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Every Time I Smile, I Feel Victorious

nati2.jpgFor the fourth year in a row our community has banded together to bring a group of wounded IDF soldiers and victims of terror on an exciting ten-day trip to New York City. Our goal is to temporarily relieve their suffering, and we plan a packed schedule with the best New York has to offer. Year after year, these brave warriors never cease to amaze and inspire me.

As we roamed Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, simply chatting and enjoying a relaxed afternoon, I spent some time one-on-one with Nati Hatzkor.

Nati shared his story with me. In the weeks preceding Operation Cast-Lead many rockets were launched at the South of Israel. Nati had gone out to meet up with his friend Lior. It had been a long time since they’d seen each other, but as they began to walk along, catching up, the siren sounded, indicating that rockets had been launched in their direction.

Nati and Lior did not have enough time to reach the shelter, and a when the rocket hit they were badly wounded. Both had shrapnel in their bodies; neither could move. Nati was very seriously injured—he lost his right leg, and his left leg was badly shattered.nati.jpg

After a lengthy period of hospitalization, Nati began rehabilitation (which he still continues to attend). He now uses a prosthetic leg, and a wheelchair, to get around. 

Nati told me that the pain he still suffers on an ongoing basis is simply indescribable. He experiences phantom pain in his amputated leg—something we cannot even begin to imagine. He struggles to sleep at night, and takes medical marijuana to alleviate the pain. “I don’t know if I’m high right now from the marijuana or from that helicopter ride we just took,” he joked.

But then Nati told me something absolutely astounding. “Even though I am in so much pain all the time,” he said, “I am determined to put on a smile and truly feel happy. If I’m upset, or angry, or depressed, that’s a victory for my enemies—the cowardly Arab terrorists who tried to finish me off. But every time I smile, I feel victorious.”

Wow. What a remarkable attitude!

Nati is a powerhouse of positive thinking in the face of adversity. While most of us cannot begin to compare ourselves to him, we can certainly take note of his attitude and try to emulate it in our own lives.

We all have problems; some bigger, some smaller, but no one is problem-free. Perhaps we’re struggling on the home-front or dissatisfied professionally. Maybe we’re lonely and wondering if we’re destined to be alone forever. When we’re feeling down, let’s think of Nati and his overwhelmingly positive outlook on life. If he can feel cheerful despite his almost constant pain, we can certainly try to do the same.

In fact, in this week’s Parshah we read about the terrible curses the Jewish people will suffer if we don’t follow G-d’s directives. But Chassidic thought teaches us that despite the pain and suffering, G-d is still with us. He is with us in our joy, and He is with us in our suffering.

It’s our job to fight the suffering, and fight all evil, head on. “Simcha poretz geder,” – “Happiness breaches boundaries,” is a popular Chassidic teaching which Nati exemplifies. Let’s do the same. 

Lag BaOmer: Ultimate Love

Lag08-metzudabonfire.jpgBack in 1996 I spent the year studying in Israel. Come Lag BaOmer, the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, we travelled from our Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad to his resting place in Meron. 

The trip took about three hours and we arrived at 2:00a.m. We were certainly not the only ones there! Close to 500,000 Jews travel to Meron every Lag BaOmer—mostly from around Israel itself but some even fly in from other countries. 

For safety reasons, we had to park several miles away and walk to his resting place. Along the way we passed thousands of other Jews from all walks of life. People danced and sang in the streets—it could just as easily have been 2:00 in the afternoon! 

I saw Chassidic Jews and Litvish Jews. I saw Israelis and Americans and Australians. I saw chareidim, modern orthodox and completely unaffiliated Jews. There were people who voted for Shas, and people who voted for Likkud; people who support Shinui, and people extremely right wing. But secular or religious, unaffiliated or traditional, we all shared a common purpose and a sense of intense unity—to celebrate and bask in the joy of this holy day. 

What a sight, as we walked up the mountain! The singing got louder and the dancing more animated. The crowds thickened and it became harder to pass. People literally dance right through the night, and getting to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s actual gravesite requires endless patience and top-notch navigation. The sheer mass of bodies trying to get into the small space takes a toll. After two hours of pushing and standing my ground, I finally managed to reach the actual gravesite and say my prayer. 

And as I stood there, I felt myself—and my prayers—being uplifted by the tremendous power and energy around me. Praying surrounded by 500,000 of my brethren was truly inspiring. Despite our differences, we were all there at the same time, for the same reason. Unity pulsated through the crowd; the feeling truly indescribable. 

In that moment—actually, in that entire 24 hours—something monumental happened. There we were, half a million Jews from all walks of life, and suddenly our differences melted away. It stopped mattering which political parties we supported, which synagogues we attended, and which communities we came from. At that moment, we were simply Jews. Brothers. One nation, together. Nothing else mattered, except for our shared heritage and G-dly souls. No matter how different we may appear, we are a single unit. 

I spent five Lag BaOmers in Meron, and I was privileged to experience this same tremendous feeling each time.  

This year, Lag BaOmer falls out on Sunday, April 28. We may not be in Meron, but we can still celebrate together. We can still focus on our commonalities and try to set aside our differences for the day. Are we individuals with individual opinions? Absolutely! But ultimately, we are brothers and sisters. Part of something much bigger and greater—the Jewish nation.

By focusing on our commonalities, we can override and solve our differences. Do we differ over the Israeli army? Sure. Do we differ about secular subjects being taught in schools? Yes. Must these differences divide us so sharply? Absolutely not! 

On Lag BaOmer, when we light bonfires and dance with abandon, let’s also rekindle the fire in our souls, and recognize that ultimately we are all the same; all one nation. Let’s embrace it.

Sinning Every Second for Sixteen Years

images.jpgMy good friend David* got an email this week from an old roommate, Yehuda*. They lived together in Israel for two months 16 years ago! Both were students and the arrangement was supposed to be long term, but after two months Yehuda upped and left without warning. Now, 16 years later, Yehuda was writing to make amends over some unpaid bills from that time. He figured the bills amounted to approximately $200 and he wanted to rectify his mistake. “I was young and immature back then,” he wrote, “but for the last 12 years, every Yom Kippur, I think about those unpaid bills and feel bothered by them.” 

Finally, all these years later, Yehuda had the courage to track down David and repay him. 

I found the email exchange deeply moving. Here was someone who had done a genuine accounting of his soul - he’d sifted through years of his life, found a mistake and made a sincere attempt to fix it. I can only imagine that if he tracked down David to make amends, he was probably doing the same with others. Instead of dragging this mistake around and letting it weigh him down forever, Yehuda fessed up and did the right thing. 

In this week’s Torah portion we are warned against stealing. Rashi explains that “Do not steal” in the Ten Commandments actually refers to kidnapping, whilst this week’s parshah refers to monetary theft. The Talmud writes that theft makes G-d angry. What’s so unique about theft that it makes G-d angry? After all, there are plenty of other sins which seem equally as bad—if not worse—to us. Eating on Yom Kippur, eating pork, adultery, slander… all of these are bad but none come with the same warning about angering G-d. So why theft? 

When a person steals, he or she is committing a sin every single second until the item, or money, is returned. It’s not a one-time sin, it’s an ongoing sin, and in that way it is unique. When a person eats pig, he’s sinning from the first bite to the last swallow, but then that’s it. It’s over. Did he do a bad thing? Absolutely. Does he need to repent? Of course! But when a person steals, the sin grows and multiplies until he or she returns the money. 

When we conduct ourselves and our businesses with honesty and integrity, we create a vessel in which G-d can shine His blessing. But if we, G-d forbid, cheat and steal and work dishonestly, there is no vessel for blessing and success. Living in the modern cutthroat world, it’s very tempting to sometimes be a little dishonest in business with the hope of bigger financial gain. In fact, stealing may be easier than ever nowadays—we can sit in the comfort of our own home, or office, and do all our thieving with the push of a button! 

But the benefits of living an honest life, and running a transparent business, far outweigh the perceived advantages of theft. It may seem like a “quick-fix” solution, but ultimately G-d only blesses honest money. 

With Pesach Sheni—the Second Passover—right around the corner, this is an opportune time for second chances. Let’s learn from Yehuda—it’s never too late to rectify an old misdeed.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Our Entire Chabad House Shut Down

images.jpgLike many people, I spend a good chunk of every day working at the computer. All our contacts are safely stored on my computer data base, in fact our entire Chabad operation is pretty much dependent (in a lot of ways!) on the computer. Moreover, because it’s usually so reliable, I’ve become dependent on it. Bottom line is, my computer is indispensable.

But this week it happened, I finally faced the dreaded Blue Screen Of Death. If you’ve ever faced it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The computer encounters a critical error from which it cannot recover and simply shuts down—and not in the good way. Often nicknamed the BSOD, it gets its name from the color of the screen generated by the error. So I desperately tried turning on and off my computer, but it was a no-go. I knew I needed someone more experienced to look at it, so I called my friend—a computer expert.

Thank G-d, most of my documents are saved on an online storage system, so that wasn’t an issue. But without my computer I essentially can’t work. I needed it fixed!

So, my friend came to my office and performed a number of tests on my hard drive, and then took it with him. A few hours later, voila! He returned my computer in perfect working condition!

“How did you do such magic on my dying computer?” I asked him gratefully.

“My tests showed that your hardware and software are in order; sometimes a computer just needs to switch off, be rewired, and then it’s like new again. I basically just wiped your computer clean and then reinstalled everything,” he explained.

When he said that, I was reminded of this week’s Torah portion and the lessons we learn from it.

We learn that the punishment for speaking slander and gossip is white spots similar to leprosy. It was a spiritual ailment, not contagious leprosy. When a person was infected with this leprosy, he or she was banished outside the camp for seven full days—basically, solitary confinement. During those seven days, the gossiper would have time to focus and reflect on the gravity of the sin and the rifts he or she caused.

When the seven days were over, the offender would be able to return to the camp, rewired, revamped, re-energized. In order to slander another, the slanderer is obviously in a bad place himself! He tried to create animosity between people, so he is banished to be “rewired.” He needs time to deprogram, clean out, and then reprogram himself correctly. The seven days of banishment creates an environment conducive to self-reflection, change and focus.

The truth is, most of us could use some time out as well. We’re busy, we’re tired, we work hard. We rush from home to work to meetings to coffee to TV shows. We drive our kids to ballet and basketball and yoga and soccer. Even when we go on vacation, we don’t really switch off.

Sometimes, we need to take a conscious step back to escape the daily rush. Like the computer, we need the occasional shut down so that we can continue working and living at full capacity.

We don’t have leprosy to shut us down, so we need to do it ourselves, and we can do it in a positive way. We have shul. We have Shabbat candles. We have tefillin. We have the nightly shema. Coming to shul is a great way of shutting down and tuning into ourselves. Lighting Shabbat candles and saying the nightly shema really allow us to turn inwards—we even cover our eyes. Putting on tefillin each day gives us a daily energy boost. When we switch off, and focus on the mitzvah we’re doing, we’ll emerge re-energized, calmer and more peaceful—all without being banished from the community for seven days!

My One Year Old Was Put Into A Straight Jacket

IMG-20130328-WA0022.jpgAt the peak of our Pesach Seder, injury struck. We were gathered together, 180 people discussing freedom and singing the beautiful haggadah songs in unison, when I noticed my one-year-old son Zalman crying hysterically. I rushed over and discovered that his four-year-old brother had closed the door on his thumb. His nail had become mostly detached from his thumb, and it was bleeding significantly. We cleaned him off and bandaged him up, and after the holiday we took him to the doctor.

The doctor removed the finger nail entirely, cleaned it up and sewed it back on so that a new nail would be able to grow in and replace it. 

The whole incident got me thinking. 

*Our nails are considered the least holy part of the body—they are the furthest and most removed of all our parts. We have much less sensation in our nails than in any other part of our bodies, and our nails grow back when we cut them, unlike our hands or feet of any parts of significance. You’d think hurting a nail would be no big deal, but oh no… When the doctor was fixing Zalman’s nail, the nurse had to hold him down, I was busily trying to distract and placate him AND he was strapped into a mini straight jacket. Oh – and they had given him a local anesthetic!  

A tiny nail, but so much pain. What does it mean? 

According to Kabbalah, all the souls of the Jewish nation comprise a metaphoric “body.” Some souls are more connected to G-d, and they are likened to the heart or the head. Other souls are connected, but less strongly—they are considered the arms and legs. But then there are some souls which seem to be completely detached, just like the fingernail. They seem so far removed from Judaism, devoid of any spirituality, but at their essence they are still very much a part of the Jewish nation. 

In fact, we had a real cross-section of Jews at our Seder. We had some “head” and “heart” Jews, some “arms” and “legs,” and yes, even some “fingernails.” We were privileged to share our Seder with one person who hadn’t been at a Seder in 35 years! Together, 180 Jewish souls asked the Four Questions. And together we recited, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Together, we make up the collective body of our nation. 

The same way the body needs all its parts in order to function fully and productively, we need all members of our nation to work together to accomplish our goals – Torah, mitzvot and the ultimate redemption. It’s our job, our mission, to reach out to the “fingernail” souls among us and reassure them that they are pivotal, fully-fledged members of the global Jewish community. When we are united, and working together, we are unstoppable. 

*According to the Shulchan Aruch—the Code of Jewish Law—we must dispose of cut nails carefully, because they can be harmful, particularly to pregnant women. The Shulchan Aruch explains that a person who buries the nails is considered righteous, a person who simply throws the nails away is wicked, and a person who burns the nails is the most pious of all. Why? According to the Talmud, burning one’s nails is actually harmful to the one burning them (because it is part of one's body), but if a person is so determined to prevent another from coming to harm (by stepping on his nails, or otherwise), that he is willing to put himself in harm’s way to burn them, that person is extremely pious. 

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