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Major Mistake On My Email Blast

On the eve of Yom Kippur I sent out an email to my entire list, wishing everyone an easy and meaningful fast, and reminding them about Yom Kippur services. I included a list of practical tips for getting through the fast, and a mitzvah appeal asking everyone to commit to doing an extra mitzvah in honor of the holiday. But most importantly, I listed the dates and times of each service. 

Because my emails reach thousands of individuals, I make sure to check and recheck every detail—the dates, times and links. This email was no different. I checked and rechecked it. I sent myself a preview just to make sure it would come out right on the other side! I even put more effort into it, because I knew that on the eve of Yom Kippur, even those individuals who normally delete my emails without opening, might feel compelled to open and read it. 

Well, despite my vigilance, the email went out listing Yom Kippur as September 26, which is actually Simchat Torah! Oops. 

Normally, only about 20% of people open my emails, and of that 20%, most, probably don’t pay attention to every detail. So I was surprised and impressed by the amount of people who responded, letting me know about the mistake. 

The emails I received ranged from curious and confused to entertaining and appreciative.

"Rabbi, is Yom Kippur being delayed this year?"

"Do we have to fast twice? Today, and again in two weeks?"

"Rabbi, I love the way Yom Kippur is now on Simchat Torah. Does that mean we celebrate Simchat Torah tonight with liquor?"

"This is why I love Chabad!"  

Truthfully, the High Holiday period is a process. First we go through the month of Elul, a time when we are hyper aware of G-d, ourselves, our pasts and our future. Then we arrive at Rosh Hashanah, accept G-d as our King and make serious resolutions for the coming year. Finally, Yom Kippur is upon us, the holiest and most serious day of the year. In some ways, it is considered the day of our marriage to G-d. Then we continue on to Sukkot, festival of joy. The Sukkah resembles G-d’s embrace. Then, the culmination of the High Holiday period, Simchat Torah. Pure, unbridled joy, when we celebrate our deep bond with G-d and His Torah. 

The Chassidic masters explain that we can accomplish the same thing with joy and dancing on Simchat Torah, that we accomplish on Yom Kippur with tears. So, the two holidays are actually more closely related than they might seem on the surface. On Yom Kippur we fast and pray and cry, but on Simchat Torah we dance and sing and rejoice. Let’s put on our dancing shoes and prepare to reach great spiritual heights on the happiest day of the year—Simchat Torah. 

The fish is on the roof

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At the beginning of the summer, a friend called me about his new goldfish. The family was going away on vacation, and he wondered if the preschool might like to babysit their fish. I offered to look after the fish in my own home, which turned out to be a great decision because my children loved the fish. They were excited to feed it, and just to watch it swim around and around. My two-year-old was especially entranced.

Towards the end of the summer, my friend and his family still hadn’t returned from their vacation, and we were preparing to go away ourselves for a couple of weeks. So the fish now needed yet another temporary home. A friend of mine offered to pet-sit, and we dropped the fish off on our way to the airport.

While we were away, I received a text from this friend asking, “How attached to the fish are you? My kids really like it…maybe we can keep this one and we’ll buy you a new one?” I found that a little strange, why not buy his kids a new fish and give me back my fish?

When I got back from vacation I called my friend about the fish, and he reminded me about a joke I said in last year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon.

Phil had worked almost every day of his adult life and never taken a vacation. He also looked after his elderly mother and his cat day and day out. So when he finally agreed to take a vacation (at the urging of friends and family), his main concern was his two charges. Who would take care of them? Kindly, his brother stepped in and Phil went off happily…

On the very first day, Phil called his brother and asked about the cat. “I’m very sorry but the cat has died,” his brother said.

Phil was devastated. “How did this happen? I don’t understand,” he cried. “The cat was healthy. I took care of it so well. I left one day and it is DEAD?”

His brother explained that the cat ran into the street and was hit by a car.

When he’d finally managed to compose himself, Phil told his brother to reconsider his method for delivering bad news in the future. “You should have said, ‘The cat is on the roof.’ In a couple of days you could have added, ‘We’ve had trouble getting the cat down,’ and a few days after that you say, ‘The cat fell off the roof and died.’ That way, I’d at least be prepared.”

The brother apologized and agreed to be more considerate in the future.  

“And how’s Mom?” asked Phil.

“Um…she’s on the roof…”

So my friend remembered the joke and hadn’t wanted to tell me that the fish had died within the first 20 minutes he had it. You see, this friend had another tank with a different kind of fish. He figured, why keep both fish isolated, when they could be hanging out together in a single tank. He even called a friend to check if these two fish were safe to combine. But 20 minutes later, his fish got hungry and devoured my fish. So he waited until I got back from vacation to tell me the bad news.

I’m still waiting for a call from the original owners, and when they call I will be sure to tell them, “The fish is on the roof”

The Baal Shem Tov taught that we should be attuned to the lessons of everyday life. What did the fish incident teach me? I realized that like the fish, we’re all in our own “tanks,” which include challenges, hurdles and temptation. Often, we look outward to solve our conflicts. It’s easy to blame everyone else. But when it comes down to it, we need to look inward, examine ourselves and dig deep for a solution.

We are entering the beautiful holiday of Sukkot when we move out of our homes and into temporary dwellings for a full week. For seven days we rely on a hut to protect us from Mother Nature. The Sukkah represents G-d, and its shakiness represents the persecution our nation has been through over the years. We’ve suffered through wars, pogroms and virulent anti-Semitism. We’ve learned to rely only on G-d—we cannot rely on others to help.

So when we sit in the Sukkah this year, let’s remember the importance of looking inwards and relying on G-d to help us. 

The Power of Tehillim

Almost a full year ago, on October 21, 2012, I woke up at 5am as I do each morning. And, as I do each morning, I checked my phone. But this morning was different. I saw a message on our Vigler Family WhatsApp group from my mother in South Africa. My father had fallen during the night and she was asking all of us to pray for him. 

I didn’t think much of it. It didn’t sound particularly serious, but I realized I hadn’t visited the Ohel—the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—in a while, so this seemed like an opportune time to go. I try to pray at the Ohel in Queens at least once a month, on behalf of my family and community. When I arrived, I wrote my letter to the Rebbe and went inside to pray. 

At the same time, my father was taken by Hatzalah to Linksfield Hospital in Johannesburg where the doctors were running tests to figure out what had happened. Our sages say that knowing the disease is already half the cure. In this case, the medical staff had to run numerous tests until they worked out what was wrong. My brother, Motti, a well-known hand surgeon in Israel, was on the phone with the doctors in South Africa, until they finally realized my father had had a brain aneurysm. 

When I saw those words on my phone, I cried for the first time in my adult life. I realized how serious the situation was and immediately called my wife. 

“I’m dropping everything and boarding the next flight to South Africa,” I told her. 

And that’s what I did. I literally dropped everything. I didn’t even have time to go home first, so I asked my wife to bring my passport and a couple of other necessities and meet me at the airport, which she did. I bought my ticket at the airport, got my passport from my wife and boarded the plane. 

The 14 hour flight to Johannesburg afforded me plenty of time to think. The words we’d uttered, just days before, in our Rosh Hashanah prayers, reverberated through my mind. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed… who will live, and who will die.” And “Teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzeddakah (charity) can avert a harsh decree.” 

For the first 35 years of my life, as moving as this prayer was, it held little personal relevance. Sure, I was moved and inspired—in fact, they were the most powerful words of the entire High Holiday service. But it was far removed from my reality. 

In my father’s synagogue in South Africa, the choir used to spend at least 45 minutes singing the stanza. It was the highlight of the Rosh Hashanah prayer. But as I hummed the tune under my breath on that plane, I suddenly felt myself living them. 

Suddenly, “who will live and who will die” was extremely real. I honestly didn’t know if my father would live or die. The last line, “Man is from dust and will return to dust,” was all too real. As strong as we think we are, as much as we’ve accomplished, it can all be gone in an instant.

My plane landed and I drove straight to the hospital. My father had to undergo a complex neurological surgical procedure. Actually, most people who have brain aneurysms don’t even make it to the hospital alive, which meant the surgery was extremely dangerous and complex, as the doctors explained to us.

What do we do when someone is in critical condition? We say Tehillim (psalms). The entire book of Tehillim is divided into 150 chapters and it takes approximately two hours to recite it from beginning to end. 

King David, who authored the book of Tehillim, wrote that reciting Tehillim can pierce the heavenly gates, and in Hayom Yom, the Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that if we understood the power of Tehillim we would recite them 24 hours a day. 

During the two hours my father was in surgery, when his life literally hung in the balance, we harnessed the power of modern technology to maximize the amount of Tehillim being said for his recovery. We have an extended Vigler WhatsApp group, and we sent out a request to everybody to pray for my father’s health. One cousin immediately committed to reciting chapters 1-10, another claimed chapters 10-20 and so on. Within minutes, we had completed the entire book of psalms for my father. We must have recited the 150 chapters at least 25 times over those two hours, and our friends and co-workers saw our Facebook posts and were praying all over the world.

When the surgery was over, the doctor came out and told us it had been successful. When we told him that hundreds of people around the world had been praying for my father, he said, “Aha! Now I understand why it went so well!” 

Thank G-d, my father recovered. It took many, many months for him to regain his strength and return to full health. 

Last month I took my family to South Africa to celebrate my father’s Seudas Hoda’ah. A Seudas Hoda’ah is a celebratory meal where we express our gratitude to G-d for saving us from any extremely dangerous, near-death experience. My father’s entire congregation in Johannesburg joined in celebrating and thanking G-d for the miracle of his recovery. 

This year, when we pray “Who will live and who will die” on Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgement, it will be much more real and much more meaningful to me. And when we say, “Teshuvah (repentance), Tefillah (prayer), and tezeddakah (charity) can avert an evil decree,” I have seen it with my own eyes. 

I know my prayers will be much more meaningful this year. And while I don’t wish my father’s experience on anyone, I hope that hearing my story will help you find more meaning in your prayers as well.

Home Sweet Home

Home sweet home.jpgDuring August, I travelled to France, South Africa, Atlanta, Las Vegas and California. I travelled for a wedding, a bar mitzvah, and a seudas hoda’ah (an event to thank G-d for a miracle). All this, in the span of three weeks!

Believe it or not, although I had a fantastic time, the very best part of my travelling was arriving home at the end of those three weeks. I crossed over time zones, skipped over countries and accumulated more jet lag with each flight. And it was all worth it. I visited the Eiffel tower in Paris, fed elephants and held lions in Africa, visited the Coca-Cola factory in Atlanta and admired the majestic beauty of Palm Springs.

But, as anybody who has travelled knows, the sweetest part of any trip is arriving home at the end. Home sweet home. To be back in your own house, your own space, with your own belongings and food, feels incredible.

We are about to begin the month of Tishrei, a time when we all “come home” after a year of spiritual travel and wandering.

On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar. Our Chassidic masters illustrate the role of the shofar with a parable:

A powerful king loved his son dearly, but as he was an only child, the king wanted to ensure his son didn’t become spoiled. So, he sent him off with a small sum of money and instructed him to travel and acquaint himself with the land and its people.

Well, the prince thoroughly enjoyed himself and didn’t return for quite some time. After years of living abroad as a commoner, he finally decided to return home. But when he arrived at the palace, nobody recognized him! In fact, the guards thought he was a crazy person and threw him out.

The prince was bitterly dejected. All he wanted was to return home, to his family and the royal palace he knew so well. He broke down, crying bitterly. When the king heard his weeping, he recognized his son’s voice. “It is my son,” he told the guards, “Let him come into the palace immediately!”  

And so it is with us. During the year, many of us travel abroad. We may have strayed from our heritage and from what we know to be correct and true. We may have indulged in the material pleasures of this world, mistakenly thinking they will bring us lasting peace and harmony. But the cry of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is our expression of longing to return. It’s a cry from the depths of our souls; a cry that our dear Father in Heaven hears and recognizes as belonging to His wayward children.  

This year, we’re celebrating Rosh Hashanah right after labor day, and right after vacation. The last time Rosh Hashanah was this early in the season was in 1899, and the next time will be in another 76 years! We’ve all just returned home sweet home from our summer vacation, let’s also make sure to return home sweet home spiritually, to our Father in Heaven.

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