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Boy, Do They Kvetch!

Rosh hashana 2.jpgLast week we had our first barbecue of the season for the young professionals. We had a great turnout—a few hundred people attended. 

One of our congregants volunteered to man the barbecue and after the event he told me, “Rabbi, that was the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done! Everyone complained non-stop. If the hotdogs were ready, they wanted the burgers. If the burgers were ready they wanted the hotdogs. When everything was ready they wanted it cooked differently! The smoke was burning my eyes, I was sweating with exertion and the kvetching certainly didn’t help. One guy wanted his burger more cooked so he put it back on the grill, went away and forgot about it, and when he came back half an hour later it was burned, of course. Another guy pushed me out of the way so he could roast his marshmallows, while a third guy complained about the lack of beer and a fourth guy complained that there was not enough wine in the sangria. I nearly lost my cool multiple times over the evening, but somehow I managed to hold it together and make it through the night. You’d think these people were paying big money to demand such service, but the $20 charge doesn’t even cover half the expenses!” 

“Mike*,” I said, “I’m so glad you had this experience right now, before Rosh Hashanah. You see, G-d has chosen us as His beloved children, and all year long boy do we kvetch! We complain about anything and everything. But for the most part, G-d takes very good care of us. Every moment of life, health, sun and air is a gift, but more often than not we take it for granted and complain about all the things we don’t have and all the things that are not as perfect as we’d like them to be. 

“How do you think G-d feels about us when we behave like this? In fact, we are told that on the eve of Rosh Hashanah G-d’s enthusiasm for the world diminishes. Maybe the kvetching is a little too much. But then, Rosh Hashanah morning the piercing cry of the shofar, accompanied by our heartfelt prayers, emanates from all the synagogues, shattering through the heavens, straight to G-d Himself. When G-d hears the shofar, it’s as if nothing else exists. Suddenly, He yearns for us, His love rekindled. These same children who complain all year are now the apple of His eye. 

“What a valuable lesson, you learned, Mike—you experienced G-dliness.” 

L’chaim to a wonderful year for all of us, filled with holiness and happiness. Shana tovah!

*Name changed to protect privacy. 


I Forgot My Pants!

Last week I travelled to Israel to celebrate my niece's wedding. I also used the opportunity to visit some army bases and wounded soldiers. Visiting these brave heroes who put their lives on the line during Operation Protective Edge was moving and uplifting. 

As we prepared for departure at Newark airport, my brother Yossi realized he forgot to pack his tefillin! In true brotherly fashion I began ribbing him, "How do you forget your tefillin?! It's the first thing you should pack! You've been using them every day (bar Shabbat) since you turned thirteen. How could you forget something so important?" I wouldn't let him live this one down. 

Of course, he made plans to borrow from someone for the three mornings we'd be away, making sure the tefillin he'd be using would be on par with his own. 

Most of the passengers on our flight were Jewish, so we offered them all the opportunity to put on tefillin during the flight, which gave me ample time to tease my brother some more.  

When we arrived in Israel and began to prepare for the wedding, I made a stunning realization. I took a shower, opened my suitcase to take out my Shabbat clothes, and lo and behold I had left my dress pants back in New York! Oops.

I didn't have enough time to go out and buy a new pair, so I had to make do with the same pair of weekday pants I flew in. 

To say I felt foolish would be an understatement. Here I'd spent the flight good naturedly ribbing my brother for forgetting his tefillin and here I am pants-less! And tefillin are probably a whole lot easier to borrow. They are one-size-fits-all, whereas pants need to be specific to the individual. 

In just one week we'll be celebrating the holy and awesome day of Rosh Hashanah. This is the time to look back, analyze our past behavior and clean up our act. We have to deeply and honestly analyze our faults and sins and resolve to work towards rectifying them. 

We are, in fact, experts at identifying faults--those of our family and friends. Most of us can easily fill pages explaining exactly what is wrong with those around us. This one gossips, that one does business crookedly, the other one doesn't treat his wife well. But when it comes to our own faults and imperfections, suddenly we are clueless and blind. Me? Sin? Are you serious? And when someone points it out to us, we have dozens of explanations and excuses. 

This Rosh Hashanah, we want to stand in front of G-d with a clean slate. So, as we prepare, let's try to switch things around and look at ourselves with a critical, honest eye while seeing others more gently and forgivingly. Surely this will help us start the new year off on the right foot. 

No Feeding the Monkeys

I just got back from a wonderful trip to South Africa. While there, we visited the Pilanesberg Safari, spending several days in the wild, where we could see lions, buffalos, zebras, giraffes and other animals living in their natural habitat. What an awe-inspiring experience! It's a fantastic way to shut off from the rest of the world and really get in tune with nature and oneself. 

At night we slept in chalets, and on our first morning we awoke to the sound of the door being rattled from the outside; someone was trying to get in. I grew up in South Africa when there was lots of crime, so I immediately assumed a thief was trying to break in. I called out, "Who's there?" but received no response. We opened the door and, lo and behold, a giant ape was standing right on our doorstep! Another 50 or so monkeys were roaming around the camp ground looking for food, and we soon discovered that they'd broken into another chalet and helped themselves to the food they found inside. 

That group of monkeys seemed to follow us around for the next couple of days, and even when we went indoors they would come right up to the windows. But when I asked the staff if we could give them some of our leftovers, they pointed to the signs all over the camp - "No Feeding the Monkeys." They explained that if the visitors were allowed to feed the monkeys, soon they'd get used to being given food and would eventually stop being able to fend for themselves. Ultimately, we would be killing them. Although feeding them seems kind, it would actually be cruel. 

We are currently in the Jewish month of Elul - the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. During this period, we blow the shofar every day to awaken our souls and remind us to repent in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when G-d will judge the world and determine our future. 

It's a time to reflect on our behavior, accomplishments and spirituality over the past year and resolve to correct our misdeeds. It's a time when we have to do the work ourselves. No one can "feed" us. No one can change our behavior for us, no one can wipe the slate clean for us. 

Sometimes we wish G-d would reveal Himself to us, give us a sign He is watching over us. It would be so much easier to keep kosher, put on tefillin and observe Shabbat if we could see His presence. But no. No feeding the monkeys! G-d wants us to do it entirely ourselves. 

Only when we do the hard work on our own will we truly be ready to receive all the blessings G-d grants us over the High Holidays. We must spend the current month, Elul, fashioning ourselves into vessels worthy of receiving His blessings. 

This is the time carefully analyze our behavior over the past 11 months and take the time to recommit to our Father in Heaven. We have two weeks left. Let's make the most of them. 

Steven Sotloff, Talented Journalist & Proud Jew

chi-steven-sotloff-beheading-video-20140902-001.jpegTragically, Steven Sotloff made national and world news this week after ISIS released a video showing his beheading. Steven was a 31-year-old American journalist, and, we now know, the grandson of Holocaust survivors. He travelled to Israel in 2005, studied at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, later accepting Israeli citizenship and becoming a contributor to The Jerusalem Report, a sister-publication to The Jerusalem Post.

A year ago he was kidnapped in Syria. Immediately, his friends and family went to all lengths to hide any trace of his Jewish identity. They combed his online presence and removed anything that could potentially link him to Israel or Judaism. Over 150 people, speaking 20 different languages, joined the effort. They looked through his Facebook page, Twitter account and all his articles. Anything that could potentially endanger him was immediately taken down.

But Steven Sotloff had a powerful Jewish soul, and regardless of how many articles were taken down, and how much effort was made to remove any trace of Jewishness from his online presence, his soul burned bright. Last year on Yom Kippur, Steven risked his life to fast and pray. Even though his captors served him eggs, he feigned illness and didn't eat. He even managed to pray facing Jerusalem! He observed the direction in which his captors prayed, then adjusted the angle accordingly.

Yom Kippur is the day when, regardless of how far we may have strayed, we return to G-d and beg his forgiveness for our sins. This is the day that, in the most desperate of circumstances, Steven chose to connect to G-d despite the great risk to his very life. This was Steven Sotloff - talented journalist and proud, proud Jew.

We are currently in the month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the time to reconnect with G-d, regardless of how distant we may have been during the other 11 months of the year. We may have let our connection to G-d dwindle, but now is the time to reignite it. During Elul we blow the shofar to awaken our souls and remind us who we are and what we should be doing. It is a month when we peel away the layers we've built up and get in touch with who we really are our core. Steven Sotloff did just that. Held in captivity, in brutal conditions, his soul burned bright, his relationship with G-d vibrant and alive.

Our hearts go out to Steven's family and friends at this difficult time. Let's honor his memory by following his lead. If Steven was able to pray while being held captive by barbaric monsters, certainly we, who live in luxurious freedom, can pray and connect with our heritage. As we gear up for the High Holidays, let's make an effort to tune in to our souls and reconnect to G-d, in memory of Steven.

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