the plans of a technologically advanced world which basks in the conveniences of iPods and iPads, and has even conquered out of space! I think that every once in a while, G-d likes to remind us most spectacularly who really runs the show. We even pay tribute to this phenomenon every day during davening when we say, "רבות מחשבות בלב איש ועצת ה' היא תקום" - “many are the thoughts in the heart of man, but it is the counsel of G-d that will endure.”

The idea is illustrated in this week’s Parshah of Acharei Kedoshim. The Torah stipulates that the fruits of a newly planted tree may not be devoured in its’ first three years. In the fourth year the fruits may be eaten on condition that we consume them in Jerusalem. As of the fifth year, the fruits may be enjoyed at our leisure. The reason we take the fruits of the fourth year to the holy city is to remind us that before we may enjoy the labors of this world, we must first give thanks where it is due. G-d desires us to acknowledge His presence in this world, lest we forget by whose grace we live and prosper. In other words, sometimes G-d uses fruits to make a point, and sometimes He uses volcanoes. 

Gal G., one of the ten wounded soldiers whom we will be hosting in Manhattan in June, sustained severe head injuries from flying shrapnel after friendly fire was mistakenly opened on his unit. Despite countless surgeries Gal is still left with many scars. Yet anybody who has seen these scars can attest to the fact that the marks covering his head clearly form the word "חי" (Chai). We cannot claim to know what purpose Gal’s injuries played in G-d’s Grand Plan, but perhaps through his vicious injuries, G-d intended a message for Gal… stay strong, I’m always with you. Am Yisrael Chai.

The First African-American-Zimbabwean Rabbi

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This past Friday I made history. Upon becoming a US citizen, I also became the first Zimbabwean born African-American Rabbi in Manhattan. The citizenship ceremony was attended by 128 people from fifty countries all over the world.

The event began with us all affirming our allegiance to the United States of America, after which followed an alphabetical role call of all countries in attendance that saw each person rise for his motherland and remain standing. First up was Albania. By the time the supervisor had reached the forty ninth country, every person in the room was on their feet, save for me. I finally rose when all the letters had been maxed out, leaving only Zimbabwe. A reporter from Fox News noticed this and was stunned when I confirmed that I indeed am a born and bred Zimbabwean!

After singing the national anthem, next up on the agenda was a message from the President. He concluded by stating, “Now that you are a citizen of the United States of America, nothing is impossible.” (The USCIS director graciously pointed out that that means we may even aspire to one day become a USCIS director ourselves.)

As I listened to Obama speaking, it struck me that his message had a direct connection to the Torah portion of the week.

In Parshat Shemini, the Torah relates the tragedy of the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu. The pious brothers, overcome by their tremendous desire to cleave to G-d, offered incense as a sacrifice to G-d. Since such an act was prohibited, G-d sent down a fire which consumed them. After their deaths, Moses termed the two “kedoshim”- holy ones.

The question is obvious: if they had sinned so terribly so as to warrant an immediate death penalty, by which merit were they titled kedoshim?

Through this account, the Torah wishes to convey a message of deep import. Nadav and Avihu were sincere in their desire to approach G-d. Yes, the means to the end was slightly erred, but nevertheless they remained holy individuals, for their actions were triggered by a dream. It is crucial that each of us too nurture a similar dream, endeavouring to incorporate more spirituality and holiness in our lives. It is preferable to refrain from getting ourselves killed in the process, but a blazing will to infuse our lives with spirituality needs to constantly spur us.

Several days ago I met a member of our shul while running errands. We chatted, and I inquired as to how his business was faring. He replied that things could be better, but with all the plans he had in mind, like investing in real estate and expanding his horizons, he hoped to achieve greater success. When I then queried regarding how matters were on the spiritual side, he answered simply, “I’m happy with where I am.” “Fascinating, isn’t it,” I commented, “how your aspiration for physical success seems to be fuelled by a burning ambition, whereas you claim to be totally complete with your level of spiritual observance… don’t you think the two ought to be reversed?”

While Obama may view US citizenship as the key to many dreams, we Jews have always guarded our own key right in our pockets. It is up to us to retrieve that key, the Torah, and use it to unlock the door to a world of spiritual freedom and joy.


Please help save a fellow Jew

Dear friends

I am writing to you about an issue that is of great urgency with regards to the plight of a fellow Jew, an individual in the American Jewish community, that you can do something about.  It is unusual for me to send out such a letter, but a life of a father of 10 (with one autistic child) is at stake. I write this not in an official capacity but as a personal letter by a fellow concerned brother; and I send this to you in trust of your sense of fairness, and quite honestly, of your warm Jewish heart that will compel you to read the information sheet below to see the other side of a story you may have seen propagated and inflated in the media.

It is regarding the handling and sentencing of Sholom Rubashkin, manager of the Aarons Best-Rubashkin kosher meat plant, who has been held in terrible conditions awaiting sentencing, without bail or even an opportunity to spend Passover with his family. As one who has followed the case since its beginning it is obvious that the treatment was and still has been highly unusual.

World Jewish leaders have carefully researched the prosecution of Sholom
Rubashkin and are deeply disturbed. In sending you this email, I am joining
thousands of other Rabbis and organizations who are urging their communities to voice their concerns.

The federal government has been zealous in pursuing Mr. Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin and has submitted him to considerably more severe restrictions and potential punishment than others in similar cases. Mr. Rubashkin, a father of ten including an autistic child, will be sentenced on April 28 and faces the possibility of life in prison and the probability of a 27 year sentence, far beyond the sentences imposed on others whose crimes were significantly more severe than anything Mr. Rubashkin may have done.

In issuing this call, we are in no way condoning any criminal conduct. Rather, we are asking that Mr. Rubashkin be treated like any other American. We are asking you to communicate your respectful concern over the handling of the Rubashkin case, and the excessive sentence being considered. (For more details about this, please see the memo on the website below.) Rubashkin did not gain personally from the legal mistakes he made and had no intention of causing any monetary loss to anyone. (Notably, Mark Turckan, who pled guilty to a 21 year cover up of misapplying funds from the SAME bank, and was found to have caused a 25 million dollar loss, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.)

Please sign an online petition available at www.justiceforsholom.org and please call or email the Justice Department's Intergovernmental and Public Liaison Office 202-514-3465 /oipl@usdoj.gov (please cc pr@justiceforsholom.org with your concerns.

These emails are important and will be forwarded to the US Attorney handling the case. Please consider forwarding this to your family and friends as well.

Thank you

 Rabbi Uriel Vigler

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