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Has G-d Forgotten About Me?

remember me.jpgMy wife attended the International Conference for Chabad Emissaries this weekend while I stayed home with the children. Seven-month-old Zalman was giving me a tough time and taking up lots of my attention. While I was trying to settle the baby, my daughter Rosie dragged over a board-game and an assortment of pieces and asked me to play with her. I told her, “I wish I could play with you but right now is not a good time. Right now Baby Zalman needs me.” Hands on her little hips, Rosie pouted and insisted, “You love Zalman the most in this family. You love him more than you love me!” That got me thinking about kids and parents and the capacity for love.

A couple of days later a congregant came to my office. Unfortunately, he is feeling the brunt of the economic downturn. He is good, honest and hardworking, but he was laid off sometime last year and has yet to find a new job. He’s done all the right things. He networks, sends out his resume, polishes his skills and maintains a cheerful disposition. But every time he thinks he’s about to be hired, the job doesn’t materialize. It’s rough. And it’s getting to him. So he came to talk. “Why is it so hard, Rabbi? Has G-d forgotten about me?”

I shared an analogy with him. Think about air travel. We all use it when necessary. But every time we board that plane we’re entrusting our lives into the hands of a stranger. We don’t research the pilot, we often don’t even know the pilot’s name! Yet we feel confident this pilot will get us safely to our destination.

But when it comes to medical procedures, or surgery, we will not enter a doctor’s office or hospital without doing extensive research! After all, who wants an amateur sticking a knife in his belly?

Why the inconsistency? Pilot gets free reign, surgeon gets the third degree. How come?

It’s simple. Simple and brilliant. When we board the plane, the pilot boards with us! If we go down, he goes down. His life is equally at stake. So we trust him. We trust that he wants to stay alive, so we feel confident that we will have a safe trip.

But when a surgeon operates on us, his life is not in any danger at all! He risks nothing, so we must establish his credibility. We must make sure we trust him to get us through safely, even though he himself is in no danger.

And life is like that airplane. G-d is not off vacationing while His children are suffering. He is on the plane together with us. Our pain is His pain; our suffering is His suffering, our anguish is His anguish. He is with my friend, feeling his frustration. He has not forgotten my friend. Not at all. In fact, He loves each of us unconditionally; the way a parent loves his or her child. The way I love my daughter Rosie AND my son Zalman. The love for one does not deplete my love for the other.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the vessels in the Tabernacle. On top of the Ark were the Keruvim – two human-like forms, carved out of gold. According to the Torah, when the Jewish people followed G-d’s directives, the Keruvim faced each other. Conversely, when the Jewish people sinned, the Keruvim faced away from each other. But strangely, years later when the Jewish people had abandoned G-d so much that he allowed the Temple to be destroyed,
instead of facing away from each other, the Keruvim embraced. This was G-d’s message to the Jewish people: even at the hardest of times, G-d is with us, G-d is hugging us. He has never and will never abandon us.

Rabbi, I'm in Love. Only One Tiny Problem...

heart on fire.jpgThe other morning, I woke up at 5:30 like I do every day, studied some Torah to stock up on energy, and continued on with my morning.

At 9:00am, *Paul – one of my dearest and closest friends – came to visit. I could sense his excitement, but before sitting down we put on tefillin together.

“Nu, Paul,” I asked, “What’s the big news? What’s going on?”

“I’ve been dating a most wonderful woman,” he gushed. “I’m deeply in love and I’ll be meeting her parents next week. I feel so lucky, Rabbi. I’ve never felt this way before!”

I told Paul how happy I was for him, and truly – what could be better than to see a friend so joyful? But like the Rabbi I am, I wanted to get practical. Let’s talk “tachlis.”

“When’s the engagement? When’s the wedding?” I asked.

And that’s when Paul started to hem and haw. “Well, Rabbi… there’s a teeny-tiny problem with that. You see, this woman is not Jewish...”

And then he wanted to know, “Is there any way to get around this problem, Rabbi?”

So I explain. There’s no easy answer. Conversion exists, but it is no “quick fix”. For a real conversion, she needs to be serious. She needs to learn long and hard. She needs to want Judaism for herself , not for you. She needs to observe every one of the 613 commandments which pertain to her.

This is why Judaism pushes potential converts away several times. It takes commitment, drive and determination. It takes a burning desire for G-dliness and buckets of perseverance. 

I explained to Paul that in order for his girlfriend to convert, she would need to become more observant than he is. And ultimately, he would also need to ramp up his observance.

And it’s not quick. The conversion process takes as long as necessary for the rabbis to ascertain that the convert is serious. It rarely takes less than a year, and it can often take much longer. But although it may take a long time, in a way, it’s actually the shorter path. Orthodox conversion is the only path to universal recognition. Today, the only conversion acknowledged and accepted by the state of Israel is the orthodox conversion. 

Of course, I reassured Paul that no matter what he decides, he will without question – always be fully welcome at our Chabad center. And we will always love him unconditionally.

Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim – laws. In this portion the Torah sets forth a number of laws addressing many areas of daily life. The portion begins, “These are the laws…” Rashi, one of the foremost commentators of the Torah, explains that these commandments are just as important as the 10 commandments given on Mount Sinai.

The laws and commandments set forth in the oral and written Torah are binding on all Jews. A legitimate conversion to Judaism requires the convert to accept the Torah in its entirety.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. Paul suggested that I write this article so that other people will be aware of what to do in such a situation. 

A Friend Texted Me That She Is Christian

mount-sinai.jpgLast Friday I realized I hadn’t seen my friend Beth for a while. I whipped out my cell phone and texted her, “Come for Shabbat dinner tonight?” In less than a minute my phone dinged and her reply popped up: “Would love to but I am a Christian.”

Huh?

Last I’d seen her, my friend was just as Jewish as I am. I tried to figure it out. Had Beth undergone a major life change? I knew I hadn’t seen her in some time, but it hadn’t been that long! What was going on? My confusion soon passed as I realized it was simply impossible for Beth to be Christian. There must have been some sort of mistake.

I wrote back, “Beth?” And just as quickly, she responded, “No. Wrong number.” Whew. Deep breath. Look for Beth’s new number.

The incident with Beth actually reminded me of my friend Simon. Shortly before Yom Kippur this year I asked him if he planned to come to shul.

His honest response? “Rabbi, I cannot lie. I will not be there. You know I’m an atheist. I do not believe in G-d in any way, shape or form! But I will fast.”

Incredulous, I asked, “You’ll fast? For 25 hours?”

“You bet, Rabbi!”

 “Why?”

 “In 2006 I was deeply in love. My girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer and the doctor’s were not sure she’d pull through. We travelled together to the Western Wall to pray. Right there, I made a promise. I said, ‘G-d, if you exist, and if you cure my girlfriend, I will fast every single year on Yom Kippur.’ And my girlfriend vowed that if she was cured she would never eat pork again.

“Well, she got better and I’ve kept my promise. Every Yom Kippur since then I’ve fasted the full 25 hours, and I intend to continue doing so.” 

This is Simon.

I can’t entice him to come to Shul for our delicious Shabbat cholent. He won’t come for Simchat Torah dancing, the celebratory Purim feast or the exhilarating Passover seder. Even our speed dating event didn’t draw him! And yet he fasts on Yom Kippur. Every year.

“You don’t believe in G-d, and yet you fast? Why?” I asked.

But Simon insists, “A vow is a vow. A deal is a deal.”

The only way Simon’s explanation makes a shred of sense is if deep down he is a believer. Which he is. Like every Jew, Simon has a soul which is a part of G-d Himself. The soul believes, and although he may truly think otherwise, Simon’s actions show that loud and clear.

In this week’s Torah portion the Jewish people became just that, a people, a nation. G-d chose us to be His people, and when we received the Torah we became connected to Him in a most powerful way. It’s an intrinsic connection which is engraved in our essence, in our soul. So connected are we, that every single Jew, whether s/he knows it or not, is a believer. 

A Jew once told Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, “Rabbi, I don’t believe in G-d.” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak responded, “The G-d that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either!” When Jews think they don’t believe in G-d, it simply means they are misunderstanding Who and What G-d is.

Each and every one of us, every Jew who has a soul, is absolutely and necessarily a believer.

And that is how I knew, with certainty, that my friend Beth had not become a Christian. 

My Daughter the Fundraiser

heart to heart.jpgThis week my daughter Rosie came home from school unusually excited. What would a five-year-old girl typically be excited about? A birthday party… a new art project… anything pink and glittery… But no, my Rosie was excited about something completely different: A mission. A task. An assignment.

She pulled out a book of raffle tickets from her school and got right to work. School wanted her to raise some money? She was determined to do it.

Now, I’m no stranger to fundraising. In fact, it takes up a big chunk of my time and energy. But as I watched Rosie tackling her assignment, something just didn’t add up.

Here’s my five-year-old daughter, completely new to fundraising, and her raffle tickets are selling like hotcakes! No one said “no”. The teachers in the preschool, the parents picking up their children, everyone she approached bought at least one ticket.

Then there’s me, always trying to raise money for our Chabad center. I’ve been at it for years. And time after time I hear, “maybe,” “not now,” “a different day” or just plain “no”.

Of course, my daughter’s raffle tickets involve much less investment than supporting one of our programs. But there must be more to it.

Our sages say, “Words which come from the heart, enter the heart.” If a person asks another to do a mitzvah, and truly asks with his or her whole heart, it is almost impossible for the other person to refuse.

My daughter, in her young innocence, truly believes everyone around her is just waiting for the opportunity to support her school. And how can anyone resist such heartfelt certainty?

If only we could all learn from Rosie’s purity of heart! How much easier our lives would be…

Interestingly, a friend recently approached me with a problem. He explained that although he doesn’t consider himself religious, it is important to him to make Kiddush on Friday nights. Unfortunately, his wife is extremely bothered by his tradition and makes sure to busy herself with the children whenever he begins the prayer. Understandably, he finds her behavior hurtful.

I suggested that at the height of his frustration, he should take a deep breath, tell his wife that he loves her, and then continue with his Kiddush. I explained that the only way to truly influence a person is with love; real love and concern for the other person.

I’ve come to realize that when I ask someone to put on tefillin, or do any other mitzvah – including charity – if that person refuses, the fault lies in me, not in the other person. Because when I truly love the other person with all my heart and soul, he or she will not be able to refuse.

And this is what Moses demonstrates in Parshat Beshalach which we read this week. Moses was a true leader. Even when his people gave him a hard time, he did not abandon them.

Moses had taken the Jewish people out of their exile in Egypt, freed them from slavery, led them through the desert, split the sea and yet they were ungrateful. They had just witnessed some of the greatest miracles in the history of the universe, but still they complained.

“We have no water; we will die out here…”

So Moses gave them water.

“We have no food; we should have stayed in Egypt…”

So Moses gave them Manna from heaven.

Throughout his years of leadership, more than forty long and hard years, Moses remained dedicated and loving towards his people. He defended them. He taught them. He encouraged them. But most of all, he loved them unconditionally.

He showed us what true leadership entails: he taught us to love one another without reservation. 

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