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Fleeing My First Camping Experience

A group of friends I grew up with in South Africa go camping regularly, and I’ve been wanting to join them for a while now. They talk about it so often, and with such passion, that I wanted to see what it’s all about. I went to Walmart and purchased a tent, flashlights and other essential supplies. Then I packed myself, two of my sons, and all our gear into the car and we drove upstate to Woodland Valley.

The veteran campers among us showed me how to set up the tent and make sure the cover is firmly secured. Then we built a bonfire, had a barbecue, and bonded over drinks. Living in the city, the kind of darkness we experienced out there is unlike anything my kids know. There was not a solitary light around. They loved it!

For an addict like me, the lack of phone and internet was challenging, but I do it for 25 hours each week over Shabbat, so I knew I could manage.  

Then we all went to bed. At home, bed is my favorite part of the day! But here I was squeezed into a tent that barely fit the three of us. No comfortable mattress, no thick blanket, no electricity or indoor plumbing. Just us and nature and a flimsy tent between us. 

After tossing and turning for a couple of hours, I finally fell asleep, only to be awakened by heavy rain at 2am! I couldn’t sleep, so I went outside for a walk. I was tired, dripping wet, and deeply missing the comforts of home. I tried to fall asleep again, with my kids kicking me in their sleep every few minutes as they tried to get comfortable themselves. I thought of taking shelter in the car, but I couldn’t find my keys in the dark. 

By 6:00am when dawn broke and the rain kept coming down in buckets, I realized my seasoned camping friends were still in their tents loving this, bad weather and all! I took the opportunity to make my move. I packed up all our bags, disassembled the tent, hastily filled the car and headed for home with my boys. Two hours later, we were back in the comforts of home. We were supposed to be there for at least two nights but I lasted barely one!

We find ourselves now in the month of Elul. All year, we roam, often finding ourselves distant from G-d, the Torah, and spirituality. But now, as we approach the High Holidays, it’s time to come home. 

Our soul is uncomfortable in the body, as I was in the tent. It’s an agonizing exile for something so sublime. It longs to return to the lofty comforts of heaven, especially when we starve it of spirituality. Now’s our time to feed it, to make it feel at home here in our bodies, in this earthly world, as we engage in increased Torah study and mitzvah observance. It longs to reconnect and so do we. Our soul yearns for the comfort of its spiritual home!

As for camping… will I give it another try? Who knows! I may be willing to brave it down the line, but will my friends ever let me join them again?! That’s the real question. 

I Am Leaving Manhattan Soon. Permanently!

Yes, you read that correctly. I am leaving the Big Apple, the city that I so dearly love.

But don’t worry, so are you.

Manhattan has real problems right now. Rampant homelessness has taken over large swaths of residential areas, businesses cannot sustain themselves without the working crowd, and there remains residual damage from the protests and looting. So many people have left and continue to leave the city, some temporarily and some permanently, and the media can’t stop talking about it.

A friend asked me if I’d be leaving too. A legitimate question. So here’s my response.

I love Manhattan.

When my wife and I married in 2003, we were ready to move anywhere in the world to live and work as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, igniting the (sometimes latent) spark of Judaism within every Jew, wherever he or she may live. We considered places like London, Ukraine, Florida, and Johannesburg, but ultimately ended up on the Upper East Side under the leadership of Rabbi Benzion Krasnianski, and I’ve had no regrets.

Coming from South Africa, New York was unlike anything I knew, but when I first visited in 1995 I fell in love immediately. Five years later, I moved here for good. I’ve lived here through the 9/11 terror attacks, the 2008 financial crisis, and I’m here for COVID-19, COVID-20, and what is increasingly looking like COVID-21!

Why do I love Manhattan?

Not for the same reasons most people love it here. I’ve never been to a broadway show or comedy club. I haven’t been to Madison Square Gardens or MOMA. I haven’t even visited the Freedom Tower or Statue of Liberty. But still, I love NYC.

You see, my mission is to be a lamplighter—to ignite the spark of Judaism is my fellow Jews. To spread goodness and kindness. To teach Torah and mitzvot. My role doesn’t depend on New York’s nightlife. As long as there remains a single Jewish family in Manhattan, I will be here guiding them.

Just as a soldier doesn’t abandon his or her post, my colleagues and I will not abandon ours. We are here to serve others. I love waking up each morning with that knowledge.

Now, connecting with the Jews in this city involves tapping into the adrenaline and fast-paced energy of the city, which I love. And that has become a lot more difficult during this corona era.

How do you attract Jews to shul without a kiddush? Without Sunday morning bagels and lox? Without a warm hug from the rabbi? This is how people feel connected, feel community. It’s what propels so many of us to get up and out and into shul. These obstacles feel most daunting, especially as we turn our focus to the upcoming High Holidays. Our shuls are supposed to be warm, vibrant, nurturing places, not cold, masked and faceless. But we are working hard to combat these challenges and find safe ways to keep people feeling close and connected.

So ... why don’t I join the thousands of people moving to Florida and Arizona, working remotely?

Well, Zoom is great, and we are fortunate to have the capability to connect online, but so many things cannot be replaced. Yes, I can give a class over Zoom, but I cannot host a minyan. The shofar cannot be blown on Zoom. High Holiday services cannot happen on Zoom. I cannot marry couples over Zoom. Kaddish cannot be said over Zoom. All of these things are part of my duties as an emissary, so, no, I cannot move away and work remotely without abandoning my community, which I will never do.

And yet, I will leave. Soon even. But so will you, and so will my entire community. We will leave together. The forces of darkness have been so powerful this year. We’ve all struggled in unimaginable ways. But that means Moshiach is about to come. The darkest part of the night is the short stretch just before the sun breaks over the horizon. That’s now. We’re living in dark times, but that breakthrough—the final Redemption when we will ascend to Israel with Moshiach, reunited with our loved ones who have left this world, and rebuild the Holy Temple—is in sight!

So start packing your bags.  But until then, see you on Fifth Avenue! 

My Relationship With G-d Deepened During Corona

Dear G-d,

If pressed to describe my relationship with You this past year, I’d have to say it was complex. And if asked to sum up the entire year in a single word? I’d simply say “corona.” 

This week we sanctify the new moon, ushering in the month of Elul, the last on the Jewish calendar. Once we enter Elul, we know that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are just around the corner. This is the time of year we begin blowing the shofar daily, Sephardim begin reciting selichot, and the air of the High Holiday season and the imminent near year permeates our thoughts and interactions. It’s palpable. 

This is when I reflect upon my relationship with You and the year we’ve had. It started quite peacefully. Things were looking good for the world. The economy was booming. 

What happened next, none of us could have foreseen. We had no idea that while we were blissfully ushering in the new year, a pandemic had already started in China. About half-way through, just before Purim, the world was shaken to its core as corona hit us like a ton of bricks. We were entirely unprepared, had no tools to handle it, and simply shut down. I try to imagine how we will explain this period to our grandchildren… it’s hard to picture. But 2020 will certainly feature prominently in history books and in our stories. Will we ever be able to truly convey the extent of the shutdown? I’m not sure. 

But that wasn’t all. Then we had protests, riots, crime, looting and mass exodus from major cities like Manhattan where I live. The pandemic is far from over, people remain anxious and schools are struggling with decisions over how to structure the upcoming academic year. 

Surprisingly, G-d, despite all the havoc You wrought upon us this year, I feel closer to You than ever. Do I understand Your actions? Absolutely not. I don’t understand why so many had to die. I don’t understand why so many had to lose their jobs. I don’t understand why You brought so much pain to the world, as well as all the animosity that has come in its wake. Nevertheless, I think I love You more than ever. 

You see, this year I spent a lot more focused time communicating with You. Since the world shut down, I’ve had more time at home, more time to learn Torah, meditate, and pray. I’ve had more time to think about You and contemplate why You did this. And even though it’s painful and difficult, and I know that I will never understand, I know that You have the answers. 

The pain and suffering does not make me turn away from You. Yes, it feels chaotic down here, but I know You have a plan. My trust in You, if anything, has only grown stronger. My love for You has increased. We will get through this and come out stronger than we were before. In the darkness, we will find and embrace light. 

I am looking forward to coronating You as our King on Rosh Hashanah.

When I recited the Avinu Malkeinu prayer during the High Holiday season last year, I did not pay particular attention to the words, “Our Father in Heaven, prevent a plague from coming amongst us.” But I can assure you that this year, I will have an entirely new focus. 

When I say the words, “Bring peace amongst us,” I will be praying for a resolution to the division that fighting that tears us apart. And when I read, “Who will live and who will die?” I will think of the many tragic losses we experienced this year, and put new intention into the words. 

We pray for Moshiach, when we will finally understand how this was all for the ultimate good. Until then, we continue to believe and to pray. 

Yours truly,

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Hurricane Isaias Kicks Me Out of My Torah Class

Every Tuesday, for the last three years, a couple of friends have gotten together for a weekly “lunch and learn” Torah class. This week, at the beginning of the class I commented that it's actually incredible that since COVID-19 started, we haven’t missed a single class. It used to be in a Midtown office, and there were weeks that many people were away so we’d postpone till the following week. But now that we’ve taken it online, everyone can attend no matter where they are. 

During our class, Hurricane Isaias was unleashing its fury upon millions of US residents, but I didn’t think we would be affected. Yet literally as that sentence – “we haven’t missed a class – came out of my mouth, I lost power and was booted from the Zoom class. I was able to log back in after a few minutes, but after being knocked out two more times, I gave up. Fortunately, we were still able to cover most of the material of the Torah class.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I frequently use the expression, “bli ayin hara” – “without the evil eye.” For example, when my children do well in school, or when our gala dinner is attended by over 1000 people, or when my brother has his 11th child, or when a friend makes a multi-million dollar deal, I say “bli ayin hara” – “without the evil eye.” 

Do Jews really believe in the evil eye? You bet!

Not only is the Torah rife with stories of people harmed by the evil eye, but many practices we do today are to ward off the evil eye. For example, when we need 10 men for a minyan, we don’t count them, “1, 2, 3…etc.” because of the evil eye. We don’t have baby showers because celebrating the baby before its birth can summon the evil eye. When we finish learning, we make sure to close the book, because if left open the powers of demons can cause harm. Yes, really. 

But when I commented on how well our class was going, I forgot to say those important words!

How does the evil eye work?

If we flaunt our blessings and draw undue attention to ourselves, especially if it causes ill will among others, it invokes the notice of the Heavenly court who may reevaluate: Do we really deserve this blessing?

It is something to keep in mind, but not something to actively worry about. Ultimately, connecting to G‑d through meditating on His greatness, learning His Torah, adding in mitzvahs, and making sure to be sensitive to others, is a tried and true remedy. There is no reason to live in fear of an evil eye or try any other hocus pocus means of protection.

So ultimately, why was I kicked out of my class? I have no idea. But the more we focus our efforts on G-d and on delving into His Torah, the less we need to concern ourselves with the evil eye and its effects. 

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

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