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Rabbi, What Do You Want From Me?

hamikdash.jpgIt was one of those gloomy rainy days when people try to stay indoors unless they absolutely have to get somewhere, in which case they huddle over and scurry along intent to reach their destination without spending an extra second outdoors. But there I was, standing outside with no destination in mind at all. In fact, I was standing outside just waiting. There were eight men inside our shul at the Marriott Hotel and we needed one more to make a minyan. So there, I, the ninth man, stood, looking for a tenth Jew. Sure enough, someone walked past and agreed to come inside and join us for davening (prayer). Before he left, I thanked him and memorized his email address and phone number. 

For the next two years I reached out to him, over and over again, at different times, in different ways. I invited him to Shabbat dinners at my house, to High Holiday services, and to our sukkah. I reached out to him on Chanukah to see if he wanted a menorah. I invited him to our Purim party, Pesach seder and to hear the 10 commandments on Shavuot. I emailed, texted and facebooked him, and finally, after my two-year onslaught he agreed to meet me for coffee.  

We sat down and he said, “Rabbi, I want to ask you about something that’s been bothering me for quite a while.” I was expecting to hear some question about Judaism, something philosophical, or an ethical dilemma. But no. He wanted to know, “Rabbi, what do you want from me?” His question actually caught me off guard and I had to think for a second, what do I want from him? 

As I tried to formulate an answer, I was reminded of a conversation I had with another friend last week. I walked into his office and he explained that when he sees me, and studies with me, he is reminded of the spiritual world and its importance. But when I leave, he is again immersed in the business world and it becomes easy to forget about spirituality. 

This Sunday is Tisha Be’av, the day we mourn for the destruction of both Holy Temples. It is a day of fasting and prayer; the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. The Shabbat before Tisha Be’av is called Shabbat Chazon, the "Shabbat of Vision." Rabbi Levi Yitzchak explains that on this Shabbat each and every one of us is granted a vision of the third and final Temple. It is our soul that sees this vision, and it has the power to evoke a profound response in us, even if we are not consciously aware of the cause of our sudden inspiration. 

G-d is showing us, this is what I want from you! I want you rebuild the temple. This is your mission statement. This is the goal. How do we rebuild it? Through doing good deeds. Through showing love and acceptance to those around us. Through giving extra tzeddakah (charity). Through scheduling time to learn Torah, on our own or with others. 

This is what G-d wants from us, and this is what I want from my friend – and all my friends! 

It is time to tune into our spirituality and focus on the important things in life. And Friday night, G-d will show our souls what to expect when we do that. 

Hunting Jews in Bulgaria: 2000 vs. 2012

terror.jpgBulgaria, July 18, 2000:

As a young yeshiva student, exactly twelve years ago I was dispatched by Chabad headquarters to spend the summer in Bulgaria. A friend and I were to travel thousands of miles across the ocean to bring Judaism and friendship to Bulgarian Jewry. We were young, energetic, excited and on a clear mission: hunt down as many Jews as possible and bring them love. We would teach them Torah, give them Jewish books, put on tefillin with them, and forge meaningful connections. 

We would travel to the cities of Varna, Sofia, Plovdiv, Burgas and Ruse, and stop in smaller areas in between. We would find those Jews and give them the spiritual and emotional support they may need. We were determined. 

I kept a diary throughout my travels, and my entry for July 18, 2000, reads:

“In an attempt to track down some Jews we traveled to the Vitosha Mountains, a popular tourist destination. In one building we went door to door searching but no Jews lived there. Feeling slightly disheartened we were about to leave, only to discover that the building manager was Jewish and happy to chat with us. Before we left he agreed to put on tefillin and say shema. A successful day!” 

Fast forward 12 years. 

July 18th 2012: 

Another group headed to Bulgaria, also charged with a mission. They were also hunting down Jews, but for a very different reason. They considered Turkey, Greece, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Thailand and Kenya, and finally settled on Bulgaria. 

But these people were not looking for Jews to help and love. They brought hatred, anger and terror. And they were looking to maim, injure and kill. Unfortunately, they succeeded. They chose Burgas, a coastal town popular with Israeli tourists, and they planted a suicide bomber on a bus filled with Israelis. Six innocent people were killed in the blast, and more than 30 were injured. 

Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. We wish comfort for the families of the deceased, and speedy recovery and rehabilitation for the wounded. We are with you. 

In this week’s Torah portion the Jewish people are called “matot,” branches. A “mateh” refers to a branch which has become detached from the tree and is now hard and dried out. It no longer grows, it’s not attached to the source, it’s not supple and fresh. It’s in exile, as are we. We are far away, in an exile that has spanned two thousand years, an exile which has seen trouble and persecution for the Jews in every generation. That persecution reared its ugly head again this week, claiming innocent lives, creating widows, orphans, and bereft parents, siblings and friends. 

We are now in the annual three week mourning period, which is about to intensify as we transition into the final nine days. It is a time to mourn and reflect upon the tragedies we’ve faced as a nation, a time to beseech G-d to finally send Moshiach and redeem us from this exile. 

And a time to demand that G-d end the pain and terror He has visited upon His people. 

Two Calls, Two Complaints & One Confused Rabbi

IMG_9601.JPGWe’ve learned to expect it: whenever we plan an event we inevitably have people calling at the very last minute (long past the reservation date) wanting to join. Our recent Belev Echad Friday night dinner was no exception. We’d sent emails, mailings and facebook invitations months in advance. We’d made announcements in shul and at other events. And while many people did make advance reservations, we still had calls coming in all through the last week. On Wednesday we calculated that we could not fit more than 500 people into the hall and we confirmed that number with the caterer. Five hundred reservations, five hundred seats and five hundred meals. We were good to go.

But the phone did not stop ringing. Even on Friday – the day of the event – people were still calling to reserve! I walked through the office at 4pm and answered the phone.

The man asked, “Hi, Can I reserve a spot at the dinner tonight?”

“Unfortunately there is no space,” I told him.

“Not even for one person?”

“Not even for a quarter of a person!”

At that, the man snarled, “Thank you for your rudeness” and slammed down the phone.

I was quite shocked. I thought I had been polite enough, in fact I thought he had been quite rude. I had felt like saying, “Where were you the last few months? Why did you wait till late Friday afternoon?” but I refrained.

Two minutes later another call came in, and realizing I may have been too curt with the previous caller, I was much more gentle with this one. I apologized profusely and explained that I wished he could join but we are completely out of room. I said “sorry” multiple times, explained in detail why we had no room, only to hear the caller say, “Next time just say ‘no’”, and slam down the phone.

I sighed to myself and thought, “Jews! We can never satisfy each other! We always find something to complain about.”

We are currently in the annual period of time known as the Three Weeks, a time of mourning and introspection. We mourn the destruction of the second temple which was the catalyst for the 2000 year exile we find ourselves in. According to our sages, the temple was destroyed because of "sinat chinam" – baseless hatred. The Jewish people at the time lacked unity, brotherly love and respect for one another. In order to hasten the redemption and bring about the building of the third holy temple, we need to engage in baseless love.

I was recently on the receiving end of an act of “love for no reason.” We were at Bowlmore Lanes with 350 people for an event. Everyone was having a grand time. There was plenty of food, open bar, entertainment and, of course, bowling. But we forgot one important thing: We had no microphone! We had forgotten to book one at the Lanes and we now wanted to share some words of inspiration, but with 350 people in a noisy room we couldn’t get everyone’s attention without a speaker system of some sort!

In a flash of sudden inspiration, our program director, Itty Prus, thought of Rabbi Chaim Boruch Alevsky, a Chabad rabbi on the Upper West Side who has his own microphone and speaker system. Initially, I was doubtful. I know how busy rabbis can get, and asking him to shlep across Manhattan with a speaker system at a moment’s notice was a big ask! But I was wrong. Rabbi Alevsky hopped on the subway, speaker system on tow, to help us out at a moment’s notice. Because of his kindness, 350 people were able to hear words of Torah that night.

And I thought to myself, this is the true meaning of Ahavat Yisrael – a mitzvah with nothing in return. This is how we bring Moshiach, with acts of goodness and kindness with no expectations, pomp or fanfare. Doing something just to help another.

Why won’t anyone take my advice?!

take_my_advice_im_not_using_it_mug-p168973159400728375en711_210.jpgSuffering from a sore throat this past weekend, I tried to treat myself with tea, honey, lots of fluids and more rest than usual. When several days passed, and my throat still felt no better, I made myself a doctor’s appointment – something I haven’t done in years.

After checking my ears and my throat, the doctor prescribed me Penicillin. Obediently, I took the prescription to the pharmacy, bought the medication and began taking it immediately. Within 48 hours I was feeling much better.

The following day I had an appointment to speak with a couple who were facing a certain set of difficulties. After hearing them out, I recommended they begin keeping the Jewish family purity laws. The husband and wife both assured me that there was no chance whatsoever of that happening.

Their quick and immediate dismissal of my advice got me thinking. 

The vast majority of people trust their doctors implicitly. Most will never seriously question their doctor’s advice or prescriptions. They know doctors go through years of rigorous study and hands-on training to learn how to deal with all kinds of ailments. When the doctor prescribed me penicillin, it didn’t occur to me to say “no thanks.” After all, he is a medical professional!

But I am also a professional. A religious professional. I have spent my entire life learning Torah. I studied in the Ivy League schools of Jewish education for 15 years and I received my “Master’s” (my rabbinical ordination) from the Harvard of the Torah world. So why are people so hesitant to take my religious and spiritual advice? And it happens all the time. Sometimes I suggest a person begin lighting Shabbat candles, other times a healthy dose of charity or daily tefillin. And more often than not, people refuse to even consider my recommendations.

In my quest to understand, I was reminded of a man whose only daughter developed a large cyst on her stomach. The doctors were talking about removing it surgically, and warned the patient that the operation was not simple and may not be successful.

The concerned father travelled to New York to consult the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe recommended postponing the surgery for a couple of months until the Jewish month of Adar. The Rebbe felt that the month of Adar – which is closely associated with joy – would positively influence the young woman’s chance for a successful operation and speedy recovery.

The man agreed.

Then the Rebbe further advised him to take his daughter out of public school and enroll her in a Jewish school. The man thanked the Rebbe but explained that his daughter is happy in her current school, and he does not wish to move her.  

To this the Rebbe replied, "You follow my medical advice even though I am not a doctor, but when it comes to education – in which I am an expert – you won’t even consider listening?”

I thought some more, and I came to realize that it’s a lot easier for most people to believe in something tangible. It’s extremely difficult to perceive how something spiritual can provide physical help. It’s easier to understand that taking a pill will cure an illness than to understand that keeping kosher will keep a person healthy and that charity will increase a person’s wealth.

On Sunday we enter the saddest time of the Jewish year, known as the Three Weeks. During this period we mourn the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples, and the resulting exile we are still in. The Three Weeks begins with a fast day, the 17th of Tammuz. This day is a sad day, but also an opportune one. We are in mourning, but at the same time we look towards rebuilding and try to think, “What can I do to help hasten the Redemption?”

Let’s use these three weeks wisely. Let’s take the spiritual “medicine” the Torah prescribes – I assure you that it works wonders and it will only help us move closer to our goal, to the rebuilding of the third and final Temple.


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