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Mr. President – Join Us For Kiddush!

Every Shabbat, after morning services, we offer a delicious kiddush. Many of our congregants look forward to it all week as part of their “shul experience” – come, pray, eat some cholent, say l’chaim and inspire one another with words of Torah.

Last Friday, the caterer asked me what time I wanted him to deliver the kiddush food. It was a local restaurant so I told him 5pm, figuring he had at least an hour before Shabbat came in, which would give him enough time to drop off the food and get back before Shabbat. The plan would have worked flawlessly, except that I didn’t know that the President would be visiting the Upper East Side at exactly that time…

At 5:10 there was still no sign of our kiddush, and when I called the caterer he explained the traffic problem. Cars were jammed up. Traffic was at a standstill.  Time ticked on, 5:20, 5:25, 5:30… and still the traffic was only inching along. Needless to say, I was getting quite nervous!

At 5:45 it was getting close to sundown, at which point we would not be allowed to put food in the oven anymore, and there would be no kiddush.

At 5:50, I was thinking to myself that if the President thinks the Republicans are giving him a hard time in Congress, wait till he sees what happens when our community finds out there’s no kiddush because of the traffic his visit is generating!

Traffic was SO bad that two of our congregants couldn’t make it to services—they were stranded on the West Side since all the crossing points were closed.  

So, I called on some local congregants and together we waited outside for the car to arrive. With literally two minutes to spare, the caterer pulled up and our team rushed all the food into the oven at the very last second.

Whew! Catastrophe averted.

People often ask me, “Why is it so important to have a kiddush in shul? Don’t we come to pray? Shul is a place to escape the material world—not a restaurant!”

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac feels that his death is imminent and wants to bless his son before he passes on. He calls his son Eisav and sends him to prepare a good “Kiddush”—i.e., “…make for me tasty foods as I like, and bring them to me, and I will eat, in order that my soul will bless you before I die.” 

Rivka, Isaac’s wife, knows that their other son, Jacob, is more deserving of the blessings. So she sends Jacob to dress in Eisav’s clothing and “trick” his blind father into blessing him instead.

But what about the food? Rivka sends him to, “Go now to the flock, and take for me from there two choice kids, and I will make them tasty foods for your father, as he likes.”

And that’s what happens. Jacob brings the food to his father, they say l’chaim over some wine, and once Isaac is satisfied, he blesses Jacob with the eternal blessings.

Judaism does not spurn the physical world. It teaches us to utilize the mundane for holy purposes, thereby elevating it and creating a dwelling place for G-d on this earth.

This is why Jews have been enjoying kiddushim for centuries. A kiddush is a tool—we eat, drink and feel the camaraderie, which makes us more receptive to Torah.

This ability—to use the physical to inspire us spiritually, was part of the blessing Isaac gave to Jacob, which is why he needed to eat meat before giving the blessings.

Let’s all enjoy a delicious cholent this Shabbat and say a good l’chaim!

Cut off by a taxi!

A good friend of mine emailed me this week, “Rabbi, call me urgently!” Of course, I dropped everything and called him.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“My mother-in-law is on her deathbed in the hospital. Can you come and say vidui with her? The doctors say she has only a few hours left to live.” (vidui is the prayer we say before passing away.) 
“I’ll be right over,” I promised.

I jumped into my car and headed towards the hospital, but as we all know, driving through New York City means virtually guaranteed traffic and delays.

So there I was, driving down the left lane when out of nowhere a taxi cut me off! He had been driving down the middle lane and noticed a woman hailing a cab, so he cut right in front of me and kept me waiting for several minutes while his passengers got in and settled.

During those minutes of frustration, I realized there are two kinds of taxi drivers in NYC. There are the taxi drivers with a mission—they know where they’re going, who they’re picking up and where they’re taking them. And then there are the “wanderers”—they drive around aimlessly looking for somebody to hop in and tell them where to go. Clearly, my “buddy” was of the second variety.

Fortunately, I made it to the hospital in time and was able to say the vidui prayer with the ailing woman. Sadly, she passed on a few hours later.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about Sarah’s death and burial. We read about her son, Yitzchak, marrying Rivkah and being comforted after his mother’s passing. But astonishingly, the name of the Torah portion is “Chayei Sarah,” which means “Sarah’s Life.” How can the section which describes her death and burial in such detail be called “Sarah’s Life”?

It all depends on how a person lives their life.

Are you drifting through the middle lane, looking this way and that way for some leadership and direction? Are you ambling along, easily pulled by the material pleasures beckoning from the side of the road? Are you living a life devoid of any spiritual meaning?

Or are you living your life with a strong sense of purpose and direction, knowing exactly where you’re headed? When you’re focused on the destination, the material pleasures along the way are easier to ignore. You know they’re not the real deal. There’s a higher, more important calling. You know Torah and mitzvoth are the goal, and you can push aside the physical temptations along the way. You know that you are a high on this earth to spread goodness and kindness.

Sarah knew that the most important task is spreading spirituality and illuminating the world. Because she was focused on a higher purpose, her life did not end when she passed away. Her children continued down the path she scratched out, emulating her ways, which is why the portion is called “The Life of Sarah.”

And this is why we say the confession prayer on our deathbeds. Even if we drifted through life, when we’re facing the end, we finally realize that the material pleasures are not important—they stay in this world. It’s only the love, kindness, Torah and mitzvoth we can take along.

Maxed out!

I woke up Wednesday morning to a few similar emails. Some of our vendors were trying to charge the Chabad Israel Center credit card, and the charges weren’t going through. I phoned Amex and apparently we’d maxed out. Unfortunately, this is something that happens quite frequently when running a Chabad house. 

Chabad Israel Center has no real estate assets, endowment funds, holdings etc. We launched from scratch seven years ago, and what we have in the bank at any given time is through donations from very generous individuals. But our expenses are high, and on a typical month we land close to zero, and now even Amex has cut us off. We can’t just increase our debt limit like the United States, so we’re stuck. 

So I called a friend of mine, someone who has helped support our Chabad center in the past. Unfortunately, he responded, “Rabbi, times are tough now. Are you reading the news? The American government has been in shut down for the last two weeks and the government may even default on its loans.” 

I am aware. In fact, we called President Obama’s office this week to request a letter in honor of our second annual gala dinner, marking seven years of service to our community. But we were told that the President’s office is currently shut down and no letters are being issued. 

This week’s Torah portion outlines the story of the wicked city of Sedom and its ultimate destruction. Sedom was the superpower of that era. They were extremely rich and powerful. When Avraham helped the king of Sedom defeat his enemies, the king wanted to repay him. What a fabulous opportunity! Avraham had a chance to become exceedingly wealthy! But instead of saying, “Thanks, I’d love that,” he did the complete opposite and refused to take so much as a loose shoelace from the spoils. 

“Why won’t you take a fabulous reward which you certainly deserve?” asked the king.

And Avraham explained, “I don’t want you and your “government” to one day attribute my wealth to you. The only source of my wealth is G-d. He promised me wealth, and He will deliver. And indeed, Avraham did become fabulously wealthy, and he attributed it only to G-d. 

It’s easy for us to think that the money we have comes from our hard work and intelligent decisions. And it’s all too easy to forget that the one who truly holds the purse strings is G-d. 

So when my credit card had reached its limit, and I still had bills to pay, I reminded myself that it’s all in G-d’s hands. I opened up my tehillim (Psalms) and prayed for the ability to repay my loans. Of course, I also have to make my best effort and work hard to pay off the debt. But it’s important to remind ourselves that it’s all in G-d’s hands, and it’s up to us to reach out to Him. 

Thank G-d, the American government has emerged from the crisis, albeit temporarily. While they argue back and forth over the next few months about paying back the 17 trillion dollars we owe, the government officials would do well to take a closer look at the dollar bill and internalize the message written there, “In G-d we trust.” 

May G-d look favorably upon our nation, and bless us with continued growth and prosperity, as we keep in mind that He is the true generator of all income.

Ask Me If I'm Jewish

The recently publicized survey from the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project has many members of our community highly concerned. The survey paints “a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” according to Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The results were devastating.

This is certainly not the first time questions have been raised about Judaism’s future.

In this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to the father of Judaism, Avraham. Seeing that Avraham and Sarah were already elderly, Og conducted a poll, and the results showed conclusively that Judaism would surely die with them. Sarah, the only Jewish mother was 90 and childless. At the time, 100% of 90-year-old women could not have children. So, how could there be a future? His poll was airtight with no margin for error. The results were devastating.

But as we know, Og was proven wrong and Avraham and Sarah had a son, Yitzchak. At Yitzchak’s brit milah, people pointed out to Og, “Look, you were mistaken.” But Og maintained his stance. “You’ll see,” he said, “Yitzchak will assimilate into the world; there’s no way a young child will believe the foolishness of Judaism.”

Again, Og was wrong. Judaism not only survived, but flourished.

Last week a reporter phoned me. She was conducting a study about Israelis living in New York. Does living away from Israel increase or decrease their connection to Judaism, she wanted to know.

I explained that in my experience, Israeli’s living far from home are often more likely to be involved in Judaism. In Israel, they feel connected just by living in the holy land. Outside of Israel, they often seek out a synagogue or Jewish community because they do not have that automatic, organic connection they have at home.

She asked me to suggest some people who might be happy to talk to her and I gave her the names of five friends and congregants. A week later, she called me back, quite unhappy.

“I called all five people,” she said, “and they all gave me the opposite impression from what you said.”

I was incredulous. “What did you ask them?” I asked.

“I asked them, ‘Are you religious?’ and they all said no! I asked, ‘Are you Orthodox?’ and they all said no. I asked if it’s easier to fulfill the commandments in Manhattan than in Israel and they all went on a rampage about how distracting Manhattan is, filled with all sorts of temptations.”

I laughed, finally seeing what went so wrong.

“You were asking the questions the wrong way,” I explained. “Instead of asking, ‘Are you religious?’ ask ‘Do you put on tefillin daily? Do you go to services? Did you shake the lulav and etrog? Do you light Shabbat candles?’ Ask them about specific mitzvoth, and if they did these mitzvoth in Israel, or only in New York.”

What these five Jews were essentially saying, is, “Don’t describe and categorize my Judaism by asking me if I’m orthodox, or religious. That is not what defines me. Don’t limit or label me. Just ask me if I’m Jewish!

One hundred percent of the Jews polled by the Pew Research Center have powerful neshamas (souls) burning inside of them. And 100% of those Jews have a deep and intrinsic love of G-d (even if it’s buried so deep they’re not aware of it). That eternal connection cannot be shattered.

A Jew is not defined by the amount of Torah he or she knows, or by the amount of times she or he fasts on Yom Kippur. We are not defined by the amount of Pesach Seders we have attended, or by the synagogue we attend or the branch of Judaism we affiliate with.

We are defined by our essence—the Judaism ingrained in the very fabric of our being. No matter how much we do or don’t do, we are still 100% Jewish.

This is the message G-d conveyed to Avraham in this week’s Torah portion. Do not underestimate the power and intensity of a Jewish soul! The Jewish nation will exist forever, just as we have existed for the last 4,000 years. Other empires rose and faded but Judaism continues, despite much battering throughout the ages. We are not in danger of fading away; as a nation, we will be around for eternity.

6 Hour Wait In The Emergency Room!

eye.jpgOn the day before Simchat Torah, my five-year-old son, Mendel, injured his eye. I called my friend, an eye doctor, who advised me to go to the emergency room at the eye infirmary downtown—the best place in NYC for eye injuries.

He mentioned there would be a little wait.

Turns out that “little wait” can be a very relative term!

We arrived and the nurse rushed us in, asking question after question about the wound. Then she sent us to the waiting room where there must have been at least 200 people! I asked how long the wait would be, and was told there were only two people ahead of us. Good.

Thankfully I had my ‘droid with me, which is almost like being in my office. The day before a holiday is always very busy and this day was no exception. All was well until my battery ran out…

Looking around I realized the nurse had a funny way of counting. Something along the lines of, “one, one, one, one, two, two, two, two…” There must have been at least 50 people who went ahead of us!

All in all, the ordeal took a full six hours!

Later, I remembered that as soon as I arrived, the nurse asked me how I would classify my son’s injury—low, medium or high. I told her I thought it was high, but she said it looks more like a medium injury. Turns out, that’s why we had the long wait. We were third in line in the medium category, after all the “highs” had been taken care of.

The truth is that on any given day we ask ourselves the same question. Is it low, medium or high?

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of Noach. The world had become corrupt and G-d was determined to destroy it. He commanded Noach to build an ark to save himself and his family from the destructive flood. Noach worked on the ark for 120 years, during which time he beseeched the people around him to repent and reevaluate their connection with G-d. How important is spirituality and G-d? Is it high, medium or low priority? Unfortunately, it was a very low priority to those around him, so G-d ultimately sent the flood which destroyed the world.  

We are at the tail end of the month of Tishrei, a month where we spent so much time in the synagogue connecting with our Creator. We made commitments and resolutions, and now it’s up to us to follow through. We have to ask ourselves, how important is it? How important is it to me to light Shabbat candles, give my children a Jewish education, wear tefillin, come to synagogue, or eat only kosher? Is it low, medium or high?

Let’s try to keep them as high on the priority list as we can.


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