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My Sister Put On Tefillin

Recently, a debate has been raging about women putting on tefillin. Everyone agrees that the Torah commands men to put on tefillin daily. But if a woman wants to, can she? That's what the discussion has been about.

One of the reasons a man puts on tefillin in the morning is to connect with G-d. In fact, that's the reason for many of the mitzvot we do. The root of the word "mitzvah" is "tzavta" which means connection. When I don my tefillin, I am connecting with G-d.

And if that's the case, then my sister also put on tefillin this pastSunday.

My sister, Rebbetzin Estee Stern, travelled to New York from South Africa where she lives with her husband and four children. She flew in to attend the annual Chabad convention of women emissaries, not only as a participant, but as emcee of the grand banquet. The convention bring together 3,000 women from all over the world, and culminates in the gala banquet on Sunday night at the NYC Hilton.

I woke up on Sunday and put on my tefillin like I do every morning (except Shabbat). Now, I know my sister did not put on tefillin, but I do know that she was much more connected to G-d that day than I was!

The banquet was broadcast live, and I watched on my laptop (while watching my kids, since my wife was also at the convention). I watched my sister inspire 3,000 women with a fiery passion. I was in awe! Where does my sister get so much energy? Where is she drawing inspiration from? How does she have the ability to uplift 3,000 women? She didn't even put on tefillin today or any other day of her life! But that's where men and women differ. We men need to put on tefillin in order to connect with G-d. But women are naturally connected, much more than men. They don't need the tefillin to create that connection.

With grace and poise, she stood in front of 3,000 women and shared a story about my father. About 35 years ago, members of his community asked him, "What will be the future for South African Jewry? Should we emigrate?" There was severe violence and unrest at the time.

My father consulted the Rebbe , who answered, "They should stay and serve Hashem with joy and gladness of heart, and Hashem will help them."

My sister now shared this message with the audience. Serve G-d with joy, and gladness of heart, every single day!

Sitting at home, listening to her online, I was certainly inspired! I can only imagine how much more inspired everyone in the room must have felt.

I watched her toast l'chaim to 3,000 women. And 3,000 women raised their glasses and wished each other l'chaim. Wow! I was so proud of my baby sister.

For me, putting on tefillin is about making a daily connection with my Creator. A woman is naturally and intrinsically connected to G-d, so she doesn't require the tefillin boost of inspiration. When a woman uses her thoughts and feelings to inspire others, she is connecting to G-d in her own unique feminine outlet, which is much more profound than imitating the method of men. I saw it when my sister got up and wowed the crowd with an enthusiasm that I can only dream of.

As my sister ended off her speech, may we all merit to serve g-d with joy and happiness, and may we merit to greet Moshiach right now.

Click here to listen to my sister's speech. 

How Do I Get Out Of Jury Duty

I was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in South Africa so I hadn't even heard of jury duty until I became a U.S. citizen. Then I was told that part of my civic obligation would be to serve on a jury if called upon. Well, It took 10 years but I finally received my first court summons this week.

My first reaction was, "How do I get out of this? What a burden!" The last thing I wanted to do was get on a subway and head downtown in this freezing cold weather, spend a few days in court listening to a case and then having to give my opinion that could change a person's life."

Interestingly, this past week's Torah portion lists the criteria for being a judge. They must be, "Men of substance, G-d fearers and men of truth." Men of substance” refers to wealth. A judge must be wealthy so he cannot be bribed. “Men of truth” refers to those who keep their promises and can therefore be relied on.

I said to myself, if Moses were picking the jury today, I surely would not have qualified. So, if I'm not good enough for Moses, it must be ok for me to avoid jury duty. And I began thinking of excuses not to go.

But then I remembered that the name of this week's Torah portion is Mishpatim, which means "laws." In fact, the seventh Noahide law lists the requirement to maintain courts to provide legal recourse. And as Jews we must follow the law of the land - "Dina d'malchuta dina." This includes no cheating on taxes, no lying, no swindling - obeying the law of the land in its entirety.

So off I went, in the massive snowstorm to fulfill my mitzvah of jury duty. I arrived at the courthouse to find hundreds of other potential jurors also waiting.

Now, unlike the way Moses chose his judges, jury members are picked at random and the goal is for each jury to represent a true cross-section of society. And that's exactly what I found. There were doctors, lawyers, nurses, cab drivers, security personnel, cashiers and unemployed individuals. People from assorted races, religions and nationalities. A true representation of NYC. If only Moses could see this room..

We were reminded not to view jury duty as a burden, but as an honor and service to our country, and the procedure was outlined for us: We would be called to a specific case and if we had any bias against anybody in the court, or a personal objection to anything else in the case, we would be disqualified from serving. Likewise, if any of our friends or relatives had been involved in similar cases we were told to disqualify ourselves. If we were selected, we would not be allowed to research the case online, watch the news or read the paper, or even text our friends!  

All this and more to ensure the defendant be given a fair and unbiased trial.

The Torah, too, requires, "They must judge righteously. They may not pervert justice by taking bribes and they may not show deference to one party over another. They must pursue righteous justice."

Although the selection method may be different, the end goal is the same.

In Torah a judge has to be totally and utterly impartial, as do the jurors in our court system.

Ultimately, the case was going to take a good few days, and I was excused because we have a newborn at home, but asked to return in July.

I look forward to having a second opportunity to fulfill this important mitzvah.

Stuck Behind a Garbage Truck

As I drove my daughter to her bus stop on the Upper East Side one morning this week, I found myself stuck behind a garbage truck. 

Normally, before I turn onto any street in the mornings, I check to see if there's a garbage truck. I hate getting stuck behind them as they slowly plod along. But on this particular morning, despite my quick check, the garbage truck outsmarted me, and what do you know - there I am inching along behind it. I tried to reverse but there were already a number of cars behind me. 

It was 8:09, one minute before she needed to be at her bus, and there was no way we would make it in time. As we crept along behind the truck, I tried calling the bus driver, but after the tenth try I realized he must have his phone off. 

I was frustrated. Very frustrated. I was in a big rush to get back to the office. I had a busy day planned without any leeway for unexpected fumbles. I had lots of important meetings scheduled, dozens of phone calls to return, emails to catch up on and people to help. But as I sat there behind the giant lumbering garbage truck, there was absolutely nothing I could do about any of it. 

So I got to thinking. 

It's at moments like these that we realize we are not in control. We may think we run our lives, we may think we're in control, but then along come these moments to show us that it's G-d in the driver's seat. 

We think we run our businesses, make successful deals and pay our employees on time. We think we're in full control of our lives - our successes and our failures - until something comes along to remind us that G-d is running the show, not us. 

In this week's Torah portion we read the first of the 10 commandments, "I am the L-rd, your G-d." According to Chassidic teaching, it specifically says "your G-d" to teach us that He is with us every step of the way, wherever we go, whichever path we take. This empowers us to search for G-d everywhere we go and in everything we do. Even as we go through our day-to-day activities, we are on the lookout for Him. 

In the end, we did miss the bus, it was long gone. But, I learned an invaluable lesson. I'd say it was worth it.

Nu, What's Taking So Long?

I turned on my phone in the morning only to see multiple messages reading "Nu, any news?" and "Anything happen overnight?" In fact, for the past two weeks I've been getting daily messages, emails and phone calls like these from friends and family in anticipation of the big day. 

My wife and I were expecting our 4th child, and her due date had come and gone. For some reason, this pregnancy was lasting longer than expected, and our friends and family were waiting on the good news. "Is there a mazal tov, yet?" they wanted to know. 

But the message that took the cake was from my dear sister-in-law in Israel. She had been WhatsApping me every day for two weeks straight, at which point she wrote in capital letters, "THIS IS NOT NORMAL! WHAT'S TAKING SO LONG?!"

Thank G-d, our beautiful, healthy princess was born in good time, when she was ready to come out, and not a minute sooner. We named her Shterna Sara.

In this week's Torah portion , the Jewish people's period of exile finally comes to an end, culminating at the splitting of the sea where their Egyptian oppressors drown. 

The Chassidic masters compare exile to pregnancy and redemption to birth. The suffering and persecution we experience in exile is called the "birth pangs of Moshiach," and is likened to the pain and discomfort a mother feels during pregnancy and labor. 

In the Talmud we read about Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua, who fell ill, lost consciousness and came very near to death. Today, we would call it a near death experience. 

When he regained consciousness, his father asked him, "What did you see 'on the other side'?"

He responded, "I saw an upside down world. Those who are prestigious and superior and honored in this world are looked down upon the in the true world. But those appear lowly in this world are honored and respected in the true world."

His father acknowledged, "You have seen a clear world." 

Exile is the upside down world. Pregnancy is likened to exile, which is why the fetus lies upside down in the mother's womb. 

We are the ones who see an upside down world. In our world, all you need to do is check out Facebook, Twitter or any magazine to see which people are glorified and why. In the true world, these people are not the honored and admired role models; not at all! And the reasons we look up to them are completely meaningless. 

We worship and glorify the dollar bill, we idolize celebrities, we respect the wrong things. Things that are worthless in the world to come.  

In truth, we have to ask ourselves every day, "Nu, when it is happening? What's going on? Has anything changed?" We need to experience that same anticipation that my wife and I, and all our friends and family, felt about our upcoming birth. This is how we should feel about Moshiach and the redemption!  

Like my sister-in-law texted me, "THIS IS NOT NORMAL!" Our state of exile is not normal. When will we finally give birth? When will the redemption come? When will everything be right side up instead of upside down? 

The Jews in Egypt waited 210 years for their redemption. We have been waiting close to 2,000 years and we want it to end now

So, nu, when will it happen? And what can you do to hasten it?


My Biggest Moments Of 2013

This week I noticed Facebook was prodding me to check out my "year in review." I looked closer and realized Facebook had compiled what they considered my 20 biggest moments of 2013. 

So, what were these moments? Well, the "biggest moment" was a picture of President and Michelle Obama dressed as chassidim. Why was this a great moment? Because it received the largest amount of "interaction" - i.e., likes, shares and comments. 

Likewise, the other 19 episodes of note were the next most popular posts. Essentially, Facebook was selecting my defining moments based on public reception. 

And indeed, as a society we place a lot of emphasis on publicity and popularity. The more publicity, the better! The more I had a good year, the more people are talking about me, the more people like me, and then I have an even better year... and so on and so forth. 

Pharaoh was like that, too. 

In this week's Torah portion, G-d instructed Moses to, "Come to Pharaoh." It would seem more correct to say "Go to Pharaoh," but the Zohar explains the deeper meaning behind the language. 

Moses is not simply being told to walk over and have a visit with Pharaoh. He's being instructed to confront Pharaoh's very essence, the source of evil, and he was afraid. So G-d reassured him, "Come to Pharaoh," let's go together, I'll be with you. Together we'll uncover the evil that is within Pharaoh - the ego. 

The ego is the root of evil. 

An infant is born with its fists clenched, but when we pass away, our palms are stretched out. 

The baby is making its debut into the world. It's determined to conquer and succeed. By the time a person passes on, he or she recognizes that riches and fame don't accompany us to the next world. We have only the good deeds and kindness we've done throughout our lives.

As we grow up, and progress through life, we become more and more aware of our sense of self and our ego, which is often idolized in our culture. We can all use a reminder, every now and then, like in this week's Torah portion, that the ego can lead us violently astray. 

Our greatest moments of 2013 were not the public ones; they were the ones nobody knew about or paid much attention to. 

Donate to an education foundation, you'll get lots of public credit. Leave work early to study with your child who's really stressed about her math test, and no one will know. But it counts, and counts a lot. 

Spend time after hours chasing down the information you need to make a presentation a success, you'll get lots of appreciation, maybe even a bonus. Run to the store minutes before Shabbat to get your wife the last ingredient she needs, no one will know. But you'll be getting credit with G-d, no doubt about it. 

In 2014, let's try to create lots of "greatest moments." Not the public kind. The real kind. 

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