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Life in the Fast Lane

road speeding.jpgI e-mailed somebody in our community a few weeks ago to say a quick “how are you”.  A few hours later he e-mails me back, “Rabbi how much do you want?” Shocked, I thought to myself, what has the world come to? Here I am emailing a very innocent e-mail and he responds, “How much do you want?!” So he explained and told me that he knows what would have happened – he would have replied, then I would reply in turn, a lighthearted conversation would ensue and eventually I would ask him to give charity in honor of Rosh Hashanah. So he was just saving me time by getting down to the point…

Our lives have become so fast paced we don’t even realize it. Time is scant, and so wasting it on frivolities such as greetings and niceties is a total misuse. When last did you step outside at 8am amidst the frenzied rush to get to work, only to notice the blossoming rose on your doorstep? How often have you brushed your child’s innocent queries aside in the name of an important deadline you simply cannot miss? The pressures of life often lead us to forget ourselves and the truly significant things in life. But as guilty as most of us are, it can’t be helped. Surely there must be an answer?

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.

Ship ahoy!

How long have you been lighting the shabbat candles?

gilad.jpgAs is customary on Sukkot, we had a few ushpizin or guests, over in our sukka. As she does every Friday night and Yom Tov, my five year old daughter lit her candles and made the blessing. One of the guests didn’t realize that girls start lighting at such a young age so she turned to ask Rosie how long she had been lighting. Rosie looked at her and without blinking an eye responded: “For thousands of years.” This guest was extremely moved and even  e-mailed me after the holiday saying that she was still amazed with my daughter’s response.

We are about to celebrate the wonderful and joyous holiday of Simchat Torah. When we dance with the Torah in the streets, we are celebrating the gift we were given thirty three hundred years ago. This is the celebration of our millennia old tradition. This is the Torah that has given us the strength and perseverance to continue onward. This is what gives us the ability to overcome our enemies.

Yesterday, like much of the Jewish world, I was watching the homecoming celebrations for Gilad Shalit in Israel. He is finally home and we no longer have the burden of worry hanging over us every day. When we pray to G-d every day to release our captives, we no longer have to add in Gilad ben Aviva. At the same time, I was also watching how the Arabs in Gaza were celebrating. They blatantly and with no shame proclaim as national heroes the murderers of men, women, and children. The contrast is stark. They draw their strength from hatred, and we draw ours from achdut, unity. Our power lies in the Torah. Our force emanates from the Shabbat candles that have helped to sustain us for thousands of years. It is this strength that we will all celebrate together on Simchat Torah. 

On this Simchat Torah, please come and dance with us in unity, in celebration of our Torah and our tradition, as we prevail together over the forces of darkness.

What I learnt from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs.jpgThe death of one of our generation’s greatest intellectuals has come as a mighty blow. Without the genius of Steve Jobs, whom some have compared to Einstein, we would still be fixed in a limited communicative world devoid of iPads, iPods and iPhones. In 2005, Steve delivered an intriguing speech at a college graduation, during which he shared three personal stories. When I listened to the speech, I was greatly moved by these narratives and sought to apply them to my own life.

Story number one dates back to Steve’s conception and birth. His mother became pregnant while still in college and signed her baby up for adoption. When Steve’s adoptive parents were informed that a little boy was available, they initially weren’t interested since they had hoped to adopt a girl. In the end though, they decided to take in the little boy. In college, Steve had no bedroom in the dormitory and thus slept on the floor in a friend’s room. After just one semester, he dropped out of college and went on to establish what would eventually become Apple in the garage of his home.

Who would have imagined that this luminary of a man whose efforts and personality inspired millions around him originated from absolutely nothing!

Before Yom Kippur last week, I texted a community member asking “r u ready for the big day?” He replied that he was dreading the holy day since he had spent his whole year sinning. I explained to him that that is why we have Yom Kippur- G-d grants us the opportunity to resolve to become a better individual. If Steve Jobs could rise out of his “mistaken” conception to become one of the world’s most powerful people, how much more so can a sinner transform himself into the opposite. On Yom Kippur G-d declares, “It doesn’t matter who you were until now, what matters is the now.”

In the second story, Steve described how he almost single-handedly built Apple into what it is today. For ten years he slaved until the company was worth two billion dollars and had 4 000 employees. At age 30, he was fired from his own company and despite the hurt and rejection he experienced, he was determined to start over. Looking back, Steve described his dismissal as the best thing that ever happened to him because it freed him to do what he wanted. It was at that point that he resolved to put his life in order. He married the woman he loved and started being creative about his ideas. He founded two companies, one of which is Pixar, the world’s most successful animation studio.

When Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur loom on the horizon, Jews start to contemplate teshuva- repenting. The question is-- how is it done? Do we need to start keeping all 613 mitzvot overnight? No. What G-d wants from us is one mitzvah at a time. When you take too much on yourself, eventually you drop it all. So start with little changes. Come to shul more often. Make peace with an old rival. Help a needy person. The path of return must be trodden carefully and slowly.

Steve’s third story could probably have been related by a rabbi. When Steve was seventeen, he read the following quote: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." The saying made a huge impact on Steve and since then, for the past thirty-three years, Steve has looked in the mirror every morning and asked himself, "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?"

When Steve was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in 2004, his life expectancy was three to six months. It turned out to be a rare form of the disease that was curable, and so Steve lived on.

As morbid as it sounds, death awaits every man and every man should prepare accordingly. If you knew today was your last, would you spend an extra hour working in your office or would you rush home into the warm embrace of your loving family? Would you chase another million dollars or would you focus your concentration onto more meaningful endeavors such as tefillin, Shabbat and kashrut?

Steve’s passing has affected many. Millions of people are shattered by the crumbling of one of technology’s pillars, but personally, I mourn a precious individual whose grasp on life was so profound and so inspirational, one cannot help but be moved.

(An excerpt from Yom Kippur Speech at Chabad Israel Center)

Magic of the Western Wall

Six years ago, when my wife and I hosted our first High holiday services in Manhattan, I didn’t know a single person in the Upper East Side. We held the services at the Jewish National Fund on 69th Street. We were nine people in shul, six of whom were close family members - my brother-in-law, Pinny Lew, his son, three friends and myself. I stepped onto the street and davened that Rosh Hashanah not for health nor wealth, but for a minyan.

I remember standing there noticing countless Italians filing past me. I now know that they were all heading to the Italian embassy right across the street. Amid the chaos, an elderly couple, clad in athletic gear, jogged by me. I stopped them, and upon confirming they were Jewish, invited them to join the services. At first they were reluctant due to their inappropriate attire, but after coaxing them they agreed and ended up having a great time. It was at the Kiddush that day that I realized just how important it is to make it a good one, for we hit it off right away and remained good friends since. Two years down the road, the husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Three months before his death I put on tefillin for him for the first time in his life and performed his Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

A short while later, I became acquainted with the couple’s son with whom I also became very good friends. For years I tried to get him to don tefillin, but he always politely declined. Once I nearly had him. We had set up an appointment, but he cancelled at the last minute. Two weeks ago he emailed me to say he was visiting Israel for the first time in his life. I immediately told him he has to tour Jerusalem and especially the Kotel. I hooked him up with a friend of mine who was happy to show him around.

Anyone who has been to the Western Wall can testify to the magic aura that surrounds it. I was privileged to pray there just last Shabbat morning, and although I have prayed there countless times, the power of it never fails to captivate me. People from all over the globe are united by a pile of bricks, and yet the energy is electrifying. Indeed when my friend touched the precious stones for the first time, he became very emotional and broke down crying.

My Chabad colleague, Rabbi Weiss, who is stationed at the Kotel went over to this man and gently asked him if he’d like to don tefillin. He agreed immediately. In fact he emailed me right then to inform me of the good news, and then the next day he told me he had returned to the Kotel to put on tefillin again. I thought, wow! Now what does that say about me?! I try for years to get him to put on tefillin, and then a total stranger gets him to do it within minutes! I guess his presence at the Kotel stirred something in his soul, connected him to G-d in a most profound manner. For a moment his soul was free and unshackled, soaring up to fuse with its Maker.

We stand now days before Yom Kippur. On this auspicious day, we beseech G-d to bless us with a good, happy, healthy and sweet new year through fasting and prayer. All that G-d desires from us is to sincerely cleave to Him. For some people that connection is sparked by a visit to a holy place.

Yom Kippur does the trick for the rest of us. For on this day, just as by a holy place, it is only G-d and me. The final prayer on Yom Kippur is Neila, which means “to close.” The Kabbala explains that during these moments of utter sanctity, G-d locks everybody else out the room and creates a special space for each Jew and G-d alone. A place that cannot be invaded by a foreign entity, a bubble of belonging. This space is the opportunity G-d hands us to forge a connection with Him, once we depart from that space, it is up to us to keep that bond alive.

This Yom Kippur, book your space with G-d. After all, He awaits us all…

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