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Lost in Africa

20130815_085906_8.jpg Two weeks ago, while on our trip to South Africa, I took my family to the Hartbeespoort dam, which is about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg. 

Now, when I travel in the United States I rely heavily on my Waze GPS. Not for nothing was the Israeli company bought for one billion dollars! Waze is fantastic. Even if I know the way, I turn it on for the real-time traffic updates and minute-to-minute fastest routes. 

Unfortunately, in South Africa I only had internet access when I hit a wifi spot, so I had to go back to the “old fashioned” method of printing Mapquest and Google maps directions.

Well, unless I am reading-impaired, the directions for our return to Johannesburg were way off, and lo and behold we got lost. Lost in the middle of Africa without a working cell phone. My parents and siblings were getting frantic because they couldn’t get hold of us. They kept sending WhatsApp messages in the hope I would find a wifi spot. 

So, with my useless printed directions, and no GPS, I did what we did in the really old days—I stopped another driver and asked him for directions. He explained to me how to get onto the highway, but he quickly realized I didn’t understand, so off he went to get a map from his car. He very patiently showed me exactly where to go, but maps are not my forte, so he drew it on a paper for me. When this kind stranger saw that I STILL didn’t understand, he hopped back into his car and told me to follow him. He went at least 30 minutes out of his way to help a complete stranger get back to Johannesburg! 

I was so touched by this stranger’s kindness. I tried to think when was the last time anyone in NY did something like that for me, but then I remembered I don’t need that in NY, thanks to my good old Waze GPS. 

We are less than one week away from Rosh Hashanah. During the year, many of us are “lost.” We lose ourselves in the jungle of the world; lose our spiritual sensitivity, our sense of direction. Some of us have become lost in the corporate world; lost in dollar bills. We’re floundering. 

But along comes G-d and tells us exactly what to do. 

In this week’s parshah we read, “Behold, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” Life is a choice and the choice is clear. If we embrace the Torah, we will be rewarded with life and goodness. 

The High Holidays are G-d’s way of grounding us, and reminding us where we’re headed. He literally points us on the right path and gives us a map with detailed directions—the Torah.

This Rosh Hashanah, let’s embrace the opportunity to hop back on the right path and return to where we should be in our spiritual development. G-d’s pointing us in the direction; it’s up to us to follow through. 

I’m Jet lagged. Are You?

zj.jpgI just came back from a trip to South Africa with my family. We flew through Atlanta which meant the flight was 15 hours. As you can imagine, we were all completely exhausted. And on top of the exhaustion was the jet lag. 

Jet lag has nothing to do with the hours spent travelling, and everything to do with the amount of time-zones passed. Our bodies, which are used to a regular day/night routine, are suddenly thrust into a completely different one. The “recovery rate” is approximately one day per time zone. 

Watching my two-year-old son, Zalman, pass out from exhaustion in the middle of the day, got me thinking more closely about the whole jet lag thing, including spiritual jet lag. 

For 11 months of the year, we are accustomed to a certain kind of lifestyle. Come the month of Elul, and it’s time to change. Really change. It’s time to wake up, reconnect with G-d, learn, contemplate, teach and pray. It’s a time of introspection, reevaluation and repentance. This month is radically different from the rest of the year. 

The last 12 days of the month of Elul correspond to the 12 months of the year. Just as it takes one day to recover from jetlag for each time zone we’ve passed through, these 12 days are our chance to recover from 12 months of spiritual laxity. 

This year, Rosh Hashanah catches us off guard. We’re still in summer mode—relaxing and vacationing and along comes Rosh Hashanah, right after labor day! Let’s use these next 12 days to make sure we’re not caught spiritual unprepared. 

Licked by a Lion

lionpark.jpgI visited the Lion Park in South Africa this week with my family, a place included in Newsweek’s top 100 tourist destinations worldwide, and we were not disappointed.

We saw all kinds of lions, but the real treat was holding the lion cubs. Their trainer, Sapi, showed them to us, and helped us handle them safely. What absolutely gorgeous creatures they are!

Although they were only four months old, the cubs were pretty big, and their claws and teeth quite developed. As held one of the cubs, he gave me a lick, and that’s when I felt the roughness of his tongue. It was rougher than sandpaper, which surprised me. But the handler explained that their tongues are covered with hard, sharp papillae to help them scrape meat from the bones of the prey they kill and eat.

The trainer also showed us how sharp the lion cubs’ claws are even at the young age of four months—already sharp enough to be deadly. These African lions are the largest of Africa’s big cats. And the handler told us how constantly aware and vigilant he has to be, because of the animal’s killer instincts. Even though he has raised these cubs since birth, and will continue to care for them as they age and mature, the cats will never lose that killer instinct, even towards their trainers. They must be handled with caution and awareness.

By the age of six months, they can already hunt and kill on their own.

In this week’s Torah portion, G-d instructs us to obliterate the nation of Amalek—the first people to attack us as we left Egypt. Our Chassidic masters explain that Amalek refers to doubt. It is the icy voice that attempts to inculcate us with apathy and immunize us against passion and inspiration. When we get excited about spirituality, Amalek is the doubt that creeps us and gets us to “cool off.” This Amalek – this doubt – is what we need to obliterate.

The very first chapter of the Code of Jewish Law tells us “One should strengthen himself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve his creator.” lionpark2.jpg

When we get up in the morning, and our Amalek—doubt—tempts us to sleep in, skip prayers, etc., we need to pounce like an African killer lion.

When hunting, Lions display incredible patience. They will wait hours for their pray, quietly stalking and watching the animals’ every move. 

We can learn from that patience. We may need to fight with our Amalek day in and day out, but with patience and determination, we will prevail.

With Rosh Hashanah just three weeks away, now is a good time to take a closer look at the lion, and try to emulate him. Be strong, conquer our doubt, and when the High Holidays arrive, we will be able to stand in front of G-d with a clean slate.

Madly in Love with a Married Woman

2013-07-07 16.49.35-1.jpgTwo weeks ago, I bought my children new bikes with training wheels. After a few days, I took off the training wheels and started teaching them to ride without. My five-year-old, Mendel, fell off a couple of times but got right back on and figured it out in no time. Seven-year-old Rosie, on the other hand, cried and cried that she didn’t know how to ride a two-wheeler. We talked and tried, but she wouldn’t allow me to let go of the bike. After a full week, I gave her a push and she managed to ride a bit by herself. As soon as she realized that she could do it, she became an expert rider. 

I learned a couple of lessons that day. 

1. All you need to do to ride a bike, is determination and self-confidence. If you believe you can do it, you will succeed.

2. Let go of the fear. In order to let go and ride, you can’t be afraid of falling. 

Watching my children learn to ride their bikes reminded me of the month of Elul, which we are now entering. Elul is the last month on the Jewish calendar, the month immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah. 

During the month of Elul, we are supposed to take stock of our spiritual wellbeing. Have we sinned over the past year? How can we rectify that? Have we done enough mitzvahs? How can we increase our output? 

The month of Elul is our chance to reacquaint ourselves with G-d. He is more accessible to us than He is year-round, and He’s simply waiting for us to approach Him.  

Like learning to ride a two-wheeler, repentance requires confidence. If we believe we can truly return to G-d’s ways, then we can. Nothing is impossible! No matter what sins we have committed during the year, we can abandon our evil ways. And like riding a bike, we might very well fall down, and not just once. But that’s ok. G-d knows how hard it is. We’re surrounded by temptation and it’s hard to stay strong. That’s why we have the month of Elul and the ability to repent. 

It happened once, that a very wealthy Jew, Nosson Tzusisa, fell in love with a married woman by the name of Chana. He tried to persuade her to be with him. She refused his advances. But he was so deeply infatuated with her that he even offered her a large sum of money. When she maintained her refusal, Nosson fell ill. His health continued to decline, to the point where even the doctors said that he would die if he couldn’t be with the woman he so deeply desired. 

A rabbinic authority was consulted. On the one hand, saving a life is considered the most important mitzvah. On the other hand, the woman was married, and adultery is one of the three cardinal sins. The rabbi concluded that it was not halachically permissible for Nosson to be with Chana, despite his ailing health. 

Now, Chana’s husband fell upon hard times. He owed money which he couldn’t repay, and was thrown into prison as a result. Finally, when he could not withstand the prison life anymore, he sent his wife to get the money from the wealthy Nosson.

Heavy hearted, she went to visit Nosson. Without blinking an eye, he gave her all the money she needed to settle her husband’s debts, and as she turned to leave, he said he would like to sin with her. 

She looked him in the eye and said, “Nosson, I now owe you and if you so choose, you may sin with me. But, know, if you do, you will forfeit your life both in this world and in the world to come. You have a life-changing moment right now—the likes of which most people never experience. You can do the right thing and redeem and purify your soul, or you can give in to your beastly temptations and destroy your soul forever.” 

Her heartfelt words moved him deeply. He looked out the window and prayed to G-d from the depths of his heart. He cried bitterly, his body wracked with tears. He beseeched G-d to cure him of his terrible addiction—his temptation for the beautiful Chana. 

And then, summoning up an inner strength and self-control he had not known he possessed, Nosson sent Chana away without laying a finger on her. 

He had overcome a seemingly insurmountable temptation. 

Years later, Rabbi Akiva noticed a tremendous, holy light emanating from Nosson’s face. He understood that this was no ordinary man, and began to teach him Torah. 

In one afternoon, Nosson was able to turn his life around. He committed to doing the right thing, bared his heart to G-d and prayed for assistance, and overcame his temptation.

If Nosson—who faced such overpowering temptation—was able to come around, we certainly can. And now, in the month of Elul, G-d makes it easier than ever. He’s reaching out to us—we just need to grab on. 

Anthony Weiner for Mayor?

weinertalk-e1374616613943.jpgThe saintly Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once chanced upon a strong, young man who was brazenly eating on Yom Kippur. The Rabbi suggested that perhaps he was feeling ill. The fellow insisted he was in the best of health. Perhaps he had forgotten that today was the holy day of fasting? "Who doesn't know that today is Yom Kippur?" responded the young man. Perhaps he was never taught that Jews do not eat on this day? "Every child knows that Yom Kippur is a fast day, Rabbi!" Whereupon Rabbi Levi Yitzchak raised his eyes heavenward and said, "Master of the Universe, see how wonderful Your people are! Here is a Jew who, despite everything, refuses to tell a lie! 

Who will become the next mayor of New York City? The race is on. It’s no simple position; the city is the financial capital of the world, has a 50 billion dollar budget and one of the densest populations in the country. The question on everyone’s mind is, can someone who is morally imperfect in his own private life, still be a trustworthy, conscientious leader? Is he fit to be in a leadership position? What part, if any, does his personal life play in his mayoral campaign? After all, he is intelligent, charismatic and capable, and does not bow to pressure. Does what he did alone on the internet really make a difference?   

When Moses appointed leaders in the desert, G-d instructed him, "You shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, G-d fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens." 

Rashi explains that "men of truth" refers to those who keep their promises—i.e., people you can trust. If you can trust them in their personal lives, then you can trust them as public leaders. 

Leadership is not solely about being in charge and making decisions. It involves honesty and integrity; it involves being a role model. You want to know who a person really is? Watch how he treats his wife! Want to know if a person is to be trusted? Observe the way he treats his children. What kind of father is he? 

In the Talmud, we meet Kimchis, who merited having all her seven sons serve as high priests. What did she do to deserve this honor? We are told that “the beams of her house never saw the hairs of her head.” i.e., she kept her hair covered even in the privacy of her own home. Her stringency in modesty—even when no one else was around—merited her this great honor. 

In this week’s Torah portion, we read, "Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse." This is G-d giving us free choice. We all have an inner struggle between good and evil. We all experience temptation and desire, and it’s hard to resist. G-d is well aware of our powerful evil inclination, and He gave us the ability to repent in the event that we might succumb to its force.

I do not know who the next mayor of New York City will be. That will be determined by the city’s voters. But for someone to prove that he has repented requires two steps. First, we must realize we have a problem. We need to acknowledge our faults and imperfections and stop lying to ourselves. The next step is to move away from the limelight and do sincere, private penance, including deep remorse and reconnecting with G-d. Only then can we begin to regain the integrity we lost when we made those unfortunate choices.

We are all leaders—in our families, communities, and businesses, and what we do behind closed doors is never just about us. Everything we do impacts our leadership positions, our families and our relationships.

We are about to enter the month of Elul, which immediately precedes the High Holidays. Elul is a month of repentance, when the heavenly gates are wide open just waiting to accept our prayers and supplication. G-d is always ready to forgive us for our sins; we just need to do the work. We need to acknowledge our flaws and to sincerely regret our actions.

Let’s focus on atoning for our sins over the coming month, so that when we stand in front of G-d on Rosh Hashanah, we will be standing with a clean slate and a clean conscience. 


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