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Lesson from a Car Accident

Two weeks ago my wife Shevy took our son to school. As she drove down West 89th Street, a car unexpectedly pulled out of a parking garage and backed right into her. She slammed on the brakes but not before both cars were damaged. Thank G-d, nobody was hurt.

The driver of the other car hopped out of his car and immediately began yelling at my wife. "This is your fault! You should have been driving more carefully!" He claimed he had been trying to drive forward into the garage and Shevy had hit him from behind.

I arrived at the scene quickly, even before the police. Shevy explained that the other driver had reversed into her, but he continued to insist it was her fault. In fact, he was so adamant about his version of events that Shevy began to doubt herself.

Sound familiar?

We all go through life seeing things from our perspective. We convince ourselves that we're right. We argue with our spouses and find it hard to apologize because we're so certain we are 100% correct. We fudge business deals and convince ourselves that the other party is in the wrong. We are blinded by our own version of events.

This is exactly what happens in this week's Torah portion. Our forefather Jacob dies, and his 12 sons bury him. Over the next few weeks, Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, stops inviting his brothers to dine with him as they have become accustomed. The brothers assume that, now that their father has passed on, Joseph is ready to take revenge on them for selling him when he was 17. Fearful, they send him messages begging him not to harm them.

But they are wrong. They are biased by their own perspective. All Joseph wants is a little time to mourn his father's death. He isn't ready to sit around and feast with his brothers. He has no plans for revenge. They simply misread him, because they saw the world through their own lens. Joseph, of course, reassures them that he had no ill intentions and loves them wholeheartedly.

Fortunately, in my wife's case there was a witness who was able to confidently tell police that the other driver was fully at fault, and there was even a surveillance camera recording the entire incident. Ironically, even in the face of such clear-cut evidence, the other driver continued to insist Shevy was in the wrong!

Nothing in this world happens by chance; everything is Divinely ordained. We don't know exactly why G-d planned this car accident, but we will, G-d willing, check our tefillin and mezuzot to make sure they are 100% kosher.

As we enter 2015, let's resolve to be more sensitive to the needs and intentions of those around us. If we learn to see things from the other person's perspective, our relationships will be dramatically better.

What Were You Talking About in 2014?

This week Facebook released a list of the most-discussed topics in 2014. With one billion members, Facebook is the largest discussion forum in the world. So before I read the results, I asked myself, “What do I think is most-discussed? What do people care about the most? What major events happened in 2014? The war in Iraq? ISIS? Ebola?The President?” I was hoping maybe some religion of spirituality might be on the list.

Well, first on the list was the World Cup. Soccer. I should have guessed! Then there were discussions about celebrities, with Beyonce in first place. Ebola was also high up on the list. These are things that were on people’s minds this year.

Facebook then sent every user individual highlights of their year, probably determined by which posts received the most engagement. Not to be outdone, Google also sent their users a timeline video.

All this got me thinking: what about our own recap of the year? Are we proud of the fact that we spent so much time discussing the World Cup, celebrities and movies we watched? What were out conversations like over the past year? We know that everything we say gets recorded, not by Mark Zuckerberg, but by the A-mighty G-d. If we were able to see a timeline of all the conversations we’ve had over 2014, would we be proud of the results?

In the Shema prayer, which we read twice a day, G-d tells us what he would like to see us discussing: “And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise.”

G-d wants us to engage in discussion about Torah at all times. Whenever we have a free moment, we should be thinking and talking about something meaningful, something Divine.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every Facebook user only ever post Torah thoughts, but perhaps it would be wise to begin each day by sharing something meaningful. Post something spiritual, something G-dly, and who knows? Perhaps it will catch on and feature as one of the highlights in 2015!

Modern Day Maccabim

We are currently celebrating the holiday of Chanukah, when we commemorate the victory of the small group of Maccabees over King Antiochus and his vast Greek army.

The Chanukah story may have happened more than 2000 years ago, but I just spent 10 incredible days with an inspirational group of modern-day Maccabees.

Our community just hosted a delegation of seven severely wounded IDF soldiers. As has been the case every year since we launched Belev Echad back in 2009, I am moved beyond words by the incredible spirit of faith and resilience exemplified by each and every one of these modern-day heroes. These young boys took bullets and shrapnel for the rest of us. Because of them, we have our homeland, Israel. I well understand what the Lubavitcher Rebbe meant when he identified our soldiers as tzaddikim, truly righteous, holy individuals.

One of the soldiers, Gil, told us his story. He was serving in the Special Forces when his unit was ambushed by Hamas terrorists this past summer. He was shot in the hand. He saw the terrorists approaching and it appeared they intended to kidnap him. He tried to draw his rifle, but was unable to because his hand had been shot. He had to make a split-second decision. He reached for his grenade and pulled the pin, making peace with the fact that he would kill himself together with the Hamas terrorists, and not allow himself to be kidnapped. At the last minute, his fellow soldiers in the unit were able to pull him to safety and put the pin back in the grenade, saving his life. Hearing this story from Gil, a modern-day Maccabee, was incredibly moving.

Over the past 10 days we took our Maccabees out to give them the real New York experience. Museums, tours, sightseeing, sports games, fine dining… we did it all!

But these guys are not like ordinary tourists. They do everything with gusto and a real love for life. On Sunday we went to the Metlife Stadium for a Giants football game, where they were treated to box seats. It was a great game—the Giants versus the Redskins—and the Giants won.

In the middle of the game, the crowd was roaring, cheering and waving their flags, and our soldiers wanted to participate. No problem! Ron took off his prosthetic leg and started waving it in the crowd! This was a moment which truly demonstrated the spirit of the IDF. Yes, Ron is in pain all the time. Yes, he’s depressed about losing his leg. But that doesn’t mean he can’t also be happy. His spirit triumphs again and again.

The others followed suit, and were soon leading the cheers to the delight of the fans around them.

That’s the sort of character and spirit these young men consistently display. Rather than giving up on life or feeling sorry for themselves, they are determined to live life to the fullest and raise the spirits of those around them.

Here in this community, in our own small but not insignificant way, we are privileged to be able to help these young men continue to smile through their injuries, spreading hope, strength and positivity wherever they go. Not out of pity, G-d forbid, but out of profound appreciation for these young men and the sacrifices they have made on our behalf. It is a gift to them, but a much bigger gift to us. What an honor and privilege to spend time with these modern-day Maccabees.

770, My Spiritual Home

Number 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York, known to thousands as simply "770", is home to Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters. The building houses dozens of offices, a study-hall, and of course a large synagogue. It is the place where Rebbe gave his talks and farbrengens and handed out dollars. From 770, the Rebbe sent out his emissaries, building the largest spiritual army in history which today covers a large portion of the globe. Simply put, 770 is the hub of Chabad.

After studying in Israel for a few years, in the year 2000 I headed to Brooklyn to study in 770. I vividly recall one evening in particular. The dormitory where I had been staying temporarily was overcrowded, my friend's basement apartment was full, and the apartment I would be moving to in a few days was not yet ready. So what did I do? I went to 770, which is open and occupied 24 hours a day, pushed a couple of benches together, and went to sleep. I felt safe. I felt at home.

More than a building or a synagogue, 770 is a magnet, a compass, drawing people in. I studied in 770 for about 8 years. I spent hundreds of hours poring over holy texts; hashing out Talmudic debates. I spent many a night in that study hall, deep in Chassidic discussion, often till the wee hours of the morning. This is the place I could forget about the rest of the world and meditate for hours about the greatness of G-d.

Whenever I come to Crown Heights I make a point of bringing my kids into 770 because 770 is such a holy place. It is my spiritual home.

But two days ago, the safety and security we've always felt in our home away from home, 770, was brutally shattered when a knife-wielding man violently stabbed 22-year-old Israeli student Levi Rosenblatt* in the neck. Thank G-d, Levi is recovering and will be ok, but to have a horrific attack like this in 770 is unimaginable. Understandably, we are all reeling.

Clearly, the spiritual forces of darkness are waging war, desperately trying to subdue us.

But this week in particular we celebrate the triumph of Chassidism and light over those who sought to destroy it. The 19th of Kislev is known as the Rosh Hashanah of Chassidism. On this day, the founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was released from prison (where he had been imprisoned due to false accusations) and allowed to continue spreading his teachings. When he returned home, he explained that his release from prison was not only a personal victory, but a spiritual one as well. In the heavenly realms, the forces of evil were trying to prevent the dissemination of Chassidism, and the Rebbe's physical release from prison represented the victory of holiness, purity and light over darkness.

Today, we stand on the cusp of redemption, ready for Moshiach, and so once more we battle the evil forces that would like nothing better than to see us fail. But we cannot be subdued. As we celebrate the 19th of Kislev this week, and Chanukah next week, we will continue to add light, love, kindness and generosity to the world, until we manage to vanquish the darkness entirely. 

*Please continue to pray for Levi Yitzchak ben Raizel. May he have a full and speedy recovery

I Don’t Recognize You

The other day I needed to have some paperwork notarized so I went to my local TD bank. After waiting in line and preparing all the documents, I was asked for my photo ID, only to realize that I’d left it in my office.

“Can you do it without my ID just this once?” I asked. After all, this woman knows me; she’s helped me countless times. “Can you rely on facial recognition just this once?” I begged.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. “I don’t recognize you,” she said. “You must bring photo ID.”

So I was forced to go back to my office, get my ID and return to the bank to finish notarizing the documents.

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In this week’s Torah portion Yaakov is reunited with his brother Eisav after 20 years apart.

After deceiving their father and taking the blessing intended for his brother Eisav, Yaakov fled to avoid his brother’s wrath, where he lived with his uncle Lavan and met and married his wives, Rochel and Leah. Now, 20 years later, Yaakov returns to his hometown and Eisav comes out to greet him.

In the distance, Eisav sees his brother approaching, apparently now a fabulously wealthy man with sheep and goats and cattle and wives and children. He is equivalent to today’s successful multi-millionaire businessman—the guy who made it on Wall street, owns a beautiful 5th Avenue penthouse and a home in the Hamptons.

Eisav thinks he finally sees his brother Yaakov for who he is. Finally, he recognizes him!

So Yaakov tells Eisav, “You have not even begun to recognize me or understand who I am.” He tells his brother, “Im Lavan garti,” I lived with Lavan. The word “garti” means lived, but it can also mean “gerut,” foreign. Yaakov was essentially telling Eisav, “All this wealth you see before you, that’s not who I really am. I am, first and foremost, a Jew who is dedicated to G-d and spirituality. All this wealth is secondary. My home on 5th avenue? My private plane, my yacht and my summer home? Yes, I am wealthy, but my wealth doesn’t define me. I use it to serve G-d and I give 10% to charity.”

We also need to be able to say “Im Lavan garti,” my wealth does not define me.

Just as the bank teller needs proof of identity, we need spiritual proof of identity. You’re living in Manhattan, enjoying a luxurious life? Great! But is that who you are? Absolutely not! First and foremost, we are Jews, devoted to Torah and mitzvot.

Don’t let others identify you by your penthouse, your car or your watch. Create your spiritual photo ID card: Learn some Torah, light Shabbat candles, put in tefillin, give charity, do a mitzvah.

Make it clear to yourself and those around you that you are, first and foremost, a committed Jew

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