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Did we just give away all our money?

zalman giving tzedaka.JPGPesach is on its way, and as much as my wife and I are preparing, so is my daughter Rosie. She’s learned all kinds of Pesach songs, made decorative and practical art projects, and she knows the story of the Exodus in great detail. 

On Shabbat morning my son Zalman woke up unusually early. I was busy trying to feed him when my daughter Rosie walked in and needed my help. My hands were literally full, and I told her I could help her in a couple of minutes, so while she waited she started singing some Pesach songs. 

She started singing, “Vehi Sheamda,” a paragraph from the Haggadah which we read at the Seder. Its literal translation is, “In every generation they try to destroy us, and Hashem saves us from their hands.” As much as we’d like to believe that’s not so, it has been proven over and over again. First it was Pharaoh, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Cossacks, Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Arafat, and today it’s an Islamic terrorist in France. 

But when I asked Rosie, “Do you know what that song means?” She shook her head, “no”, and kept right on singing. 

Wow. What purity. What innocence. What beauty.

How long will it last?

Was I like that once? Were we all? 

I’m noticing it in my kids so much lately; I can only hope it lasts as long as possible. 

Each morning my children give a coin to charity. While Pesach cleaning I found a bag of 100 pennies, so I let Rosie and Mendel take turns giving 10 pennies each, until we’d finished the bag. 

When the bag was empty, Rosie asked, “Did we just give away all our money? Are we poor now? We have nothing left!”

“Don’t worry,” I explained to her, “When we give money to charity, Hashem gives us back ten times the amount we gave.”

Well, she had a lot of questions about that. “How do we know? How does He give it to us? When will we get it?” 

I simply explained that we have to trust Hashem, and He will come through for us. 

Maybe when she’s a little older I can show her the text in the Talmud where it mentions G-d repaying out charity. 

Interestingly, charity is the only mitzvah G-d wills us to challenge Him with. He promises, “Give 10 percent to charity and I guarantee you will make 10 times the amount of money.” It takes a serious leap of faith. It’s only natural to wonder, “What if He doesn’t come through? What if I give the money to charity and in six months from now I need that money?” But G-d insists, “Try me out. Hold me accountable.”

It’s hard for us adults, but as Rosie showed me, it’s not a great leap of faith for her. She bounced home from school that day, proudly telling me, “I’m so excited we gave all our pennies away! Now we’ll have lots of money.” She said it with such pure sincerity, even I started to believe her! 

Jews all over the word are about to embark on a journey through slavery, liberation and exodus: the Pesach Seder. The Seder is all about kids, if we don’t pass on our story to our children, who will? 

But I think, we would do well at the Seder to not just tell our kids the story of Pesach, but to listen to them as well. Our children possess a sense of belief and sincerity almost unfound in adults. Perhaps it’s time we learned something from them as well.

Who Will Wipe Away Our Tears?

image.jpgA tragedy beyond comprehension, beyond words, but not beyond tears: the ruthless and determined murder of four innocent civilians, among them three young children. A teenager remains in critical condition, may he recover fully and speedily. We, worldwide Jewry, wept with our French brethren as the horrific details of the Toulouse massacre emerged.

Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 29, shot dead with his two sons, Gabriel and Arieh, ages 4 and 6. An infant daughter who will never know her father and brothers. Who can fathom the pain of Mrs. Sandler, bereft of her husband and two children in just minutes? Her grief, her pain, her sorrow, her loss – we are all asking, How could this happen? How can this be?

Beautiful, eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego, merrily on her way to school to play with her friends, to study, to laugh – like any other morning. Brutally murdered, the heinous terrorist actually checked to make sure she had stopped breathing, then shot several more bullets into her small, delicate body just “to be sure.” Her father, Rabbi Yaacov Monsonego, principal of the school, forced to grapple with the tragedy on two fronts: personal and communal.

What can we do but cry?

As I faced this week’s chilling events, I was reminded of a story one of my congregants, Edith,* recently shared:

At the age of 57, her aunt had a stroke and became unable to see to her own basic care. She was placed in a nursing home and on one particular visit, Edith noticed a beautiful young woman, also a resident in the home. She began to converse with her, and discovered that the young woman was paralyzed from the neck down. Her cognitive functioning was not affected in any way, but she had been more or less abandoned by those around her. She expressed her difficulty needing to ask for help to eat and bathe and dress; all the things we take for granted.

Edith asked her point blank, “Why don’t you cry?”

The woman responded, “If I cry, who will wipe away my tears?”

Forty-five years later, Edith still tears up when she tells the story.  

Sixty-eight years ago, on May 18th 1944, my grandfather was deported from Hungary with his wife and two daughters, Esti, 4, and Zlata, 7.  Pushed out of the cattle cars at Auschwitz, Dr. Joseph Mengel immediately sent the children to the left and their parents to the right. Their mother refused to part with her children and within hours the three of them had been murdered: gassed and cremated.

My grandfather survived the war a broken man. He married a fellow survivor and together they had three children, one of whom is my mother.

My grandfather never spoke about his experiences at Auschwitz. I never saw him cry. I never saw a tear on his face. I know he had vivid memories 50 years later because I used to hear him scream in his sleep. The suffering he experienced is indescribable, his grief inconsolable, his misery unspeakable.

This week my brother, Dovid Vigler, a Chabad Rabbi in Florida, dedicated a new Torah to the shul. The Torah was written and dedicated in memory of my mother’s two half-sisters, Esti and Zlata, who perished in the holocaust years before my mother was born.

I watched my mother cry as the Torah was dedicated. But I also watched her wipe away her tears. She cried for those two little girls, whose lives were so brutally and prematurely ended. She cried for their mother who preferred to die with her children than live without them. And she cried for my grandfather who was left alone; shattered and devastated. She cried for the tears he never shed in his lifetime.

This Torah represents the ultimate and meaningful wiping away of my grandfather’s tears.  A Torah, the holiest item in Jewish practice, a scroll which will be used weekly, used to perform Mitzvot and bring more light into the world, this is how we helped wipe away those tears.

And while we can never truly wipe away the tears of our French brethren, of Mrs. Sandler and Rabbi and Mrs. Monsonego, of their family and friends – the only answer in the face of such monstrosity, is love and good deeds. The only way to combat the dark forces of evil, is to bring extra light into the world. Each mitzvah we perform, each resolution we make, will help begin to wipe our tears.

Where better to start than with a prayer for the young man still fighting for his life, Aharon ben Leah, and for the emotional recovery of all the Toulouse children and families. Let’s keep them in our hearts and minds, let’s pray for them and dedicate our mitzvoth to their recovery. 

May we merit to see the coming of Moshiach right now! 

Edited by Miriam Szokovski 

Are You Aware When G-d Speaks To You?

meeeeeeeeee.jpgLast week Chabad Israel Center celebrated Purim with a grand Mexican fiesta. Hundreds joined the party, and everyone I spoke to had a magnificent time. 

The morning after the event I received an email* from one of the attendees which really made me stop and think:

Dear Rabbi,

What a great party last night!

I found myself chatting with your brother-in-law Avi Shlomo, and we began to share more meaningfully. As we discussed some of the stresses we were both facing, we concluded that it’s important not to worry too much about those day-to-day issues, because something much bigger might be right around the corner.

Later, as I walked home with my wife and young son, I had one of those “bigger experiences”. Not 20 feet before the intersection my son stopped and asked me to carry him. He said he was tired. We stopped for a minute, I picked him up, adjusted him so he was comfortable and I could walk properly, and continued on our way.

The light was green and we began to cross the street. The first two lanes had cars which were stopped. The third lane seemed empty. But as we stepped onto the street, a car sped right through that third lane at 50mph, followed by numerous police cars! Had we been five feet ahead, that car could have killed all three of us.

My wife and I did not sleep well after that. We were both shaken, and grateful to be safe and healthy. And I can’t stop thinking that Someone was watching over us. Someone “made” my son ask us to pick him up. Someone “made” us stop and fall a few feet behind where we should have been. And that Someone saved our lives.  

Best Regards,

Simon

I re-read the email at least three times. It got me thinking: What was the miracle here? The most apparent miracle, was that G-d saved three lives. But the other miracle, the one we have to dig a bit deeper to find, is that Simon realized G-d saved his life.

It’s all too easy to go through the day-to-day of life without noticing G-d directing, protecting and nurturing us. We’re all guilty of it. But Simon’s email served as a wake up call to me; a reminder to open my eyes and look for G-d. And once I remembered to look, I found Him everywhere. He is there with us every moment of every day.

On Shabbat we will bless the new moon for the month of Nissan. Chassidic thought explains that the month of Nissan represents the super-natural. It is a month of miracles, a month of revelations, a month which represents the connection between G-d and the Jewish people. The miracles of the Pesach story remind us that G-d is constantly watching and protecting His people. We just need to open our eyes a little bit wider, and we’ll see it all around us.

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

Great Story About A Young Couple Who Met And Fell In Love

heart.jpgEach year our community gives so much to ten of Israel’s wounded soldiers. But as much as we give them, they give us so much more in return. They inspire us, they give us hope, they show us the strength of the individual and the strength of the Jewish nation. They teach us passion and dedication, commitment and Jewish pride.

One of the events we organized for the Israeli veterans in June 2010 was a cruise. We invited young professionals in our community to join the severely wounded soldiers for a Lag Ba’omer bash. I sent out multiple texts and emails inviting people to attend. I made phone calls and mentioned it to everyone I bumped into.

I worked particularly hard to convince my friend Sam* to come to the party. I texted him. No response. I emailed him. No response. I facebooked him. Still no response.

By Divine Providence I met Sam on the morning of the event. Excited, I asked him, “Nu, Sam, will we see you tonight?” He hemmed and hawed and tried to get out of it, but I cajoled him into making a commitment. I knew Sam takes his commitments seriously, so once he said he was coming, I knew he was coming.

When he came home from work that night he was exhausted and ready to hit the sack. But a commitment is a commitment. So Sam jumped into a taxi and headed to the water. As luck would have it, crosstown traffic was at its peak, and the taxi wasn’t going anywhere. Intent on honoring his commitment, Sam jumped right out of that cab and ran across Central Park, where he flagged down yet another taxi which brought him to the cruise terminal right in the nick of time. As Sam boarded, the boat left the harbor…

Now, at that same Lag Ba’omer party was Sarah*, a young woman who I knew only peripherally. Sarah was not a regular at our events, but when she heard about the cruise and the wounded IDF soldiers, she knew she wanted to participate.

Sam noticed Sarah, and something about her manner caught his eye. He found himself in a trance; he couldn’t stop looking at her. He wanted to approach her, but she was busy talking to the soldiers for much of the evening. Much as he wished to talk with her, the opportunity did not present itself that night.

Sometime later, Sam’s friend asked him to go to another event. He was about to say “No, I’m too tired,” when he decided to go along. Unbeknownst to Sam, Sarah was at that event too. When a friend invited Sam to join him –along with some other friends – for dinner, he realized that Sarah was among the group. He approached her and they hit off immediately. They began dating and have been together since then. 

Finally, this week Sam called me to share the happy news of their engagement. Sarah and Sam will be married in a few months’ time.

Two happy individuals, a Divinely determined match, and the beginning of a new family. There is no doubt in my mind that our community received more than we gave that group of veterans who were the start of this blossoming relationship.  

On Purim there is a Mitzvah to give charity. Our sages teach us that the poor person receives the gift; however the giver receives so much more in return!

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.

Do u come to synagogue J.F.K. Just for Kiddush?

cheesecake.jpgAs I prepared for shul on Shabbat morning, I asked my children if they’d like to come with me. Most weeks they are excited at the prospect, but this week proved a little more challenging. Before making her decision, my daughter Rosie wanted to know one very important thing: is there going to be a Kiddush after services?

Now, in our shul it is the norm to have a Kiddush each week, but the week before was President’s Weekend and a lot of congregants were out of town. We also didn’t have a sponsor.
So for the first time in a while there was no Kiddush. Apparently, Rosie wasn’t too happy about that and wanted to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

“Yes, there will be a Kiddush this week,” I assured her.

“Good,” she said.

“It will be a big dairy one,” I added, thinking that would surely entice her.

Boy was I wrong!

“Will there be cholent (meat stew)?” she wanted to know.

“No, only dairy.”

And that’s when Rosie insisted, “Then I’m not coming.”

I tried to convince her. I described all the food that would be there. I told her which children she would play with at shul. I had hoped to give my wife a break from the children, but it seemed that was not to be. Rosie was adamant. No cholent, no shul.

Actually, one of my close friends recently confided in me that he used to come to our shul because we had the best Kiddush in town. But after a while, he got used to coming to shul and started coming early enough to join in some of the service. Gradually he came earlier and earlier. Now he’s in shul at 9:15am week in and week out!

I began to think about all those J.F.K.s – those people who come Just For Kiddush. And they exist - all over the world. Wherever there’s a shul with a Kiddush, you’ll be sure to find some J.F.K.s. But the more I thought about it, I started to see them in a different light.

I was reminded of the woman I know who is adamantly against people giving charity to have their name displayed on a plaque or building.

I was reminded of my friend who always refused to put on tefillin until I said to him, “I know you don’t believe in G-d, but do it for me.” And he did.

And I realized that all these people are still doing the mitzvah despite their intentions or lack thereof. My friend was still putting on tefillin and saying the blessing, the people who give charity for publicity are still giving charity, and those who come just for the Kiddush are still coming to shul.

Of course, it’s best when a person does a mitzvah for the right reason: to connect to G-d. It would be better to give charity because G-d said, “Give charity,” it would be better to put on tefillin for G-d and it would be better to come to shul for services. But I strongly believe that even if one starts out doing a mitzvah for the wrong reasons, eventually s/he will do it for the right reasons. And apparently G-d thinks so too.

About 3,300 years ago, G-d presented the Jewish people with a most drastic marriage proposal. In an elaborate gesture of romance, He suspended Mount Sinai over their heads, declaring, “Today is our wedding day! If you agree to marry Me, you will receive the Torah and the Jewish nation will be born. But if you reject Me, I will drop this mountain on you and you will all die!”

Chassidic thought explains that G-d did not physically hold the mountain over the Jewish people. Rather, he displayed His love so absolutely that the Jewish people could not resist His offer. When a man falls in love with a woman, he pursues her endlessly, lavishes her with gifts, wines and dines her until all her resistance melts away. Just like the Jewish nation, she, in a sense, is forced to marry him.

And for the first thousand or so years, we served G-d because we “had to”. Not because we wanted to.

But then along came Haman and King Achashverosh, Mordechai and Queen Esther, and the Purim story began to unfold. Over the course of an entire year, practicing Judaism in Persia came with the threat of death. And yet, during this tumultuous period, with the horrific decree of annihilation hanging over their heads, the Jewish people turned to G-d with stark sincerity and pure devotion. It was then that the Jewish people accepted G-d purely because they desired to, and not because they were forced. It was during the Purim saga that they accepted what they had agreed to at Mount Sinai.

During the Purim story G-d was almost completely concealed from the Jewish people. Certainly, no mountain hovered above them, no thundering heavenly Voice demanded a union, no seas split and no obvious displays of love colored their vision. But it was against this backdrop that the Jewish nation reaffirmed their wedding vows, accepting G-d and His Torah. And because of their pure love and acceptance, the marriage took on a new, deeper, more meaningful dimension.

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