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Excuse Me, Are You Jewish?

Mivtozoim.jpegMy kids and I spent lots of time patrolling our Upper East Side neighborhood this week, offering people the opportunity to do the mitzvah of lulav and etrog.

Years of experience have given me a pretty good sense of who to ask, and I’ve found that approximately 90% of Jews are happy to see us and want to do the mitzvah. There are always those, however, who are uninterested, and some who are downright hostile.

I knew we would undoubtedly encounter some who might be angry with us, and I didn’t want my kids to be disheartened, so I told them the story of Yankel* who is a regular in our shul.

On his way to work 25 years ago, Yankel was approached by two Chabad students in a mitzvah tank on the streets of downtown Manhattan. “Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?” they asked. Not expecting to be asked so publicly, Yankel was outraged and vociferously denied his heritage. “No, I am not Jewish!”

By the time he arrived at his office, guilt had set in. Although not a practicing Jew, he still felt strongly connected to his roots and regretted telling the boys he wasn’t Jewish. Alas, what’s done was done, but the guilt continued to niggle at the back of his mind for 25 years.

When I first moved to New York, I met Yankel on the street and asked him, “Are you Jewish?” Thrilled for the opportunity to fix the mistake he had made all those years ago, he answered with a resounding, “Yes!”

And so began a beautiful relationship. I asked him if he would like to study Torah and he gave me his office number to follow up. Because it was a holiday and I couldn’t write it down, I memorized it and called him a couple of days later to set up a study date. He is now a regular at Chabad.

You never know how you will affect another person, I told my kids. Just by being visible with our lulav and etrog, we might be reminding people of their Judaism. Even if we don’t speak to them and they don’t approach us. Who knows what that might trigger in their soul? And even when we think we’ve really messed up—perhaps angered someone and distanced them even further—something good might blossom from that encounter years later, and we may never know.

Happy Sukkot!

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Does G-d Hear My Prayers?

godspeaking.jpgMy two boys are 7 and 10, and I’ve been trying to educate them about the meaning of prayer and how to pray properly. Regular Shabbat services are not too long, so it’s easier, but Rosh Hashanah is an entirely different experience. To keep them motivated, I created a system of raffle tickets as an incentive, with promises of an enticing prize for the raffle winner. I was pretty generous with the tickets – I even gave them some for announcing the page numbers because that kept them engaged.

My older son, Mendel, really persevered. He spent hours in shul, reciting Tehillim (Psalms) and following along with the prayers. In total, he accumulated about 80 raffle tickets!

Zalman, on the other hand, lost interest earlier on both days and spent most of the time playing games. He still collected some raffle tickets, but only about 20. 

As promised, after Rosh Hashanah I held a raffle for them.

Mendel was so certain that he would win because he had many more tickets, and it’s true, the odds were stacked heavily in his favor.

But, when I closed my eyes and pulled out a random ticket… lo and behold it belonged to Zalman!

Zalman, of course, was ecstatic, while Mendel was understandably disappointed.

Then Mendel turned to me and said, “You know what, I’m not going to pray anymore. When you pray a lot, you still don’t win. I can just pray a little like Zalman did and still win!”

His question, couched in a child’s terms, is really the same question so many of us battle on a regular basis.

Sometimes we do so much good and we don’t see the reward. If I give so much money to charity, why I am I not a millionaire? I go out of my way to pray and put on tefillin regularly, so why do I still have so many problems? I’ve been lighting Shabbat candles every week for my friend to have a speedy recovery, why is she still ill? My uncle was the most kind and generous person I know, why did he have to die young?

I don’t have the answer for Mendel or for the adult versions of his question, but our sages assure us that G-d never, ever remains in debt. He will always pay up. He notices every good deed we do and adds it to our tally.

He may not pay us back immediately. He may not reward us for quite some time. We cannot always expect an instant miracle. But rest assured, He has not forgotten.  

As we approach Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, let’s keep this in mind: G-d never remains in debt. Surely He will repay us at the right time in the right way.

(Now if only I knew how to explain this to my Mendel!)



Are You Short On Cash? It’s Not Too Late!

61mNMRSewEL._SX425_.jpgLast week I took my kids on an end-of-summer trip to Bailiwick Animal Park where they offer horse rides, a petting zoo, an elephant, parrots, and more. It’s the kind of place I love, because proximity to animals reminds me of my childhood in South Africa.

We pulled up to pay and the woman at the desk told me it would be $92. I handed over my Amex and she told me they only take cash. “What wrong with Amex?” I asked. “How about Venmo? Paypal?” She didn’t know what I was talking about. Cash only.

“There’s an ATM here,” she offered, but my credit card is not set up to withdraw cash. I don’t carry cash on me as a rule, and it is never a problem. In 2018 everything and everyone is set up to accommodate cashless transactions. Even when I travel to South Africa I pay only with my credit card—I take no cash.

My kids realized we were going to have to leave, and were understandably disappointed. Just then, a complete stranger who had apparently overheard my conversation walked over and handed me a $100 bill. “Here’s my email,” she said. “You can Paypal me later.”

I was astounded! $100 is a significant amount of money, and she had no way of knowing if I would actually pay her back. (I did, of course.) I was so touched. How many people would do that? The kindness of random strangers can restore one’s faith in humanity.

The next day we set off again, this time to a go-karting place. I again pulled out my Amex and again I was told, “Sorry, cash only.” Two places in two days? This has never happened before.

What is it with upstate New York not taking credit cards?! I was frazzled and looked around, but alas, there were no kind strangers just waiting to come to my aid this time!

I looked at my kids who were so eager for this outing, and felt terrible. It’s not their fault their father has no cash! Something compelled me to appeal to the woman at the entrance booth. I told her about our brand new triplets, and showed her a picture, and asked if she could possibly allow us to go go-karting “on the house”. To my surprise she readily agreed and we had a wonderful afternoon.  

The following day I made sure to take out cash and we returned to the go-karting place. I thanked the lady for her kindness the day before, and told her I wanted to pay for it, as well as for an additional day since we had had so much fun yesterday. She refused my payment for the previous day, telling me it was a gift to our family. Another stranger, another dose of kindness, wow!

Rest assured, in addition to being reminded of the value of unexpected acts of kindness and generosity, I have learned my lesson and will make sure to always carry some cash with me from now on.

This week we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, when we re-crown G-d as our King and beseech Him for mercy and kindness and a good, happy, healthy, sweet year ahead.

 But it doesn’t come for free. We have to do our part and cough up the cash. We cannot tell G-d,

“Oh, I’ll pay you later.” We must have cash with us, on hand, at all times. What is the cash?

Mitzvot we have accumulated throughout the year. When we ask Him for what we want, we have to give Him what He wants.

So let’s spend the next few days making a little extra “money” so we can go into Rosh Hashanah with something to show for ourselves. Give some extra charity, and review your books for the past year—make sure you’ve been giving 10% of your earnings consistently. Come to shul this Shabbos—the last Shabbos of the year. Light Shabbat candles this week and encourage your friends to as well. Pay extra attention to those around you and find ways to help them with their needs.  Take a break from frivolity and gossip and spend some time engaged in Torah study. Put on tefillin–you have just three opportunities left to do so this year (today, tomorrow, Sunday).

Think of a mitzvah you feel you’ve been particularly neglectful of this year, and find a way to do it in the next couple of days. It’s not too late!

May we all be blessed with good health, happiness, and all the blessings we need and desire for the upcoming year. Shana tova.

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