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I Made a Mistake in the Most Important Sermon of the Year

On Yom Kippur, hundreds of people attended our synagogue and I prepared a sermon that I hoped would inspire. One of the stories I told was that of legendary baseball player Sandy Koufax. Arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, Koufax made a different kind of history on this exact day, 50 years ago at the World Series.

The LA Dodgers were up against the Minnesota Twins, and it was Yom Kippur.

Now, Sandy did not have a particularly religious upbringing. He didn’t go to cheder or yeshiva; he went to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. And pitching was his life, his legacy, his everything.

Nevertheless, he decided to forgo the game and stay home, fast and observe Yom Kippur! What an incredible example he set for Jews nation-wide.

In my sermon, I mistakenly said that Sandy went to shul that Yom Kippur, and afterwards my friend Yankel* came over to correct me.

“Great sermon,” he said, “but Sandy Koufax did not go to shul that Yom Kippur.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because five years ago, your uncle, Rabbi Moshe Feller, was a guest speaker in our shul,” he explained. “He told the same story, and he related that he personally went to put on tefillin with Koufax two days after Yom Kippur in 1965 at the request of the LubavitcherRebbe. When he told the story, he said Sandy fasted and prayed but did not go to shul.”

“Wow!” I said to my friend Yankel*. “That is amazing. I’ve given countless sermons over the last five years and most of them you don’t recall at all, and those you do, you certainly don’t remember in such fine detail. But this one you remember perfectly five years later—how is that?”

“A sermon like that about Koufax, one never forgets,” he explained.

We just finished Yom Kippur, when we all fasted, prayed and resolved to become better people, better Jews, better spouses, fathers, mothers, children etc.

Now that Yom Kippur is over, we need to make sure we don’t lose any of that inspiration and momentum. We need to ensure that the intense feelings we experienced over Yom Kippur stay with us throughout the year.

As my friend Yankel* showed, when something is important to us, we don’t forget it. 

Clock or Bomb?

This week a bright, innovative American-Muslim teenager, Ahmed Mohamed, successfully built a working, home-made, digital clock, and brought it to school to show his teacher. Unfortunately, that's where things began to sour for the promising young student.

Teachers at the Texas school thought it looked very suspicious. Thinking it was a bomb, they called the police. Mohamed was handcuffed, escorted from the building by law enforcement officials, and taken to a juvenile detention facility for several hours before being released. The police have made it clear they will not be filing charges, but the school has suspended Ahmed for three days, regardless.

Ahmed's story has captured the interest of people across the nation, and #IStandwithAhmed was the number one trending hashtag yesterday. Understandably, people are outraged that a young 14-year-old was handcuffed and interrogated, accused of building a bomb, when he is simply an aspiring engineer, who enjoys tinkering with and building working electronic devices. 

Support on social media has been tremendous, with President Obama tweeting an invite to the White House:

“Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”

Numerous science camps, contests and programs have offered Ahmed a spot, Mark Zuckerberg invited him to stop by Facebook headquarters anytime, and Twitter offered him an internship!

And so, Ahmed became an instant national celebrity, discussed and supported over all over the internet.

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This Tuesday night we will usher in the holiest and most serious day of the year, Yom Kippur—the Day of Judgment. On this day all our thoughts, words and actions over the past 12 months are replayed and evaluated by the heavenly court. And it looks very suspicious. All the juicy gossip we enjoyed, the slander and lies we told, promises we made and broke...all this is held against us by the prosecuting angels. They insist on severe punishment.

So the Chief of Police—the Almighty Himself—is called, and He takes on our case. G-d examines the facts, but he also looks at our current behavior and state of mind. He sees us in the synagogue, pouring out our very heart and soul. He sees the depth of our regret and our deep desire for repentance and improvement. He sees our very essence, and how genuinely good we really are, despite the many misdeeds we have accumulated.

That's when G-d takes out his "digital clock" and turns time back. The Talmud tells us that the sins we committed, even deliberately, are turned into mitzvahs. G-d changes all the sins we committed over the past year and turns transforms them into good deeds!

But that's not all. G-d goes even further and says we were wrongly accused in the first place, and He is so outraged that He invites us to His "house" for the festival of Sukkot. "You were accused unjustly," He says. "Really and truly you are good and kind and for seven days I want you to be My personal guest in My house. Please come!"

As Yom Kippur approaches, let's make sure we are ready to pray and repent from the depths of our hearts, so we'll be ready for G-d to invite us into His home on Sukkot next week.

My thanks to Efraim Tessler for some of the ideas in this article. 

I Couldn’t Resist Her!

This past Wednesday night I put my 20-month-old daughter, Sarah, to sleep in her crib. We have a nightly bedtime routine. I hold her in my arms and sing Shema as well as the 12 pesukim (12 verses of the Torah which encapsulate many of Judaism’s fundamental teachings). Then I lay her down, sing her a chassidic tune and make sure she has her water bottle with her in case she gets thirsty during the night.

She usually falls asleep instantly, but this time as soon as I left the room I heard her crying for me, “Tatty! Tatty!” Thinking she would fall asleep, I ignored her and began working on my Rosh Hashanah sermon. But she continued to cry and when I realized she was not falling asleep as predicted, I relented and went back into her room. She was standing at her crib and broke out into the most adorable smile as soon as she saw me. I couldn’t resist. I took her out of her crib and let her hang out with me in the living room for the next hour.

Tatty vs. Sarah: Sarah wins!

In just a few days we will celebrate the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, when G-d judges every one of us. We beseech Him for a good, sweet, healthy year. On our prayers we acknowledge, “As a shepherd examines his flock making his sheep pass before him, so do You cause to pass every living being and You allocate the fixed portion of their needs and inscribe the verdict of their judgment.”

We all carry some sort of burden. Perhaps we are in need of health, livelihood, children, happiness or a spouse. We all have our problems and our prayers.

But G-d loves each of us as if we were His only child. The same love that I feel for Sarah is the love that G-d feels for all of us. G-d adores us! And just as I couldn’t resist my daughter’s pleas for more than 15 minutes,G-d cannot resist us—His beloved children.

When we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and pray from the depths of our hearts, it is impossible for G-d not to listen .

G-d vs. us—we win!

May G-d listen to all our prayers and supplications this Rosh Hashanah, and may He send us Moshiach and redeem us from exile right now. 

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Last week we returned from a trip to South Africa, the country where I grew up. I always enjoy spending time there, and for my kids who are growing up in the Manhattan city life, going back to nature was a blessing and a breath of fresh air.

While there, we went on a day trip to the famous monkey sanctuary just outside of Johannesburg, where hundreds of monkeys roam freely, swinging on ropes, living their life, and tourists can walk right through and take pictures.

My kids thoroughly enjoyed this thrilling experience, but at the same time they were a little scared. I walked right up to one of the monkeys who the park had nicknamed "Zaza." Zaza examined me, and without blinking she jumped right onto my head! Then she stretched her hand down into my shirt pocket to see what was in there. When she realized it was empty, she reached down into my pant pocket and tried again. Also empty. I felt her going for my back pocket, and since that's where I keep my credit cards and keys, I wasn't going to take any chances! I jumped and Zaza flew off.

"How did she know to do that?" I asked our guide. "She knew exactly where my pockets were, and she knew to look in them."

"Zaza sees people every day," he explained. "She watches them carefully and notices they are always putting their hands into their pockets to remove items, so she knows where everything is. As the saying goes, "Monkey see, monkey do,"—she is an expert mimic!"

The Baal Shem Tov teaches us that from everything in life we need to learn a lesson.

Every single one of us has a soul which is a part of G-d, and before it descended into our body it was enjoying Divine delicacies and spirituality. Our souls felt closer to G-d surrounded and nurtured by the beautiful and blissful Divine palace.

But then the soul descends into this universe to live inside the body. The soul then quickly forgets about its royal blood and starts to mimic its new physical world. We start living our lives mimicking and copying everything we see. We start to enjoy the physical pleasures of this world, forgetting that we are children of G-d. And that is why Rosh Hashanah comes around.

We are only days away from Rosh Hashanah, when we will blow the shofar, once more crowning G-d as our King.  On Rosh Hashana we will remind ourselves of our Divine heritage, that we are children of G-d, that we have strayed too far this past year, mimicking many of the things we've seen in the world around us.

We know we are special, of Divine origin. Let's return to our true selves this Rosh Hashanah. This Saturday night we begin to recite the selichot prayers which mark the beginning of the High Holiday season.

All year round we are like mimicking monkeys. We act like those around us. We copy everything we see. We become deeply entrenched in the physical world. But when Rosh Hashanah comes around, it is time to return to our roots. 

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