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A Message from Rabbi Spalter

Egypt and Us

As we read the story of the ten plagues that were inflicted on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, (the Torah portions of these weeks) most of us relate to it as a justified punishment wrought on an immoral society who saw no problem killing thousands of Jewish babies every week and enslaving and torturing their parents for over one hundred years. We read about the water turning into blood, millions of frogs everywhere, lice and wild animals, etc. turning Egypt into a hell on earth. To the average reader, the story has very little relevance because we don’t think of ourselves as having anything in common with ancient Egypt; we abolished slavery long ago and therefore the crime and its punishment have no relevance to us. The only relevance the story has is that as a result, the Jews were redeemed and became a nation who received the Torah some seven weeks later. But Egypt and its downfall?  It’s ancient history and with little meaning to the modern mind.

Upon further reflection however, we begin to realize that nothing can be further from the truth. Pharaoh and Egypt, it turns out, are alive and well not only in the Middle East but in every one of us. The Torah tells us that the main purpose of the Plagues was not only to punish the Egyptians but to force them to recognize that G-d exists and that He is in control of everything. Pharaoh did not believe in G-d, in fact he and the Egyptians worshiped the Nile River as their G-d. The reason for this was because Egypt is a land where no rain falls and their entire support and livelihood comes from the Nile River. The waters of the river would rise and irrigate their fields resulting in constant growth of wheat etc. The Nile was their source of income and their entire economy was dependent on that river; hence the Nile was their G-d. It was for this reason that when G-d decided to break the Egyptians and teach them the truth, He first plagued the Nile turning it into blood. This showed the Egyptians that their ‘G-d’ was powerless. Only then were they able to begin to think about and recognize the true G-d. In fact, after the third plague struck, Pharaoh’s advisors finally told him that it was the finger of G-d that brought about the plague, and with every ensuing plague they began to recognize more and more that the Nile was meaningless and that there was a true G-d that was the real source of everything they had.

Understanding this, we begin to recognize that in each of us lingers a massive Egyptian belief system and that ancient Egypt was not so primitive after all. We too often times begin to worship the modern day ‘Nile Rivers’ and forget that G-d is the true benefactor of all our blessings. The Nile River might be the ‘University’, our ‘Jobs’ or our ‘money’, we see these as our source of life and begin to worship them. If you ask the average person if they believe in G-d they will probably answer that they do, but when you analyze their behavior patterns as they relate to the three above mentioned modern day ‘Nile Rivers’ one begins to wonder if most of us are not actually worshiping them? Our attitudes towards higher education are such that it overrides everything else. Almost every parent I speak to is petrified of sending their young adult children to college because of the environments that exist there. We all know the reality, yet how many ever consider alternatives? We sigh and krechtz about it but at the end of the day, college is our Nile River. We are so dependent on it for our future careers that the thought of prioritizing our children’s integrity which is horribly compromised in today’s colleges and instead rely on the true G-d for our livelihood, is not even a fleeting thought. You’re probably wondering what I am getting at? Is this Rabbi saying that we should not send our children to college? I am not saying that. What I am saying is that we are so sold on it that the very thought of placing our children’s purity and morality above this Idol does not even enter our minds. This then is a modern day ‘Nile River’ that we worship as a G-d.

Our jobs have also turned into ‘G-d’s. How many people will compromise their standards if the job requires it? What do we do when Shabbos has to be violated in order to keep our employment? Do we look for another job or do we look for another Shabbos?

We forget that G-d is the source of our success. The Nile River can only irrigate because G-d wills it to. Our jobs can only provide our livelihoods if G-d blesses it. So in the end, the story of the Egyptian attitude and stubbornness is our very own story. Sometimes G-d feels a need to remind us that the river is nothing and He turns it into blood making it worthless. If that does not help he finds other ways to help us remember that it’s the finger of G-d that makes everything happen.

May we merit our own exodus from Egypt and recognize G-d outstretched arm in everything that happens to us and realize that without his constant providence we would not make it through even one day. If we really internalized that and spent time thinking about it, we might not be so quick to compromise our standards rather than to compromise our jobs. We might actually recognize that a ‘Nile River’ that violates G-d’s commandments can hardly ‘irrigate’ our ‘fields’.

May we be blessed that we should be reminded of G-d’s providence through positive means and through an extra abundance of his blessings rather than through plagues.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Happy New Year?

January first is an interesting day for me. Wherever I go and whomever I meet, I am always greeted with Happy New Year. That in itself is perfectly fine and natural. The problem is that when it’s a Jew who is doing the greeting they are almost always doing it with some visible reservation. They are not quite sure if they should be wishing a Rabbi “Happy New Year” on January first. After all, isn’t our New Year on Rosh Hashanah? I usually ease their discomfort by nodding and returning the greeting, but upon further reflection it is an interesting question. Should we as Jews recognize this day as something special? Is there some new energy manifest in the world on January first or is it just a day that mankind has decided to mark as a new beginning for purposes of dating checks and paying taxes?

The answer might surprise many of you. In fact, not only is January first a day of special spiritual significance for the rest of the world but surprisingly for Jews as well.... let me explain. In the book of Psalms, King David tells us that “G-d will count in the register of people”, which means that G-d counts and recognizes the register and dates of all peoples. If people recognize a certain date as a new beginning, G-d too counts that day as a new beginning. In other words, from G-d’s perspective January first is recognized as a New Year for the world.One of the great Chassidic masters even went a step further and said that on New Year’s (Jan. 1) Jews are judged once again. He explained that when G-d sees how the peoples of the world celebrate their New Year (drinking, partying, fireworks, drunkenness and all the rest) and contrasts this with the way Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah (prayer, repentance, Shofar sounding, Crowning G-d as king of the universe etc.), He immediately nullifies all negative decrees with which we might have been judged on Rosh Hashanah and turns it all around and judges us favorably with only blessings for the coming year.

The truth is that the world has a lot to learn from the way Jews celebrate a new year. It always amazes me that on December 31, all one hears on the radio and other media outlets is endless advertising of all the different bars, night clubs and parties one can go to that evening and that everyone should make sure to have a designated driver before going, and for good reason; New Year’s Eve is one big party with very much drinking and sadly with very little content. Contrast that with Rosh Hashanah, have you ever heard any one talk about the necessity of designating a driver on Erev Rosh Hashanah? I haven’t and nor have you. Rosh Hashanah is all about G-d, Family, Judaism and spiritual development. I am sure that many people treat January first as a day to take on new resolutions as well, but sadly the greater emphasis is on a day of endless partying and having fun. The result is that Instead of praying on New Years that G-d should grant all peoples a good year, parents are busy praying that their teens should return home safely from their New Year’s eve party. It would be so nice if January first were a day which people dedicated to something more meaningful and content full. Maybe one day that will happen. Until then let us pray that our fellow citizens be blessed with a very happy New Year and may we Jews be judged favorably by Hashem for only good for the rest of the Jewish year.

A very Happy New Year to all!

Shabbat Shalom

 

The Public Menorah Lighting

As I and one thousand other Jews celebrated Chanukah at the Weston Town Center this past Tuesday, I could not help but marvel at the incredible outpouring of Jewish pride that was on display as we lit a twenty-foot-tall menorah together with our State’s and City’s dignitaries. One Israeli woman approached me during the lighting and said with obvious excitement, that she simply could not believe that this kind of event was even possible. With tears in her eyes, she expressed her amazement at the incredible Jewish Community that she saw and met at the Town Center. She was so happy to see that Am Yisrael Chai. Her words touched me.

I remember when the Rebbe first began encouraging public Menorah lightings in the 1970’s. He asked for menorahs to be lit in the open with government officials in attendance and if possible in government buildings as well. The Rebbe believed that the message of religious freedom that the Menorah represents and the American way of life have much in common and are really one in the same. The early pilgrims fled Europe and desired to establish a country which would tolerate and allow people to worship as they wished. With hard work they succeeded to establish what later became the United States of America, with its constitution in which liberty for all and religious freedoms were its founding principles. The story of Chanukah shares a similar message. The Greeks tried to destroy the soul of Judaism by outlawing many of its observances. A small group of Jews known as the Hasmoneans fought this oppression and eventually overpowered the Greeks and rid Israel from the regime that robbed Jews of their freedom to serve
G-d. The Chanukah Menorah therefore became the symbol of religious tolerance and freedom.  The Public Menorah lightings on the American landscape and specifically in government institutions are therefore a most natural evolution. Over the past forty years the Public Menorah has been challenged in courts all the way up to the Supreme Court, who ruled in favor of the Public Menorah and based its decision on the fact that the Menorah is indeed a symbol of religious freedom and does not violate the separation of church and state. Today the Public Menorah is an American phenomenon and is observed in thousands of American cities, City Halls, State Capitals, shopping malls and everywhere in between. This hard fought battle is now common place all over the world.

So when an Israeli woman with tears in her eyes tells me how touched she is that in the center of a city in the diaspora she witnesses a thousand Jews bonding together in unity, singing and dancing in celebration of this wonderful holiday, it behooves me to stop and think for a moment about this phenomenon; Where did it come from? Who had the vision and how did it become so popular?

It was the Lubavitcher Rebbe who had the vision and foresight to light up the world on Chanukah and help Jewish children during this time of year to feel proud of being Jewish and he put this vision into practice through his army of Shluchim whom he encouraged again and again to organize these public Menorah Lightings all over America and the entire world. He wanted that America should always remember what this country is all about.

So if millions of Jews are proud of being Jewish and dance in the streets during the Public Menorah Lightings in celebration of Chanukah and their Jewishness, we have one man to thank; The Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory. His vision and love for Jews and Judaism and his appreciation for America and what it stands for, gave way to one of the most innovative and successful displays of the American dream; The Public Menorah Lightings.

 Happy Chanukah and may G-d continue to bless America.

Shabbat Shalom 

"The Flames Don't Cease to Burn..."

In a few days, Jews around the world will once again gather family and friends to light their Chanukah Menorahs, eat latkes, give Chanukah Gelt and sing Chanukah favorites with their children. For Chabad Chassidim, Chanukah also means organizing large Menorah lightings in City Halls, Town Centers, Shopping malls and everywhere we can spread the miracle and message of Chanukah. In addition, the Rebbe’s emissaries visit army bases, prisons, hospitals and senior citizen’s homes to bring the light and taste of Chanukah to those Jews who the larger community might have forgotten but who desperately long for a little holiness and light to brighten up their nights and lives in the sometimes never ending loneliness they experience.

Indeed, the Chanukah lights have lit up millions of hearts and have given hope to our people during the long and painful exile we have endured over the past two thousand years. I remember the stories we were told of Jews during the holocaust who managed to create makeshift menorah’s made out of whatever they could get their hands on, and so heroically lit them in Auschwitz, Bergen Belzen and other camps. Or the stories of Chassidim in Siberian gulags who saved up butter and egg shells to be turned into menorahs and oil and then cut pieces of their clothing so they can be turned into wicks. These legendary Jews knew the secret of Jewish survival. They knew that as long as those small but bright lights continue to burn, the Jewish people and Judaism will survive.

The Chanukah candles tell a story of their own. When I gather my family around the menorah and light the candles, I share with them the message and story that those small flickering candles are telling us. It’s the story of the Jewish people. We have lived and continue to live in a very dark world, in a world that has tried over and over again to extinguish the candle of Torah and Judaism. Whether it was the Hellenist Greeks, the Romans, the crusaders and inquisitionists, Stalin and Hitler, Hamas or Radical Islam the aim was the same; to extinguish the small flame of the Menorah of Jewishness. Indeed, many times it looked as if the flame was so tiny and about to expire, but the miracle flame always managed to continue to hold on and survive the strong winds. It is this story that the candles are telling us every night of Chanukah and we must listen to the candles as they relate their/our story.

 Today, thank G-d, we don’t have to save butter for oil or egg shells for candle holders. Today we can light beautiful and large menorahs by our doors, windows and in town squares. But make no mistake, the winds and storms still rage out there and continue to threaten to blow out our flames. I am referring to the winds of atheism, apathy and assimilation. They might be different and more subtle but equally and maybe ever more dangerous than the winds of yesteryear.

So this Sunday night gather around your beautiful menorahs and light up the lights and allow them to tell their story. Listen and internalize their message: that these candles will never cease, these flames will always burn, and these lights will forever continue to brighten up the dark and dreary world we inhabit.

Have a happy and meaningful Chanukah and Am Yisrael Chai.

 

Beyond the Surface

This coming Tuesday, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of the 19th of Kislev. On this day in 1798 the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidism was released and set free from a very dangerous imprisonment. The story surrounding his arrest, the charges, the interrogation and eventual release is written up in great detail and is beyond the scope of this article.

The Jewish world saw his release as a vindication of the entire Chassidic movement and it was from that day onward that Chassidic teachings went viral. Rabbi Schneur Zalman saw his ordeal as one that originated in heaven. He understood that if he, as the leader of Chassidism, was being challenged down here in this corporeal world, it is only a sign that Chassidism was being challenged in the upper realms as well. He wondered if he and his colleagues were not spreading this lofty teaching too much. Maybe the world is not yet ready for the ‘crown jewel’ of the Torah to be spread with such intensity. But then came the 19th of Kislev and his release. That was the sign that from on high Chassidism was vindicated and it was time for this holy and spiritual teaching to be spread to all four corners of the world.

Chassidism is referred to as the ‘Soul of the Torah’. Like with a body and soul, the soul gives life and vitality to the body. With the Torah it’s the same way. The ‘body’ of Torah is the laws of the Torah and their physical practice, like lighting Shabbos candles and giving charity or eating Matzah on Pesach. The ‘soul’ would be the life behind those practices; the G-dly energy and mystical revelations that result from those actions. And trust me, when a Jew is aware of the higher truth and ‘soul’ of the Mitzvot we observe, they become alive. They become soulful and energized with great vitality. 

They tell a story of a Chassidic master who was once challenged by an opponent of Chassidism. The opponent said to him; you Chassidim learn and study so much Chassidic and Kabbalistic knowledge, but at the end of the day what difference is there between us? We both put on the same tefillin, we both wrap ourselves in the same Tallis and we basically do all the mitzvoth just like you do with no difference at all, so what’s all the fuss of learning Tanya, Kaballah and the ‘soul’ of Torah? The rebbe answered him and said; it’s like two people eating the same chicken soup with one difference, one is eating it while hot and the other is eating it cold. They might both be eating the same ingredients but the difference is vast. One can hardly say that they are both experiencing the same thing. And indeed a mitzvah that is observed with an understanding of the soul behind it is warm, its alive, its vibrant and so much deeper.

Let me apply this to something very current; We are just coming from a very contentious election period. Democrats and Republicans fought it out and then the people had their voice. With every election cycle and its non-stop barrage of negative ads, protests, acrimonious mudslinging from one side against the other, I convince myself that it cannot get any worse. The division in the country is at its worst it’s ever been, I say to myself. But then comes the next cycle and I realize that two years prior was nothing compared to the current round. People wonder why this is and how we got here. In my opinion, it is because we have become too superficial. We stereotype. We see others by their tags. Democrat vs. republican, white vs. black or man vs. women. When we look at a fellow citizen what do we see first? That person's color?  Their external qualities? Their voter registration card? Or their human soul, made in the image of G-d? Can we as a society look deeper? Can we reach beyond the surface or are we so superficial and only skin deep? I hope last night, at Thanksgiving dinner we all had a chance to get back to basics and see things for what they really are; your family, your friends, your fellow Americans. All the rest is secondary or even less than that.  

The holiday of Kislev 19, when we were given the ‘soul’ of Torah, is a time to reflect on the ’soul’ of everything. The inner truth of every human being, and indeed of everything, is G-dliness. All we need to do is reveal it to ourselves and each other, because when we do, we realize that the entire creation is really one essence: G-d. And that, by the way, is what we mean when we say in the Shema prayer that Hashem Echod; G-d is one. It means that everything is G-d and G-d is everything, and that too was taught and expounded upon at great length in the teachings of Chassidism.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Pittsburgh and Us

Rabbi, what’s going to be? What should we do? Rabbi, how can you explain this? What do I tell my children? These and many more questions were on the minds of millions of Jews here in the United States and all over the world. The tragedy in Pittsburgh last Saturday as 11 Jews were murdered in cold blood while praying, sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world. There is so much to ponder. Once again history repeats itself, as another Jew hater kills Jews. What makes this so painful is that it happened here in America, the Goldene Medina or in English “the country of gold”, a place where nothing can go wrong. I don’t mean that as a joke, by the way. We are so accustomed to the comforts and protections this truly blessed country has provided us Jews that it is hard to cope with such a turn of events. There are no easy answers, in fact I don’t think there are any answers at all. Who can explain this? Who can say why G-d would allow such a tragedy to happen to his beloved people? I cannot and trust me, no one else can either.

But silence is not the call of the hour either. You see, if the question is why Hashem allows there atrocities to happen? Then all we can do is be silent and accept the ultimate judgment of G-d. He does not owe us any explanations and to be quite frank, I do not want any either. What good would it do if G-d would explain to me the reason for this kind of pain and suffering? How will that make me a better person? How will that make me more compassionate? It won’t. I may be able to sleep better knowing the reason, but who wants to sleep better when 11 families are grieving and in such pain. So may I suggest that instead of asking why? We should start asking what? What should we do about it? What should be our reaction? What is a proper Jewish response to this kind of tragedy?

In order to respond properly we must first know what we are responding to. We are responding to a man who hates Jews and everything Jews stand for; His target was Jewish values, the Jewish way of life, Judaism, Israel and all of us who represent all that. To such evil there can be only one answer; Strengthen Jewish Values, strengthen the Jewish way of life, strengthen Judaism and strengthen Israel. This killer tried to tear Jews away from Prayer. Our response should be to fill every house of prayer. This Shabbos our Synagogues should look like they do on Yom Kippur; filled to capacity. There should not be an empty seat. These Anti Semites hate us because of what we represent. If you want to do something in response to the murder of 11 pure souls who died because they were Jewish, then do something Jewish. Light Shabbos candles tonight before sundown. Go to Shul and say and sing those very prayers that these 11 Jewish victims would love to say but sadly can no longer. Act more Jewishly this Shabbos. Bring your family along and connect with other Jews. This will bring you the comfort you seek in these difficult times.  Groaning and moaning about Anti-Semitism with no action is pointless. We are a people who have responded to so many tragedies throughout our long and difficult history and we have always emerged stronger and better. This is because we did not only moan and groan, we acted, we built a stronger Jewish identity, a stronger Jewish community, we became even more connected to G-d. This time is no different. We will act, we will grow, we will be strong and we will live. And regarding our children and what to tell them? Tell them the truth, but more importantly SHOW them the truth; show them the beauty of Judaism and what a privilege it is to be and live as a Jew. The rest they will figure out on their own. I hope to see you this Shabbos.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Shabbat Shalom

A Year of Blessings from A to Z 

As we all prepare for the New Year and the High Holidays, I would like to wish each and every one of you and your families a very happy, healthy and sweet year. May this year bring you all the blessings you seek and need and may it be one filled with happiness and joy.

I once heard a beautiful explanation from the Rebbe regarding our Rosh Hashanah wishes for a good and sweet year. The words a “good and sweet year” seem to be redundant. If the year is “good” is it not also “sweet”? The Rebbe explained that good and sweet are not always synonymous. Sometimes good is not sweet. He based it on Judaism’s belief that everything that happens in the world is from G-d and everything that comes from G-d is good. Nothing bad comes from Hashem. That means that everything that happens must be good, but sometimes this ‘good’ as it comes down to us from heaven, can manifest itself in such a way that it does not feel good at all. Sometimes the ‘good’ coming from heaven feels very painful. Everyone who lives in this world knows what I mean. There are times when we feel terrible pain, whether physical or emotional, because our health is poor, our business is not producing or our children give us heartache, so on and so forth.

According to Kabbalah the ‘good’ that feels painful and bitter comes from an even higher source within G-d’s reality than the ‘good’ that actually feels good and sweet. The reason that this high level good feels painful is because being that this ‘good’ is from such a high spiritual place, the ‘travel’ downward to our polar opposite physical world causes it to change and manifest itself in a very opposite fashion i.e. a painful and bitter feeling. On the other hand, when G-d’s blessings come from a lower spiritual source, as it ‘travels’ down to our physical world it does not have to change that drastically and it is able to maintain its ‘good’ manifestation; hence it is a good that actually feels good even to us physical beings.

For this reason we wish each other before Rosh Hashanah that we should have a Shanah Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet year. What we are wishing each other is that the good that we receive from G-d this year should be the kind of good that feels sweet. Even if it is a good that is from a lower source, so be it. We want a good year that actually feels good.

With this in mind I want to wish everyone a good and sweet year in all matters from A to Z; a year of Abundance, Blessing, Clarity,  Depth, Excellence, Fulfillment, G-dliness, perfect Health, Independent thinking, Joy, Kindness, Long life, Merits, Nachas, Opportunity, Peace and Quiet, Redemption, Spirituality and Soul-power, Torah learning, Understanding, Victory, Wealth, eXcitement, Yerushalayim, a year full of Zest and a year in which we all reach our Zenith.

May we all be blessed and written into the book of life and everything good.

 Shana Tova

Don’t Wait till the last minute

I am always asked by fellow Jews how one can make their Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur a more meaningful experience, how to make it last and how to really feel uplifted on the most holy days of the year. I want to address this question in the coming paragraphs.

For the longest time now, the High Holidays have come to mean to far too many Jews, the purchasing of a seat in a synagogue, cooking and hosting large meals, apples and honey and attending what is considered by many, very boring services. If you’re lucky, you get to hear a good sermon from the rabbi with a good opening joke, but for the most part, it is just another ritual that we do and cannot wait for it to end. Is this how our grandparents felt as well? Was there something that really excited them on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

The truth is, the experience of Rosh Hashanah does not begin on the first day of the Jewish year. It really begins a month earlier on Rosh Chodesh (the first of) Elul. Elul is the last month of the year and we are told that during this month G-d is very much accessible and close to the Jewish People. In fact, in a certain way, He is even more accessible to us during the month of Elul than during the High Holidays themselves. “How can that be?” you ask, well… according to the kabbalah there is a very lofty G-dly energy and revelation that is present in the world from the first of Elul through Yom Kippur, a total of 40 days. These correspond to the 40 days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai begging for, and securing G-d’s mercies and forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf. The difference between the month of Elul and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that during the High Holidays G-d, our king, is revealed in all His glory and awesomeness in His ‘palace’ and only those with special ‘permission’ can enter. In the month of Elul, on the other hand, G-d is with us in the ‘field’ so to speak i.e. in our domain, in our realm, on our terms. This revelation might lack the ‘awe and glory’ of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when He is in his ‘palace, nevertheless, in Elul He does reach out by revealing Himself to us on our terms. Anyone who wishes can approach. He is accessible to everyone, saint and sinner alike. The purpose of this Elul closeness, is to inspire us to ‘wake up’ and become somewhat better prepared for the High Holidays when we can approach G-d and experience Him in His ‘palace; in His realm, on His terms. But for that we need to get special ‘permission’. This ‘permission’ is granted to those who have bettered their ways and are spiritually worthy of entering the ‘palace’.

This explains why some of us have a very shallow experience on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When we arrive at Rosh Hashanah without the preparatory experience of Elul we are in trouble. Unless we are able to really tune in quickly and intensely on those days themselves (something very unlikely) we might just feel left out. But if we take advantage of these thirty days when changing our selves is easier because, as mentioned, G-d and holiness is accessible to us on our turf and terms, we get a head start and are much more in tuned with the awesomeness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are different. We are holier. We are spiritually closer and are therefore granted ‘permission’ and given access to enter G-d’s ‘palace’. Our Grandparents did that and so should we.

The month of Elul begins this Shabbos (August 11). For the next thirty days be a little more Jewish. Pray a little more and better. Put on Teffilin if you don’t already do so. Light Shabbos candles on time. Give a little extra charity. Do a little volunteer work for the community or Help a needy person. If you did one or more of the above, your Rosh Hashanah will most definitely be very different. You will feel that Rosh Hashanah is suddenly a day you can relate to; a day you will enjoy observing on every level and the Machzor will be your best friend. The rabbi’s sermon? For that we will have to wait and see.  

May we all have a meaningful Elul and a deeper High Holiday experience. May we all be blessed with a very happy and healthy New Year. A Shanah Tovah Umetukah to all.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

What Makes You Happy?

The Hebrew month of Av, which begins today, starts off with 9 somber days during which we mourn the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem. This is in addition to many other tragedies that befell the Jewish people throughout the ages. During these nine days, we refrain from anything that can be harmful such as traveling (unless you have to), elective or scheduled surgeries (unless it’s an emergency) and other such potentially dangerous activities. In short, during these days, we keep a low profile, we stay out of harm’s way as they are not particularly days of good Mazal (energy) for the Jewish people. Our sages even go a step further and instruct that “when the month of Av begins we decrease our joy”. In other words, we stay away from anything that is associated with joy during this period.

Here is the problem; joy is a very elusive word. What exactly is joy? For some, joy is brought about when they buy a new car, for others, joy is created when their children give them lots of Nachas. Some might be happy and joyous when they watch their favorite TV show and yet others might feel joy as a result of waking up in the morning and living another day. To them life itself is a source of Joy. Does this mean that we are not allowed to buy a new car, have Nachas or watch TV during these nine days? If we find inner joy from life itself, do we have to do something during this time to curtail those inner feelings? What do the Rabbis mean when they instruct us to “decrease our joy when the month of Av begins”?

On a practical level, it means that we should not engage in activities that are meant to cause joy that is out of the ordinary. For example, we are not allowed to partake in musical events and the like as they create an atmosphere of active joy. We should refrain from purchasing clothing or anything that makes a person uniquely happy such as a new car (unless you absolutely need it and the purchase cannot wait until after the nine days).  But to feel happy?  By all means. After all, there is no inner button that we can press that causes our joy and happiness to just shut down. In fact, there is a mitzvah to serve G-d with joy and since we are always supposed to serve G-d, it follows that we are always supposed to be happy including these nine days. 

The Chassidic masters actually went a step further and interpreted the above rabbinic instruction thus: when the month of Av begins, we have to “decrease” - the divine concealment caused by the destruction of the temple - “by means of joy”. In other words, not only do we not reduce the joy in our hearts, we are instructed to find deeper means of joy in order to diminish the effects of the destruction. So practically, this means that while throughout the year we engage in all sorts of activities that cause joy, in the month of Av we are asked to step back, refrain from those external stimulants of joy and instead, to find a more internal cause for being happy. During this month we don’t need a new car or a concert to make us happy, we can and should focus on the more personal and inner reasons for being happy. In the month of Av, don’t just suffice with happiness that emerges from new purchases and pleasure trips which bring about one level of happiness, rather increase your joy by uncovering the real source of happiness; our connection to G-d, Torah, family and life itself. It is this type of joy that diminishes the concealment of G-d brought about by the destruction of Jerusalem.

May we merit to see this happen even before these nine days are over.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Build the Wall!

This Sunday, July 1, millions of Jews will fast from dusk to nightfall in remembrance of a tragic event that took place on this day some 1950 years ago. On this day, the 17th of Tammuz, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem after a long siege and went on to destroy the holy temple and Jerusalem, driving the Jews into a long exile in which we still find ourselves. Our sages explain that while the actual destruction would happen only three weeks later, the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem spelled the end and it was only a matter of time when the temple would also go up in flames. In other words, when our protective walls were broken through there was no longer any hope, it was downhill from there. It is for this reason that we dedicate this day to fast and better our ways so that we can hasten the day when we will end this exile and once again build Jerusalem and the Temple.

 Like everything in Judaism, this too has a lesson for us living in America (or where ever you live) today. Our fasting is not only to remember the tragedy that happened many years ago but it is also a reminder that today, as then, we are vulnerable if we allow our ‘walls’ to be breached. You’re probably wondering which walls I am referring to, so let me explain.

Life can be very challenging. We marry, build a family and try to raise our children as best as we can so that they can grow up as mentchen (good people) and good Jews. We hope that our children will befriend only good and like-minded moral individuals. We pray that when they go off to college they will do well and be focused on the right things. We look to heaven and ask that G-d lead them in the right direction and find them good matches. People always ask me how to raise good children? What is the secret to successful parenting? There is more than one answer to this question obviously, but drawing upon the lessons of the upcoming fast day and what it represents, let me advise the following: Build Walls! Build walls of morality around yourself, your children and your homes and never let those walls to be breached. Sit down with your spouses and decide how you want your children to grow up? What moral values you want to instill in them? What values are absolutes and which are not. This is extremely important.

I was invited last year to give a talk to a group of Chassidic women in Wisconsin on how to raise Chassidic children. I opened my talk with a question to one of the women in the audience. I asked her how she and her husband wanted their children to grow up? What kind of children they wanted? She looked at me and said; what do you mean? We want our children to grow up to be real Chassidic Jews, to follow in its ways and to cherish being Chassidim. This answer was too general I explained. Of course we want our children to be ‘good’, but “the devil is in the details”. I asked her if she was able to tell me more specifically what she meant by Chassidic children? How Chassidic? What was a must and what was secondary? I gave her the same advise; that she should spend a half hour with her husband to figure out more or less what their outlook was and how they plan on getting that result.

We all want good results. But just like in a business venture, it is inadequate to just set out a goal to earn a profit. One must be more specific; how much of a profit is realistic and what would be considered success. The same is with the most important business venture ever; raising children. It is simply not enough to desire ‘good children’. Define for yourself the meaning of ‘good’ and figure out how you plan on achieving that goal. For some ‘good’ means becoming a doctor, for others ‘good’ means being honest, for others it means being kind, for some it means marrying Jewish and still for others ‘good’ means observing all of the Torah’s commandments. I am sure for most of us it is a combination of some or all of the above. In each case we need to define it and set practical ways of achieving that outcome. If you want your children to be honest you need to be doubly honest yourself. You need to erect a ‘wall’ of values that breed honesty and those walls may never be breached. Too often people allow their ‘walls' to be breached and then just move the goal post when it becomes convenient to do so.

This then is the lesson of the fast day commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem. We need walls. We need to build walls of moral values around our families and protect those walls so that they are never breached. We live at a time when walls keep coming down. Morality has become relative. There are so few values that are absolutes. If we allow our ‘walls’ of morality to be 'breached' we run the high risk of our very ‘temple’ (our children) to be completely destroyed. So yes, build that wall, make it thick and tall, and do it quickly.

Shabbat Shalom and have an easy fast.

 

 

A Crisis at The Border?

I’ve been following the latest political storm regarding the children at the US-Mexican border and the controversy surrounding the separation of these children from their detained or arrested parents. Politics aside, this whole saga got me thinking about my own children and my relationship with them.

I think we can all agree that the forced physical separation of children from their parents is traumatic and can be devastating to the child and his/her development. It is a tragedy every time it happens and I have seen it more than once. I served as a US chaplain in the Federal Detention Center in down town Miami for a few years and every week I saw the devastation of new arrestees who were brought into prison and were separated from their children. (this detention center was where people who were just arrested were brought for detention until their trial etc.). The arrests were fresh, the separation from their children was fresh and every week I would observe young children coming to visit their incarcerated parents (and yes, sometimes it was both, mother and father who were in prison). It is heart wrenching to observe babies, toddlers, young children and adolescents have to visit their parents once a week and talk to them through a glass window. If they were lucky, they would then go home to be with grandparents or other family members or if they were not so lucky, they would be taken back to a foster home and the like. It was a weekly tragedy that I observed and which I will never forget.

But I ask myself, is only physical separation devastating? How about emotional separation or psychological separation? Let’s be honest, there are millions of children who live with and are physically ‘united’ with their parents in nice houses and all, but whose parents are all but ‘separated’ from them on so many other levels. Children today yearn to talk to their parents. They yearn to just spend time with their mothers and fathers. They yearn and long to just play a game with their parents and be a family as it used to be. Many parents are so busy and just simply have no time to talk to their children on a daily basis. I had parents tell me that they would love to talk to their children but their conversations last for two minutes because they run out of what to talk about. Their interests are just not the same. How tragic? For all intents and purposes, there children are ‘separated’ from their parents. Think of your own patterns and ask yourself, is my child separated from me or am I really there for them. I know we tell our children that they can count on us anytime and everywhere, but trust me they just want you to talk to them on a regular Tuesday. They desperately want and need you not only when they “need” you. They want to be connected to you. Stop giving in to their every silly desire whenever they throw a tantrum. They don’t want to be bought off with stuff, they want YOU. Often the reason they throw a tantrum is because they feel alienated, they feel distant and are seeking meaningful relationships with their parents whom they love more than anything else and whom they need more than anything else.

We Jews were given the unbelievable gift called Shabbos. One day a week we close our phones, computers, televisions, tablets and any and all electronic devices and connect to family and friends for real. We spend time together in prayer or at the Shabbos dinner table where parents and children connect spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and of course physically as well. Remember? No face time, no phone connections or face book and the rest. If you want me on Shabbos you have to be right near me physically. It is said that the connectedness of family on Shabbos is what kept the Jewish people going for thousands of years. I would suggest to each of you to try this idea in small measures. If you are unable to observe the entire Shabbos then start with something. This Friday night/Shabbos you and your children should try it for one hour. Turn off your phones, TV’s etc. for sixty minutes and eat a meal together, talk together, hug each other, play a game of monopoly together. You get my point. CONNECT to your children and help them connect to you. Once you get used to one hour you can go to two and then three and so forth.              

It would be so nice if as a result of the latest crisis parents would take a real look at their own homes and families and see if they have ‘forcibly separated’ their children from themselves. Forcibly separating children from parents is devastating not only at the border, it is equally devastating when it is done in our own homes as well. Let’s reunite parents and children immediately.

One Man’s visit to Hebron

The story of this week’s portion, Shlach, is one of the most famous of biblical stories. It tells of a group of twelve men who were sent by Moses and the Jewish people to scout the land of Israel in preparation of their eventual conquest which was to take place weeks later. After spending 40 days in Israel scouring its length and breadth, they return to the Jewish People in the desert and ten of them give a very negative assessment of the land and the prospects of taking possession of it. They turn the people against G-d and Moses and convince the people that going to Israel and conquering it would prove impossible under the circumstances. The other two, Joshua and Calev, remain loyal to their mission and try their hardest to restore faith and morale into their Jewish brethren. The result was that the entire Jewish people were punished and wandered in the desert for forty years until that entire generation would die. Only the next generation of Jews would enter and take possession of the land of Israel. No doubt, this episode is one of the greatest failings of the Jewish people of all time.

There is much written about this event in biblical commentary. I would like to zero in on one detail of the story that is perhaps unnoticed. Moses had sent twelve men on this mission. Ten of them turn against him, while the other two remain loyal. As mentioned, these two loyalists were Joshua and Calev. The question is, what caused them to remain loyal to their mission, to G-d and to Moses and not fall prey to peer pressure and all the rest? Joshua, Moses greatest and beloved student, received a special blessing from Moses before he left. That blessing saved him. But what about Calev?

The answer can be found in an obscure word the Bible uses in relating the story. The text tells us that the twelve men left the Sinai desert and went to scout the land. The text then continues: “They went up to the Negev and he came to Hebron……”. It changes from ‘they’ went up to the Negev, to ‘he’ came to Hebron. The Talmud tells us that while they all went up to the Negev (and the rest of Israel to scout it) only one of them (he) came to Hebron. This was Calev. As soon as he arrives in Israel he leaves the group to visit Hebron where the forefathers were buried to visit their resting place, the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  The Talmud tells us further that Calev petitioned Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to pray on his behalf that he should succeed in the mission and remain loyal to Moses and G-d. He asked for their blessing and asked them to pray on his behalf. It was this visit to the grave site of the righteous forefathers that saved him. Calev understood that the Tzaddik’s resting place was the conduit to heaven and as such made sure to go there first.

This little detail, perhaps lost on many, is crucial in understanding the story of the spies and our own little personal stories. Like the spies, we are all on a mission from G-d to make the world a home for G-d. Our souls are sent here by G-d to conquer this world for G-d and make it a holy place. We all know that life here on earth is not easy. There are so many distractions and influences that can make us think that we cannot ‘conquer the land”. We sometimes become demoralized and give up. Can a minority of fifteen million Jews change this world and “conquer it” for G-d? Can we as individuals navigate the rat race of life and stay true to ourselves? For this, we need to look to Calev and what he did. He went to the grave of the Tzaddim (The righteous) and connected to them. That connection saved him.

Next Shabbos, June 16 (Tamuz 3), marks the 24th anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory. The Rebbe was the Tzaddik of our times and I will be visiting the Ohel (his resting place) as I do every year to connect, learn, pray and ask for his blessing that I continue to succeed and remain loyal to my own personal mission in life. It would be a very good idea for every one reading this to also write a letter to the Rebbe for his blessing for all that you need, for health, Nachas, good livelihood and for spiritual success as well. This connection is vital for all of us as it was vital for Calev 3300 years ago. You can send me your letter and I will bring it to the Ohel or you can email it to ohel@ohelchabad.org and it will be placed in the Rebbe’s Ohel on your behalf. Don't miss this opportunity.

 

 Shabbat Shalom.   

In Memory of Mr. Stanley Cohen OBM

We humans have very short memories. Or better yet, selective memories. We remember what we want to  and conveniently forget other things. For example, we forget what our parents have done for us yesterday if they did not do the same for us today. Yesterday’s gifts are old news. Or as the saying goes “what have you done for me today”. This weakness is as old as mankind. Being ungrateful and not appreciating the blessings we have is something humans have grappled with for thousands of years.

Adam was ungrateful for the wife G-d had given him and instead focused on the problems she brought to his life. The Jews in the desert never ran out of things to complain about instead of appreciating daily miracles that G-d had performed for them. And, I wonder how many of us really count all the blessings we have rather than seeing the glass half empty.

In the book of numbers, the one we are reading these weeks, we learn about the Jews in the desert who complained about practically everything. Their food was not good enough, their drink was not exactly to their liking, they even complained about the miraculous Manna that fell from heaven every morning. Its appearance was not what they expected. Or the fact that they were now a free people who were on a mission from G-d to change the world was also something to complain about. They suddenly longed to go back to Egypt. In their words “we remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free” I guess the Egyptian chefs knew how to prepare a good trout or some really good grilled sea bass. I don’t know about the “for free” part. This is what the Jews complained about. Go figure. I don’t remember learning that the manna had to be bought in stores for a price, It was right there at their door post or just outside the camp, all they had to do was go pick it up every morning. And mind you, it had a miraculous nature about it, it had the taste of anything one wished. So for example if someone wanted their Manna to taste like steak, French fries or sushi, all they had to do was think of that food and there it was, the manna suddenly took on the taste of that desired food. But that was not good enough because It did not look like steak, French fries or sushi.

The truth is, nothing has changed. We in America have everything or close to it. We live such comfortable lives and yet study after study shows that Americans are increasingly unhappier than the generations of the past. We have the best schools, the best medical treatment, the best cars, most comfortable homes, entertainment 24 hours a day on TV, Movies and so on, and yet, everyone is complaining. It’s never good enough. What has G-d done for me today we ask… and if you remind the person that just that morning he/she drove to work in a nice car after eating a good breakfast, they tell you… but that was 4 hours ago.

We are often just simply ungrateful. We forget that relatively speaking, we should be in the synagogue 10 times a day (not three) thanking G-d for the incredible flow of goodness and wealth that comes our way. We're healthy, our children are healthy; we have more than our parents and grandparents ever had by far. But we look for this moment's excitement…. for something new. Yesterday’s blessings are alte zachen (old merchandise).

This then is the call of the hour. Thank G-d for everything you have. If you need help remembering it all then here is a simple piece of advice. Sit down with a pen and paper , contrast your life with that of your parents. I am sure that after three lines you will be looking for a prayer book to offer thanks to G-d. People usually say that we should see the cup as half full rather than half empty. I say, there is no need for that in our case; our cups are for the most part completely full all the time.  We just refuse to see it. We are like the Jews in the desert. We have almost everything or close to it, but we look to Egypt's fish and see that one thing we do not have.

I want to call your attention to a very special person whose Yahrtzeit we observed this week. My dear friend , Mr. Stanley Cohen, of blessed memory. Stanley was special in more than one way. I think it’s fair to say that he was the exact opposite of a complainer. He had much to be thankful for but he also had much to complain about. Those who remember him know how he suffered the last few years of his life. I visited with him almost every day to pray with him when he was no longer able to don Tefillin on his own. I will always cherish those moments. I never once heard him complain… Never. He always said that Hashem is good to him. He always remembered all the blessings that he and his family enjoyed,his illness was not going to make him forget that. This is one of the very important lessons I learned from Stanley. Be grateful. Remember what Hashem gave you and continues to give you. This is a lost art. As his Yahrtzeit always falls around the Torah portions when we read about the complainers, we have a perfect contrast in Stanley Cohen: a man who never complained. A man who knew where he came from. A man whom saw what he was given and never lost sight of that. A man whom loved Hashem and expressed that love in verbal gratitude every single day of his life.

May his memory be a blessing to all of us.
Shabbat Shalom

 

Mazol Tov Mollie

Life’s routines are fairly predictable. Children grow up from being infants to become toddlers, they move on to preschool, elementary school, middle and high school, then their off to college. Mothers and fathers breathe a sigh of relief when they finally send off their nudniks to higher education and are able to finally rest alone in their empty nesters’ home. I have heard this routine from so many and for the life of me, I can never figure out what is the great pleasure of having an empty house. My house is very quiet this year. We have only 4 children at home and I don’t like it very much. For Pesach we had all of our 22 immediate family members (children and grandchildren) at home and there was life. It was busy. We couldn’t get enough of it. I cannot wait for Sukkos to come around when they will all be back G-d willing. But so many love it when their children go off to college and their finally able to be alone, I guess different strokes for different folks. Then they graduate and either continue on to getting a master’s degree or others hopefully find jobs. This is a very familiar routine. Parents who are really lucky see their children under the Chuppah before their 30. Then come the grandchildren and so on.

This week one of our dear congregants graduated from college and received her degree, but it was most certainly not your average routine graduating student. Seeing this student in her cap and gown receiving her diploma was deeply inspiring and brought a lot of tears and emotion to her family, friends and loved ones. I can only imagine the Nachas, pleasure and overflowing joy that were the lot of her parents as she pushed her self-down the aisle to receive her degree.

I want to congratulate Mollie Zieper and her parents David and Polly on this momentous occasion. Mollie did not only push herself down the aisle this week, I watched her as she pushed herself through life and its many challenges over the years and she did it with grace, perseverance and fortitude. She never got lazy, never got complacent, never took no for an answer and never expected anything without working hard for it. I watched her grow up, go through high school, move across the state to attend college, take care of herself and reach milestone after milestone, as if this was natural and no big deal. She was active in all Jewish events on campus attending Chabad, Hillel and promoting Judaism and Israel advocacy with passion and determination. I have no doubt that we will see great things from Mollie in the future and one day we will walk her to her chuppah G-d willing as she starts her own family.

In the beginning of Bechukosai, this week’s Torah portion, G-d promises that if we toil in Torah we will be rewarded. It does not say if we ‘learn’ Torah rather if we ‘toil’ in Torah study. G-d asks us to ‘toil’, to work hard and then we are rewarded. Mollie worked hard and was rewarded this week. We should all learn from her. Don’t take life, health and everything we have for granted. It is all on loan from G-d to utilize for good, moral and G-dly ends. He never signed a contract to make life easy for us. If we are lucky enough and our lives are fairly good and easy, thank Him every day for that. If once in a while life takes unexpected turns and you are confronted with challenges, remember the saying: “when the going gets tough the tough get going” or just remember Mollie in her cap and gown earning what she worked so hard for during all these years when the going was quite tough.

Shabbat Shalom

In Memory of My Friend Daniel Wultz OBM

Twelve years ago today, my dear friend, student and congregant, Daniel Wultz Passed away in Tel Aviv 27 days after a suicide bomber blew himself up and took him and 10 other innocent Jews from our midst. Those of you who were in Weston at the time will remember that a special Torah was written and dedicated in honor of his first Yahrtzeit. Daniel, although only 16 years old, stood out in his unique care for others and made such an indelible impression on all who knew him. It is for this reason that every year as this day arrives, I together with his family and friends, a total of about 50-60 people, make a pilgrimage to his resting place to pray, reflect and say Kaddish for his holy soul.

As I was standing there today, and had a chance to think of him, his life and his death, I naturally thought about the tragedy of global terrorism and the struggle that Israel and the world has to deal with on a daily basis. Thousands of innocent Jews like Daniel lost their lives to senseless hatred and because of people, and a society, that places a greater value to death over life.  I think it was Prime Minister Golda Meir who said that there will be peace with Israel’s Arab Neighbors when they start loving their children more then they hate ours. I am still waiting. On a day like this I’d rather focus on Daniel’s life rather than on those who ended it. And with Lag B’omer just 2 days away, I want to especially focus on all that Daniel meant to his family, friends and all who knew him.

On Lag B’omer we celebrate the day when the plague that struck the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva ended. The sages tell us that the reason that they all perished in this plague was because they did not treat each other with respect. This does not mean that they did not love each other, G-d forbid. The problem was that they lacked respect for each other. Love and respect are not synonymous. You might love your spouse but might not respect his/her space. You might love your student yet show a lack of respect for their opinion and so on. Lag B’omer represents the end of that calamity, a day that respect was once again restored amongst the remaining of his students.

If there is one lesson Daniel taught us; it is how to respect one another. He stood out in his care for every person without distinction. Daniel believed that every person, being a creation of Hashem, has an inherent value and therefore deserves respect. He protected the less talented and helped those that were on the lower rung of society’s self-made social ladder. To him every one was equal. He understood the teaching of Rabbi Akiva that “to love your fellow is the cardinal rule of the Torah”. Daniel knew that when the Torah says “your fellow” it means each person. He lived this ideal and in so doing earned his place amongst those students of Rabbi Akiva who really “got it”.

This world would be a better place if Daniel was with us, but Hashem decided that He wants him with Him up in heaven, in that case then, we need to become the “Daniels” of the world. We need to step up and become students of Rabbi Akiva. We need to promote love and respect for others. It is very easy to speak about it or even to believe in it’s importance, but in order to live that ideal we must put our egos aside. So, on Daniel’s Yahrtzeit and in honor of Rabbi Akiva and his cardinal teaching about love and respect, think of someone, maybe an in-law, a friend, and old acquaintance; you know who I mean, and give him a call, reach out to him or her, extend that person some senseless love and repair a world where people like Daniel lose their life because of senseless hate.

May his memory be a blessing for all of us.

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