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Rabbi Yisroel's Blog

Jacob's Thanksgiving moment

Yesterday, a tire fell off our car as we were driving. It all happened so suddenly I had no idea what the problem was -- only that something was very wrong with the car.  Only after I  managed to BH quickly get to the side of the road did I notice the missing tire.  I quickly realized how fortunate I was that this happened just seconds after I had exited the highway. Needless to say, it made for a powerful Thanksgiving moment.

Families traditionally spend meaningful time together this weekend  and gratitude is often at the center of these conversations.

But what can we do to make that "I am thankful for...." exercise a little more inspiring?   How can it motivate us with intense feelings and a call to action, instead of that "ok, now what?"

A good friend once shared with me how there are really two types of thankfulness.

  • One type of saying "I am thankful that I have ___" means "I am so lucky that I have ___."
  • The other type of "I am thankful" is that "I am so humbled that __ has given me ____." 

What's the difference? The answer is 2 words: Humility and Purpose.

When you feel lucky to have blessings in your life, it doesn't necessarily make you humble. Sure, you feel fortunate, but "lucky" means it happened by chance and there is no particular meaning to the blessing. Therefore, while it's always a good thing to appreciate one's blessings,  the impact of such gratitude will be limited and may not express itself in a tangible manner.

A deeper sense of being thankful means realizing this blessing came from G-d and that it is intentional. When you think into it some more, you realize you are not more deserving than others (if one can be truly honest). Yet, G-d invested in you to give you these blessings! G-d has faith in you even if you can't understand why. That lends to a sense of humility, with a follow up of "I must do something good with my blessings to live up to that faith in me!" 

Back to my scare incident on the road: I was raised with a custom that whenever we feel particularly blessed/fortunate we should immediately stop what we're doing and give some tzedaka. In Judaism, it isn't enough to feel thankful to G-d, you have to express your thanks through acts of prayer and tzedaka. 

Incredibly, we find this idea in the Parsha!

At the close of this week's Torah portion, Jacob is forced to leave his home.  He is literally penniless and all alone on the way to a foreign country.  He later returns to Israel a very different man - surrounded by a large family and with a tremendous amount of wealth. He states: 

I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You (G-d) have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two (large) camps. 

Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, says that these words "feeling small" is an example of what gratitude should lead to: a real sense of humility and commitment to do good with those blessings. And indeed, each time Jacob experienced G-d’s assistance, he shows his recognition by building an altar and offering a sacrifice.

So here's a Thanksgiving resolution (is that a thing?): Don't just be thankful for what you have - think about who you are thankful to and why you owe them thanks.

Reflect on your limits and feel grateful and humbled that G-d/your parents/friends/teachers have provided you with so much. Then, don't suffice with feeling thankful - tell them thank you and pass on those blessings to others through acts of tzedaka.

And consider starting your day with the Modeh Ani meditation. It will frame your waking hours with a powerful sense of gratitude and humility.  For those who do it already, try doing it just a little bit slower with more Kavana, or adding additional blessings to your mornings prayers. 

To read an article with deeper meaning behind many of the morning blessings- click here

Why 5000 Rabbis Meeting in NY is Good for You

This past Monday, Chana and I met with a young Jewish woman.   After chatting for about 30 minutes, Chana mentioned that she looked familiar.  They quickly discovered that back in 2006, Chana was a Chabad intern in her hometown in California, teaching in the same Hebrew School she attended!  We now hope to continue that learning, virtually, some 15 years later.

This past Tuesday, I bumped into a young man at a wedding and we got to chatting.   He's a student at Virginia Tech and he was excited to share how he just returned from an inspiring Shabbaton weekend in Brooklyn with his Rabbi.  It turns out his Rabbi at Virginia Tech is a dear friend of mine,  a study partner when I was in Melbourne Australia.   

I received a text from a Rabbi I hardly know. He sent me a photo of a dear local friend, who had been hospitalized while traveling. The Rabbi was there at my friend's bedside; visiting, laying Tefillin, providing words of support. 

Such scenes could have taken place in Kinshasa, Puerto Rico or Capetown. Or Cary. 

Because we don't believe in strangers. We believe in family.

Who is 'we?'

'We' is the Rebbe's army of G-dliness and goodness. 

Consider the reality that observant people generally gravitate to larger Jewish communities. It’s the natural way to support an observant lifestyle, and to perpetuate that observance within one’s family. Yet, beginning in 1950, the Rebbe inspired Chabad couples to reach beyond their own religious comfort to settle in communities which need their spiritual influence. The Rebbe was going against the grain, but – one couple at a time –Chassidic men and women committed their lives to bettering the world, by moving to places where they could make a difference.

In the early years, there was a trickle of  'lamplighters' (called Shluchim - literally 'emissaries') moving out to bring warmth and illumination to a world in need. But over time, that trickle became a stream, and then a steady flow of couples setting out across the globe to make this a better world.  Today, the type of stories I shared above the norm.  

This weekend is the international convention of Chabad Rabbis (the women convene in February) in Brooklyn.  - The main event Sunday Night is the largest Jewish event in the USA. Tune in live at 4:30 at this link.  

In honor of the occasion, allow me to share some facts about Chabad you may not have know:

  • This past year, 120 new Chabads were established. That is on average, one every three days.  And this is at a time when sadly, many other Jewish organizations are closing or merging.
  • Today,  there are 5,646 emissary couples in all 50 states and over 100 countries around the world. Aside from being your local Jewish resource, they are the people embracing your child on campus, providing schnitzel to your niece backpacking in Cambodia, and providing you with a Passover Seder as you vacation in New Zealand.
  • According to the Pew Research Center’s Jewish Americans 2020 study, two-in-five Jewish adults (38%, or 2.2 million people) have engaged with Chabad.
  • More importantly, the younger the segment, the more connected they are with Chabad.  More Jews age 35 and younger are involved with Chabad than any other Jewish group.   

Closer to home, Chana and I are deeply honored to witness this type of growth in Western Wake County.   

From a Hebrew School that began with 4 kids in our garage to a school bustling with 80 kids BH...

From a group that met in a living room for classes & services...to a growing community in the midst of a building campaign for a multi-million dollar Jewish Center.

But here's the key: No matter the growth, the secret sauce remains the same.  Far more important than numbers and buildings is a commitment to unconditional love for the individual.  That every Jew should feel they have a place to go for nourishment -  whether physical or spiritual, emotional or intellectual. 

In a world that seems more fractured every day, Chabad Shluchim provide love and spiritual sanity. Without reservation.

5000 purveyors of goodness, coming together to recharge their batteries and recommit to their mission of spreading light.

It’s good for the world.

 

And it’s good for you.

 

Are you Spiritually Resilient?

 

Ten days ago, my son Mendel was feeling down. (Thank G-d for small matters!)  The Houston Astros lost two of the first 3 games in the World Series.  The losses were particularly bad and panic quickly spread to many fans. The comments were along the lines of

There is no way they are coming back from this...       

Time to fire the manager...                                             

They've given up. It's Over.

I quickly noticed, however, that players themself never sound defeated and remain very optimistic even after suffering a bad loss. Their response is more like:

 We all know we can win this series... 

We've been here before. We're not worried...

What happened yesterday has absolutely no connection to what happens today....

 Apparently this is common. It got me wondering: Why is it that many fans quickly go into "panic mode" and give up on their team after a bad play or game while players feel very differently?    

 The obvious answer is that athletes are the ones playing in the game themself. They aren't just spectators.  When you are actually in the driver's seat, it's that much easier to trust your abilities.  Furthermore,  athletes are professionals.  They know the importance of positive thinking. They are trained to be resilient and quickly move on from a bad day.

 Indeed, the Astros went on to win the Championship,  winning each of the next 3 games in convincing fashion including a no-hitter.  And we once again have a very happy Mendel! (In honor of the occasion, here is a picture with him and the Jewish ballplayer on the team.)

 But it got me thinking.  I don't think we talk enough about the importance of SPIRITUAL RESILIENCY.

 We all have our bad days. We make mistakes.  An important question to ask ourselves is whether we act like the fan or the professional? Do our "bad days" shlep us down and make us think less of ourselves? Or can we quickly turn the page and realize yesterday's loss has nothing to do with today.   Each day offers countless redemption opportunities for Mitzvot.

 Contemplete this teaching from the Baal Shem Tov:

 A Sin is like a snakebite. Yes,  the bite hurts. But it isn't the bite itself that kills. The real damage comes from the  venom.  The venom is the toxicity that spreads when we tell ourselves "I'm not good enough" or "there's no point in trying..."

 This same principle applies for the times we try to do a Mitzvah, but, for whatever the reason, fall short.   How do we respond?

 Are we the fan that despairs and tells themself it's a lost cause? Or are we the  professional who says, "I may not have succeeded today but but this doesn't change me or my values. I can't wait until my next opportunity."

 An wonderful example appears in this week's Torah portion. When Avraham hears that the evil city of Sodom was to be destroyed he famously argued with G-d, pleading and negotiating that Hashem spare the city on behalf of the righteous that live there. 

 Sadly, his request was turned down. There was no holy group of people in Sodom. The decree was final. 

 And yet, the very verse tells us something extraordinary. Right after failing in his mission, " Avraham  returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord."

One may have expected Avraham to change after this experience. Would he still believe in G-d's love and goodness? Would he have the strength to pass his own tests after experiencing this "failure"?

 The answer was a resounding YES! His faith wasn't broken.  His outlook in life didn't change.  Sure, he  was let down.  But he picked up and went back to doing the same hospitality and teaching.

 L'chaim to a life of spiritual resiliency!

No Slowing Down at 75

 When you think about being 75 years old, what comes to mind?

Presumably, something along the lines of retiring, slowing down, and focusing on better self care. You may look back at your career and accomplishments, hopefully feel satisfied, and plan to live life peacefully. You certainly are not interested in making any big changes in your life. If you were asked to take on a new project which would require a lot of time, effort and sacrifice, you might feel flattered but then pass on the offer to someone younger. 

Not so with Abraham our patriarch. And we can all take a lesson from him, no matter our age.

From a very young age, Abraham was a passionate activist. He was courageous enough to ask big questions and seek hard truths. He turned his back on the false beliefs of his family and community, which came at a great cost. Together with his wife Sarah, they built a new kind of community which was founded upon faith, love and morality.

As a 75 year old man, he had every right to be proud of his accomplishments, pat himself on the back, and plan to retire. 

In fact, that may have been his plans. 

Suddenly, a Heavenly voice summoned him. "Abraham, get up and go. It's time to achieve something even greater."

Go where? Do what? And don't you know that I'm a 75 year old man? I'm comfortable and set in my ways. I've been through enough turbulence in my life. 

These could have been Abraham's questions, and we wouldn't judge him for such reactions. 

But instead, Abraham got up and followed the calling. Together with Sarah (who was also eligible for medicaid and social security benefits) they were ready for something new.

Of course, we all know the rest of the story. Abraham and Sarah founded the first monotheistic community, established the first Jewish presence in Israel, and are considered the progenitors of the major religions of today. 

No matter your age, it's easier to get set in your ways, and harder to be flexible and open to change. We often turn to familiarity for comfort and protection. We prefer things to feel predictable. 

But the Torah is teaching us something very profound here. It makes no mention of any part of Abraham's illustrious life prior to turning 75. Abraham is first introduced to us as a 75 year old man who is embarking on a major change in his life.   (Indeed, Chana and I have been so inspired by individuals in our own community growing in their faith and Mitzvot at a much later point in their life.)

Perhaps that is one thing being a Jew - a person of faith - means. It means to live a life of service, to be ready to hear and follow your calling, and to appreciate that every moment of your existence on this planet is necessary and meaningful.   

And if it means being flexible and open to change, so be it. (My thanks to Rabbi Eli Wolf for sharing this insight)

This post is written in honor of my dear parents who both recently celebrated this milestone "Abraham" birthday!  In addition to all their other Mitzvot and responsibilities…when they heard about a "new calling" they lovingly offered to have our daughter spend the year living with them while attending 8th grade at the Torah Day School in Houston.  (There's now a teenager in their house again!)

We are deeply appreciative of the love, care, and timeless values they (and Chana’s parents in Morristown who have Mendel staying with them) give our children.  May Hashem bless them with good health and the ability and strength to continue growing in Mitzvot surrounded by much joy and peace of mind.

Even Noah had his Doubts

"But Rabbi, I have manquestions..."

"I hate to say it but from time to time I get doubts..."

"Is it OK if some days I have a hard time believing..."

There is an old Yiddish proverb, Fun a kasha shtarbt men nit--"Nobody ever died of a question." It's not the end of the world if you didn't get an answer to all your questions. We can live with unanswered questions. The main thing is not to allow ourselves to become paralyzed by our doubts. We can still do what has to be done, despite our doubts.

That's why Noah always appealed to me. When you read the Torah and its commentaries, he is no “Superhero.” He has his flaws.

Rashi describes Noah as a man of "small faith" who had doubts whether the flood would actually happen. In fact, according to the great commentator's understanding, he didn't enter the Ark until the rains actually started and the floodwaters pushed him in. And certainly, he fell short in terms of the ability to influence others in his generations…That explains why many people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical heroes like Abraham or Moses. 

And yet...this is precisely what makes Noah my kind of hero. He's real. He's human. 

Look what this simple fellow achieved! In a society dripping with greed and temptation, Noach held strongly to his morals, walked with G-d, and swam against the tide, saving the planet from destruction. Civilization survived not because of a towering, titanic figure; but because of a simple man who had the courage to live morally when everyone around him behaved despicably.  He may have had his doubts...but he got the job done!

So Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don't have to be fearless to get involved. You don't have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don't have to be holy to keep kosher, and you don't have to be "perfect in your faith" to come out to a Torah class.

The Kabbalah of Surprise

 

Chana went to NJ today for a milestone birthday of her father BH! Her siblings helped organize a special weekend complete with a mini concert, meaningful gifts, and relatives coming in from out of town.  But making it even more special? There's just one person who was unaware of the planned event – my father-in-law.

I can't wait to hear the recap of the celebration, especially his reaction to the surprise. And it got me thinking about the nature of a surprise.

There’s something about a surprise that turns the ordinary into something remarkable. How interesting is it that simply because something is unexpected and novel, the experience becomes memorable.

Humor of course works the same way.   When does a person laugh? What makes us smile? Laughter is created from the surprise. Comedy is expecting one answer and getting the opposite answer. The art of humor is the ability to create an expectation and then move from it to another place.

Here's the KABBALA behind the surprise:

But first a question: Why does a Jewish day start at night? The answer is right there in this week's Torah Portion.  In each of the days of creation, we find that G-d began creating at  night, and at the end of the afternoon Hashem closed the day with the announcement: "And it was evening, and it was morning, one day, etc.”

Of course that begs the question -- Who starts working at night? Doesn't a hard worker show up at sunrise? Why does G-d, and thus the Jewish day, start from the evening before?

The mystics give a fascinating answer. Life is all about creating light from darkness.

Life is not a postcard. Life is a startup venture to create a  new  never-before-seen  innovative  product. This world is where a person gets the opportunity to be G-d’s partner in the creation of the world! To create something different, surprising, unpredictable, unprecedented, unique that no one did or could have anticipated in advance.

This is one way we humans fulfill the purpose of creation. Hashem had everything  above, but one thing he didn't have was surprise and innovation. In creating a world Hashem says 'I am looking not for the perfect person, but for those who voluntarily and unpredictably chooses to write a better version of themselves. That's one reason why the world  started  dark  and gradually became  light !"

On Yom Kippur someone told me "Rabbi, just a few years ago never would I have imagined that I would be the type of person to put on Tefilin or be excited about donating to a Jewish cause?"

My response? That makes it the more meaningful.

This unexpected surprise is magical. This is divine.

This, for the Creator, is a greater innovation than designing a rocket ship to  outer  space.

This is a rocket ship to  inner  space!

 And it was evening, and  (through you Jew)  it was morning —that is what I, G-d, call  a day !”

The JOY of Yom Kippur

I meet too many people who get anxious about, or even dread, Yom Kippur. 

I get it. Hours in Synagogue. Fasting. And a machzor full or some intense prayers.  

Which makes it easy for some to miss the JOY of the day.

Joy? On Yom Kippur? Yes, yes, and yes.

 Yom Kippur is to be viewed as a gift: An incredible opportunity G-d has given us to remove any “shmutz” that may have accumulated throughout the year and return to our pristine natural self. He only asks for us to be sincere in our regret, observe the day as articulated in Torah, and pledge to be better in the future.

What a blessing the day is…

It is therefore important for us to have that conviction that G-d has truly forgiven us and we are a new person that day after Yom Kippur.

Of course, that is easier said than done. Sometimes, shortly after this holy day, we may feel that although we are ready to change, we are still confronted by those negative urges and temptations. I want to share with you a beautiful response to this issue as taught by the Maggid of Mezritch in the form of the following metaphor:

There was a Jew named Moshe that ran a tavern in a small town in Russia. He made a decent living but soon got sick of the atmosphere of a tavern, having to see the things that came out of the mouth of the locals after they had too much to drink.

Eventually, he decided to change his tavern into a grocery store. The problem? Those used to spending the nights at Moshe's place would still show up, banging on the door, asking for a drink. He would have to yell back at them and say, “You got the wrong place – this is not a bar, this is a grocery!" It took some time, but eventually they moved elsewhere…

The Maggid concluded: This is what you have to do: Tell those thoughts that pop in our mind after Yom Kippur. “I am no longer the man I once was. You got the wrong address.” It just takes some time, but eventually they get the point and move away…

The same is true in our relationships to others.  It is a gift to have a set day on the calendar with this energy of forgiveness. 

Sure, we can apologize year-round but I find it so much easier to make that phone call before Yom Kippur.  You even have a script ready to say!  "Hi...how are you? I know we haven't spoken much recently... but I've been doing some thinking...and with Yom Kippur coming around the corner, I really wanted to connect with you and...."

 What a gift that is to let go of resentment and hurt!

A psychology professor once spoke to an auditorium filled with students about how to let go of guilt. As she spoke, she walked around on stage with a glass of water raised in the air. As she gestured at the glass, everyone expected that she’d ask the typical “glass half empty or glass half-full” question. Instead, she asked them, “How heavy is this glass of water I’m holding?”

Students shouted out answers ranging from eight ounces to a couple of pounds.

“From my perspective,” she replied, “the absolute weight of this glass doesn’t matter. It all depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute or two, it’s fairly light. If I hold it for half an hour, its weight will make my arm ache a little. If I hold it for a day straight, my arm will cramp up and feel completely numb and paralyzed, forcing me to drop the glass to the floor. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it feels to me. The same is true of holding on to guilt.”

I sometimes stop and think how difficult life would be if there was no Yom Kippur! 

On a personal note:

As a Rabbi and Community Leader, it happens that I let people down or offend others. Sometimes people have expectations of me that I am not able to accomplish (at times, due to circumstances beyond my control)  and they are upset at me for this. In these situations there is no way for me to ask you for forgiveness because I don’t know that I have offended you. I am giving you full permission to reach out to me over the next few days, to call me or text me or email me and tell me what I have done and give me the opportunity to ask you for forgiveness.

For those who are not able to ask me for forgiveness, I hope you will forgive me in your heart.

May all be forgiven without grudges and may G-d almighty forgive us and seal us in the book of life for a year of Health, Happiness, Prosperity, and Redemption Now!!

Rosh Hashanah Message (It's all about Listening)

The most important component of Rosh Hashana is the Shofar.

Actually, the mitzvah is not the blowing of the Shofar per se; rather the mitzvah is the HEARING of the sound of the Shofar. Indeed the blessing made before blowing the Shofar is ‘Lishmoa kol Shofar’ to HEAR the sound of the Shofar.

"Do you hear me?" That's a common question today.

Sometimes the answer might be "Yes I hear you,’" but we say this while carrying on with texting. Have we really heard? As we progress deeper and deeper into the era of over-communication, rather than hearing each other more, we often hear each other less. 

Rosh Hashana reminds us that first and foremost we must stop to LISTEN and HEAR.

Listen to what?

On every day of the year, from the cradle to the grave, at least twice daily every Jew says ‘HEAR, O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One’. Listening to and contemplating these words enables us to see beyond the confusing images that the world presents us —and live fulfilling lives according to the Divine code, the Torah. Click here for more on this topic.

On Rosh Hashana we also need to listen and hearken to the sound of the Shofar.

  • The sound of the Shofar reminds us that G-d is the Master of the universe as it represents the trumpets blown at a kingly coronation. On Rosh Hashana we coronate G-d as King of the universe.
  • The sound of the Shofar is also similar to the wail of a child calling out for their parent, and on Rosh Hashana we as Jews are calling out to our father in Heaven like a wayward child coming home. This also reminds us to always be attentive to the needs of others. Click here for a beautiful story illustrating this.
  • The sound of the Shofar reminds us that deep down, our very own souls are crying out with an inaudible voice of intensity of the highest degree for our Father in Heaven. We need but to listen carefully and we will discover that G-d is truly to be found within us, in the deepest recesses of our hearts. To hear an inspiring encounter from someone back from a concert tour with the “Rolling Stones" click here.

But the main thing to remember is that we need to STOP AND LISTEN. One can get so caught up in the tumultuousness of life that one loses all sense of direction.

Rosh Hashana is the day we commemorate the creation of man. As the birthday of humanity, it is surely the fitting time to pause from everything else going on in our lives, turn down the volume of the mundane noise of society, and LISTEN to these above-mentioned Divine messages of timeless relevance so that we clearly know where we are going and how to get there.

There's No "I" in Royalty

I’ve long been fascinated by the Queen.

With the sad news of her passing yesterday, I did some thinking as to why.

Maybe it was the way she represented stability in a constantly changing world.

   you know there is even a special bracha you say when you meet a non-Jewish Queen or a King?

But reflecting deeper, I came to this:

Think about Queen Elizabeth. For 70 years, she couldn't take a stroll in the street without being followed by photographers. People would scrutinize every statement she made. Simply put, she always needed to be on her best behavior.

If she was a human like all of us - and she was - she would wake up some morning, "not in the mood." Maybe she was just tired of all those meetings and events. Perhaps all she wanted was to stay in bed for another few hours.

But you couldn't tell.

She always looked elegant and graceful. She fulfilled her role as a monarch, day after day. How did she do it?

One answer lies in a speech she gave on her 21st birthday:

"I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service."

 Despite turmoil and upheaval, both in the world, in the UK, and even in those around her, she remained a rock of stability, an example of dedication and service.

Service is about a cause greater than oneself. By definition, it therefore transcends a person's moods.  In a world where people typically act "based on how they are feeling" there's something special about being dedicated to something no matter what is going on.  

Here's a lesson we can all take as Jews:

When G-d gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai, He devoted our lives to a life of service. In fact, the Talmud even writes we Jews are "compared to royals." He gave us the task to be a light unto the nations.

To be clear, this is not a royalty that leads to arrogance.  On the contrary, it’s a royalty that leads to humility.

  • It’s a royalty the stems from the belief that I am no more than a G-dly soul, a reflection of Hashem. This is a royalty without an "I."
  • It’s a royalty that is about service. It is when we believe that I am an ambassador of the Divine.
  • It’s a royalty that gives confidence. It makes a person not afraid of what others will say or do.   
  •  We are never a victim. I am a Divine agent sent to bring light, meaning, and goodness into every situation I find myself in.

and our Soul's mission at the center. It's when we say "Hineni, what Hashem do you need from me? What does my family need from me? what does my community need from me? I am ready to serve."

PS. 

1) Here is a picture from the year I was in London of the queen adoring Rabbi Nachman Sudak OBM, the head of Chabad in England, with "order of the British Empire"

2)Allow me to share one more memory of the Queen that I heard from Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks:

It happened in St James Palace on 27 January 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Punctuality, said Louis XVIII of France, is the politeness of kings. Royalty arrives on time and leaves on time. So it is with the Queen of England, but not on this occasion. When the time came for her to leave, she stayed. And stayed. One of her attendants said he had never known her to linger so long after her scheduled departure time.

She was meeting a group of Holocaust survivors. She gave each survivor – it was a large group – her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each until they had finished telling their personal story. One after another, the survivors were coming to Rabbi Sacks, saying, “Sixty years ago I did not know whether I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.” It brought a kind of blessed closure into deeply lacerated lives. Sixty years earlier they had been treated, in Germany, Austria, Poland, in fact in most of Europe, as subhuman, yet now the Queen was treating them as if each were a visiting Head of State. That was humility: not holding yourself low but holding others high.

Guilt isn't very Jewish

 Rabbi, I feel bad I don't come to Shul more often," someone told me at our event last week.

"Don't feel bad," I replied.

He was surprised. Why shouldn't he feel bad for not coming to synagogue more often?

"Nothing good comes out of feeling bad," I told him.

We are just about to enter a month that might make some people feel bad.  I know this because it happened to me. More than once.

The month we are about to enter is the Hebrew month of Elul. Often, this month is referred to as "Chodesh Hacheshbon," "the month of accounting," a month dedicated to self-reflection.

During this time before the High Holidays we are supposed to spend time thinking about the past year, evaluating the state of our spiritual development, and committing to becoming better.

But this often makes us feel bad.

We feel bad because of things we should not have done.

We feel bad because of things we didn't do well.

And perhaps the worst of all is the list of "I should have."

And this list doesn't accomplish anything positive in my life. It just makes me feel bad.

Feeling bad is not a motivator. It rarely motivates anyone to do anything. Instead, it can make us feel lazy and tired. '

There is a hidden trap in "I feel bad."  It's often a trick of our evil inclination to make us do even less, and then our feeling bad and list of "should have" will keep growing.

Here's a suggestion.  It's called "Teshuva mitoch Simcha", "Teshuva with joy."

The idea is that while self-reflection is essential and we need to honestly understand our situation, that should be done joyfully.

When we are happy, we are unstoppable. We are willing to invest more and go much farther.

Like everything in life, it's all about perspective. If a cup is filled with 50% water, is it half-full or half-empty? If a person's relationship with G-d is lacking, is he far from G-d, or does he have the potential to be much closer?

"Rabbi, I didn't come to synagogue for a long time! I am so excited to come next week."

"I didn't give as much tzedakah as I should have...I can't wait to make it a priority this year!"

"I haven't made Torah Study part of my regular schedule. I look forward to seeing how it can uplift my workday."

You get the point. We don't whitewash anything, but we also don't dwell too much on past wrongdoings. Instead, we focus on the great opportunity we have right now.

As we go deeper into this extraordinary month of Elul, may this journey be filled with joy and lead us to be better people, better Jews, and closer to G-d.

Good Things Take Time

Like millions of parents across the country, we dropped our children at school this week.  But this was hardly something we took for granted.

One of the challenges of living in our beautiful town is not having the type of religious Jewish schooling found in larger communities around the country. It’s essential to us that our kids receive a strong Torah education in a loving, faith-based environment.   

So over the years, we've done a little bit of everything.  We’ve done online school long before most people even heard of Zoom. :).  We've homeschooled. We currently have 2 kids living with their grandparents (thank you Bubbys and Zeidys!) out of town while attending Jewish Schools. And thankfully, over the last 2 years, we were able to organize a homeschool group with 5-7 kids in the back of Chabad for our younger children.

But this week was different. It’s hard to describe how amazing - almost miraculous - it was to see 25 children gathered together for Torah education, from all over Central NC.  Having classmates in real life and not on the screen, having a principal other than us 

One of the school parents, the Chabad Rebbetzin in Greensboro, forwarded us an email I had long forgotten about. Back in the summer 2012, shortly after we moved to town, I called together 5 families in the area to brainstorm about the idea of starting a school for (at least) our own children and we outlined the steps we'd need to take to make that a reality.  

She pointed out how, incredibly, everything we discussed at that meeting is exactly what is happening right now.   

I never could have imagined it would have taken 10 years.

And please G-d, one day, (much sooner!), we will be able to grow this school and cater to the wider community. 

Good things take time.

This Wednesday we'll be having the kickoff event for our new shul and Jewish Center.   I am excited to show the community the beautiful renderings, dedication opportunities, and the timeline going forward for this important project. 

While preparing for the event, I thought about the twists and turns it took to get to this point. How long we've been talking about this project. The hundreds (or thousands) of hours invested in other sites that almost worked out. The blessings of finding the incredible donors who made the purchase of land possible.  The lengthy re-zoning process with all of its ups and downs.  And the crazy construction prices we are now dealing with…

My mind sometimes wanders and I begin to ask  “How come we did not know X some four or five years ago?” or    “How come it took so long to get to Y?”

But then I remember: Good things take time.

The Parsha this week promises blessings to those who faithfully follow the Mitzvot.   It guarantees that those who give charity generously will see blessings of richness in their life.   It tells us that this reality is something we can tangibly "see with our eyes."

If only it was real easy to always see this!   Even putting aside the many unanswered questions about “bad things happening to good people,” (some of which we will only understand in the next world), it just doesn’t always seem like success follows those who strive hardest to do Mitzvot.

But here too we remember good things take time.    I have no doubt in my mind that a life connected to the source of goodness will lead to actual goodness to our lives.  It may not always translate in the metrics that society uses (though sometimes, such as with tzedaka, it might!) but I have absolute faith that a Torah life done right leads to the ultimate blessings of a happy and meaningful life, even if not apparent right away.  I am blessed by knowing many people who wholeheartedly affirm this in their lives.

Consider for a moment some of the most significant blessings given in the Torah:

  • Avraham and Sara were promised children.  
  • The Jews were told they would redeemed from slavery.
  • Our nation was told they were going to the Holy Land.

Each of these incredible blessings took time.

In today's "microwave generation" we have a hard time with delayed results.   From traveling across the world in a matter of hours to finding out information about anything within seconds, we have little patience for a delayed process.

But like the difference between instant soup and Bubby's Chicken Soup, that which is real and nourishing always takes time.  Planting a tree. Educating a child.  Changing hearts and minds.

This all takes time. Because the change is coming from within.

Not by Bread Alone...

Imagine there was a pill that could decrease rates of severe depression and high-risk behaviors in children or adolescents by 30 or 40%?

Could you imagine the line of parents waiting to get it?

This was the opening of one of my favorite talks last weekend at the Jewish National Retreat in Florida.  Surprisingly, this inspirational lecture came not from a Rabbi or Rebbetzin, but a psychologist and noted professor at Columbia University.

Dr Lisa Miller is an expert on the relationship spirituality plays in a child’s resilience, physical and mental health, and healing. In her powerful lecture, she brought MRI studies that show specific circuits in the brain associated with spiritual awareness.  These grow stronger and thickens when we tap into our innate, spiritual core such that a person feels loved, held and guided, and never alone.  (You can learn more about this in her book "The Awakened Brain.)

She lamented a society in which a child's confidence and identity comes from things like academic or sports achievement as opposed to the inherent self worth that comes from knowing you matter to G-d.  And she powerfully illustrated how one of the strongest battles against the mental health crisis amongst youth today is spiritualty that blossoms when one cultivates a personal relationship with G-d.

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My mind immediately thought of this verse in the Parsha:

Man cannot live by bread alone but by all that proceeds from the mouth of G-d. (Eikev 8:3)

There are fascinating mystical interpretations of this verse, but the simple meaning might just be the most powerful:

The human spirit is such that we crave more than bread. Human beings will never satisfied with money or materialism alone.

And since man cannot live on bread alone, we will either fill that extra space with real meaning - a relationship with our Creator that includes Mitzvot to others, or we will sadly look for unhealthy substitutes to that meaning…

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Has there ever been a time in history where this has been so obvious? 

We live in an era of complete opposites. For the most part, the standard of living is BH better than at any point in history. We have luxuries that our grandparents could not have even dreamed about. 

And yet, it is very painful to watch so many struggling today with confusion, sadness, and anxiety.

To be clear, mental health is a complex and sensitive issue. There are many, different factors in this terrible crisis facing our country today.

But we Jews should know that:

  • Thousands of years of Torah teachings provide incredible wisdom towards happier living.  
  • Being part of a community, attending a Shul regularly, etc is not only good for your soul, but also for your mind and body!
  • One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is a solid traditional Jewish education founded upon Torah faith and a personal relationship with Hashem.

It’s never too late to start exercising this part of our brain.  And what better time to plan for the year ahead than now as we begin the 40 days countdown to Rosh Hashana…

Aaron's Yahrzeit

Did you know there  is only one Yahrzeit date specifically mentioned in the Torah?  We know the dates of many others from oral tradition, but there's only one Yahrzeit date recorded in the Chumash. 

That Yahrzeit is today (July 29, 2022)! Today, on the 1st of Av, we remember Aharon, the brother of Moshe.

Incredibly,  it is also in this week's Parsha, Masei, that records the date of this  Yahrzeit! 

On the Yarzeit of a loved one, we take time to learn from their life and perpetuate their ways. With that in mind, today is the perfect day for the Aharon Challenge 

When our Sages tell us to be like Aharon, they use the words OHEV SHALOM and RODEF SHALOM, love peace and pursue peace. 

Most people will say they love peace. (I mean, who actually enjoys living with ugly arguments?)  But yet, we also know all too well expressions like:

"Well, if you knew what X said to me, you'd understand why I no longer speak to her." 

"I should call him? He should be the one reaching out to me first to apologize..." 

In using the word "pursue," our Sages are highlighting something deep.

If you truly love something, you’ll do everything you can to pursue it, not wait for the other person to come to you. That means loving shalom more than you love being right, and more than you want the other person to be wrong. You'll be willing to give up a lot for that Shalom -- whether that be a few dollars or your pride... 

It’s not a game in which there’s only one winner.  Your letting go  (in Hebrew, what is called being mevater) is the ultimate win in the game of life.

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Aharon's Yarzeit is a very timely for this season.

The 1st of Av, also begins the 9 days of mourning leading up to Tisha B'av, the saddest day on the Jewish Calendar.

Our Sages explain that the destruction of Jerusalem was due to "unwarranted hatred." There was a lack of concern, love, and respect for each other. The Jewish people, even during the siege of Jerusalem, remained fractionalized and divided. One would have thought that this crisis would have brought them together. But they lacked this greatness taught by Aharon, and succumbed to senseless fighting, often over petty issues.

And so, today, the first of Av, is the perfect time for the "Aharon Challenge," reversing this mistake by going to the other extreme. 

It's when we are inspired to go above and beyond in the department of love and unity to one another even when there is no logical reason to do so.

Is there someone with whom you previously had an argument? Reach out with warmth to them today, even if you feel it should be the other person who should be apologizing.

Is there a someone with whom a cold silence has developed over time? Call them today with a warm Shabbat Shalom.

Is there someone in the Jewish community with very, very different views from yourself?  Find a way to connect and spend meaningful time together in the coming week.

And if you're asked what prompted the call...you can simply say Aharon!

 

Infinite Scrolling

It was 14 years ago that a Jewish technology engineer designed a new app feature. 

Back then (most of our readers probably remember!) all parts of the internet were divided into pages, and when you got to the bottom of one page, you had to decide to click a button to get to the next page.

Aza Raskin was always looking for ways to make things faster and more efficient. And so, he developed "infinite scrolling." It's a feature used throughout social media and other sites.  When you get to the bottom of a post or article, it will automatically load another chunk for you to flick through. And then again... You can never exhaust it. It will scroll infinitely.

He believed he was making life easier for everyone. He had been taught that increased speed and efficiency of access were always advances. 

Fast forward to today. Aza Raskin feels guilt for his creation he now apologizes for.  He realized that it was people, not productivity, that was changing as a result of this new feature.  At a conservative estimate, infinite scroll makes you spend 50 percent more of your time on sites like Twitter. Aza went as far as making a calculation that  every day the combined total of 200,000 human lifetimes is now spent scrolling through a screen!

I found it fascinating that a small change would make such a difference.  But as I thought about it more, it made sense.  Back when you had to click a button to get to the next page, you were given an active choice. It gave you a moment to pause and ask: Do I want to carry on looking at this? Today, however, you finish that video on Facebook  and the next one loads immediately....

After reading the article, I immediately deleted social media apps from my phone.

And it got me thinking.  How would Judaism look at the phenomena of "infinite scrolling"?

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There is a short verse in our Parsha that recently caught my attention.  As the Torah discusses the census of the Jewish People, it recounts the tragic rebellion, and subsequent death of Korach and his gang. It then tells us:

“The Sons of Korach did not Die.”

The Talmud fills us in with the details of this dramatic story. Korach's sons had originally joined their father's plot.  But then started to realize their Dad had it all wrong. As Korach’s sons were free-falling into the pit in the ground, they had deep feelings of regret and Teshuva. Their repentance was so sincere that G-d made a ledge miraculously jut out of the side of the chasm, which Korah’s sons safely landed on. They were spared.

”The sons of Korach did not die.” They went on to live spiritually rich lives, even authoring chapters of Psalms which we recite up until today.

I’ve always found the story powerful.  It reminds us life is series of individual choices.  At any point in time, a person can say “enough is enough” – I am ready to make changes in my life. 

Next time you find yourself sliding down a spiritual cliff, think about the sons of Korach.  Next time you feel stuck going in a certain direction, remember there is always a ledge ready to catch us.  Next time you feel it's too late to start doing a certain Mitzvah at this stage of your life, remember there is no infinite scrolling in life. We are always free to change. 

And when we have that moment of Teshuva, Hashem responds in kind. He will create that little ledge --- the opportunities, mentors, and resources to climb out of our hole and achieve great spiritual heights...

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One final thought on this "ledge" in our life:

A committed Jewish life is the ultimate protection in a society where it's so easy to fall prey to mindless interaction with technology.   To be honest, everyone can fall prey to this addiction. (I know this all too well!) But in a Torah lifestyle there is always something to "wake you up" and offer you that ledge to stop the spiral downwards. 

Mitzvot brings mindfulness and intentionality in all that we do.  This is needed more than ever today. Blessings to be said before we eat.  Lashon Hara considerations to think about before we talk or email.  Tzedaka to give before we spend money on a non-essentials. Regular  Torah study sessions to keep out the negativity and fill out mind with holiness.

And of course, the ultimate refresh each week- Shabbat! 

Perhaps its time for Aza Raskin to come up with a good marketing campaign promoting Shabbat observance!

When Michael Jordan Called a Jewish Boy at Home (Parsha Chukat)

A mentor of mine, Rabbi Shais Taub, grew up in Chicago. Back then, the Bulls practiced in a simple facility called the Multiplex and he and his friends would gather around the building after school watching the basketball players come and go. 

Once, after a practice in the mid 80’s, the boys followed Michael Jordan as he was leaving the building.  Twelve year old Shais was the last in line. By the time he came to the front, Jordan was already entering his Corvette.  He tried a last attempt to get his attention and signature, sticking his hands into the car, only to hear the famous athlete scream at him “Get your hands away from the car…or they're going to get slammed by the door!”

He was more than humiliated. Everyone else got an autograph and he got yelled at (talk about a flagrant foul!).  He came home rejected and cried to his father how much he hated the local star.

Rabbi Taub’s father went into action. He found out Jordan's home address and sent him a handwritten letter.  He explained how he knew Jordan was a better person than what transpired and he probably didn't realize how much he hurt a young boy's feeling. He finished by saying that he knows that he is a respected athlete and is sure he can find a way to earn back the love of a young fan.

Less than a week later, the phone rang and little Shais was told he had a phone call.  The unmistakable voice of Michael Jordan was on the line.  He asked the boy if he still considered himself a fan of his and invited him to go down courtside next time he was at a game. Indeed, a short time later, he met Jordan - this time with a smile, picture, and signature.

As Rabbi Taub got older, he realized this story was less about a great basketball player...and really about a great Dad. He was in awe of the way his Dad felt his hurt and went above and beyond to make him feel better.   How in the world did he find a way to bring together a pained child and a world-famous athlete not exactly known for his sensitivity? That took love, sincerity, risk, and a great understanding of human nature (His Dad after all is a psychologist!)

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Every year during this Parsha, I think of Aharon, the brother of Moshe.   The Torah goes out of its way to highlight that he was universally mourned after his passing in this week's Torah portion.

Aharon was beloved by all. Because he made all capable of loving.  Indeed, he was known as the ultimate peacemaker.

There wasn't a family-fight or business-disagreement that he couldn't resolve.  He was the ultimate mediator known for saving marriages and repairing friendships. 

How?   Not only through clever communication or meditation tricks.  Through his love, humility, and connecting to everyone with compassion.

Aharon's friendly shalom and warm gaze were so impactful that the person was lifted beyond petty disagreements and fights.  

One famous Midrash puts it this way:

"Then two people were fighting with one another, Aaron would go and sit next to one of them and say: My son, look at the anguish your friend is going through! His heart is ripped apart..He is saying, How can I face my old friend?

Then Aaron would go to the other person in the fight and say: My son, look at the anguish your friend is going through...Aaron would sit with him until his rage subsided. When the two people saw each other, they would embrace...

Some might say Aharon was compromising on truth for the sake of peace. But it runs deeper than that.  He brought out the true core of others. He lived higher and thus caused others to live higher. An encounter with him brought out your "Neshama," and it's no wonder that the "better you" emerged.

The world desperately needs more of this "Aharon" peace. 

Peace does not mean you will agree on issues. It means going beyond any particular issues.  Elevating a conversation to that place that we do agree.

Peace does not mean you do not see something wrong. It means having the "soul vision" to see past the negativity of another and into their Divine Soul.

And when we can do that, just like Aharon, the other often responds in kind...

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