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Got Gas?

gas.jpgThree weeks ago, shortly after Hurricane Sandy hit, I was on my way to shul when I noticed a long line of cars waiting for gas. The line didn’t seem to be moving at all, and one of the drivers explained to me that he’d been waiting three and a half hours already and the gas had not even arrived at the station yet!

Five hours later the line was still there. I spoke to a different driver who told me the gas still hadn’t arrived. Apparently the delivery came at 3:30pm, and many of the people had been waiting since 5am!

Everyone I spoke to that week was having gas problems. The doorman of my building waited eight hours for three gallons of gas. I ran out of gas completely. The preschool teachers who work in our school usually travel by subway, but because the trains were not running we gave them our car so school could continue. On the second day they ran out of gas and I had to ask a friend of mine to bring me gas from Stamford, CT.

The whole frenzy reminded me of time I spent in Eastern Europe twelve years ago. I was travelling with a friend, looking to bring love and concern and Judaism to local Jews. We spent a day in Macedonia, and noticed we were running low on gas. We stopped at gas station after gas station but all were empty. Soon we hit empty and our car stalled on the highway. Fortunately, we were only five miles from the Jewish community that was expecting us, and someone there was able to give us enough gas to cross the border.

Watching the cars lined up on my way to and from shul got me thinking. I also sell gas. Gas for the soul. And my gas is free. Why are there long lines of people waiting outside, but not lining up for spirituality inside the shul?

A friend of mine recently committed to buying a pair of tefillin and putting them on once a week. “How much does a pair cost?” he asked me. I suggested a $500 pair of tefillin which is considered “mehudar” – higher quality. “What’s the cheapest I can go?” he asked. I explained that $200 would buy him the most basic, barebones tefillin, and he was satisfied with that. “What kind of car do you drive?” I asked him. “A Bently,” he responded. “Hmm…” I mused. “Why not a Ford or a Toyota? When it comes to cars, only the best will do. But tefillin? Spiritual gas? The cheapest only, please.”

In this week’s parsha Jacob prepares to meet with his twin brother Esau after years of estrangement. When Jacob “stole” the birthright blessings, Esau chased after him, threatening his life. Jacob spent years with his uncle Laban, married, raised a family and prospered. He had amassed large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, and was now preparing to return to his homeland, Canaan.

On his way home, Jacob met with Esau. He sent a message ahead. “I have lived temporarily with Laban. I have oxen and asses, sheep, servants and maidservants…”

What was Jacob actually telling Esau? His true message was: I have worked hard and become rich, yes. But more importantly, I have learned that things in this world are only temporary. Our main purpose in life is not to amass monetary wealth, but to stock up on spiritual wealth. To identify how we can use every part of this world in our service of G-d, and do so.

Let’s take Jacob’s message to heart. We’re willing to wait hours for gas but we can’t take a few minutes out of our day to pray, study Torah, or help someone in need? Something is wrong with that scenario, but we can change it. It’s time to fill up on spiritual gas. 

Daddy, Where Are You?

IDF-soldiers-davening1.jpgOur hearts are in pain, appalled by the bloodshed and hatred Hamas rains down on our brothers and sisters in Israel. Hundreds of rockets have been fired on innocent civilians, and six of our kin have been murdered. A bomb exploded on a bus in Tel Aviv injuring 23 people, and in the hours after an official ceasefire agreement was set to go into effect, Hamas continued to bombard Israel.

Israel has targeted terrorist “hot spots” in the Gaza strip, while giving civilians significant advance notice to help minimize the casualties. Unfortunately, Hamas has not allowed them to evacuate, and even admitted to using the civilians as human shields.

A friend of mine posted on facebook the other day, “Libi, my four-year-old, just asked me, ‘Ima, what is war? Why are they sending missiles on us?’ How do you explain hatred and destruction to a four-year-old? How??”

I have relatives in Israel, and when I speak to them it helps me understand just how much their lives have changed. My brother and sister are terrified each time the siren goes off and they have just 15 seconds to run to the shelters. Their children are traumatized despite their parents doing their best to protect them. My cousin lives in Kiryat Malachi. A missile hit the fourth floor of his apartment building, destroying his home and killing three of his neighbors.

When parents wake up in the morning, they have to check – is there school today or no school today? It all depends on the rocket attacks. And as much as parents try to protect their children, children are smart and intuitive and they pick up on the panic and fear that has gripped the country.

My daughter had her own “trauma” this week, which made me think about the children in Israel with sincere compassion. My six-year-old daughter comes home on a school bus, and my wife or I pick her up from the bus. One day this week, my wife called me and explained that she was running a few minutes late, and asked me to go meet the bus instead of her. I was in the middle of something and could not get away, but then my wife ended up stuck in traffic and making a wrong turn, so I had to jump in a taxi and race down to the bus stop.

By the time I got there, my daughter had been waiting close to half an hour with just the driver. She was crying hysterically, thinking we were not coming. She thought her parents had abandoned her. The bus driver also told me that my daughter had told him, “My mommy and tatty are not coming. They abandoned me.” She truly thought we were not coming!

I got down on eye level with her and promised her, “Mommy and tatty will never, ever leave you. We will always be there for you.”

But as I reassured her, I realized this is what everyone in Israel is wondering. Where is our Father in Heaven? How is He allowing this to happen? Has He abandoned His people?

In this week’s Parsha, we have our answer. Yaakov leaves Israel and travels to Charan, a land renowned for deception and swindling. But G-d promises him, “I am with you.”

G-d reassured Yaakov, and that reassurance still stands – He will not leave us, He will not abandon us. Sometimes it’s hard to see His input, but He is there.

We must remember that our Father in Heaven will never abandon us. Let’s help our brave Israeli brethren by saying psalms, being kind to one another, putting on tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles and hanging kosher mezuzahs on our doors. This is our contribution, our investment in G-d’s protection.

Brothers and sisters in Israel – our hearts and prayers are with you and your families. Stay strong!

General David Petraeus and my friend *Brandon

general petraeus.jpgThis week the world found out about David Petraeus’s moral indiscretions. Petraeus, who served in the military for 37 years before being appointed head of the CIA, showed one face to the world, but looked very different on the inside. Who is he really? A creep or a hero? A top general or a military criminal? Who is the real David Petraeus?

I have a friend who similarly confounds me. Meet Brandon*. Brandon comes to shul occasionally, feels warmly towards Judaism, but I certainly wouldn’t call him religious. 

Recently, Brandon’s mother came to visit him in New York where he’s been living for 16 years. During those 16 years he’s been home to see his family, but this was his mother’s first trip to see him. In preparation for their first New York weekend, Brandon went on a little shopping spree. What did he buy? A timer and a hot water urn! He wanted to be able to make coffee, and have the lights shut off, without desecrating Shabbat.  

Why? 

It turns out Brandon grew up in an ultra-orthodox community. Although he abandoned that way of life when he moved to New York, he never had the heart to tell his parents. So every time he goes home, he makes sure to present himself as orthodox. His parents have no idea that he lives completely differently the rest of the time! 

So there he was, suddenly attending synagogue for every service: Friday night, Shabbat day, Shabbat afternoon, Sunday morning… And not only did he attend, he was the first one there each time! 

When I invited Brandon and his family to eat Shabbat dinner with us, I discovered that with his parents, he even goes by a different name. Determined to keep up the façade, he asked us not to let on. He so desperately didn’t want to disappoint his parents. 

I started wondering – who is the real Brandon? This guy practically lives a double life. In New York he lives a very secular life, but at home he is ultra-orthodox! He wears a kippa, goes by his Jewish name, keeps fully kosher and observes all of Shabbat’s intricate laws – all so as not to disappoint his mother. 

So, who IS the real Brandon? And what about us? Don’t we all do the same thing on some level? We act kind and caring and interested on the outside, when really we’re selfish, bored, disinterested and uncaring. We show different faces to different people at different times. So who are we? 

We are Jews, and every single Jew, at his or her core, is good. We all want to do the right thing. Sometimes we can’t, for whatever reason, but deep down we want to. 

In this week’s Parshah we read about Jacob and Esau. Imagine how Jacob must have felt, dressed in Esau’s clothing and tricking his father into giving him the blessings intended for his older brother. Was this the real Jacob? The same Jacob who spent the majority of his life sitting peacefully and studying Torah? 

We are all complex individuals, but at our essence, we are all pure and good. Sometimes we have to “dress up” and show a different face, but that is not the real one. 

So who is Brandon? He is not a non-practicing Jew fooling his parents into thinking he is still religious. He is a Torah-observant Jew fooling the world into thinking that he is non-observant.

And what about us? Who are we? We are good, through and through, always trying to do better with G-d and with our brethren. 

Right now, let’s stop for a minute to let that essence shine through as we pray for our brothers and sisters, our uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, friends and cousins, parents, children and grandchildren – everyone who is under attack in our homeland, Israel: May G-d watch over you and protect you from all harm.

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

Post Election – What Now?

election 2012.jpgWhen Golda Meir was the Prime Minister of Israel, she wrote to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, encouraging him to make Israel his priority.

He wrote back, “First I am an American citizen, second Secretary of State, and third a Jew.”

To which Golda Meir responded, "In Israel when we read, we start from the other direction!"

America has just finished a long, divided election campaign; the costliest campaign in U.S. history. Both parties and their supporters worked tirelessly, but ultimately Obama was re-elected.

I received dozens of phone calls and emails from those who were distressed that Romney lost, as well as those who were pleased Obama won. Facebook and twitter provided a platform for everyone’s jubilation and outrage. 

When she woke up on Wednesday morning, my six-year-old daughter asked me, “Who won the election?" I looked at her in surprise, wondering how she knew anything about the election. I asked her, "Which election are you talking about?" and she said, "Obama or Romney, who won?" When I told her Obama won, she answered, "Oh man! I wanted Romney to win." 

One of the emails I received read, “I’m very depressed. Obama is going to take all our money and destroy Israel. Why bother with anything?” And it was not the only one. Many people are anxious about Israel. How will Israel fare under another term with the current administration?

One thing was clear with this election: People on both sides feel very passionately. Very few people are shrugging their shoulders saying, “It’s not what I wanted, not what I would have chosen, but it will be ok.” Most people are either thrilled and excited or angry and upset.

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sara, we meet Avraham’s servant, Eliezer, who was sent to find Yitzchak a bride. He travelled to Charan, watched Rivkah at the well, and became convinced that she was the one for Yitzchak. When he meets her family, the very first thing he tells them is, “I am a servant of Avraham.”

Why?

Eliezer was a person who dedicated his entire being, heart and soul, to his master. His very essence screamed: I am nothing but a servant to my master Avraham.

We can learn from Eliezer, in terms of our relationship with G-d. The very first thing we need to be conscious of at all times is our servitude to our Creator. More important than anything else in the world, is our acknowledging, “I am a servant to G-d.”

It’s easy to get so caught up in the election and its outcome that we forget Who is really in charge. We must remember: Neither candidate is G-d! So there is no reason to be depressed that Romney lost, or super excited that Obama won. The world is not ending, nor has the Messiah arrived.

G-d is the One Who runs the world and determines our health and livelihood. It doesn’t come from the President, it all comes from G-d. What’s important is not who sits in the white house, but Who sits on the heavenly throne. He is the One we need to be most concerned about.

First and foremost, we are Jews. 

May G-d guide President Obama in the right direction. May He grant him the wisdom and understanding to make the right decisions for this magnificent country. I wish the President much success with this huge responsibility. 

Why, Sandy? Why?

sandy.jpgLast week, before the devastating onslaught of Hurricane Sandy, my six-year-old daughter, Rosie, asked me, “Tatty, who created G-d?”

Her question made me think of Abraham, who, at the age of 99, merits a visit from G-d Himself. It’s a “get well” visit, during his post-circumcision pain. We read about the visit in this week’s Torah portion.

When the fifth Chabad Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, was a young child of five, he came home from cheder in tears and asked his grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, “Why did G-d reveal Himself to Abraham, but not to me?”

When the Rebbe related the episode, he used it as an example. If only we would all desire G-d’s revelation as deeply as this child. If only we would all cry out to Him!

Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Northeast this week, causing massive devastation to millions of people. Schools and businesses closed down for days, the entire New York City came to a standstill, hundreds of areas are still flooded, people are still stranded, airports are closed and early estimates suggest damages of at least $25 billion.

I feel certain, that Hurricane Sandy is G-d’s way of communicating with us. What is He saying? I honestly have no idea. Why did He do it this way? I don’t know that either.

My close friend, Rabbi Eli Goodman, Chabad rabbi in Long Beach, NY, evacuated with his family to a friend’s house before the storm. He returned to find his home completely devastated. A concrete slab broke open the front door and the entire place was flooded. Thank G-d they are all safe, but all their possessions are ruined, covered with sand, seaweed and flood water. There is nothing left.

My brother-in-law, Rabbi Schapiro, in Hoboken had the entire first floor of his home engulfed in flood waters. Everything there was destroyed, and the house needs extensive work.

Thankfully, we ourselves were not hit hard, but our preschool was closed for two days nonetheless.

And these are from the “better” stories.

Dozens of people lost their lives to Sandy’s wrath. Entire communities will need to rebuild from scratch. And people everywhere are shaken by the magnitude and ferocity of the hurricane.

We’re all asking ourselves – why? How? We live in one of the most progressive countries in the world. How could a storm do so much damage? We are not bad people. Why did G-d wreak this havoc upon us?

We don’t know. He hasn’t told us, and we can’t speak on His behalf. But we can look for meaning for ourselves. 

And that’s what I’ll do. The lesson I took from Sandy is: Remember.

Remember that all our experiences are intended to teach us something about our service of the Creator. We know that from the Baal Shem Tov.

Remember that although we live in the most powerful country in the world, home of Wall Street and the stock exchange, we are not the ones who made it powerful.

Remember that we are entirely dependent upon G-d.

Remember that it’s only an illusion that we control our own lives.

Remember that, ultimately, G-d runs the world.

Despite the small ups and downs of day-to-day life, most of us live on a higher standard than 90% of the world. It’s only too easy to begin to attribute that to our own hard work and success. But that’s where we go wrong. Do we work hard? Absolutely. Do we have input into our success? Definitely. But who has the final say? Not us. G-d.

Why G-d brought this terrible tragedy that caused such extensive damage and loss of life, I don’t know, and I will never know.

But the lesson I took from Sandy for my own life is: Stop. Reconsider. Recognize.

We are not in charge.

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