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Count down to Rosh Hashana

I was in Crown Heights, Brooklyn this week running errands. As the World Headquarters of Chabad, the place was bustling with Chassidic Jews all in a frenzy of preparation for the upcoming Holidays. The main shul was packed with fervent worshippers. The local grocery had a 15 minute line; apparently nobody wanted to leave cooking to the last minute. In the Judaica store, one guy was buying a shofar, another a silver honey dish. The air in the streets was spiritually charged and the anticipation was palpable.

I was therefore glad that I had made the trip with my family; most notably my son and daughter, whose friend from Manhattan had joined us. I was thrilled because my kids had a great opportunity to witness the joy of the preparation for the imminent chagim, an experience that will no doubt etch itself into their fertile minds, hopefully ingraining them with a love for their heritage and a desire to live it.

When we returned home and our friend saw the little shofar that we had purchased for her daughter, she couldn’t believe that it was already Rosh Hashana again. I found myself thinking how strange it is that here in Manhattan, it still hasn’t dawned on us that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are less than two weeks away.  

Rosh Hashana this year falls out immediately after Labour Day, so it’s no wonder we’re practically still in our “summer mode”. In Brooklyn, a mere stroll down the street is enough to make you realize that the Day of Judgement is rapidly approaching. Across the river in Manhattan, the awakening has to come from within: we have to shake ourselves up and start preparing. It’s up to each of us to establish a commitment to G-d, to ask our friends whom we have wronged for forgiveness, so that in a few days time when we stand before G-d, our slate will be clean.

The last twelve days of the month of Elul correspond to the twelve months of the year gone by. On each of these days, it is customary to reflect upon our actions of the corresponding month; repenting for any sins we may have transgressed during that time. 

The countdown begins this Shabbat. Why not give it a go?

A battle with my daughter

Last week while out shopping with my four year old daughter Rosie, I realized why my wife prefers to go shopping without the kids. Walking the aisles of my local grocery, Rosie spotted a candy that she insisted on buying. I firmly told her no, since the candy in question was not kosher. She promptly returned it to the shelf and that was that.

Our next stop was a clothing store where Rosie fancied a dress that, in her words, she absolutely had to have. Once again, I refused claiming that she did not need it. As if I had not spoken, Rosie put the dress on over her clothing and continued shopping with me.

As we approached the checkout, experience warned me to brace myself for an oncoming battle of wills. I told Rosie to take off the dress because we were not purchasing it. She refused, of course. When I insisted she remove the garment immediately, Rosie threw a tantrum right on the floor, screaming and shouting how badly she wanted the dress. Eventually I couldn’t refuse her anymore and so I bought it for her.

Later that evening, I was reflecting on the two incidents, wondering why Rosie had accepted my decision on the non-kosher candy without question, while the dress saga had turned into a nightmare. How had Rosie known that I could eventually be swayed to buy the dress? Why didn’t she employ the same tactics to get the candy?

When the reason dawned on me, I smiled because I realized it all boiled down to a successful education. Even though Rosie is only four years old, she senses that no matter how much she may scream, I will never allow her to eat a non-kosher item. It is a red line that will never be crossed. But Rosie understood that she stood a chance at the dress - and she was right.

This week’s parsha of Ki Tetze discusses the laws of warfare. The opening verse begins with the words, “When you go to war on your enemy...”. “Your enemy”, the Chassidic Masters explain, refers to the evil inclination buried deep within the heart of man; the war is an ongoing one that we struggle with every day. Yet the Torah gives us hope for victory, concluding the verse with the promise, “and G-d will deliver him into your hand... and you will take captives...”

The key to triumph against the sly inclination is to set up barriers, to establish red lines that will never be crossed. Each of us knows what our personal red lines ought to be, let us erect them and never fall prey.

Prayer before death

This week while working in my office, I answered a phone call from a man frantically seeking a rabbi. He explained that his grandmother was minutes from passing away and needed a rabbi to attend to her on her deathbed. I double checked that I had in fact heard correctly, following which the fellow confessed that he had no money to his name. “It’s ok” I told him, “we’re not in it for the money.”

I grabbed a pair of tefillin and dashed to the nursing home. On the way over, the man told me that his aunt was keeping a bedside vigilance next to his grandmother. His own mother was not present because she hadn’t spoken to her sister in twenty years. Upon arriving at the hospital, I donned tefillin with the grandson and together we all recited the Shema Yisroel. As I said the viduy prayers with the dying woman, I began thinking about this powerful prayer.

The returning of one's soul to G-d at the end of its journey in this world is probably the most profound moment in a person's life. The viduy prayer, as well as the crucial setting in which it is recited, envelops one in an atmosphere of nostalgia, immersing him in a lifetime of memories. Waves of regret and sorrow wash over him, pricking him with the knowledge that he often allowed petty stupidities to overshadow the truly important things in life.

The Talmud draws our attention to a fascinating fact of life: while man enters the world with clenched fists, he departs from it with palms outstretched. The significance behind this, explain our sages, lies in the child’s acknowledgement of a lifetime to come, of conquests to be won and challenges to be conquered, whereas the dying man lets go of everything he ever held on to, taking nothing to the grave but the good deeds he performed throughout his life.

How often do we look back and remember not our material possessions and luxuries, but rather the relationships we have formed, both with G-d and with our fellow man. When a baby is born he cries and everyone around him smiles, how fortunate are those who die with a smile while those around them cry. Let us endeavour to live a life that we will one day reflect on with joy and satisfaction, a life free of guilt and regrets. You may have messed up before today, but always remember, it’s never too late to make a change. After all, today is the first day of the rest of your life.

A chance encounter on the train

Just last Shabbos, I was venting to a couple of friends that I was feeling a little frustrated. I was recapping the year: We had reached out to thousands of singles, organized for them countless Shabbat dinners, a cruise, a Lag Baomer BBQ, Chanuka and Purim parties, picnics, etc etc. One of the purposes is that they should find shidduchim and eventually marry each other. Yet the famous Manhattan Jewish singles scene seemed not the least bit dented by all of my heroic efforts.

Well, three days later, I was riding on a subway minding my own business, deeply captivated by my blackberry, when I hear the guy sitting next to me asking “Are you Rabbi Vigler?” When I confirmed my identity, he said that he had been looking for a shidduch for many years and wasn’t able to find one. About a year ago, he had signed up to one of our popular Friday night dinners. “I met an amazing girl there, and I just thought I should tell you that we just gotten engaged…”

Now this was a complete coincidental meeting. I mean what are the odds of sitting next to a guy on the train that knows your name? And if not for that chance encounter, (which we call divine providence) I would never know that I was indirectly responsible for making his shidduch!

Yet the message is not, to talk to strangers on the MTA. It is to keep on trying even when you do not see the fruits of your labors. Because we are human, and we never will see the whole picture. But it is the effort that counts.

Keep on dating. Keep on trying to set your friends up no matter how many disastrous dates you are responsible for. The other half of your soul is waiting for you. All you need to do is make a little effort, go out and search for him/her and with G-d’s help you WILL be successful!

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