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Hey, You Never Know

This week I bought a ticket to the mega millions lottery - the second biggest in U.S. history: 684 million dollars! 

For a moment there, I caught myself dreaming about how I would spend the money. I thought about the new building I would purchase for our Chabad center, I thought about our preschool, shul and wounded IDF soldier program, and all the ways we could enhance and grow our community. And still I had several hundred million leftover! 

After I checked the winning numbers against my ticket, I sank right back into reality... 

What are the odds of any single person actually winning the lottery? Something like 1 in 259 million. So why on earth are hundreds of millions of people buying tickets? At one point this week, 25,000 tickets per minute were being sold in California. 

In mathematical terms, there is a 0.000000003863 % chance of winning the lottery, but still we buy tickets. Dozens of people in our community texted me this week, "Rabbi, if I win, our Chabad is definitely getting a building!" Everyone who enters the lottery entertains thoughts of winning, despite the virtually impossible odds. 

Why? It's simple. The lottery motto is "Hey, you never know!" It's that attitude exactly - "someone has to win it, may as well be me" - that drives people to buy tickets in hoards. 

Actually, there's a higher chance of having identical quadruplets or becoming president of the United States than there is of winning the lottery!

*****

In this week's Torah portion, we read about the Jewish slavery in Egypt. When G-d sent Moses to tell the Jews He was redeeming them, Moses objected, "They won't believe me." 

And he was right. The odds were stacked against them, and the slave mentality had taken root. They knew no other life. The nation had been in slavery for over 200 years. Their parents and grandparents had been slaves before them. The only life they knew, the only life they could imagine, was this life of torture. 

Nobody had ever escaped Pharaoh's rule. He held absolute power. There was a virtually 0% chance of freedom. 

But G-d told Moses, "They are a nation of believers." 

Indeed, one of the 13 principles of our faith is, "I believe in the coming of Moshiach, and even though he may tarry, I still await his coming every day." 

Now, what are the odds of Moshiach coming? What are the chances of finding a cure for aids, malaria and cancer? What is the likelihood of solving the Arab/Israeli conflict? Pretty much, less than 0%. And yet, every day, day after day, we pray for Moshiach and dream of the utopian society his coming will bring. 

So if Moshiach is the jackpot, how do we buy a ticket?

It's a small investment, just like the $1 lottery ticket.

Maimonides tells us to view the world as balanced on a scale. One side holds the collective good deeds we have done; the other side all the misdeeds. Any one of us can tip that scale with a single good deed, which would lead to Moshiach's arrival and an era of world peace. 

What are the odds of my mitzvah being the final one to tip the scales? Basically nil. But, "Hey, you never know!"

And since we can never know, it's imperative we keep playing the lottery. Do a good deed today. Anything counts. Put a mezuzah on your door. Pray. Feed a homeless person. Visit someone sick. Every single deed is a potential winning ticket. 

"Hey, you never know!" Today might be the day. 

The Legacy of Nelson Mandela

Johannesburg, South Africa.

It was the last night of Chanukah, December 26, 1992.

We had just lit the last Chanukah candle and my father was driving me to the airport. As we drove he told me, "Always remember that on the 8th night of Chanukah you left South Africa to begin a new life in Israel." That was the night I emigrated from South Africa.

I was to be the first member of our family to emigrate. The plan was for the rest of the family to follow me shortly. Just four weeks earlier my mother had been brutally attacked at our home on a Shabbat morning. My parents decided enough was enough, and we were all leaving the country.  

For my parents, this was a déjà vu. You see, I was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, in 1978. At that time Ian Smith was President of Rhodesia and white rule in that country, which borders South Africa, was about to be dissolved. In fact, a year later Rhodesia had a new president, a black man named Abel Muzorewa, and the country’s name was changed to Zimbabwe. Shortly thereafter, in 1980, Robert Mugabe rose to power and his infamous reign lasts until this day.

My father, the rabbi of Bulawayo, fled Rhodesia at the end of 1978 along with most of the country's Jews, due to the unrest and instability. Sadly, Zimbabwe never recovered and the “Breadbasket of Africa” gradually crumbled. (Interestingly, I am the only Rhodesian-born Chabad rabbi in the world today!)

At this time, my father was offered the opportunity to serve the Jewish community in either New Zealand or South Africa. He asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, of righteous memory, and the Rebbe told him to go to South Africa. So, my siblings and I grew up in South Africa, a country that had tragically adopted a policy of racial discrimination towards its black citizens, but was a haven of safety and security for its Jewish ones.

I vividly recall the apartheid state of the 1980’s. I remember the public busses marked, “Whites Only.” I remember the signs in the park stating, “Whites Only”. I even recall the large markings outside public restrooms that declared, “Whites Only.”

Then, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. South Africa was embarking on a new road under the inspired leadership of F.W. De Klerk. The local papers described the anxiety everyone was feeling – whites and blacks alike. The question on everyone’s lips, “What will be?”  

We were expecting bombings, civil war, a blood bath! The local papers were predicting it. The Afrikaans party would never allow the blacks to take over so smoothly, we worried. Would South Africa now become like Rhodesia across the border? 

Déjà vu.

And so, I left south Africa on December 26, 1992.

But then Nelson Mandela rose to power as the country’s first democratically elected leader.

Throughout this period of worry and concern, there was one strong voice that consistently reassured South African Jewry that there was nothing to fear, all would be well. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was adamant. He told many individuals, including my father, that South Africa would be a good place for the Jewish community until the coming of Moshiach.

And indeed, Nelson Mandela proved to be the conduit for the Rebbe's blessing. Mandela miraculously maneuvered South Africa through an impossible transition, and despite all the prophets of doom, the “Rainbow Nation” was born in a spirit of peace and reconciliation. The anticipated bloodshed and destruction did not happen – just as the Rebbe predicted.

I think we South African’s truly understood that we had experienced a modern-day miracle when, during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final that South Africa contested, 100,000 people chanted in unison “Nelson, Nelson!” as he appeared on the field to present the trophy to the South African captain. The Springboks were dear to the hearts of South Africa's white Afrikaners and loathed by the nation's black majority. By donning their emblem and putting on the Springboks uniform, Mandela reconciled a fractured nation, badly damaged by racism and hatred. I remember that day well.

Mandela suffered horribly at the hands of the apartheid regime. He was not allowed to attend his own mother's funeral. He was denied access to the funeral of his son who died in a car crash. Nevertheless, to his immense credit, he never took revenge. He embraced all South Africans, regardless of race or affiliation, in a spirit of peace, understanding, and forgiveness. This is but one lesson we can take from this giant of a man. 

I moved back to South Africa just three months after I emigrated. With time, my mother came to peace with her traumatic attack and my parents decided to continue living there. 

I love South Africa. My parents still live there till today, as do some of my siblings. Many people would consider my parents crazy to continue living there after such an ordeal. But the Rebbe gave the Jews of South Africa a most unique blessing—that it will be a good place for Jewish until Moshiach arrives, and Mandela was the catalyst who brought that blessing to fruition.  Madiba was the catalyst!

Thank you, Nelson Mandela. 

Rest in peace. 

Terrified of Cookie Monster!

IMG_6992-2944871898-O.jpg"Selfie" has been named word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary. But America's selfie obsession reached a new low this week when a woman snapped a cell phone picture of herself, capturing a suicidal man about to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

In response, the 92nd Street Y, together with the United Nations Foundation, initiated a campaign called #GivingTuesday to encourage people to stop being so self absorbed and start thinking of others.

#GivingTuesday is a reminder that, at this time of year when we are so busy buying gifts for the holidays, we should also give time and money to some of the non-profit organizations who are doing so much good in the world.

This week we celebrated our annual Chanukah party at Chabad Israel Center, and we had cookies galore. We built an entire menorah out of cookies baked by the children in alef-bet preschool. And to make the cookie experience even more exciting, we had a cookie monster! My good friend Matthew Stock wore the cookie monster costume and all the children were able to take pictures with him. For the kids, it was easily the most exciting part of the party.  

Except, that is, for my two year old son, Zalman, who was terrified! I've never seen him so afraid. As soon as he looked at the cookie monster, he started shaking. A few other kids were also scared. Even when Matt lifted up the costume so Zalman and the other kids could see it was really him in a costume, it didn't help. The kids weren't able to see beyond the disguise.  

In this week's Torah portion we read about Joseph and his brothers. When the brothers looked at Joseph, they saw an Egyptian viceroy. They were unable to recognize that under the clothes and power, he was their long lost brother. When Joseph finally revealed himself, they were so shocked and embarrassed (for selling him into slavery 22 years prior) they couldn't respond.

Our sages teach us that the shock and embarrassment the brothers felt is the same shock and embarrassment every single one of us will feel when we stand in front of the Heavenly court, after 120 years.

You see, our bodies are merely a costume disguising our souls.

On the surface, we are all "selfies." We think and care primarily about ourselves.

But that's only a disguise. When we dig deeper and further, we discover the "UNselfie," the soul - an utterly non-selfish entity. The soul is part of the Divine and cares deeply about spirituality and G-dliness.  

So, let's hop on board the "UNselfie" trend. All we need to do is peel away the layers until we uncover our inner "UNselfie," our soul. Then, when it's our turn to stand in front of the Heavenly court, we won't be embarrassed of our sins. We'll have a stack of "UNselfie" images to show off - all the kind and selfless deeds we've ever done.  

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