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Five Dollars: Where Will it Take You?

five dollarsFive dollars. It seems like small amount, but who knows where it can lead?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first donation to John Hopkins University in 1965 was a mere five dollars. This week he gave $350 million to the University. His donations have totaled $1 billion— possibly the first person to give $1 billion to a single US institution of higher of learning. Never underestimate a five-dollar donor.

Someone else was also in the news this week regarding five dollars. Seven-year-old Wilson Reyes was accused of stealing five dollars from another elementary school child. Police handcuffed and questioned the child for ten hours! Outrageous! This was a child, and a mere five dollars. Understandably, his family is outraged and suing the police department for $250 million.

Both these incidents resonated with me; I felt they had a lot in common. Both incidents started with five dollars, and both escalated to something very different. In one case, five dollars was just the tip of the giving iceberg—the amount of good that money went on to do is immeasurable. In the other case, what started with five dollars led to a child being treated cruelly, likely traumatized, and the launch of a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

In both these cases, the money—like everything in our lives—was a tool. And tools can be used wisely or stupidly; for good or for bad. And good tends to lead to more good, while bad tends to escalate into more bad.

In this week’s Torah portion the Jewish nation receives the Torah at Mount Sinai. When Moses ascends to heaven to take possession of the Torah, the angels intervened.

“Why is man among us?” they asked.

“I am giving him the Torah,” G-d answered.

“This precious Torah you’re giving to man? Why not leave it here for us? We will cherish it, take care of it, and hold it dear,” the angels insisted.

“Answer them,” said G-d to Moses.

“Do you angels have evil inclinations?” asked Moses. “Do you steal? Do you face temptation? Why do you need the Torah?”

The angels were silenced. 

G-d could have easily given the Torah to the angels who indeed would have revered, cherished and guarded it supremely. The angels would have studied Torah day and night, but G-d wanted something else. He wanted us to have it. We, who have the choice whether to steal five dollars or donate five dollars, are G-d’s chosen recipients. We, who are tempted but prevail. We, who understand evil and consciously choose the opposite. We are the ones G-d wanted to receive the Torah. It’s no great accomplishment for an angel to learn Torah—it comes naturally. But for a human, who could be doing any number of things instead, that Torah study becomes priceless. Because we have a choice.

This is the choice we need to be aware of at all times. In everything we do, we have a choice. We can choose kindness or cruelty; mitzvah or sin; passionate involvement or deliberate distance. It’s up to us. What will you choose?

Why Did Grandma Cut Me Out of Her Will?

last-will-testament1.jpgIt was a rainy day; wet and cloudy, and I was on my way to give my weekly Torah class at 8am. Before I knew what had happened, I found myself flat on my back on the floor of the subway platform. Ouch! But as I took a deep breath, registering my fall, a tricky little thought niggled at the back of my mind: thousands of people dream about this: Fall, act hurt, and sue the city. My thoughts even progressed to buying a building for our Chabad center, but I shook my head and reminded myself that if G-d wanted to give me money, I would have to work a lot harder than this to get it!

I recently met Laura* who told me she was deeply hurt by her grandmother’s will. Her grandmother had been an extremely wealthy, philanthropic woman, but had left the vast majority of her money to charity, designating only a small yearly sum to each of her children. Laura herself received nothing and was devastated. “Why would she cut me out of her will? I could be living in luxury, not having to go to college or work. I would be able to do whatever I wanted, why did she do that to me?” she wanted to know—and this was 15 years after her grandmother’s passing!

“I never met your grandmother,” I told Laura, “and I don’t know for certain why she did this, but perhaps she gave you the ultimate gift.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well,” I continued, “Had your grandmother written you generously into her will, it’s likely you would not be the ambitious, motivated person you have become. What would have driven you to attend college, graduate and work hard to make a decent living? But here you are, a strong, ambitious woman driven to get up and put in 110% every morning.”

In this week’s Torah portion the Jews finally leave Egypt, and with a vast amount of money. G-d granted them great wealth as they moved towards freedom, but with these riches came significant danger. Here is a nation accustomed to being slaves, downtrodden and persecuted, and suddenly they are not only free but fabulously wealthy. Perhaps they would abuse their newfound wealth?

But G-d planned ahead. He made sure that for 40 years in the desert they would have virtually no use for their wealth. They couldn’t buy mansions—they lived in tents. Even their food and water were provided by Heaven. All their basic needs were taken care of equally, and there was no way to buy better “coverage.”

G-d created an ideal transition period for the Jewish nation. In those 40 years they learned to think, “What do I need money for?” Having money but no use for it gave them the time and opportunity to develop a healthy relationship with it, to think of positive ways to spend it, and to consider its true value.  

Then, when they finally entered the Land of Israel, the money was no longer “new”. It was old money, and they’d thought out very clearly how to spend it wisely. Those 40 years taught them how to utilize wealth in the best possible manner, how to earn it honestly and appreciate it. More than 2,000 years later, we benefit from their knowledge.

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

Victory over the Nazis, 72 Years Later

sam.jpgSeventy-four years ago, the Nazis tried to destroy our nation. Horrifically, they succeeded in killing six million of us. 

Seventy-two years ago, a little girl, Jacqueline Levy, was born in Paris, France. A beautiful Jewish princess. An infant whose life was in peril simply because she was born Jewish, in Europe, in 1940. 

The Nazis searched for her. They wouldn’t allow even one little baby to live. She was forced to live in hiding with a Christian family until the end of the war. She was forced to conceal her Jewish identity, required to live a double life, but ultimately she survived. Her entire extended family was massacred. But although Jacqueline lived, moved away and raised her own family, she was never able to fully re-embrace her Jewish identity. 

Until now. 

Fast-forward to December 25, 2012. Jacqueline’s grandson, Sam, only 13 years old, found his own way back to Judaism. He has been coming to our Chabad Israel Center on the Upper East Side together with his mother Julia. So strongly did he want to commit to it, he underwent a brit milah (circumcision), despite his age and the pain he knew it would involve. He reclaimed his Jewish heritage—seventy two years after his grandmother lost hers. He embraced the covenant of Abraham, forging an eternal bond with G-d and His commandments.

DSC_0996.JPGIn this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people are finally allowed to leave Egypt. After 210 long years of slavery and hardship, they are finally about to be freed. Oh, the excitement and relief! But there was one small problem. As a nation, the Jewish people were considered “naked”—ie., bereft of mitzvot. In order to leave Egypt, they needed at least something in their “mitzvah pocket.” So G-d gave them two mitzvoth – the Korban Pesach (Pascal Lamb) and the mitzvah of circumcision. In the merit of these mitzvoth, they were redeemed from Egypt, and from two centuries of slavery. 

We often think we’re in charge of our lives, but it’s important to remember that G-d has the final say. And sometimes He reminds us of that. The evil Nazis sought to kill this baby girl, and while she was fortunate to live through those hellish years, they did manage to snuff out her connection to Judaism. Nevertheless, the same way G-d redeemed the Jews from Egypt and made them His nation, He led Jacqueline’s grandson back as well. 

May Sam’s courage and commitment serve as a lesson for us: A reminder that it’s never too late, and that G-d has a way of bringing His children back, even decades later. 

And when Sam became Shmuel, and a full-fledged member of the Jewish nation, that was a true victory over the Nazis, seventy-two years later. 

A Text Message Sent To The Wrong Phone

text-message.jpg“Can I buy you coffee?” read the text message I received last Sunday morning. Objectively, not a strange text, but considering it was from the CEO of a major company—someone who had never texted me before—my curiosity was certainly piqued. 

So I responded, “Sure. I’m out of town until Monday, so let’s do it then.” He wrote back immediately and we set up a time for Monday night, December 31st. He made it clear that we needed to talk before the end of the tax year, which just made me more curious. In the back of my mind I wondered if he’d read one of my emails about our building campaign, and due to the new tax laws in Congress, decided to donate a couple of million dollars before the end of the tax year. 

Come Monday evening, my flight landed and I went straight home to change. I texted this gentleman to confirm our appointment. “Should I meet you at Starbucks?” I wrote. But no, he wanted me to come to his house. I headed out, my mind racing. After all, what could he want to discuss that couldn’t be done on the phone or via email? 

I rang the doorbell at 8:00 p.m. as planned, and when he opened the door the gentleman looked surprised. “Rabbi Vigler!” he said, “So nice to see you. What a surprise! What can I do for you?”

“What can you do for me?” I sputtered, “I’m here for the coffee…” 

It turns out he actually meant to text someone else who he desperately needed to see, but the names got mixed up in his phone. He hadn’t realized it was me until I showed up at his door! 

Later that night he phoned me to apologize for the misunderstanding. I suggested that perhaps there was a lesson for us to consider, since we know that everything happens for a purpose. 

Here you are, I said, spending the last day of the financial year running around, desperately trying to set up a last minute meeting with a business acquaintance, and in the middle of all that G-d sends you a rabbi! Maybe He’s trying to tell you that you need a boost of spirituality in your life. More Torah. More mitzvot. 

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the plagues which wreaked havoc upon Egypt. It’s natural to think of the plagues as a punishment for Pharaoh’s treatment of the Jewish people, but that’s actually not the case. G-d sent the plagues so that, "Egypt will know that I am G-d." 

The purpose of the plagues was to change our perceptions of the world we live in. They were brought so we would recognize G-d and the significance of His teachings. For Pharaoh, that meant he eventually obeyed G-d and let the Jewish nation go free. For us, it means recognizing G-d in our lives, and taking the right steps to bring peace and healing to the world. 

It seems G-d used me as a little reminder for my friend the CEO this week, sending me to his doorstep as a messenger, a wakeup call. Let’s all take the opportunity to bring more G-dliness into our lives—we can even discuss it over coffee! 

Are You Frozen?

ZalmanMy seventeen-month-old child Zalman is terrified of stairs. He won’t go up or down .

This week, we were staying with my brother-in-law whose house comprises several stories. We were in the basement, ready to go upstairs, and I called out to my son to start going up. He made it up four stairs easily and happily, and his excitement was apparent. I urged him to keep climbing, but then he looked back, realized how high up he was, and refused to move any further. Not only wouldn’t he continue climbing, he wouldn’t even come back down! He was simply frozen with fear. 

We all watched the ball drop in Times square this week as we ushered in the new year—2013. Despite all the celebrations many people feel pensive and introspective at the prospect of another year passed. But we have a choice. We can look back at the past year and worry about the sluggish economy, the slow recovery rate, all the natural disasters and our own personal problems. We can look at all that and feel despondent about the new year, wondering how we can possibly “make it.” Or, we can look ahead and focus on the future. Looking back has its time and place, but sometimes it’s paralyzing and non-productive. Looking back and recalling all the challenges and difficulties may make us “freeze” like my son indeed. Instead, let’s make goals for 2013 and who knows what we can accomplish! 

In this week’s Torah portion—Shemot—G-d tells Moses that it’s time for the Jewish people to leave Egypt. They’ve been slaves for 210 years. They’ve suffered enough. Pharaoh has caused them unimaginable pain and anguish. He’s whipped them, slaughtered them, enslaved them, killed their sons and destroyed their spirit. But G-d instructs Moses to tell the Jewish people to look ahead. Look to the future. Look to Sinai where I will give you the Torah, its laws, and enable you to become truly free. 

Over 3300 years later this is still our goal: Don’t look back, look ahead. Bring spirituality and G-dliness into this mundane world. Find opportunities to help others. Do acts of goodness and kindness even when difficult. Every small deed helps dissipate the darkness we find ourselves in. 

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