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Zalman Smashes Our Computers

72606_554370974587137_960396497_n.jpgThis past week the most googled word in our community was surely “shtetl,” in preparation for our Purim party, “Purim in the Shtetl.” And what a great party it was! Our 400 guests were transported back into the 19th century with live chickens and goats and straw, klezmer music and shtetl-type stores. 

During the whole hubbub, one person asked me, “Why not celebrate Purim in the 21st century? Why do we go back in time?” 

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About 6 weeks ago, Zalman, my one-year-old son, was playing next to my home computer and spilled water on the keyboard. After it dried, there was some lasting damage…the keyboard would no longer type the letters “b” and “n”. Initially, I thought, ok, let’s go and buy a new keyboard, but then I started thinking about shtetl days – the pre-computer age. 

How did they survive? What did they do when they came home from work? Oh, that’s right—they spoke to their wives, talked to their children, sang and played and worried together. 

One woman who lives in my building recently confided in me that when she is home with her husband they each sit on their iphones and play games against each other. “It’s so addictive,” she said, “we can spend hours and hours playing.” 

So, after some consideration, I decided it wouldn’t be so terrible to take a break from the computer and let it stay broken for a while. If it would enable me to spend more time with my family, I felt that could only be a good thing. 

But there was one little problem: my wife’s laptop was still completely functional so I ended up using that instead… 

Until last week, that is. Different “weapon”, same scenario. I was drinking coffee while answering emails on the laptop at 5am, when along comes little Zalman and spills my coffee all over my wife’s mac… 

When we took it in to the Apple store, they told us the entire hard drive had been fried! 

So the Vigler household has taken a trip back to the Shtetl. No more working computers…certainly an adjustment. But so far I can say it isn’t as bad as it might sound. In fact, sometimes it feels simply incredible to have life in the “off” mode. 

Actually, this is what we do every week on Shabbat. We turn our cell phones, computers and internet off. No emails, no skype, no business meetings. We shut down and retreat into our own personal shtetls with our families and friends. What a gift! 

Thank you, Zalman, for giving us this reprieve from our computers and allowing us to spend more time focusing on each other.   

(Fortunately, I still have my cell phone so I can type this blog…) 

Purim and Prisoner X: What is the Connection?

161954628-ebd8b11951d1508c069fb42728d2104da4f25ce5-s6-c10.jpgThe case of “Prisoner X”, Ben Zygier, who was allegedly a Mossad agent until his mysterious death in an Israeli prison two years ago, has been in the news since last week and shows no sign of quieting down.

We don’t yet know exactly what happened, but it is speculated that he compromised Israel’s national security. He was held at Unit 15 in Ayalon Prison, a special wing of the prison reserved for the most dangerous criminals. His cell was isolated from the rest of the wing through a door only prison staff can enter. His death in December 2010 has been ruled a suicide.
 
The Baal Shem Tov taught us to look for lessons in everything that happens to us and around us.
 
What can we learn from Prisoner X?
 
We are about to celebrate the joyous holiday of Purim. Chassidic teaching explains that on Purim the Jewish nation truly accepted the Torah which we received at Mount Sinai. At Sinai, we were charged with a mission: elevate the world. We became agents.
 
Like Mossad agents who spend years training, our souls spend time “training” before descending into this world and entering our bodies. Our souls spend years basking Divine radiance, learning the sublime secrets of spirituality and preparing for their mission here on earth. Finally, the soul is ready. It’s charged with a sacred task: enter the physical world below and live undercover.
Blend in with society. Live like a regular person, but know that you are not. In fact, Haman himself described it very clearly, as recorded in the megillah: “There is a nation who dwells in your kingdom,” he says to Achashverosh, “but they are different to everybody else.” They don’t eat what we eat. They don’t work when we work and they don't pray like we pray.
 
Our task is to transform the darkness of the world into light. When we say a blessing on food, and then use the energy we got from eating it to do a mitzvah, we’ve elevated that food. When we do business, but give a chunk of the money to charity, we are elevating it. This is our mission.
 
But, it’s actually a very dangerous mission. Because every time we lie, or steal, or simply miss out on doing a mitzvah, we actually threaten the security of our entire nation.
 
We are all connected. We are many individuals, but one nation; one entity. So when one Jew sins in the privacy of his home, he affects not just himself, but the entire nation. In fact, it’s even more serious than that! Maimonides teaches us that the entire world is being judged at all times. There is a giant heavenly scale – on one side it holds all the mitzvot, the good deeds, kindness and Torah learning since the beginning of creation. On the other side sit the sins. At every juncture, we need to envision that the scale is evenly balanced, and our next action could tip it in either direction. So what will I do? Will I sin or do a mitzvah? If I sin, the entire world will be judged negatively. If I do a mitzvah, I can bring Moshiach.
 
Fortunately for us, G-d is more forgiving than the Mossad. Even if we fail once, He forgives and allows us to repent. He gives us another chance to succeed at our mission.
 
With Purim right around the corner, this is an opportune time to remind ourselves of our mission and our roles as agents of spirituality and elevation in this mundane world. We have a job to do – let’s hop to it!

Rabbi, I want a Refund

Cash.jpgThis past Friday night we hosted a South African themed Shabbat dinner. We advertised it for months in advance, sending out brochures, facebook messages and email alerts. We flew in a speaker, Ilana Skolnik—the former Miss South Africa and a convert to Judaism—who suffered under the Apartheid regime. We brought in Cantor Ari Klein with his choir. The excitement and response were overwhelming, and we soon realized we were expecting a crowd of 400 people. 
 
Well, man plans but G-d has His own plans. On Thursday we began receiving reports about a major blizzard about to hit New York, and when as the strongest impact expected? Friday night at 7pm, of course—exactly when our Shabbat dinner was supposed to start. There was even speculation that this storm might be one of the biggest blizzards to ever hit the Northeast. 
 
We started getting emails, phone calls and text messages from people in the community wondering if the Shabbat dinner was going to be cancelled. Even the general manager of the Marriott, where our shul is located, called to ask if we were cancelling services. I explained over and over to everyone that asked – “No! We are not cancelling. Chabad Israel Center is marching ahead with the plan.” 
 
On Friday morning media and radio reports began issuing warnings, urging the public to stay at home during the storm, and we started receiving phone calls from people who had reserved and paid, asking for a refund. One woman said she would think twice about reserving at our events in the future if we didn’t reimburse her. 
 
Another person told us, “I am sure you can appreciate, the reason we won’t be attending tonight is purely due to the extreme weather and not wanting to put our lives in danger. So, would you like me to risk my life to attend or lose out on a lot of money?!”
 
Still another person said, “I trust that you’ll practice what you preach and act morally in this situation and give me back my money. I certainly do not think Chabad is about 'taking' money from people in natural disasters. That is certainly not what a shul is supposed to be about.”
 
I found myself facing a huge dilemma, and I truly didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, these people had a legitimate complaint! The meteorologists were predicting the storm of the decade and they weren’t willing to venture out in the thick of it—completely understandable. On the other hand, their money had already been spent preparing for the event. The venue, tables and tablecloths were already rented and paid for. The food was prepared and the caterer and waiters had been paid. The blizzard was unexpected and out of anyone’s control. Someone will lose out because of it, but who should it be? Should we refund the money and lose thousands of dollars, or should the people who reserved be the ones to forfeit the money? 
 
As always, when a dilemma strikes we have the Torah to guide us, and interestingly, last week’s Torah portion actually deals with a number of money-related laws, including what to do in this situation. 
 
In the discussion about safeguarding a friend’s belongings, the Torah makes provisions for “unavoidable damages.” The guardian is not responsible for unavoidable damages such as armed robbery or natural death. 
 
Our dinner was clearly a case of unavoidable damages. The caterer had already made the food, the hall, tables, chairs, tablecloths and decorations had been rented. The speaker and choir had been brought in – and the blizzard threatened to derail all that. Definitely unavoidable damages. 
 
Once I figured that out, I got back to all the people expecting a refund. I explained that according to the Torah we did not have to issue a refund, but I offered to reimburse them from my own personal money if they really felt they needed it. I feel fortunate that the wonderful people in our community were so understanding once I explained it. They all graciously agreed to forfeit the money they had paid. 
 
In the end over 200 did show up despite the blizzard! And they all had such a wonderful time that nobody wanted to leave. It was truly a magnificent affair. Why did G-d decide to bring such a powerful storm that night? I’ll probably never know. But even Winter Storm Nemo was not able to dampen our Shabbat spirit, as we celebrated with song, prayer and good food. 

Is Ahmadinejad a Monkey?

ahmadinejad monkeyPresident of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently announced his desire to be the first Iranian astronaut sent into Outer Space. Hours later Senator John McCain tweeted, “So Ahmadinejad wants to be first Iranian in space - wasn't he just there last week?”

The message, which referred to a monkey Iran reportedly sent into space last week, was quickly retweeted more than 2,000 times, generating widespread criticism and claims of racism.  

Was McCain out of line? 

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In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read 53 of the 613 commandments – one of the highest concentrations in the entire Torah. The purpose of the commandments is to connect us with G-d, and also to create a civilized society.

According to chassidic teachings, there are two aspects to our inner personality. One is our Divine Soul, a spiritual "spark" within us—a portion of G-dliness. The second is the Animal Soul which desires instant gratification. It says, whatever is good for me right now, that is what I want to do. If I need to steal, I will steal. If I need to murder or to destroy property, I’ll do that too. In fact, it’s the Animal Soul which can sometimes lead otherwise good people astray. 

Our goal is to purify and refine the Animal Soul. Realistically, this means trying to control and transform our most basic human instincts. Observing the Torah’s directives helps us achieve that goal.

Adam was created on the sixth day of creation, 5774 years ago. Why was he created last? Even the animals were created before him! According to kabbalah, only human beings were given the gift of free choice. As such, when a person does what he or she is supposed to do, and chooses to spread kindness and holiness, we tell the person that the reason humans were created last is because they are likened to guests who come to a feast after the table is fully set and ready. On the other hand, when humans spread evil and hatred, we remind them that even the tiny mosquito—one of the lowest creatures—was created before them. When humans use their free choice in the wrong way, they are considered the lowest of the low!

Ahmadinejad is notorious for his anti-Israel tirades. Just this week he declared that Iran is ready wipe out Israel. He has previously said that, “Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury. He’s accused the West of using the Holocaust to excuse oppressing the Palestinians. And his holocaust denial conferences are legendary. And that’s only scratching the surface.

Clearly, Ahmadinejad is not using his free will to spread goodness, kindness and peace in the world. This is the kind of person who is considered lower than an animal. Far lower.

So do I think McCain was out of line? Absolutely. Likening Ahmadinejad to a monkey was off base and insulting. A monkey is actually on a much higher level!

So let’s read this week’s Torah portion, embrace the commandments, and use them to refine ourselves and our environment, elevating our G-dly souls and the world around us.

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