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Becoming Best Friends

Blog.jpgExactly 10 days ago we began our 2016 Belev Echad trip. It's fascinating to see just how much has changed between that first day, and today, less than two weeks later. 

On the first day, our 12 IDF soldiers arrived as guests. A couple had been injured together, and were deeply bonded, some knew each other peripherally from spending time in the same hospitals, but for the most part, they were strangers. 

Over the last ten days, however, they stayed together, ate together, toured together and traveled together. They cried and laughed together, and inspired others as a group. By now, any shyness 
has been completely wiped away, replaced with deep personal connections, and intense bonds that will undoubtedly last for years to come. 

We know that loving our fellow Jews is one of the most important commandments, and one many of us struggle with. But if a group of people can bond, becoming lifelong friends, after only 10 days of shared experiences, what's our excuse?

What cemented our soldiers' friendships? Essentially, for 10 days, they spent every waking moment together, in a foreign country, with a shared mission and sense of purpose. 

Likewise, we Jews are foreigners in this world, with a shared purpose—to elevate the world, spreading G-dliness to those around us, in preparation for the final Redemption. 

And, like the soldiers, we have a shared history. We've been through the same experiences as a nation over the last 4,000 years. 

If they can bond in 10 days, surely we can manage, over the course of our lives, to bond with and learn to love and respect the rest of our "entourage"—our fellow Jews. 

In fact, this week we celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer. 

The Talmud relates that in the weeks preceding Lag Baomer a plague aged amongst the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva, “because they did not act respectfully towards each other.” These weeks are therefore observed as a period of mourning, with various joyous activities proscribed by law and custom. On Lag BaOmer the deaths ceased. Thus, Lag BaOmer also carries the theme of the imperative to love and respect one’s fellow (ahavat yisrael).

Removed His Eye – @ Ripley’s Believe it Or Not

Screenshot 2016-05-19 at 11.33.03 AM.pngAfter bringing 110 wounded IDF soldiers to NYC over 11 separate trips, I thought I had seen it all: Amputated arms, amputated legs, missing fingers…But this week I met Ron Abdan. A few months ago Ron was manning a guard post in Beit Jalla when an explosive device was thrown at him. He maintained severe injuries, including the loss of his left eye, where he now wears a prosthetic.

This week we were at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a museum dedicated to the unbelievable. Ripley’s goal is to stun the viewers with all kinds of oddities and extremes. The soldiers were laughing, chatting, and just generally having a good time checking out all the displays. 

Now, Israelis are particularly partial to black comedy, so Ron approached the people at the front desk and told them that he, too, has a “believe it or not” trick. When he removed his false eye from its socket, he indeed stunned the crowd!

Looking beyond the surface, I realized that Ron is in severe pain and discomfort most of the time. His life has changed irreparably, but he makes light of his situation. He manages to find the humor and opportunities to laugh and make others laugh. This is his way of dealing with the pain and suffering.

In fact, we know from the Talmud that Judaism considers it a great mitzvah to find the humor any given situation and lighten the atmosphere. Rabbi Beroka used to frequent the marketplace, at times accompanied by Elijah the Prophet. Once, while conversing, they passed two men, and Elijah remarked that these men were destined to have a special portion in the World to Come.

Rabbi Beroka approached the men and asked, “What is your occupation?”

“We are jesters,” they explained. “When we see someone miserable, we cheer them up.”

For this, they merited a special portion in the afterlife.

There’s a lot for us to learn from Ron, too.

If we take careful note of what causes us to laugh, we’ll notice it’s usually a sharp and improbable juxtaposition of opposites. The more extreme the contrast, the more intense the laughter.

Our sages tell us that when Moshiach comes the earth will be filled with laughter. Why will we laugh? Because our new life will be in such sharp contrast to what we are accustomed.

Can you imagine a situation where the Palestinians will lay down their weapons? It’s unheard of! Can you imagine that there will be a cure for cancer? It will make us laugh with joy! Can you imagine a world with no gossip? What will we talk about?

Things will be weird and different, but wonderful, and therefore we will laugh. People will live forever. Nobody will be sick. Nations will be at peace with each other. This is the ultimate juxtaposition of opposites.

How do we bring Moshiach? Be being happy and laughing! Our sages tell us that "Simchah (joy and happiness) breaks through boundaries." We all possess internal walls surrounding our minds and hearts, creating our inhibitions and making us scared to grow and change beyond our comfort zone. When we are sad and gloomy, these walls are strengthened. Our positive energy and vitality is drained from our system, causing us to slip into apathy and complacency.

I look forward to joking with Ron. You see, when Moshiach comes Ron and I will go back to Ripley’s, where we will perform a new trick—we will show them Ron’s two healthy eyes, and oh, how we will all laugh! When Moshiach comes, all sickness will be cured and no one will suffer again. When we think of that, how can we not laugh?

Who’s Your Enemy?

Blog.jpgItchy eyes…runny nose…scratchy throat…in the springtime…

No doubt about it, it must be allergy season.

At first, I tried to ignore it. After all, I’ve never been one of those people who walk around with swollen, watery eyes from the first whiff of a springtime blossom. In fact, I’ve never experienced any pollen-related ill effects at all.

Until now.

After several days of denial, I finally came to the realization that I have now joined the ranks of the 50 million Americans who suffer from pollen. I’ve managed to keep it under control with eye drops and Claritin, and in the process I’ve learned a whole lot more about seasonal allergies than I ever thought I would.

Apparently, many people’s bodies mistakenly recognize pollen as a danger, rather than the benign substance it actually is. In response to this perceived threat, the immune system rallies to neutralize the invading allergen by releasing histamines into the blood. It’s the histamines which cause the runny noses, itchy eyes and other unpleasant symptoms.

There is currently no known cure for allergies, just multiple ways to manage it, from over-the-counter nasal sprays to acupuncture to doctor-prescribed steroids. With an estimated 50 million sufferers, it is the country’s most common disease and approximately $18 billion are spent on it each year.

All this, and what is the root cause? Misidentifying the enemy. Our body’s inability to differentiate between a real threat and those cute little pollen particles, that only want to help invigorate floral growth, leads to chronic suffering for millions of people for a significant chunk of time each year.

What can we learn from all this?

Like our physical bodies, our souls also react to friendly and harmful substances, but we are the gatekeepers. It’s our job to identify which things to keep out, and which to allow in. 

Going to shul, studying Torah, keeping kosher, putting on tefillin, giving charity, lighting Shabbat candles—superb for the soul. Gossip, lying, cheating, slander—extremely harmful.

It’s our responsibility to weed through all the opportunities and temptations that come our way, hand-picking the things we allow in, so that our souls remain healthy and strong.

And in this way we will fulfill the first commandment of this week’s Torah portion “You shall be holy.”

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