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Why Do You RSVP at the Last Minute?!

It was Sunday, Lag BaOmer, and the day of our rooftop barbecue for the young professionals in our community. Our guests of honor were the 10 severely wounded IDF soldiers we were hosting as part of our annual Belev Echad program.

Everything was ready. We'd received permissions from the city to light the bonfire on the rooftop overlooking Manhattan, the caterer  had been hired, food bought and thousands of dollars spent.

But although we'd advertised the event for months, 24 hours before the event we only had 30 reservations! Nevertheless, when the caterer called me for a final number, I told him to prepare food for 150, because I know often people reserve at the last minute.

And I was right.

Starting Sunday morning, 12 hours before the event, the reservations began to pour in by the minute. The numbers quickly rose...50...100...150...200...

The caterer came and began to set up and I told him, "I think we need more food..." Fortunately, he was willing and able to be flexible and resourceful at the last minute and get the food we needed.

Two hours before the event the reservations continued to pour in...200...250...300...350...400!

I expected last minute, but this was overdoing it!

We ended up with 400 people, 90% of whom reserved less than 12 hours before the event. And I found myself thinking, "Why on earth would so many people do that?!"

In fact, I'd say this is one of the most stressful aspects of running a Chabad house (or any event, as any party planner will tell you). People simply don't RSVP.

So I went over and asked my friend Sarah*, "When did you book?"

"At 4pm today, just two hours before the event," she answered.

"Do you realize this is a major event?" I asked.

"Of course! That's why I came!"

"Do you realize it takes months of preparation to pull off an event of this magnitude?"

"Yes! Thank you so much. It's wonderful, I'm having a fabulous time," she reassured me.

"Did you see how many Facebook messages and emails I sent asking people to register for the event?" I continued.

"Yes, that's why I came!" she said again.

"So why on earth did you wait till the very last minute to reserve?!"

And finally I got my answer.

"Well, I figured I'm only one person," she explained. "What difference would it make to you if I reserve at the last minute, as long as everyone else reserves in a timely fashion. What's the big deal?"

I thought about it, and it's true. We often don't RSVP to events and parties, not because we want to cause our hosts anguish, but because we simply don't realize they are waiting for our answer. We see ourselves as a single individual, but we don't realize everyone else is thinking the same way! I myself have RSVP'd to events at the last minute for the very same reason.

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 In a few days time we'll be celebrating the holiday of Shavuot when we read the 10 commandments.

The first one reads, "I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of Egypt." Interestingly, the verse reads "your G-d" in the singular ("Elokecha"), rather than in the plural ("Elokechem"), which would have made more sense grammatically.

This word choice teaches us that every single Jew counts. Every individual has a direct connection with G-d. We all count. We each have a unique mission to fulfill, and we each contribute to the overall goal - making this world a dwelling place for G-d.

Let's not think that our RSVP doesn't count, or that we can't make a difference. Every single act that every single person does, is relevant and important for the running of the world and the wellbeing of the entire Jewish nation.

Rabbi, Can You Host Myself & 19 Others On Friday Night?

On August 7, 2010, I received a phone call from Steven* who I knew pretty well. 

"Rabbi, what are your plans for Shabbat?" he asked. 

Well, it was one of the hottest weeks of the summer and we hadn't been away at all. We'd worked all year and run camp all summer and we were looking forward to going away to Upstate New York to spend Shabbat with family. 

But then Steven asked, "Can I invite myself for Shabbat dinner?"

I thought for a minute and said, "Yes, ok."

Then he added, "Well, can I invite my cousin as well? And my parents and my uncles and my friends..." And before I knew it 20 people were included in the invitation!

Steve explained that his cousin just got married and they needed a place to host sheva brachot on Friday night. I was a bit taken aback, but agreed to host the event. 

So my wife cooked a beautiful meal for 20 of Steven's guests and we really hit it off with the young couple. We not only hosted them for Friday night, but we also did a sheva brachot for them on Shabbat day in our shul. 

Well, when you do a mitzvah G-d always rewards you. Not always immediately and not always in a clear way. But He does. 

In this case, it quickly became clear. The young couple became regular shul goers and ended up volunteering tens, if not hundreds, of hours at many of our events and programs. 

Over the years our relationship with Steven has grown and strengthened, and he has become a strong supporter of ours. This year when he attended our Belev Echad program, and saw first-hand the wounded soldiers that we are helping, he felt tremendously proud to have sponsored one of the soldiers. It is the best thing he's done since landing in New York, he said. 

Often, when we think we're doing a favor for another, in truth the other person is helping us. The other person is allowing you to a mitzvah, and while it may seem like you are the giver, you are really the receiver. At the time, making that sheva brachot felt like doing Steven a huge favor, but the favors he and his cousins have done for us since then far outweigh our sheva brachot meal!

Our community just finished hosting 10 severely wounded IDF soldiers. And while we think we were the givers - giving them 10 days to forget about their pain and worries, truthfully they gave us so much more. They gave us the opportunity to learn from their strength and resilience. They are truly the cream of the IDF crop - men of remarkable spirit and fortitude, and the time we spent with them made us better people. 

We are gearing up for the holiday of Shavuot, when the Jewish people camped at Mount Sinai "Like one man with one heart." They were so united, it was as if they shared a single mind, body and soul. As they prepared to receive the Torah, the differences between them melted away completely. 

We, too, at our core, love each other the way the Jews at Sinai loved one another - without restriction or petty details. 

By going out of our way to do favors for one another, we can rekindle that unity and bring it to the surface once more, as we prepare to re-receive the Torah on Shavuot. 

*Names have been changed to protect privacy. 

"I was slapped for crying at the funeral of my best friend"

Israel2.jpgA few weeks ago I posted a picture on my Facebook wall, showing an Israeli soldier crying at a funeral. The picture was highly evocative and I captioned it, "A picture speaks more than 1000 words."

Within minutes a dear friend and congregant asked me to take the picture down.

He explained:

"I served in the Golani brigade in the IDF. Initially, we were strangers, but within the first few months we became friends. And when we served on a mission together, our bond grew so deep and powerful, we became closer than brothers.

"After two years, one of my closest friends in the brigade was shot and killed during an operation.

"At the funeral, I couldn't hold back my tears. Even though I rarely display emotion, here I couldn't help myself. As the tears rolled down my cheeks, I got a mighty slap in the face from my commanding officer, Erez Gerstein. (Erez was a famous commander, later killed in action.) He told me, 'When you cry at a funeral, the cameras are filming, and our enemies have all the more reason to celebrate. It's a double victory for them. First they kill us, then they enjoy watching us cry.'"

Modern day Israel celebrated its 66th birthday this week. All over Facebook people posted "Happy 66th birthday to Israel!" The truth is that it is only the modern state of Israel which is 66. Let's not forget that Israel is actually over 4000 years old, and our connection to it began back when G-d promised the land to Abraham! My love for the people and for the holy land of Israel is deep and is most definitely not 66 years old.

Our forefathers lived in Israel until they were exiled to Egypt. Then Joshua reclaimed the land and the Jewish people settled there once again. We were exiled twice more, but have always retained a strong connection to our land.

In fact, in this week's Torah portion we read, "The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me." G-d owns the land of Israel and He chose to gift it to us.

At the same time, we know our enemies will not rest. Their hatred won't cease and we must remain on guard, sadly even at funerals.

The story is told of a Jew caught by the Nazis. He had witnessed untold persecution and suffering and now the Nazi was holding a gun to his head, about to kill him for the "crime" he had committed. The Jew begged to be able to pray before he was killed, and, thinking he would get a good laugh out it, the Nazi agreed. "Thank you for not making me like my enemies..." the Jew prayed fervently.

Indeed! Thank G-d we are nothing like our enemies!

Let us pray for the coming of Moshiach, may he take us out of this exile rapidly. And let us beseech G-d to protect all the people living in Israel, and all the IDF soldiers who are constantly putting their lives on the line on our behalf. May they be safe and strong.

Speak - but what should I say?

blog.jpgThis week's Torah portion is called "Emor," which means "Speak!" But the Torah also instructs us (elsewhere),"Say little and do much." So why is this week's portion called "Speak"? What should we be speaking about?

The midrash discusses the severity of lashon hara, gossip. According to the midrash, lashon hara kills three people - the one who spoke, the one who listened, and the one they talked about. Now, I understand why the speaker and the listener are punished, but the person they spoke about? What on earth did he or she do?! 

This week TMZ released a recording of a conversation where Donald Sterling told a friend, "It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people." His words reverberated throughout the world. They evoked outrage from millions of disgusted people. Sterling was fined $2.5 million and banned from the NBA for life. 

Words reveal our hidden thoughts. They are so powerful and can never really be taken back. Moreover, by speaking badly about someone, we bring that person's bad side out into the open. This draws the attention of the heavenly courts, and can result in the person being judged and punished. Had we not spoken, it would have remained hidden. 

This is the message of this week's Torah portion, Emor. If gossip and slander is so powerful and far-reaching, imagine how much we can accomplish with positive speech! If Donald Sterling can say something terrible in the privacy of his own home and it effects millions of people world-wide, our words of kindness and good will can reach even more people! 

Let's unleash this power. Emor! Speak! Share words of love and kindness with your friends, family and even strangers. You never know how far a kind word can go. 

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