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Is This the "Modeh Ani" Doctor?

Blog.jpgThis past weekend I spent Shabbat in Brooklyn with all my siblings. My brother was celebrating his son's bar mitzvah, and my siblings all flew in for the occasion. With nine siblings spread out across the globe, it's hard to get together often, and the last time we were all together was five years ago at another family celebration.

At Friday night dinner we were all eager to share stories and catch up with each other. My oldest brother, Dr. Mordechai Vigler, is chief of hand surgery at Rabin Medical Center, Hasharon campus in Israel. He shared this story with us:

A woman came to see him with her four-year-old son. She was Jewish, but not observant.

She had been experiencing severe pain in one of her hands, and she noted that the pain was always worse in the morning.

My brother asked her, "Is the pain worse after you wash hands and say modeh ani?"

The woman looked confused, so my brother explained to her that as Jews, the first thing we do in the morning is recite modeh ani, thanking G-d for allowing us to wake up and experience another day.

The consultation continued and my brother diagnosed her and then she and her four-year-old left. The entire consultation was probably less than five minutes, because there were another 60 patients waiting! 

Six months down the line, this woman returned for a follow-up visit. Again, her four-year-old son was with her. As soon as the child saw my brother, he asked his mother, "Is this themodeh ani doctor?

I was incredulous. My brother had only spent a few minutes with this woman, and the comment about modeh ani only took up a fraction of that time. And to top it off, that visit had been a full six months earlier! But this young boy had been reciting modeh ani every morning for the last six months, all because of this one casual encounter with the doctor who mentioned G-d. Wow!

In this week's parshah we read about the sin of lashon hara - slander. We are told that when a person slanders, it's as if 3 people are killed: the person who speaks, the person who listens and the person about whom they are speaking. Such is the power of speech!

If negative speech is so powerful, imagine what an impact a positive word, thought or experience can have. A single positive encounter can change a person's life. 

Let's make sure to focus on speaking positively; together we can change the world. 

How Can A Plane Just Disappear?


malaysia_airlines_1024x.jpgFor close to two weeks, we've been watching the news about missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 with bated breath. Despite many theories, from pilot suicide to hijacking, we still have no concrete idea what happened to the airplane, and its passengers. It seems to have simply vanished.

Twenty-six countries are involved in the massive international search. It is the largest search in aviation history, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Air-travel is considered the safest mode of transport, and this was a Boeing 777 - the safest passenger aircraft! So, understandably, this incident has been highly unsettling. For a plane this size to disappear without a trace is virtually unprecedented. 

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the 239 individuals on board the aircraft. 

What can we learn from the massive search?

Chassidic masters liken the ocean to the “hidden worlds.” Inside its murky depths is an entire world: mountains and canyons, rivers and weather systems, and living organisms of every type and form imaginable. But everything is submerged within its watery depths, almost completely hidden from inquisitive eyes

This is a parable for spirituality and G-dliness. When we look around at our physical and mundane world, we do not see G-d. In fact, often His involvement is so hidden that we even question His existence. When something goes wrong in our lives we think that G-d does not truly exist. We see the sun rising every morning and the moon taking its place at night. We see tall mountains, majestic rivers and beautiful buildings, but what's missing from the picture is G-d. He is lost in this beautiful natural world. This is like looking at the surface of the sea and not seeing anything beyond.

But just as we discover an entire world and ecosystem if we look beneath the ocean's surface, so will we find an additional dimension to the physical world if we probe deeply enough. This is our mission in life - to search for and uncover G-d's involvement in the physical world. 

Millions of dollars are being poured into the search for flight 370. Over 25 countries have contributed ships, planes and satellite imaging to assist with the search. The search area is enormous - millions of miles. 

This is what we ought to be doing on a daily basis. Search! Search! Search! Searching for the G-dliness and spirituality in our lives, and finding ways to reveal it. 

When we make a blessing over food, we are drawing G-dliness into the steak that we are eating. When we give a dollar to charity, we plant a spark of G-dliness inside that dollar bill. When we visit someone in the hospital, we are bringing G-d along for the ride.

The name of this week's Torah portion, Shemini, means "eight." Seven represents the natural cycle of the world. There are seven days in the week. A mourner mourns for seven days. When a person gets married there are seven days of festivity. Eight, however, represents the supra-natural; the G-dly. Our role, our mission in life, is to search for the "eight," identify it and uncover it. 

So let's get to work and start searching! 

Chopped Liver Gave My Friend Food Poisoning

Chopped_Liver.jpgMy good friend Ilan* phoned me last week with a very serious question. 

"Rabbi," he said, "I've never kept kosher in my life; I didn't grow up in a kosher household. But when I attended your services this past Rosh Hashanah, I felt very moved, and resolved to make an effort to keep kosher.

"Today I had a lunch meeting with a Jewish client, and I figured a kosher restaurant would accomplish two mitzvot - I would keep kosher and my client would also eat a kosher meal. So that's what I did. We went to a kosher restaurant in Midtown and I ordered classic gefilte fish, followed by chopped liver. 

"In all honesty, it was difficult, because: a) it's much easier to find a non-kosher restaurant nearby, b) I find non-kosher food better tasting, and c) certainly kosher food is more expensive. But hey, we all know it's not easy being a Jew, so I bit the bullet and did it anyway!" 

"That's fantastic!" I told him. "So what's your question?"

"In one of your sermons," he explained, "you spoke about the difference between a mitzvah and a sin. Both have an 'oy' and an 'ahhh,' the difference is in the timing. When you sin, the 'ahhh' (i.e. enjoyment) comes first, and only afterwards do you feel 'oy' - what did I do?! But when it comes to a mitzvah, first you feel the 'oy vey', this is so difficult. But afterwards, you feel the 'ahhh' - the pleasure of knowing you did the right thing.

"Well," Ilan continued, "I had my 'oy' moment while doing the mitzvah. It was difficult for me - out of the way and expensive - but I did it regardless. Then later, when I was supposed to feel the 'ahhh' moment, I was suffering from severe food poisoning, holed up in the bathroom for hours. It was terrible! (And my client, who also ate the chopped liver, suffered the same fate.) I was in sheer agony, and all because of that chopped liver! I could have eaten in a non-kosher restaurant and saved myself all this trouble. Why must I suffer for doing a mitzvah?!"

My first thought was, Didn't he get the memo? Sushi is the new chopped liver. We Jews haven't eaten the real stuff since Egypt-times! 

But what I ultimately told Ilan was, "I have no idea. Yes, I am a rabbi, but I am not a prophet. I have no idea why your mitzvah ended in painful food poisoning. But what I can do, is assure you that your mitzvah counts, and G-d will most certainly reward you. 

"Our finite minds cannot comprehend His ways. Perhaps he already rewarded you. It's possible there was some heavenly decree in store for you, and because you went out of your way to keep kosher, Hashem lifted the decree. Perhaps you were destined to lose a lot of money or a big client that day, but instead you were gifted with a bout of food poisoning. We do not know His calculations, but rest assured, your mitzvah was not ignored or overlooked." 

We're about to celebrate the holiday of Purim - the most joyous day on the Jewish calendar. During the times of Mordechai and Esther, the Jews were under threat of annihilation every single day. For 11 months Haman's decree hovered over them. Interestingly, the megillah, which records the story of Purim, is the only book of the Torah where G-d's name is not mentioned. During the entire 11 months that the story of Purim played out, G-d was hidden. He was there, orchestrating, but in a hidden fashion. Only after Haman was killed, did it become clear that G-d had been guiding them and helping them every step of the way.  

We look forward to the day when we will see G-d in a revealed and obvious fashion. Even though we've been waiting for thousands of years, we believe that Moshiach will come any day now and pluck us out of exile. When Moshiach arrives, we'll enter a new era - one in which we will see how everything G-d has done for us, was ultimately for our benefit. May that day come very quickly! Until then, however, we just have to continue doing mitzvot and believe that everything He does is for our benefit. 

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Ukrainian Jewry Needs Our Help

352930_Ukrainian-soldiers.jpgIn 1999, I was a 19-year-old Yeshiva student, studying in Israel. I heard that Chabad in Ukraine was seeking volunteers to lead public Passover Seders in assorted communities throughout the country, and I immediately volunteered. I was young, full of energy, and excited to embark on this new and different mission. I travelled with approximately 30 other students, and we were looking forward to spreading the warmth of Judaism in a foreign country. 

Looking back, I was also very naive. Coming from South Africa, I was used to living in a large house, with a swimming pool and three maids. Suddenly, I found myself in the city of Shepetivka, population 40,000, including 200 Jews, where indoor plumbing and electricity were either non-reliable or non-existent. Our bathroom was outdoors and we had hot water for only one hour per day. On the eve of Passover, the electricity shut down and we had to draw water from a well. 

To put it simply, I was homesick. I missed the Seders at home, with my family, and I missed the modern conveniences I had been raised with. I was lonely and miserable and couldn't wait for the holiday to end. 

I didn't understand why I was there; I didn't even share a language with the 200 local Jews! What were we accomplishing? What value did our Seder have to these Jews? 

This week, I found my answer. 

The world has been watching the political situation in Ukraine very closely. Vladimir Putin sent troops to invade Crimea and Ukraine is mobilizing its army as a result. This is the biggest crisis since the end of the Cold War. The region is tense and other countries are watching closely to see how things will play out. And all of this upheaval, was brought about arguably by a single act of a young Ukrainian protester. 

After civil unrest erupted, then-president, Victor Yanukovych and opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko signed an agreement to end the protests and hold a new, democratic election. But one individual, Volodymyr Parasiuk, made an impromptu speech, rallying the protesters and convinced them not to settle. The rest is history. Yanukovych was forced to flee and an urgent state of unrest continues.

Judaism teaches that the power of goodness is infinitely greater than the power of evil. If a single act can bring Ukraine and Russia to the brink of war, imagine how much more a single mitzvah can reverberate throughout the world.  

That's what I accomplished that Passover. I remember the Seder clearly. I didn't speak a single word of Ukrainian, and my translator apparently didn't understand a word of English! But the basics, we were able to communicate. When it was time to eat matzah, everyone ate matzah. When it was time to drink wine, everyone drank wine. And everyone understood that we were there to celebrate the freedom of the Jews. So, 200 Ukrainian Jews had a Seder that year. That's what I accomplished. 

Fast forward 15 years to 2014 and Judaism in the Ukraine is flourishing. 

Ukraine is home to 450,000 Jews, including 170 rabbis serving 154 communities. This impressive network boasts 49 educational centers, 7 orphanages and 32 soup kitchens, as well as synagogues, mikvahs and community centers. 

However, the Jewish population of Ukraine is currently living in real fear. The economy has collapsed and business has come to a standstill. 

Chabad is at the forefront of caring for the Ukranian Jewish community during this crisis. Despite the real danger, rabbis and their families are selflessly leading their communities, providing a comforting shoulder, emergency aid and inspiration in these trying times. 

Today, more than ever, they need our support. Please click here to donate and help the Jews in Ukraine. 

We know how much power a single act can have; how much it can accomplish. We may be far from Ukraine physically, but we have two mitzvot which can significantly help our brethren there: tzeddakah (charity) and prayer.

So let's take a minute to send a contribution, and pray for  the safety and wellbeing of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. Do that one good deed that will bring nuclear powers to peace and usher in the era of Moshiach.

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