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What are you willing to sacrifice for your son?

IMG_0782.JPGSeveral weeks ago I had the honor of meeting Zion Levi, a middle-aged Israeli whose son, Kfir, was severely wounded by an RPG missile. Since the injury, Kfir’s life and the lives of his family have been irrevocably changed, with Kfir having undergone 132 surgeries to date. (For more details about Kfir click here)

Our Community recently hosted Zion and Kfir during Chabad Israel Center’s recent Belev Echad Trip to New York. At the Kiddush in shul on Shabbat, I mentioned to a congregant that Zion had given up a successful career when his son was injured. Due to his injuries, Kfir required a full time aide to take care of his basic needs, and so Zion had volunteered. The congregant was astonished at Zion’s selflessness, and remarked that his own father would never have done that for him.

And that set my wheels into motion. Zion could easily have afforded to hire a full time nurse, so why on earth would he prefer to take the arduous task on himself, even forfeiting a career for such a difficult undertaking? Zion must have known that many nurses were qualified for the job, yet at the same time that nobody would give his son the dedication and love that he, a father, could shower on his son…

Placed in that situation, would you do that for your son? Would you do that for your father?

After my maternal grandmother died, my parents were concerned for my ageing grandfather and thought perhaps to send him to an old-age home in Israel. My mother was adamant in her rejection of the idea, preferring to care for him herself. She selflessly flew him out to South Africa from Israel, where he remained in our home until his death five years later. Those five years were trial-ridden as my grandfather grew weaker and weaker, eventually reaching a point where he required assistance with basic needs. The situation was not easy for my parents, but they cared for him day in day out with utter devotion and love.

The Jewish people sinned dismally when they created the Golden Calf. They had betrayed G-d, the Husband whom they had married barely forty days earlier. G-d, in His infinite mercy, acted benevolently with His children, and offered them an opportunity to repent through the mitzvah of the red heifer.

A maid's child once dirtied the royal palace. Said the king: "Let his mother come and clean up her child's filth." By the same token, G-d says: "Let the Heifer atone for the deed of the Calf" (Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 8).

The red heifer, to whom we are introduced at the start of this week’s Parsha, is the mother who atones for the sins of her child - the golden calf.

The red heifer is G-d saying He will forever love us. Will we love Him in the same manner?

My Very First Sermon

pulpit.jpgAs a shy, timid child of thirteen, I was content to stay out of the limelight and live a quiet, peaceful life. Unfortunately, my father had other plans for me. Kroonstad, a small town two hours out of Johannesburg, was looking for a rabbi and cantor to lead their High Holiday services. The job entailed blowing the shofar, a skill I had yet to acquire, as well as leading the Shacharit and Mussaf prayers, and, of course, delivering the sermon. My father thought it the perfect opportunity to initiate me into the Rabbinate. I begged to differ.

Even at that tender age, I understood that no amount of grumbling would get me my way. My father would ultimately win, because for him, there was no such thing as “I cannot do it”, only, “how will I do it.” Indeed, my father immediately set out to give me a crash course in shofar blowing. When I complained that I had no idea how to write a sermon, I was handed several neatly written pages-- one of my father’s best speeches of the year—and memorized it verbatim.

Of course the material was too complicated for my inexperienced mind, but I confidently belted it out to the fifty strong crowd. I had not the foggiest idea what I was saying; I only knew this was one of my father’s best sermons of the year. When it was over, the congregation came over to congratulate me on my magnificent delivery...and then proceeded to ask questions! I don’t remember what I answered that day, I just recall mumbling my way through the first thing that came to mind.

Turns out my father had been right in his calculation- because ever since that fateful Rosh Hashanah, for the last twenty years, I have lead services in countless communities worldwide. And I have only his belief in me and my abilities to thank for that.

The Torah portion of Shelach records the tragic tale of the twelve spies sent by Moshe to spy out the Holy Land. Ten returned with unfavourable reports, with catastrophic results. G-d was livid at His people, condemning them to forty years of redundant wandering in the desert.

The effects of G-d’s wrath are felt until today...the original plan was that the Israelites would enter the land, Moshe would build the Temple, assume title of Moshiach, and everyone would live happily ever after. Unfortunately, the spies’ sin not only gained the people an additional forty years of wandering, but more importantly, over 3000 torturous, blood-stained years of exile.

Where exactly did the spies go wrong?

When Moshe detailed the spies’ mission to them, he made it clear that they were to investigate how to conquer the land, not if to conquer it. G-d had already declared Bnei Yisrael would prevail; there was no cause to query His promise. The spies erred when they returned and informed the people that the land was hostile and undesirable. No-one had asked for their opinion, yet they generously supplied it.

In our lives as well, G-d constantly throws hurdles and challenges in our path. But when experiencing a rough patch in any area of our lives, it’s important to remember that G-d never submits one to a test he cannot beat-- just as in the story of the spies, G-d assured the nation they would conquer the land. Each person is equipped with the character traits, the means and the capabilities to overcome all his obstacles. Questioning G-d’s plan equates us with the spies, an act which invites disastrous consequences. Our job, therefore, is to figure out how to get out of the situation, now if to get out of it.

I may be forced to leave my apartment

I have been living in Manhattan for close to four years. I love my apartment and I love my building. However, this past week I had a serious problem. On Shabbat and festivals I never use the elevator, I always take the stairs. This past week the building management decided to start saving money and so they installed a sensory monitor for the lights in the stairwell. The lights are dimmed by default and when somebody walks into the staircase the sensor is alerted and the light becomes brighter. This is a major problem for a Torah observant Jew because according to the Torah one is not allowed to turn on lights on Shabbat and triggering automatic lights also falls under this prohibition.

To make matters worse, the building installed this monitor on the eve of the holiday of Shavuot. I immediately went to meet the building management and explained the problem. They apologized and stated that they had no idea about this Jewish rule and that the system was already in place and lacks an override switch. Apparently many building in Manhattan are switching to this system in order to save money.

There wasn’t enough time before Yom Tov to argue with them more intensively, so I began thinking about what to do.

Option number one was to find a way to keep the door propped open the whole holiday. Because the sensor is also sound sensitive, the noises coming from the hallway should theoretically have keep the lights on the whole time. Unfortunately, after I came home on the first night of Shavuot at 4:30 A.M. after fulfilling the custom to learn Torah until sunrise, I was dismayed to see that a neighbor had done me the “favor” of closing the door to the stairwell.

My second option was to run down the stairs so fast that the sensor wouldn’t pick up my movements. As fast as I am, let’s just say this option did not work.

My final option was to arrive in the staircase and wait for somebody to take the stairs before me and trigger the lights. I figured with fifteen hundred apartments and approximately five thousand people living in my building this should not have been a problem. Unfortunately for me, it turns out that most people actually use the elevator and not the stairs at all! Even more complicated, Torah law forbids from asking someone explicitly to go into the staircase for me. Finally, after a long wait someone decided to come down the stairs. This gave my companions and me a five minute window to run up the four flights of stairs to my apartment; more than enough time to do so.

Being that today is Friday, I am going to have to deal with this very situation again this evening. This time I have formulated a new plan of attack and will coordinate with my super and attempt to put tape over the motion sensors with the hopes of disabling them. Unfortunately, all of these solutions are only temporary and without a permanent fix, we will be forced to abandon our apartment. We love our building and don’t want to leave, but we are being left without a choice - wish us luck!

Shabbat Shalom

What I learned from Aharon

IMG_1822.JPGAharon Nazaroff’s mother prayed for ten long and hard years to have a child. Finally, her prayers were answered and she was given her only child, Aharon. Naturally, his mother did not want him to serve in the IDF-- much less in its combat unit-- but in the end, Aharon’s insistence to fight for his country won out.

Although his base was located close to home, the ride entailed passage through several hostile Arab villages, a route considered a prime target for terrorist attacks. Many people in Israel unfortunately have been victims of terror attacks on one unlucky occasion. Aharon survived six separate ordeals. 

On a blistering summer day, Aharon was sitting on a bus as it approached its next stop just a few feet away. At the station there was a terrorist dressed as a religious Jew in a long jacket. Because it had been so hot, a policeman became suspicious of the man dressed in such heavy clothing. The terrorist, realizing he was about to be exposed, promptly detonated his explosives, killing himself and the officer. Due to the heroics of the officer, the targeted bus emerged unscathed.

On four separate military missions, Aharon escaped unharmed as the lone survivor of his unit. The sixth attack, unfortunately, did not leave Aharon so lucky.

On a random day, Aharon and his friend were about to board a bus, when Aharon commented that he had a premonition—something bad was going to happen. His friend reassured him, using the popular Jewish saying, “Hakol yihiye beseder!” – Everything will be ok. As he had thought, a terrorist boarded the bus and immediately detonated his bomb. Everyone on board, save Aharon and his friend, was killed. Those who were not hit by the shrapnel were shot, as the explosion caused the ammunition of the many soldiers’ on board to explode, sending a spray of bullets everywhere. The friend, shielded by Aharon’s body, escaped unscathed, but Aharon’s entire body was burned like charcoal. He spent the next two months unconscious in a hospital bed.

IMG_1675.JPGWhen Aharon related his story at the Shabbat Kiddush in our shul two weeks ago, not a single eye remained dry. He described the utter melancholy that washed over him as he lay helpless in bed, refusing to believe what happened to him. He lay in his bed in severe pain and agony. Nothing could raise his spirits - not even the daily visit of the Chabad rabbi.

On his birthday, my Chabad colleague Rabbi Menachem Kutner gathered Aharon’s friends and family at the hospital. They planned to throw a party, complete with balloons, music and good food. The rabbi arrived alone in Aharon’s room and had to drag the patient out of bed. It was when Aharon saw the surprise planned for him that he made a firm resolution to persevere, come what may.

He explained that soldiers know that recovery has nothing to do with wounds. It’s all in the mind—if you believe you’ll make it, you will. If your mind is convinced you’ll lose, you don’t stand a chance. At that surprise birthday party Aharon made a resolution that come what may he will persevere. Till today as a result of his fingers being cut off, Aharon suffers from phantom pain 24 hours a day. His pain and his agony often are so severe; it prevents him from drifting to sleep. His body remains burnt and throbs constantly. In his own words, he wouldn’t wish this suffering on his worst enemy. Despite the immense pain, despite his suffering he is convinced that he will go to college, get a job and lead a normal and fulfilling life. In the last seven years Aharon has come a long way. His constant smile is a testimony to his positive and upbeat outlook on life.

Next week we will be celebrating the holiday of Shavuot, a testimony to Matan Torah and our mission as a people. At that unparalleled ceremony, G-d entrusted us with a sacred duty- to infuse light into our physical world through acts of goodness and holiness. Sometimes the burden feels too heavy to bear; it’s not easy being singled out as the paragon of humanity, much less so living up to the reputation. Sometimes we feel over burdened by our work. We feel inundated by stress and the pressure of life.  It is in a man like Aharon that we can witness perseverance and determination- if we want, we can. After all, it’s all in the mind.

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