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My Encounter with John Voight

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About five years ago when we were just starting out in Manhattan, we held Rosh Hashanah services on Fifth Avenue and 84th Street. Following the service, I took my shofar in hand and started walking back to the apartment we had rented. On the corner of Fifth and 74th, I suddenly heard someone shouting from quite a distance, “Rabbi, stop!” I turned around and saw an elderly man racing toward me. When he finally caught up, he breathlessly exclaimed, “I see you have a shofar, I must hear it being blown!” He raced back to call the remainder of his group, and I blew the shofar for them right there in the middle of the street.

I turned to the man and remarked how familiar he looked. When he introduced himself simply as Jon, I realized I had seen him on the Chabad Telethon. That’s when he told me, “Yeah, I’m Jon Voight, and these are my producers.” They had just flown in from California, and during the flight one of the producers was complaining to Jon that today is Rosh Hashanah and she has no idea where or when she will hear the shofar. So Jon promised to find her a rabbi as soon as they reached New York.

I invited them all to join us for lunch where we spent the next two hours listening to Jon’s stories of his special relationship with the Rebbe and Chabad. The next year as I watched the Chabad Telethon, Jon remarked that for the first time in his life he had been recognized as “the guy from the Telethon” and not from one of his famous movies!

On Rosh Hashanah, which begins on Wednesday night, one of the crucial mitzvot is to hear the shofar. The shofar symbolizes a cry from the depth of the heart, an anguished sob that cannot translate into words. This weeping signifies our return to our beloved Father in heaven, a plea to remember we are His children. Although we may have strayed during the year, nevertheless, here we stand in shul, beseeching from the depths of our hearts to be forgiven.

At such an auspicious time, it is prudent for every Jew to be present so that his personal prayers can ascend to the heavens amid the sea of all his brothers’ supplications. Don’t wait for a Chabad Rabbi to find you on the street – go to the Rabbi in shul!!

A Promise is a Promise

handshake.jpgKol Nidrei, the prayer which ushers in the holy day of Yom Kippur, is perhaps the most famous one in our liturgy. It is a prayer that deals with promises, vows and other sorts of verbal commitments commonly made in the course of the year. The Torah places strict demands on keeping one’s word, and not fulfilling a vow is considered a serious misdeed.

About three years ago, there was a girl by the name of Tali who was very involved in our community. She used to come every single Shabbat and she became a beloved member of our congregation. She was the one who set up the Kiddush and who Shevy and I always knew we could turn to. In fact she was so close with my family that when my son Mendel was born on Shabbat morning and we needed somebody to watch my daughter Rosie, Tali was the person we called.

Like many Israelis in the area she was trying to find her spouse. After two years of searching and dating, New York just didn’t seem to be the right place for her. It simply wasn’t going anywhere. She kept on dating but felt that while there were many guys  “on the market”, they too had many options available to them and for that reason were not able to commit to a firm relationship. The truth is that I agreed with her that this is a problem in Manhattan. Since there is such a wide variety of options for men and women some people have a hard time settling on one person. In the back of their minds they are thinking that perhaps there is something better out there.

During one of our many conversations I assured her that every single person has a soul mate in the world and that her spouse is out there somewhere. The Talmud states that forty days before a child is born it is announced whom it will marry. In fact I even promised her that when she did find her husband I would personally perform her wedding!

Well when I gave her my word I didn’t realize that she would get married at the busiest time of the year for me. Her wedding is this coming Friday at 1pm in Israel. It’s a week before Rosh Hashana and our office is extremely busy. On Saturday night we begin to recite the Selichot prayer!  I have to be in our very own shul the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana!

However, like we read in the Yom Kippur liturgy, a word is a word and so I am boarding a plane right now to Israel to fulfill my promise to her. My flight arrives right before the wedding and I am taking the first flight out of Israel on Saturday night. I will have been there literally 24 hours… but a promise is a promise!

Let us all fulfill the promises and vows that we have made during the year so that we can stand before G-d with a clean slate ready for the High Holidays!!!

How do you get rid of an Israeli passport?

I have been to Israel many times in my life. The last time that I traveled there on my American passport, the Israeli airport authorities adamantly insisted that they won’t permit me to exit the country again unless I have an Israeli passport. Apparently, being the son of two Israeli citizens, I am automatically considered an Israeli as the legacy is passed on even via one parent. For the last thirty three years that I have been entering and exiting Israel, the authorities sometimes noticed this fact and made a ruckus, other times they chose to ignore it.

Now don’t get me wrong - I love our holy land and am a great supporter of its various policies and programs. Our community even raises funds annually to provide wounded soldiers with an American vacation. But I have absolutely no need for Israeli citizenship. I was born in Africa. I don’t live there, nor have I ever lived there. G-d willing I will move there with the arrival of Moshiach. So I set about annulling my Israeli citizenship, only to learn that this involves a very lengthy process that spans about a year and requires extensive paperwork. They don’t make it easy at all…

The matter was decided for me when I learnt that I must travel to Israel next week for a 24-hour stay due to the fact that I must be back in New York for Rosh Hashana. I realized that my only chance of not being detained in Israel is to own an Israeli passport. So I was forced against my will to file for my very first Israeli passport.

The matter is quite amusing when comparing to the United States’ immigration policy. If an American would decide to denounce his citizenship, the government would be more than willing to oblige. Furthermore, if one was legally entitled to U.S. citizenship and chose not to apply, the Americans would be thrilled. It is only the Israeli government that insists on every individual with even the most minor connection to Israel to obtain citizenship, and then to hold onto it.

The Baal Shem Tov taught us that from everything we experience there is a lesson to be learned. The month we currently find ourselves in is Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashana.

When two friends make a covenant of friendship, they anticipate that a time may yet arrive when they won’t feel so sympathetic toward one another and may drift apart. The bond ensures the survival of the friendship come what may.

Like two beloved friends, G-d and his people signed such a covenant thousands of years ago. On Rosh Hashana we remind G-d of the deal- even though we have sinned countless times throughout the year, even though we have strayed from His Torah, G-d cannot cast us off. Our Jewish passport can never expire. No matter what we do we will forever have our Jewish citizenship intact. It is for life and beyond. G-d loves us unconditionally and we love him in return due to the covenant we signed way back when.

So in approximately two weeks hence, when we stand in the synagogue and beg G-d for mercy, let us proudly display our Jewish passport and show G-d that Jewish citizenship is eternal, as is His covenant.

The Missing Ketubah

Several months ago I officiated at the wedding of a couple in our community. Everything was perfect- both aesthetically and spiritually. I wrote the Ketubah (marriage document) which was then signed by two witnesses in exact accordance of Torah law. I stressed to the bride and groom that the Torah requires a married couple to be in possession of their Ketubah at all times. Furthermore, the precise location of the ketubah must be known to both of them.

After the Chupah I carefully handed the Ketubah to the mother of the bride, charging her with the task of guarding it for the duration of the celebration. Sure enough, ten days after the bash, the happy couple called me with the news of their lost Ketubah. I implored them to search high and low, stressing the importance of finding it.  They looked everywhere, even returning to the wedding hall. They spoke to each family member, perhaps someone had accidentally taken it. Alas, their efforts bore no fruit, the ketubah had simply vanished!

According to Jewish law, the solution of last resort is to write up a new document. Since it is preferable to stick with the original, I appealed to the couple to give it one more shot. Months passed until we eventually had no choice but to set a date for the new Ketubah signing. Days before we were scheduled to meet, I received a call from the bride who excitedly exclaimed that the Ketubah had been found.

What she told me reminded me of the rabbi who performed a Bar-mitzva ceremony for one of his congregants. Among the expensive gifts the boy received was a costly silver Kiddush cup in which he took great pride. Fifteen years later, the boy returned to the same rabbi to be married. As they were going over the logistics of the wedding, the Chatan could no longer contain himself. He told the rabbi that the precious Kiddush cup had gone missing at the Bar-mitzva fifteen years ago, and that every guest had been searched at the hall save the rabbi. Did the rabbi perhaps have any knowledge of the cup? “Of course,” responded the rabbi. “I placed it in your tefillin bag!”

It turns out the Ketubah was found in the Chatan’s tallit bag!

Besides for being amusing, this story brings out an important concept relating to the time period we are now in. During the month of Elul, the Chassidic masters teach that we are all searching for a lost article. That article is our soul which, during the year, has vanished beneath a pile of spiritual dirt and debris.

Every lie, every sin, every transgression paints an ugly black streak on our souls, contaminating it beyond recognition. Yet G-d grants us the full month preceding the Day of Judgment to start clearing the mess and locating our pure souls.

The problem for most of us though, is that as hard as we try, we can’t seem to find that elusive spark. We keep searching in the wrong places, trying to fill that gaping hole inside of us. We often feel that the best course of action is to “take time out” or “chill;” mistakenly thinking that baseless enjoyment is just what the soul needs. But I have yet to meet someone who spiritually soared after splurging on a brand new Lexus. Because the truth is, all our soul requires is a little nourishment…of the spiritual sort. The soul is always found in the simplest of places-- a Torah class, laying tefillin, lighting a Shabbat candle or in that old, unused tallit bag.

Kicked out of my vacation

irene.jpgI hardly ever get to take a vacation, much less go away on one. So my family was thrilled when a close friend offered us a week’s stay in a house in Kent Island, Maryland. A day into our getaway, while relaxing in this beautiful home overlooking a serene lake, we suddenly felt the entire house quiver. Dismissing it as a severe wind, we took no note of it, until twenty seconds later it shook again. Very hard.

Years of growing up in a South African fortress-home equipped with a state-of-the-art alarm system and surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire immediately alerted me of an impending attack. My gut instinct was to grab the largest stick at hand and run outside with my wife and kids to await the robbers about to descend from the roof. A brief survey of the house provided clear results, as well as the hundreds of Facebook comments informing me of nothing but a mere earthquake. Nothing I couldn’t handle with my stick. I could breathe again.

After the nuisance of the earthquake, we went right back to the task of enjoying our vacation, until we began receiving reports of hurricane Irene. Once again, we dismissed the warnings and tried hard to concentrate on our holiday. On Friday at 2pm we were informed that the entire area was under mandatory evacuation order. Halfway through my vacation I was being thrown out! But with Shabbat rapidly approaching, we packed our luggage and rushed into the car. Half an hour into our escape we realized there was no way we could make it to Manhattan on time, so we called my sister-in-law in Pennsylvania to spend Shabbat with them.

The entire saga, as usual, got my brain ticking. What lesson can I learn from the whole ordeal? For me it was clear as day that this is what G-d intended me to learn:

We currently find ourselves in the month of Elul. This pensive month precedes the High Holidays and thus our Sages tell us that now is the time to repent, to make an accounting of our deeds and seek to improve ourselves spiritually. This holy month is a time when G-d comes down to greet us and comfort us, allowing us to come close to Him and connect with Him. All year round the King resides in His palace, surrounded by His guards. Only once a year does he venture out to the field where anybody can approach Him.

I believe that that earthquake was giving me a physical and spiritual shake- Wake Up! Get ready for Rosh Hashana! After I went back to my life and ignored its message, G-d sent me the marshal to issue a mandatory evacuation order- get out of the fairytale world of vacation and back to hardcore reality. It’s time to repent and prepare.

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