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Rained Out

IMG_6702.JPGEach year we put up a huge sukkah in Ruppert Park on the Upper East Side, and on Chol Hamoed we organize a family Sukkah party. It’s always a huge success and people talk about it for weeks afterward. This year we sent out a huge mailing, hired a clown, and ordered food, tables, chairs, music, cotton-candy and pedi-sukkahs. Everything was planned and organized, we were expecting 300 people to show up, and then I checked the weather: 70% chance of rain.

I told myself that surely the weather report was wrong. There’s no way it could rain! G-d is on our side – He wants hundreds of people to come and eat in the Sukkah, shake the Lulav and Etrog and making the blessings.

There is a new app called “Dark Sky” which allows you to check the rain minute by minute. At 10am, the app informed me that it would begin raining at 11am, which was precisely when our party was scheduled to start. People were calling non-stop to check if the party was still on, and it was! I truly believed that everything would work out.

As predicted, 11am brought rain, and it didn’t let up until late afternoon. I was surprised and impressed that 50 people bearing umbrellas showed up anyway, but the party was largely a disaster. I struggled to understand how this could have happened. Didn’t G-d want hundreds of people to share the joy of Sukkot and perform the holiday mitzvot?

I learned an important lesson that day. Of course, we have to believe that things will work out, but sometimes G-d has very different ideas about what that actually means. G-d’s love for us is similar to the love from a parent to a child. G-d knows what’s really best for us, even if it contradicts with what we think is best for ourselves.

A friend called me on Friday to say he had just lost a deal worth $10 million. Understandably, he was very upset. I tried to explain to him that the deal obviously wasn’t meant for him, so G-d had actually just done him a favor, and saved him from losing lots of money.

Of course, it’s hard to see the good in certain scenarios, even if we believe that G-d is doing the best for us. Sometimes it seems bad to us. This is why we pray daily not just for good, but for revealed good. We want to be able to see and appreciate what He does for us.

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the first Jew, Avraham, and the first of his ten tests. Avraham’s father, Terach, was an idolater and an idol merchant. One day, young Avraham destroyed all the idols in his father’s workshop as a demonstration of his belief in monotheism. Terach took Avraham to the king, Nimrod, who offered the young boy a choice: Reject G-d and bow down to the idols, or be thrown into a fiery furnace. Avraham chose the furnace, and by a miracle, he was saved. The fire burned around him but did him no damage. He emerged alive and unharmed.

Avraham’s nephew, Haran, was given the same choice, but was not as sure as Avraham. He told the king, “If Avraham survives, I believe in his G-d, but if he dies, I believe in the idols.” When Avraham survived, they asked Haran who he now believed in. When he answered “the G-d of Avraham,” he too was thrown in the furnace, but unlike Avraham, he perished.

Why? Why didn’t G-d perform the same miracle for Haran? Because his belief in G-d was conditional. G-d wants our unconditional trust and acceptance. Sometimes He does things we don’t understand, but our job is to trust Him nevertheless.

I still don’t know why our party was rained out –and perhaps it will never be clear to me- but I have come to terms with the fact that for some reason, this is what G-d felt was best for me, and my community.

Our Community Was Poisoned

food poison.jpgRosh Hashanah eve. The shul was fresh and brightly lit. Crisp white tablecloths lay on the tables alongside new chairs, even a new Aron Kodesh! Candles flickered and we were expecting approximately 150 people for the holiday meal. The caterer had an excellent reputation and all the food had arrived in good time.

The evening unfolded beautifully. We made Kiddush and ate apples dipped in honey. We sang, shared Torah thoughts, and partook of the symbolic Rosh Hashanah foods.

But the next morning, things took a turn. The cantor told me he wasn’t feeling well. The gabbai told us that he had also been up sick the entire night. A few more people also mentioned they weren’t feeling well. I was surprised but figured some nasty virus must be making its way around.

After services, we served the extra food from the night before for a Rosh Hashanah Kiddush. Needless to say, shul was a whole lot emptier the next day… Even those who did come ended up leaving early. Everyone had food poisoning, and it was bad. Even those who hadn’t come to the Rosh Hashanah dinner, if they’d eaten at the Kiddush, were sick. One person told me he felt terrible because he missed hearing the shofar on the second day of the holiday. He also missed four entire days of work because he was so sick!

I called the caterer and told him he’d poisoned our community! “Impossible!” he responded. “I make the best food. I’ve never poisoned anybody. How can you accuse me of that?” I acknowledged his sterling reputation, but the reality remained that our entire community was sick from the food he cooked us.

But now I faced a new dilemma. To pay, or not to pay? On the one hand, he had clearly made over a hundred people sick, but on the other hand, he and his workers still spent time and money preparing our food. The caterer needed to pay his workers and his waiters, but his food had hurt an entire community!

He was calling to demand money but I was torn.

I was reminded of a summer trip with my family to Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey. My four-year-old son, Mendel, wanted to go on the bumper cars. We waited for at least 20 minutes and when it was finally our turn, we were not allowed on because Mendel was too small. Of course, he was extremely upset. He ran off to the side and was crying hysterically. We placated him by taking him on a different ride, and within ten minutes the entire incident had passed and he was happy again.

In general, children choose being happy over being right. Adults, though, often choose being right at the expense of being happy.

Children don’t keep grudges. This is something we can learn from: to focus on being happy, rather than being right.
Would I have been right to not pay the caterer? Absolutely! But it would have blown the incident up and caused unhappiness, fighting, stress and tension all around. Instead, I chose to pay him in full, happy to know I’d been the better person, and ready to move on.

There are, however, times where it’s important to take a stand for what’s right. Noach, who we read about in this week’s Torah portion, emulated this concept. In his generation, the greater population was living a corrupt, sinful life. There were no laws, or boundaries. No kindness or ethics. No guiding principles. People stole, hurt and killed without thought. But Noach did not allow himself to be influenced by his surroundings. He recognized that this was not a time to be happy instead of being right. No, this was a time to stand up for G-d’s honor and the preservation of humanity.

Very often, we can – and should – forgo being right for being happy, but it’s equally important (if not more so!) to recognize when and how to stand up for G-dliness. Thanks to Noach, we have a role model to emulate.

24 Hours Without A Cell Phone

shabbos candles.jpgMost of us find the High Holiday period to be resolution inspiring and my friend Jack* is no exception. When we call congregants up for an aliya in our synagogue, we ask them to make a commitment to increase in a specific area of mitzvah observance. One person might choose to put on tefillin for a week, another to come to synagogue two Shabbats out of each month. The most important aspect of any resolution is making sure it’s sustainable.

On Yom Kippur Jack made a resolution to keep Shabbat, in its entirety, once a month. When I heard that, I was taken aback and sat down with him to make sure he understood what his commitment entailed. 

“You cannot use your cell phone, or even carry it with you, on Shabbat,” I explained.
“Really?” he responded, “That’s difficult, but I’ll do it.”
“You know you can’t watch a movie on Friday night, right?” I checked.
“What?” he exclaimed, but committed to do it nonetheless.
“And no driving, or taking a taxi, to synagogue. You have to walk.” I confirmed.
“Oh man!” he sighed. But still insisted on following through with his resolution. 

His first Shabbat was rough. He walked 50 minutes to our synagogue with nothing but the brand new suit he was wearing in honor of the occasion. He even showed me his empty pockets. In 2012, when we go nowhere without at least one cell phone or other electronic device, this is a challenge in and of its self. After services Jack came to my house for lunch and when he returned home after another 50 minute walk his family was not there. He had made up to meet them there and was concerned. He eyed the cell phone lying on the table. He was certainly tempted to call and check up on his wife and children. He was worried! What if something had happened to them, G-d forbid? How would he know? He inched closer to the phone, but reminded himself of his resolution. He struggled, but he fought the urge and decided to lie down for a nap. When he woke up, he was still home alone, and began walking the 50 minutes back to synagogue for the afternoon prayers. Of course, as soon as the clock struck 7:10pm – the time Shabbat ended that week – he ran to call his family. Whew, he made it through his first Shabbat intact!

This week we read the first Torah portion, Bereishit, where Adam and Eve sin with the Tree of Knowledge. When we look closely at the circumstances of the sin, it becomes all the more confusing. Adam and Eve were given the instruction to stay away from the Tree of Knowledge late Friday afternoon, and they only needed to stay away from it until the onset of Shabbat: a total of three hours!

Moreover, they were in the Garden of Eden, of all places! Surrounded by ripe, fragrant fruit of all colors and flavors – and the world was entirely new, they had yet to taste anything! So why, oh why, were they so compelled to taste from the one forbidden tree?

It’s also important to remember that Adam and Eve were not just “anybody.” They were the first two humans ever created, formed and fashioned by G-d Himself! Surely such holy people could have waited a few hours and eaten other fruit first.

But the reality is that we are all created with a good inclination and an evil inclination, and both powers have equal pull over us. So as easily as Adam could have overcome the temptation, he had an equally powerful pull to sin.

We, too, feel an intense pull between good and evil, right and wrong. But we can tackle our temptations and strive to overcome them. The most important tool at our disposal is the knowledge that “The mind rules the heart.” Our responses and actions are often fueled by emotion, but we can learn to use our minds to temper our behavior.

As strong as the temptation for sinning is, we do have the power to override that temptation. This is what Jack did. He allowed his mind to take control of his heart. As much as he wanted to reach for that cell phone and call his wife, he pulled his hand back in time. He fought with himself, and he won. And that’s what we need to do. Start with the small things and build your way up – it’s rough at first but with practice (and success) it will become second nature.

*Names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals 

Snoozing On Yom Kippur During My Sermon

wake up smell coffee.jpgI usually spend several hours preparing my sermons, and for Yom Kippur I put in even more time and effort than usual. I know that the crowd will be much larger and will include many people whose only Jewish affiliation is this one day a year in the synagogue, and I work to make my sermon meaningful to all. 

Come Yom Kippur, I began speaking and within minutes someone in the front row fell asleep. Now, normally it wouldn’t bother me if someone dozed off during my speech, but he was sitting right in the front and snoring loudly. I found it hard to concentrate and maintain my train of thought. 

I considered telling some of the age-old Jewish jokes about rabbis and sermon-snoozers:           

A congregant falls asleep during the rabbi’s sermon. The rabbi instructs the gabbai to wake him up, but the gabbai says, “Rabbi, you put him to sleep, you wake him up!” 

Or: A regular shul-goer falls asleep exactly 10 minutes into the rabbi’s speech each week. This goes on for years, until one week he falls asleep before the rabbi even begins talking. After services, the rabbi approaches him. “I can understand falling asleep during my sermon because it’s obviously boring to you, but why did you fall asleep before I even began?” he asked. With a hearty chuckle, the man replied, “Rabbi, I trust you!” 

As tempted as I was to try and “joke” him out of reverie, I refrained. I remembered that once Rabbi Hillel Paritcher asked the Mittler Rebbe (the second Chabad rebbe) whether it was appropriate to give over words of Torah and mysticism to people who would not understand it. The Mittler Rebbe responded, “The soul hears words of Chassidus (Torah mysticism).” So, we know that even when the brain doesn’t comprehend words of Torah, they nevertheless have an important and positive effect on the soul. And I understood that while this man in the front row may have been snoozing through my sermon, his soul was listening intently and absorbing every word.

We are on the eve of Simchat Torah, the festival where we rejoice in the Torah. Considered the happiest holiday of all, on Simchat Torah we hold the precious Torahs and dance with unbridled joy. One may think that the celebration of the Torah would involve studying its text and many commentaries, or awarding those who have mastered certain section on an expert level. But no. In the synagogue on Simchat Torah, there is no way to differentiate between the venerable scholar and the one who has only heard of the Torah a week ago. All dance equally. 

While of course we should aim to increase our study and depth of knowledge of the Torah, on Simchat Torah we remember that the Torah speaks to every single Jew, regardless of his comprehension, affiliation, or interest. And this is why we dance with the Torah closed. We want all to celebrate it equally, without limitation. Even a Jew who has slept soundly the whole year round and has not studied Torah, can dance with the Torah on this joyous holiday.

L’chaim! L’chaim! Let’s celebrate together this Simchat Torah!

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