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I am Currently the Only Rhodesian-Born Chabad Rabbi in the World

Blog.jpgWhen I was born, my father was the rabbi in Bulawayo, so I’ve had “born in Zimbabwe” on my passport for the past 39 years. But in all that time, I can honestly say it’s never helped me get a visa or enter any country more easily. Coming from a bankrupt and destitute country is apparently no great claim to fame!

But this summer I travelled back to Zimbabwe with my wife to visit the Victoria Falls—one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

In the city of Victoria Falls everything is priced in US dollars, which are very valuable there. To enter the falls costs $30, a taxi from the airport to hotel was $30, a bottle of water for $2, souvenirs for $5. Someone must be raking it in because so many items were more costly than they are even in the US!

Upon arrival at the airport, every tourist is required to buy a visa for $30. This is not a real visa; there is no interview, no questions asked, no security or background check. It’s simply a stamp on one’s passport, given to everyone. But it’s another great way to make money.

When it was my turn, I was sure that this was finally my chance. The opportunity to proudly laud my Zimbabwean heritage had arrived! I happily showed the officer the “born in Zimbabwe” designation on my passport and asked her to waive the fee. Finally, a tangible advantage!

She carefully examined my passport and seemed puzzled how to proceed. On the one hand, yes, I was born in Zimbabwe. On the other hand, my US dollars were clearly enticing. After some thought, she decided, “It’s not enough to be born in Zimbabwe, you need to live here.” So I paid for the visa, and still await the opportunity to use my “born in Zimbabwe” passport to my advantage…

The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, taught us to look for the lesson in everything we encounter and every experience we have. I decided to look for something my airport encounter could teach me that would help frame my attitude as we approach the High Holiday period. 

On Rosh Hashanah we stand before G-d, awaiting His judgment. He is ready to issue us a “visa” for the New Year. Health, happiness, nachas from our children, whatever we need He can give us.

But are we doing our part to demonstrate our commitment to Him? Are we actively engaged in mitzvot? Do we give charity, go to shul, light Shabbat candles, and put on tefillin? Do we open our homes to those in need and properly observe Shabbat and holidays? Are we honest, moral, ethical people?

Yes, we are all born Jewish, but do we live as Jews on a day-to-day basis? Are we active citizens? Sure, we can claim nationality, like I tried to do in Zimbabwe, but that’s not enough. We need to actually live as Jews too.

If we haven’t been living that way all year, it’s not too late. There is still time to make some small changes before Rosh Hashanah, and by committing to increasing and furthering those changes in the New Year, we tell G-d, “I’m not just passing through; I live here.” 

Irma - I Am Not In Control!

Blog.jpgI love the feeling of being in control. I need my daily routine: I wake up at the crack of dawn, study a Chassidic discourse, get my coffee, go running in Central Park, come home, and continue with my scheduled day. I like order and predictability.

But control is an illusion. I may feel like I’m in control, but when it comes down to it, I am absolutely not. And if there’s any indication of that, it’s Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

We’ve all seen the devastation that Harvey left in its wake, and now Irma, a category 5 storm, is battering its way through the Atlantic, clobbering every island in its path. Winds of up to 185 mph have destroyed 95% of the buildings on Barbuda, with Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic also seeing extensive damage.

My colleague, Rabbi Moshe Chanowitz, the Chabad rabbi in St. Martin, moved his family to the Chabad center—a sturdier structure–while the storm raged. After the door shattered, they moved further in to the mikvah, a room with no windows, where they huddled together in terror. When they were able to leave, they discovered that their home had flooded completely, and the power will be out for weeks. Read the full storyhere.

Now Florida and millions of its residents are directly in Irma’s way, and the fear is palpable. Everyone who can is rushing to evacuate, gas is running low, flights are jam-packed, and those who are staying are doing their best to protect themselves and their homes while stocking up on enough water and non-perishables to last a while. People are nervous and panicky, and the president has already declared a state of emergency. “This is not a storm you can sit and wait through,” said the governor. “We can’t save you after the storm starts.”

Weather forecasters can identify the storm. They can track it, measure its force, estimate its trajectory and predict its impact. But they, and we, are powerless to stop or redirect it, despite the tremendous technological and scientific advances we have seen in the last few decades.

In this week’s Parshah we read about the mitzvah of bikkurim. Every farmer in the land of Israel was obligated to bring the first fruits of his harvest to the Temple for the priests to consume. Imagine! A farmer who tilled and prepared the soil, carefully planted, watered, pruned, and cared for his crop, was then required to give away his very first produce! Why should he? As a reminder that G-d, and G-d alone, controls our livelihood, and, in fact, every aspect of our lives.

Hurricane Irma reinforces this lesson. I am not in control of my life; G-d is. Let us beseech the Almighty to show compassion for all the people in the storm’s path and move the hurricane away from land. 

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