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Let's Create Earthquakes

Fifteen years ago I visited Nepal with a group of friends to conduct a Pesach Seder for 2000 Jewish (mostly Israeli) backpackers. 

In Nepal, everyone and everything is relaxed. Everything is "sababa." Many Israelis travel there after completing their army service, to climb and hike and simply "switch off." Surrounded by the most beautiful mountains, rivers and hiking trails, one can truly relax. 

This week, much of Kathmandu and the surrounding villages were devastated by a severe earthquake. The loss of life is unimaginable. The full scope of the destruction and tragedy is not yet known, but there are already 6,100 confirmed deaths, including 19 hikers on Mount Everest who were killed by avalanches triggered by the earthquake. 

We mourn for the dead and pray for the recovery of the injured. 

An earthquake is caused by the build-up of energy in the earth’s crust, which creates seismic waves. It’s like leaving a pot of water over a high flame. At first it sends up just one or two bubbles, then it simmers gently before coming to a rapid boil and ultimately overflowing from the pressure. 

In the aftermath of the tragedy, another earthquake was unleashed—another build-up of energy. Good energy. 

Fifteen years ago, I enjoyed my Nepal experience, but I was more than ready to head home at the end of the week. Rabbi Chezki and Mrs. Chani Lifshitz, on the other hand, have made Nepal their home since 1999, raising their children far from the family and Jewish infrastructure they grew up with. I’ve often wondered how they do it. I mean, I also run a Chabad center but it’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side! Certainly we have our challenges, but they don’t even come close to the challenges of raising a family in Kathmandu. Would I be able to do the incredible work they do?

This week, Rabbi and Mrs. Lifshitz unleashed an earthquake of love, care and devotion.  Their Chabad house instantly became a shelter for hundreds of people to whom they are serving hundreds of meals daily. In less than a week they have served over 5000 meals. Rabbi Lifshitz even took a helicopter and went out to rescue 25 Israelis stuck in the mountains, while his wife Chani ran the Kathmandu operation (and they sent their children to stay with their grandparents in Israel temporarily). He was able to pinpoint their exact location because they had satellite phones which had been donated specifically for him to lend out to hikers. 

Israel, too, joined the aid effort, sending food, water, medical supplies, and 270 workers to create and run the largest field hospital. 

We are currently in the period of time known as Sefirat HaOmer—the counting of the Omer. Sefirat HaOmer is a period of mourning for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died because they didn’t have enough ahavat yisrael—love for their fellow Jews. During this time we focus on helping those in need, and developing and maintaining our ahavat yisrael. It’s a time to unleash spiritual energy into the world. If the build-up of energy in the Earth’s crust can wreak such havoc and devastation, can you imagine how much love we can spread across the world with our acts of goodness and kindness? 

Let’s take that inspiration and translate it into action. Together we can create a large-scale earthquake of kindness which will permeate the very Heavens and lead to the final and eternal redemption, when we will know no more pain, sadness or suffering.  

Let’s get to work! 

Please donate here to the relief efforts of Chabad in Nepal. www.chabadic.com/nepal

Would you Convert for the Perfect Guy?

Jane* walked into my office this week, wanting to talk about her relationship with Chris*:

"When I met Chris, I thought I'd finally found The One. I'm 30, and we met through a mutual friend. Chris is warm, friendly and charismatic—everything I could have possibly wished for. He is charming and intelligent too. As soon as he walks into a room, he makes everyone feel comfortable instantly. He has an excellent job, a warm, loving family and a fabulous sense of humor. He's always happy and can make me smile no matter what else is going on in my life.

"Chris was everything I could have dreamed of in a partner. I knew he wasn't Jewish, but that never bothered me. I just felt so fortunate to have found him. I grew up with virtually zero Judaism observance. I never kept kosher or Shabbat or went to Hebrew school. I did visit Israel pretty often, but would not consider myself religious in any way, shape or form.

"So it didn't bother me or my family that Chris wasn't Jewish. My parents loved him, my siblings loved him, and my friends who married non-Jews all seemed to be perfectly happy.

"After two years together, Chris and I went on a vacation. We began discussing engagement, marriage, having a family, where we might live, where to buy a house etc. After we'd worked out a lot of the details, Chris told me he needed me to do one small thing—convert to Christianity.

"In his eyes, this was a minor request; he didn't think it would be an issue at all. But my reaction was instant and virulent. Absolutely not! Convert? Renounce my faith? Betray my G-d? There's no way I would even consider it. Never!

"And so, the very next morning, I packed my bags and flew home. I cried the entire way, feeling like my world had come crumbling down. "

Here was Jane, in my office, two months after the break up, still deeply pained. "Why did G-d put me through this?" she asked. "Why did I have to meet Chris at all? He was so perfect. I still want to marry him, but I cannot convert. Wouldn't it have been better if I'd never met him in the first place?"

I listened as Jane poured her heart. "I don't know why you had to meet Chris," I said, "but maybe, just maybe, the reason has something to do with this:

"Each of us has two souls—the G-dly soul and the animal soul. The animal soul desires instant gratification. Whatever is good or comfortable right now, the animal soul wants. Food, fun, vacation, etc. The G-dly soul, on the other hand, wants to connect to its source in heaven. It wants to be nourished by its Creator, our Father in Heaven.

"Until now, you have suppressed your G-dly soul. You haven't allowed it to express itself. But your G-dly soul is connected to G-d in a most powerful way and that is what stopped you from converting. When your soul's connection to G-d is threatened, it expresses itself in the deepest way, and I think that's what happened here.

"So why did G-d make you go through this? To allow you to connect with your soul. To allow your soul to express itself, paving the way for you now to reconnect to G-d. Now you can learn about your heritage and your faith, and understand why you rejected the notion of conversion so virulently. "

Let's learn from Jane's experience and make sure to feed the G-dly soul.

*Names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals 

Afraid of a Haunted House?

Last week my kids were home from school for Pesach vacation and we took a Chol Hamoed trip to a Long Island amusement park. My kids were thrilled and the first ride they chose was the spooky ghost ride.

I had my nine-year-old, six-year-old and three-year-old children with me, and I noticed that they were petrified from the moment the ride began. First the lights went out. Then a woman who looked like a ghost started moving towards us and there was a spooky man playing the piano. The voices, sounds and darkness all amplified the experience and my kids were terrified, shaking with fear.

As we continued, I thought back to my childhood and the ghost rides I used to go on in South Africa. I remember the fear I used to feel then, so why am I no longer afraid? Why are my kids shrieking but I am completely calm?

Now that I am older and wiser, I understand that the “ghosts” coming at me are not real. It’s simply an illusion. The man playing the piano does not actually exist. The woman is just as fake. Because I understand the reality, I feel absolutely no fear. My kids, on the other hand, who don’t yet have that understanding, cling to me and shake with fear.

This week one of my congregants called me. “Rabbi, I terrified!” he said. “I have a very lucrative business deal I’m hoping to close, but I’m worried I might lose it to one of my competitors.”

I explained to my friend that when the Baal Shem Tov was a small child of four, he was orphaned from his father. As his father lay on his deathbed, he told his son, “Yisroel, do not fear anybody except for G-d.”

“Of course,” I explained, “you have to do everything in your power to secure this deal, but at the end of the day put your trust in G-d and He will provide. Our fears are nothing but illusions.

Yes, we all have fears. Some of us are afraid that if we don’t work on Shabbat, we won’t make enough money. Others worry that by giving charity they won’t have enough for themselves. The worries are endless. But just like the ghosts in the haunted house, these worries are not real. We are like children who perceive real fears when they are really nothing but illusions.

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Shemini. Shemini means eight and represents the supernatural. The number seven represents the natural cycle of the world. For example, G-d created the world and its natural order in seven days. Eight, however, is above and beyond nature. For example, we circumcise our sons when they are eight days old, because the britmilah symbolizes our nation’s logic-defying covenant with G-d.

Seven is the perceived reality, and eight is our faith and belief. Eight is what makes us realize we have nothing to fear in this world, but G-d alone. 

My Daughter's First Taste of Ice Cream

This week, my family and I traveled to Crown Heights to do some Pesach shopping. While we were there, we stopped at the local ice cream store. Everyone got ice cream, including my youngest daughter, Sara, who had her very first taste—and she loved it! She finished her ice cream so quickly, that the rest of my kids were only halfway through theirs. When she noticed, she had an adorable tantrum wanting more ice cream.

This was her first taste of the sweet stuff, but she had certainly seen it before. My other kids have eaten ice cream in front of her previously and she has never shown any desire it for it. Yet here she was flying into a tantrum over it. Where was she until now? Why hadn't she wanted it before?

The answer, of course, is simple. Although she'd seen ice cream before, she'd never tasted it. Once she had her first lick, and realized how good it is, of course she wanted more and more.

According to our sages, there are three things in this world that change a person. The first is alcohol. When a person drinks, they change. And if you have a drink and feel unaffected, it just means you can tolerate a little more. But after you have another drink, you will certainly be affected. 

The second thing that changes a person is money. Some change for the better, others for the worse. But if a person has made or inherited money and it has not yet affected them, it simply means they have not yet reached their tolerance level for money. But money will affect a person just like alcohol. Some people will change with $10,000, others $100,000, others with 1 million and some only with 1 billion

The third item, explain our sages, is Torah. Torah will most certainly affect us all—for the better. We will think differently; it will change our reality. And if we have studied Torah and it has not yet affected us, it simply means we have not yet studied enough Torah.

Torah is like that ice cream. It is delicious. Why did my daughter Sara never desire ice cream previously? Because she had never tasted it. And so it is with Torah. Learning and studying Torah will cause us to love G-dliness and spirituality. Why don’t we love spirituality? Because we have never really tasted it! But rest assured, once we do taste it properly, it will change us and touch us forever.

As we usher in the holiday of Passover and settle down to the Seder, let's pass on our beautiful heritage and delicious Torah to the next generation. The Seder is all about “Vehigadata Levincha,” telling our children the story of Passover. Let your child taste the deliciousness of the Torah. Let them love it. Let them savor it. Make the Seder fun and exciting for them. Give them a lick.

Chag sameach!

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