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How Was Your 2018?

CROP-shutterstock_1048634258.jpgAs 2018 draws to a close, it seems everyone is recapping. The news sites are putting together lists of the most talked about stories of the year, my Strava app sent me a report of how many miles I ran over the past 12 months, and Facebook has created a “year in review” video highlighting my most liked pictures and posts.

But does this really represent my year? Are social media status updates and pictures a good indication of my 2018 highlights?

I often think that Facebook is the upside down world the Talmud speaks of.

When my Facebook friends post how happy, or deeply in love, they are, I question the authenticity. When they are on vacation and sharing every detail about the exotic surroundings and how much fun they’re having, I wonder if it’s true. When they’re out to dinner with their spouses and posting carefully posed pictures of each dish from multiple angles, I wonder if they are actually enjoying themselves at all.

Because if they were truly in love, truly happy, and truly enjoying their experience, would they really need to post about it?

We read about the most sublime individual spiritual revelation ever to take place, in this week’s parshah, when G-d appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush. What happened? Moses was shepherding his flock when a lamb escaped. He pursued it for miles, realized it was thirsty, and took care of its needs. When G-d saw how devoted Moses was to a single sheep, He was certain that Moses was the leader the Jews needed.

If not for the story of the burning bush, no one would know about Moses’ act of kindness. He took care of that sheep away from prying eyes. No one was there; certainly no one was filming him and uploading it to YouTube or Facebook. He didn’t do it for publicity or acclaim. He did it because he cared. As a result, he merited Divine revelation.

So, think about how many sheep you have helped when no one was watching:

How many times have you visited the sick this year?
How many dollars have you donated to charity?
How many hours did you spend with your children?
How many hours of Torah study did you rack up?

These are the things we should be tallying at year’s end. The things we do without fanfare and publicity. The things we do simply because they’re the right things to do. These are the things that G-d counts in our “year in review” and ultimately, in our “life in review.” But we’re not there yet! There’s still plenty of time to put the cameras away and focus on doing the right thing simply for its own benefit. 

Have You Seen the Moon? I’m Still Looking…

 WhatsApp Image 2018-12-20 at 12.41.02 PM.jpegEvery month it’s the same story: I have to locate the moon for the mitzvah of Kiddush Levanah, sanctifying the moon. (Of course, we’re not praising the actual moon, but its Creator—for His wondrous work we call astronomy. The moon has the most obvious monthly cycle of all the stars and planets, so we take the occasion of its renewal to make a blessing for the entire masterpiece.)

Growing up in South Africa, it was easy. And in my traveling years—in Brazil, Thailand, Katmandu, Australia, Europe…I never struggled either.

The formula is simple: you go outside between the 7th and the 15th of the month, look up at the moon, face east, and recite the prayer. Easy. Done.

But all that changed when I settled on the Upper East Side 13 years ago. You see, to say the prayer, you need to be outdoors and able to see the moon directly. Manhattan, home to more skyscrapers than any other city in the US, is not particularly conducive to that. The buildings obscure the moon, making this previously easy mitzvah into an ongoing challenge.

This month, I started looking on the first possible date, the 7th, but it was cloudy, so I waited for the 8th. Same story. By the 11th, I still hadn’t been able to say the prayer, so when I woke up at 3:00am I decided to get an early start on my day, take a run, and search for the moon. Lexington Avenue, where I live, is smack in the center of the skyscrapers, so I ran to Central Park, where I’m often successful. Alas, on this night, the moon was not visible from Central Park either, so I headed to the East River, where I also often have a clear view, but not on this night.

So, on the 12th I travelled to the Rebbe’s Ohel in Queens. I needed to go anyway, and it seemed like a good opportunity to tackle two tasks at once. Surely there I would be able to see the moon!

But, as luck would have it, it was a cloudy night with no moon in sight. As of writing this article on the 13th, with just two days to go, I still have not said the blessing!

Being Jewish requires going out of our comfort zones. We have to go above and beyond, always doing something extra, whether it’s waking up early to pray each morning, setting aside money each month for charity, visiting the sick even when we don’t really have time, or running through the streets of Manhattan in search of the moon…

Lately, I’ve noticed something that seems counterintuitive. It would be understandable if I had developed a dislike for this mitzvah that has me jogging around the streets trying to spot celestial bodies at all hours of night, but in fact the opposite has happened: I have developed a particular affinity for this mitzvah of the moon, more than many other mitzvot. Because it’s so tough, and I have to work so hard for it, I have become fond of this monthly ritual.

In our lives, a little struggle is healthy. It’s hard to appreciate things that come easy. When we have to put in the effort, the payout is magnified. According to the Talmud, “To bless the new moon at the proper time is like greeting the Divine Presence.” Certainly, that’s something worth fighting for!
















An Unsolicited $100,000 Donation!

money.jpegLarge donations never come out of the blue. They are generally from people we know and have an ongoing relationship with. But this past Sunday I received a notification from our website that a $100,000 donation had been made to our Chabad Israel Center, allocated towards our new preschool building. The transaction, however, had been declined.

My initial assumption was that this was not a real donation. There is an endless litany of online scammers who try to hack credit cards and I figured it was probably someone from Nigeria playing around with our website.

But upon closer inspection, I noticed that the donor used a real name­—Todd Cohen*, a local NYC address and phone number, and when I Googled him, he was very much findable. This was no Nigerian scammer.

So when our office opened Monday morning, the secretary phoned Todd to thank him.

“It’s my pleasure!” he said. “I love Chabad and the work you do. I know you’re getting a new space for your preschool and could use some money for the renovations. I know the transaction didn’t go through; I’ll try again soon.”

A few minutes later we received another notification of a declined transaction for $100,000. An hour later he tried again—a third attempt, which was again declined.

So we emailed him, “We have your credit card number and can submit the donation in two parts, which might solve the problem and enable it to go through easily.” But Todd said he would prefer to try again online.

After several more attempts—each of which was declined, I emailed Todd to thank him profusely for his $100,000 donation—including the time he spent trying to put it through!—and offered to call him later to work out the credit card information over the phone. I also invited him to the preschool open house so he can see all the children getting a solid Jewish education and know that his money has been well spent.

Less than two minutes later, Todd replied to clarify that he intended to donate $100, not $100,000, and that he will mail a check, and to please make sure we don’t charge his credit card for the remaining $99,900! I assured him we would not charge his card and thanked him for the $100. We greatly appreciate his gift and support.

Aha. Mystery solved.

You see, in life there are no short cuts. We have to work hard. Judaism teaches that if results come without effort, they will not last. If you earn your livelihood by some gimmick, be careful because it may disappear.

Getting a $100,000 donation from an individual requires trust. It requires building a relationship, a partnership, and developing confidence in who you are what you do. It takes time, effort, and hard work. It’s the only way.

The most rewarding things take the most effort. Looking for a spouse requires sustained hard work. Making a living requires ongoing toil. Raising children—that’s hard work too!

But that’s why G-d made us.

This world was created for us to work hard. G-d wants us to toil, to refine the world as we know it and make it into a better place. There’s no quick and easy shortcut for that. It’s a lifelong mission.

*Name changed to protect privacy. 

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