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Avichai saved Oren & Oren saved Avichai

Over the last ten days, our community has had the honor of hosting a group of wounded Israeli soldiers, getting to know them while touring various U.S. sites together. At last week’s Shabbat Kiddush, one of the veterans, Avichai Mumbaram, shared his army experience with us.

IMG_4728.JPGWhile on a mission in Gaza with his unit, Avichai and his friend Oren somehow got separated from the group. When Avichai instructed Oren to don his bullet-proof vest, Oren got annoyed at being told what to do. It was not a minute after Avichai had won the ensuing argument and Oren had put on the vest that a mortar bomb hit them and tore both vests right off them.  While Oren thankfully escaped unscathed, Avichai’s entire body had been pierced by shrapnel. Oren stood aghast as he realized that Avichai’s persistence had literally saved his life.

As Oren lay crouched over his friend, they heard a loud commotion. A bearded terrorist approached them, and at a distance of about five feet, opened fire on Avichai with his kalachnakoff, hitting him in the hand. At this point, Avichai showed the crowd his shattered left hand where the bullet struck, leaving his hand paralyzed. After shooting Avichai once, the terrorist aimed at his heart, intending to finish him off. Avichai described how he saw his life flash before him as he faced his final moments. Just then, Oren managed to shoot the terrorist twice in the head, killing him instantly.

As we listened entranced to Avichai’s story, what moved us most was that Avichai had saved Oren’s life, and Oren repaid his debt a mere ten minutes later.

IMG_4299.JPGSo often we go through life pondering the numerous favors we do for others. The truth, though, is that most times, with rare exception, the favour is actually for ourselves. Does that mean that when I help out a friend suffering through a financial crisis, I am in fact helping myself? Yes! Although the results are not always as drastic as Avichai’s and Oren’s, they are great indeed. Most times, we don’t see consequences until years later, and more often than not, we don’t ever. But the spiritual benefits that we reap in these situations are practically unmatched.

The Torah portion of Bamidbar instructs us in the laws of censuses. Every single Jew must be counted, for every Jew is precious in G-d’s eyes, indeed, in His eyes, there are no distinctions between us. Our Rabbis taught that one who saves a soul is considered to have saved an entire world. Saving sometimes takes the form of life and death, but more often than not, it entails a different kind of redemption. Whether it is financial, emotional or psychological is irrelevant, for when one extends help to another, he literally rebuilds his fellow’s world. In Avichai’s case, the world happened to be his very life...

Is your heart yours?

Kfir.JPG

With the start of the highly successful Belev Echad program, which offers wounded Israeli soldiers a brief reprieve from treatment with a trip to New York, there was no doubt that the agenda would feature highly charged moments as well as emotional encounters. Indeed, although it has only been several days since I was privileged to meet Belev Echad’s incredible ten, I have been touched and inspired more than I have in months.

“The terrorists took away my body but the heart is still mine.” These were the words uttered by Kfir Levi, a soldier who was wounded by an RPG missile aimed directly at his face. To date he has endured 192 surgeries, and is considered one of Israel’s most severely wounded soldiers. Yesterday, at dinner, I found a seat beside him. To look at Kfir’s shattered yet reconstructed face requires strength. During the course of our conversation last night when Kfir noticed me studying his features, he sternly looked me in the eye and stated, “You see this face, Rabbi? Nothing is mine. The ears, the eyes, the nose, every part of it has been reshaped and restructured due to plastic surgery.” He then pointed at his heart and declared, “But there’s one part of me that belongs to me alone. This heart is mine.”

That was one of the most powerful statements I have ever heard. I felt a chill slither down my spine. The words rang in my head, “This heart is mine...this heart is mine...this heart is mine...” Those terrorists may have taken away Kfir’s physical body, but one part of him remained immune to their threat, a single place so sheltered that no amount of RPG's could target it. His heart, his soul is untouchable, totally invincible.

As Jews living our day to day lives, very often we contaminate our various body parts. We may say something we regret. We may speak bad about somebody. Sometimes we may look where we are not supposed to. We may listen to things that are hurtful. Our hands may sin. 0r our legs. But as King Solomon says in Kohelet, "Ani yeshena velibi er"- "I am asleep but my heart is awake." At the end of the day, even though every part of us may sin, our heart remains ours. Our soul can never ever become contaminated. The essence of every Jew is pure and holy.

This week Sunday, Jews the world over will be celebrating the festival of Lag Ba’omer. This date has always stood out as a joyous one amidst a period of loss and mourning, when Rabbi Akiva’s 24 000 students were struck down by G-d in retribution for their lack of brotherly love and respect for one another. Lag Ba’omer marks the day that his students ceased to die.

Almost three years ago, while searching for a name for the potential Belev Echad program, we struck upon this one for it truly captures the essence of the trip. The common denominator of Am Yisrael, a diverse nation made up of people from all walks of life, is our neshama, our soul. No matter how different we are, we share one heart. Chabad Israel Center is thrilled to have the privilege of assisting our hurt brothers, albeit for a minimal amount of time, in recognition of their heroic, selfless deeds on behalf of all of us.

Above all else, G-d desires unity among His chosen nation. Nothing hurts Him more than a lack of camaraderie. Kfir was mistaken when he said his heart was his. His heart, in fact, belongs to us all. It is our hope that through the launching of the Belev Echad program, G-d will smile down upon us and shower Am Yisrael with an abundance of goodness. For when we behave to one another as brother to brother, only then can G-d behave toward us as father to son.

A billion dollars – curse or blessing?

bills.jpg“Give a child a million dollars and you have blessed him, give him a billion dollars and you have cursed him.” These words were spoken by Russian billionaire Vladimir Potanin during an interview this week.

Potanin who is worth an estimated ten billion dollars stated that after his death, he planned to donate all his money to charity, leaving only one million dollars to each of his three kids. He explained that the greatest curse one could bestow upon his children is to shower them with unearned and often undeserved money.

It struck me as fascinating that a person in a position of ensuring their child’s absolute financial security would refrain from doing so. Which of us does not dream of acquiring as much wealth as possible? You’d think that somebody who inherited a billion dollars would be one of the happiest and luckiest people around. Apparently, Vladimir Potanin disagrees. He claims that while a one million dollar inheritance is greatly beneficial in that one can receives a good education, find employment without haste and discover oneself, no good can come from an excessive bequest. Too much cash often causes a rapid descent in a downward spiral, ultimately depriving one of life. As a result, Potanin has decided to follow in the footsteps of U.S. multi-billionaire Bill Gates by handing over his entire fortune to charity.

Potanin insists that kids who earn money for themselves earn the right to decide what to do with it. If that money is bequeathed to them, they live the rest of their lives in their father’s shadow. It’s unfair to them. Maybe they don’t want to be billionaires; perhaps they desire a different route in life.

Parashat Behar, which is read this week, details the prohibition of lending money with interest. Charging interest, the Torah states, is a cheap way of earning money that should never have belonged to you in the first place. Instead of putting in an effort, the lender receives revenue off money that is no longer in his possession. Such earnings are in a sense deceitful- the other guy does all the work while I reap the benefits. Torah opposes this idea because it contradicts all that we as humans stand for. G-d gave us laws which require a tremendous amount of work. An unearned glory is not a glory at all. Sitting back and relaxing while relying on others to provide totally negates this innate need and robs not just the borrower, but more importantly, the lender.

What would you do if you were in Vladimir Potanin's position?

Osama Bin Laden – What a manhunt!

History’s largest and costliest manhunt has finally ended as the man who has been branded the very face of evil has been killed. For an entire decade, onlookers have been gripped by the unfolding of events, with the grand and successful climax igniting a global frenzy.

The entire game of tag between CIA and Osama would be quite humorous if it weren’t so serious. The man was practically staring the CIA in the face for ten years, only they were totally clueless. Convinced that he was roughing it out in some remote underground cave, officials missed the more obvious location, which was exactly where he turned out to be. Genius, if you ask me. Who’d have thought the world’s most wanted terrorist was living it up in a Pakistani suburb right under the military’s nose?

The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that from everything one sees or hears, he must derive a lesson and apply it to his personal life.

I don’t know of a single person on this planet who is not searching for meaning in their lives. In our endless quest for inspiration, very often we tend to look in the wrong places. How often do we hear of women who have spent years vigorously climbing the career ladder, desperate to achieve and to succeed, only to realize too late that they have missed the chance to bear children, to nurture a life? The world’s holiday resorts are overflowing with people craving meaning and enjoyment, yet as they book their next vacation they find that, sadly, sipping a cocktail on a sunny beach does little to inspire and much to leave one feeling empty and deflated.

As Jews, we have a unique opportunity to lead a rich and moving life, for the solution has been handed to us, indeed it stares us in the face so we have no need to seek inspiration in our jobs and in our vacations. When a person devotes himself to G-d in any way, he connects to a higher power, something larger than himself and larger than life itself. So if you’re feeling hollow, try a session of shul on Shabbat morning. Nourish your soul by opening a book of Torah. You’ll be surprised how something as simple as giving charity can leave you feeling elated.

One of the major reactions to Osama’s death is the demand for proof that he has really been destroyed. All the fretting is in vain, because the truth is that Bin Laden has been dead for years. The Talmud teaches us that an evil man is considered dead even as he lives and breathes. The moment Bin Laden decided to dedicate his life to terrorist is the moment that he died. Farewell Osama, may you join all the other enemies of Israel together with Hitler, Haman, Stalin and Pharaoh.

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