Tranquility Doesn’t Mean A Strawberry Daiquiri On A Hammock in the Bahamas

We are living in a time when raising a family is, sadly more difficult than ever before. True, we don’t have the financial hardship of our parents generation, or the need to run for our lives as our grandparents generations but we have our unique set of challenges that can only be ascribed to the birth pangs of Moshiach.

I am talking about challenges of raising a healthy well balance family, where the the values are ones of Torah observance, while combatting the growing epidemic of mental health challenges, large and small, (anxiety, depression, bipolar and even more serious) and now the introduction of mind altering substances from alcohol to “lower level” drugs and more serious substances. 

The question is why? How much can we handle? Why is God doing this to us? Most of us have been through the ringer – as Dennis Prager says, the only people I know who are truly happy, are people I don’t know very well – most of us feel like we can’t handle what we have on our plates already, not to mention what God seems to be piling on beyond our capabilities, it often feels like it is just all too much.

Add to that, that we’ve been taught that we are the generation about whom Moses himself was humbled about, that we would be the ones that usher in the Moshiach, since we have certain challenges that seem to be “first world challenges” or having the luxury to worry about what might seem like trivial things, yet it was enough that even Moses was in awe of our generation. What do have that is so special when things are often so terrible?

Surprisingly, we, in our times are not the first to ask this question. Our great patriarch, Jacob asked this question in his time. It went something like this.

(FOOTNOTE – I am taking some liberties in how I paraphrase the Rebbe’s words – this is based on Lekkutei Sichos – volume 30, parshas Vayeishev)

Jacob didn’t have an easy life right out the gate. Twin brother to a rough and tumble womb-mate who was always manipulating and abusing him (complex trauma) and an uncle who tricked him many times both in wages and causing him marry the wrong spouse on and on (abused by those in a portions of power), war with his brother (family dischord), his only daughter was kidnapped and raped (extreme guilt) suffice it to say he was exausted. 

The Torah tells, that Yaakov wanted to rest, he was over 100 years old at this point and he just wanted to live in tranquility. The Midrash tell us, that “he wanted to live in tranquility, so the crisis of Joseph is brother leapt onto him” and he was forced live nearly the rest of his life (minus the last 17 years) mourning and grieving the loss of his favorite child.

The question that you must ask is REALLY??? What was his great crime that he deserved to not be able to have tranquility? They way the Midrash phrases it, it is appears, that Jacob’s crime is that he wanted to have rest, and therefore God tells, him “sorry buddy, not happening. No rest for you. You want to rest, I’ll show you rest, boom, here, your sons will sell off one of their siblings and you will think he is dead, there is your rest for you!”

What was his crime? He wasn’t looking to run from Judaism and drink cocktails in the Bahamas, all he wanted was to be able pray and learn in tranquility without the challenging distractions of life?

Many commentary discuss this, but the Rebbe has a most novel interpretation. 

The Rebbe explains, that you need to read the Midrash in a more nuanced way. “Jacob wanted to dwell in tranquility, so God showed him the truest definition of tranquility. That is the crisis of Joseph.” Meaning, true tranquility is not when nothing is bothering you, true tranquility is when you have managed to perfect your own character, rise to the highest levels of what you are capable of accomplishing, reaching your personal max, that is tranquility. 

In the language of Chassidic thought, it is when you can take the world-to-come reality, where truth and Divinity is visible in everything that goes on, and there is no mystery or pain in what we endure because we know the deepest truth in it, and how it is not only good for us, but it is good in a visible way to us, an bring that reality to this world reality. 

The fact is that we don’t operate at that level and we are not Jacob, but if he wanted relatively earthly tranquility it isn’t heresy for us to want the same. The fact that he had to learn the painful way, that true tranquility isn’t restful, but working to reach your personal potential, is just as true for us.

***

Now, I know you are thinking to yourself that, well, that isn’t very comforting to me and my problems today. I want to relax and let someone else reach their potential, I want live in my comfortable little shallow bubble and not have to deal with the challenges that I am dealing with? Don’t I get to choose?

Sadly, and happily, the answer is no! You don’t get to choose. The Rebbe expands in his talk that even Jacob was not asking for that higher level of revelation and connection, yet he too was told that God has more in store for him that even he thought possible or desirable. 

That said, it might be akin to a child who might tell a parent, no thanks, I’d rather not be vaccinated against smallpox or measles, and I’d rather not be pricked by the needle. To which any responsible parent says, “sorry, you don’t get to make that choice, I am going to help you do what you don’t yet know is what is best for you.”

***

We can take one final step deeper. In fact, if we can alter our perspective and view this as not simply something that God wants us to figure out how to endure, but rather that we hand chosen by God, cherry picked for this mission that ONLY WE can accomplish. No one else on earth can deal with the specific struggles that we are grappling with. Be it raising challenging children, financial strains, emotional or mental health struggles and the list goes on. 

God in His parental and infinite wisdom see’s that we, me and you, are special and unique and ONLY WE can rise to the occasion being presented before us, and if we can step up instead of collapsing, not only have we reached our personal max, but then we have actually connected with God on the deepest level. We made His dream come true. We have brought a little piece of Moshiach and the world-to-come, down here on this earth.

He hand picked us, and we got it done.

***

When we can see this, then we truly can live with tranquility. This is what God was teaching to Jacob and to us. When you can realize that this task, while beyond belief and other-worldly in how difficult it is, if we can let go and let God, and realize that this challenge, the most difficult thing on earth is actually the entire purpose of our existence we can end up with two positive results.

A) We can find meaning and strength in our struggle 

B) We can finally attain not only spiritual and conceptual tranquility but we can attain physical and earthly tranquility in the here and now.

As we see, Jacob did in the end find peace here on earth. He told Paarogh, my life has been long and difficult until now, but later he concedes that the last 17 years of his life, in the ugliest and morally bankrupt places on the planet were 17 = Tov = Good.

This is what tranquility looks like. It is the most un-tranquil thing ever, but it is our calling it is what brings us peace.

Excavating the Rubble of the Champlain Towers

Excavating the Rubble of the Champlain Towers

The world, and certainly the Jewish world is reeling due to the story of the Champlain tower collapse in Surfside. I have not shared any public thoughts until now since the words “vayidom Aharon” and “Aaron was silent” after the devastating news of his sons’ premature demise are often the only reaction one can have.

(In Hebrew you can say sheket which means silent, and vayidom – from the root domem – means absolute silence like that of a rock which is domem – inanimate – meaning sometimes you cannot say words, you can only love, hug and pray and not be Gd’s attorney to explain away the pain of tragic life events.)

Today I heard a class by Rabbi YY Jacobson, on the www.TheYeshiva.net – here is the specific class https://theyeshiva.net/jewish/8154 based on the personal journal entries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe from more than 70 years ago before he was the Rebbe (Reshimos, Pamphlet 15), ideas he shared at an informal farbrengan at the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Riga where he was visiting his father in law – Rebbe Rayat’s. I am going to try to summarize this class as succinctly as possible. 

It is eerie how prescient that talk was, and how it coincides with the “daf yomi” talmud cycle that will be studying these laws in the Tractate Yoma in just a few short days.

The Talmud relates a scenario where there is a “collapse” of a building which creates a pile of rubble, and it is shabbat when it is normally forbidden to touch or move rocks and rubble. May one move the rubble if there is potential life in the rubble?
The Talmud debates and concludes that you may move the rubble on Shabbat:

  • Regardless if you are sure or unsure if there is even anyone buried in the rubble.
  • Regardless if you are unsure if the person that “may” in the rubble is alive or dead.
  • Regardless if the person who “may” be in the rubble and is “possibly alive” is a Jew or a gentile.

Basically, if there is any chance that there is life there, you must focus on the possibility of life over the regulations of Shabbat. It so happens that the rescue workers in Miami are doing just that. (In fact I read that some Israeli rescue workers refused free hotel rooms, choosing to tent on the site so as not to lose a minute of rescue work, only taking the minimal amount of time needed to rest so they can continue their efforts.)

The Rebbe then relates that every law and idea in the Torah has a spiritual, psychological, emotional and practical application. What is the practical application of these ideas? They seem to be dated laws that may have no relevance to the average person. He delves in and explains as follows.

A building represents orderliness and purpose. A structure has a purpose, a place, things belong, they make sense. For building to exist there are strict rules and engineering guidelines that must be followed or Gd forbid the worst can happen. 

A collapsed building – which is a pile of rubble – represents the notion that things in the world are random and arbitrary. That there is not “owner to this edifice” called life and existence. That there isn’t a distinct purpose, reason or rhyme to every single element of life. 

“The world is a mirror of a person, and a person is a mirror of the world.”

Everything on this planet is intentional and by design and serves a purpose (whether we see/know it or not). “This is a fact for anyone honestly who seeks to know this truth” The sun that warms the seas that creates vapor into clouds, and winds that move those clouds so the rains ingested from the seas, pour back onto habitable land. If that sun was just a bit further away, the cooler temperatures would not allow this to be. If they were a bit closer, the heat would be unbearable. Every bit of it is timed to perfection and one slight variation would throw it all off kilter and the world would not be able to exist. This process has many more layers to it, but suffice it to say that there is nothing random or arbitrary about anything on earth. Science confirms what the Jewish faith system beleives.

However, there are those that view the world as random and arbitrary and there isn’t a master puppeteer running every single element of existence. “Those people take this edifice and turn it into a pile of rubble.” A collapsed heap of rubble. A building that has collapsed.

The Rebbe is saying that if you are seeking truth, you will find a building – a world – that is built with the utmost extreme intentionality. If you are intellectually lazy, you submit to yourself the distasteful falsehood that the world is a random and arbitrary pile of happenstance. A pile of rubble. 

This is our job, to sift through the rubble and find the life within it and bring it to it’s truthful awareness that everything is by Divine orchestration and nothing is per-chance. For our own internal rubble and the rubble of those around us. To bring this awareness to ourselves and others.

This is the deeper meaning of the questions the Talmud was asking.

The rubble of life represents what appears to be the chaos of existence and the anxiety and uncertainty that it brings along with it. How do we address this in ourselves and others? We must “sift through the rubble.” The word that the Talmud uses for sifting in this case is “mifakchin es Hagal.” This means more than sifting but like the word pokeach – it means to open the eyes of and enlighten those struggling with the rubble.

When must I do this? Always! Even on Shabbos…:

ONE: “Regardless if you are sure or unsure there is even anyone buried in the rubble.” 

There are people who you are unsure if the “rubble of life” even buries them. Are they impacted by it? This can be either because they transcend it by their spiritual aloofness, or by escaping it with unhealthy distractions such as phones, mind altering substances or simply by ignoring these soul crushing- anxiety-rubble-related- questions. Regardless if you are sure that someone is in the rubble, or you yourself are in the rubble,  you must engage in searching through it, even on Shabbos. 

It is too critical to our existence to ignore the potential mistaken understanding that this world operates in an arbitrary auto-pilot manner.

TWO: Regardless if you are sure if the person in the rubble is alive or dead. 

The verse states “and you who cling to the L-rd, are considered alive.” There are some of us who while physically alive are spiritually dead. We don’t live in accordance with our truest reality. We deny our own truth and attempt to live in perpetual denial. “They might be dead…”  Others are alive but they are struggling. They are overwhelmed by the anxiety and uncertainty of Gd, purpose and existence itself. “They may be alive…” They too need to be sifted for in the rubble.

THREE: Regardless if the person who may be in the rubble is possibly alive is a Jew or a gentile. 

There are those who while they are struggling are perhaps not living in accordance with the holy standards of the “Master of the building” they still are connected to the “source of living waters.” While they are not observing today they haven’t severed their connection and don’t view themselves as disconnected. “Even though they sin, they are (still) a Jew.”

Others are so frustrated and distraught by the struggle that they have severed the connection, they feel completely alienated and out of the family. They perceive themselves as “a gentile.”

Regardless, we have a mission that transcends the holiness of Shabbos to search through the rubble and fan the flames of love and connection even to those souls. To do everything within our power to “clear the rubble” that is attempting to smother their soul.

There are no answers. We cannot attempt to understand Gd’s ways. What we can do, as we have done time and time again as a people and as individuals, is rather than let a life and world that comes crashing down on us threatening to suffocate us, we can instead try to excavate the the lessons buried within and renew our commitment to the Almighty and humbly accept that He is not a deadbeat landlord, but that he is in fact still running this show intentionally. Even when every fiber of our being feels that it is all 100% wrong.

May Gd comfort all those that have perished in this tragedy and make miracles that are beyond our belief. Bring us the coming of Moshiach when our loved ones will be returned to us! AMEN!

PHOTO CREDITS – AP

The Man Who Sneezed (A Fictional Short)

The Man Who Sneezed 

My name is Zhang Wei, I am 41 years old and I live in Wuhan, China. I am writing this to share my difficult journey of the past year. Over the past many months, I have been accused of many crimes, I have been shamed, othered, mocked, cursed and more.

Let me give you a little background. I am an ordinary man from a small remote village in Central China. I got a basic education and got average grades throughout my years of schooling. Since there is little financial opportunity in my village and given my very average education even less opportunity, I decided to try my luck in Wuhan, where I hoped to find a job where I could make a basic living and support a small family. 

I tried many different things, however ultimately nothing really panned out so I went into hospitality management. That is a fancy way of saying that I do the laundry for the towels at one of the big hotels in town that hosts many international travelers. While I am not famous or well known, I do take a lot of pride in my work and my ability to support my family. 

Jobs are hard to come by here and my income is a little more than the national average, roughly $10,000 USD a year. I live in a small house not far from the wet market in Wuhan, where my wife of 15 years raises our two children and keeps house.

I have been doing this for over a decade and while my life is not particularly special, I am a happy person and I like my life. I never aspired to have major wealth or accomplish anything super noteworthy. I am happy with my lot in life. A wife, two children and a salary that pays my bills. We don’t live extravagant lives, and I save money here and there where and when I can. 

And this where the trouble started. I heard there was a sale on some lower end meats at the wet market and I decided to treat our normally vegetarian family to some inexpensive meat as a special treat. I purchased a package of combined meats, basically the scraps of larger cuts of meat all mixed together and I figured my wife would be able to make stew or something that would be a tasty delicacy for our family.

My wife worked her magic and we had a wonderful dinner that night. My stomach started to gurgle a few hours later but I chalked it up to my body not being used to meat and tried to ignore that. 

The next day I wasn’t feeling well but I couldn’t afford to take off too many days off of work so I went to work and hoped that this was just a cold and that it would go away. It didn’t. In fact it got worse and now I was coughing, having a hard time breathing and I felt like I had a bad case of the flu. 

I went to the local clinic for a check up and they told me that in fact it was probably the flu and they told me to rest up and drink lots of fluids. I did what I was told and even though my breathing was quite difficult and I didn’t think that was associated with the flu, and my fever spiked quite high, after a couple of weeks.

In that time I tried to go to work as often as I had the strength, but my boss who saw me sneezing and coughing all over the towels as I was folding them, was concerned that some foreigner staying at the hotel would complain so he told me to go home until I felt better. I did finally feel better and thankfully my job was still waiting for me when I returned.

What I didn’t know was that that in that package of meat that I ate a few weeks prior, was some virus that the meat vendor wasn’t aware of and that I became patient zero for what was quickly becoming a national pandemic. It seemed as if everyone in my city was now sick. The authorities were closing down the stores and ordering everyone to stay at home in an effort to stop the spread of this strange virus. Apparently, this virus was now considered “airborne” meaning that it could be transmitted simply by someone breathing, sneezing or coughing in the vicinity. 

In fact, over the course of the next few months it seems that my virus now spread to the whole world. Flights stopped going in or out of the country, stores were closed, businesses stopped, it was as if the whole world just grinded to a halt!

It was truly a strange time, and while I felt terrible about my part in all of this, it really hurt my feelings to have people talking about me as if I was some crazy or strange person. Why was everyone blaming me for just living my life and trying to work and feed my family? I found it almost laughable that they could somehow think that this whole catastrophe was my fault?

I am, as I said earlier, just a simple person trying to live a normal life. I am a nobody. I am not very powerful at all. I could count all the people that I know on my hands and feet. If you met me, I wouldn’t make much of an impression on you. I look average, I am just an average Zhang.

As the lockdowns continued and the world seemed to spin off its axis, I started to secretly feel a bit differently. I had always thought that my whole life would pass and no one would take any notice of me. Suddenly, I was the most talked about person in the world. True, it wasn’t in a positive light, but for the first time in my life I realized that I mattered. I didn’t intend on becoming infamous, in fact I don’t think I actually even did anything wrong at all. 

What did become clear to me was that all this talk about our world being interconnected was really true. If an unknown and unnamed man – me – in China could shut down the whole world, clearly our lives and existences are more intertwined than we ever knew.

I only wish that my virus was somehow a good virus. Imagine it was a virus that somehow cured cancer? There would be no one left on the planet that would have to feel the pain and suffering and loss of that horrible disease! If only I was able to work in some kind of lab where they could have infected me with something positive that would spread like this pandemic did except instead of spreading disease, illness, death, sadness, pain and suffering it would spread health, recovery, life, happiness, joy and celebration.

Alas, fantasy’s are only real in the movies. Or so I thought.

It struck me, if I could have unintentionally caused so much havoc around the world, imagine how much goodness I could cause if I was actively and purposefully intending to impact the world. 

Sure, I don’t have the medium of an airborne virus, but I do have other mediums that could go viral (pun intended). I could use my social media platforms to spread goodness and kindness. I could actually do something that matters and can, in fact, impact the whole world. I simply need to be creative in making it happen.

I heard of something called the butterfly effect. I am googling it and found that while it is debated if it is actually true and can impact the weather, the concept is most certainly true. Whether it is carbon emissions affecting the ozone layer and global warming or random acts of kindness and the concept of paying it forward does travel forward.

I think my takeaway from all those who are hating on me and Wuhan shaming and bat shaming me is that while I didn’t have bad intentions, in fact I didn’t have any intentions and yet so much still happened, then if I do have intentions and do try to impact the whole world I know that I can. You would be better off of learning from my unfortunate experience than hating on me for it.

The End.

Epilogue

Zhang Wei ultimately lost his job due to the downturn in the local economy. Foreigners were not visiting and the hospitality industry was crushed and along with it Zhang’s job.

Zhang decided to go back to school and use his newfound knowledge and existential realization that he really can impact the world. More importantly his realization that while he thought that he was a nobody that didn’t matter and in fact he was a somebody that really did matter, he was committed to really making a difference.

He graduated from state university with high honors and became a scientist in the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention based in Beijing. There he worked for 7 years on a vaccine for cancer and in fact he was successful. His work was speedily approved by all international governmental agencies that monitor vaccine development and became a standard vaccine given to children inoculating them from cancer for the rest of their lives. 

He received the nobel prize for his cure for cancer and in his acceptance speech he pointed to the Great Pandemic of 2020 as the catalyst for this great development.

He lived till 109, surrounded by generation of family including tens of grandchildren, even more great grandchildren and even a newborn great-great grandchild.

How We Will MAKE 2021 Better

So many of us are getting ready to kiss – while masked of course – 2020 goodbye and welcome in 2021 that is sure to bring new hope and optimism and goodness that was so sorely lacking in 2020.

2020 brought pain and devastation to so many. So many untimely deaths, job losses, destruction to our economy impacting everyone on some level. Somehow, though, we are of this mindset that when the clock strikes midnight on New years eve, somehow that will just all turn around and the dawn of January 1st will usher in a new era of healing happiness and health!

Why? Should the movement on a clock suddenly change everything? The pandemic should still theoretically need to run its course (of course vaccinations are on their way, but that was true in December already), the gears of a crushed economy need to grind back into action, jobs and incomes need to be repaired and repatriated. Those broken by loss and illness sill need to contend with that pain and heal. 

So why will 2021 be the savior that will make everything better? It is an inanimate movement of time, not a spiritual or physical stimulus that should be able to independently change anything?

***

There is a concept that I’ve taught tens of Bar mitzvah boys over the years as I’ve prepared them for the Rosh Chodesh Torah Readings. In ancient times, the new Jewish month would only begin when two witnesses testified that they saw the birth of a new moon. If the two witnesses were found to be correct, then Rosh Chodesh – the new month – began.

 Why would G-d command such a strange system to establish the new month? Why couldn’t he just say, “look at the calendar?” In fact, later Hillel the great sage did in fact compile a calendar and we do use a calendar to determine the next month. However, that calendar was only instituted since the original witness system was in jeopardy of being able to continue. The original system was a biblical mandated system so there must be a really good reason for this strange way of knowing when the new month began?

He did this in order to teach us a lesson.

First of all, it is to teach us that things in life don’t JUST HAPPEN. Just like the new Jewish month doesn’t just happen, because the clock struck midnight of the 1st day of the month, but rather people had to witness and testify to the new month’s arrival, so too in our lives. 

The sun and the moon exist because G-d made them exist. My house, clothes and food happen because my parents bought them, prepared them, and gave them to me. My dirty socks and clothing that I threw in the corner of my bedroom, didn’t just launder itself and fold itself and put itself back in my drawers. There is a loving mother or father behind it, even if not seen that made that miracle happen. 

This lesson is taught by the Rosh Chodesh System.

When one is younger they might think things just happened on their own. As they get older, they might think that any goodness that happens is their own brilliance and has nothing to do with Divine blessing. The Rosh Chodesh system teaches us that even a new month, which we’d think would just happen on its own without any input from me, simply with the passage of time still cannot begin as a new month unless witnesses take the time to testify that they’ve seen and thus all will acknowledge that it happened.

Things don’t just happen. We need to make them happen. On a most practical level that means doing what we can in our power to be involved in making our destiny a better one. If it means creating a vaccine or perhaps securing a vaccine for myself and family or simply practicing safe behaviors and masks to keep myself and others safe.

On a more spiritual level it means recognizing that the sun doesn’t just rise in the west and set in the east and take that for granted. I need to recognize that each time this happens it is an active miracle that Gd chose to do for me personally again today. 

We have a tendency to take ongoing miracles for granted and assume that they are now the new normal AKA nature. However, even nature, in Hebrew “Hateva” has the same numeric value as the Divine name for Gd, “Elokim.” Which is a name of Gd that hints at concealed/restricted revelation, but no less Gdly than an open miracle. 

In fact, we say it in our daily prayer המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית   “who creates in His goodness, daily the acts of creation” i.e. that each day He re-creates from scratch what we just assume will be created again.

So too, in my opinion, can be said for this move to 2021. Sure the vaccine rollout is in process, and stimulus package/s are on their way. However, they will not on their own make 2021 better.

To make 2021 better we have to actually do something to make that happen. Like the affixing of a new month doesn’t just happen, witnesses must seek out the birth a new moon, and have their sighting affirmed by the Bet Din, so too, the simple moving passage of time, moving of the dial of the clock beyond midnight of December 31st, and the dropping of the ball will not make it a better year.

We need to work on the three A’s.

Attitude, action and acknowledgement.

Having the right attitude towards what has happened in the year gone by and realize that the Puppeteer in Chief was moving the marionettes and nothing that happens is random.

Taking action by working towards a better year and improving our connection to the one above, through increased prayer, Torah Study and Mitzva observance.

Acknowledging that we are but pawns in the Divine master plan and notwithstanding the hardship and suffering of 2020, recognizing that there were many blessings and silver linings amongst the challenges.

Then in fact 2021 will usher in a year of health healing and happiness.

Gives a whole new meaning to ringing in the New Year!

2021 won’t be better, we will make 2021 better.

If These Candles Could Speak

If These Candles Could Speak oh what a story they would tell.

They would tell of a time gone by when light was impossible to come by. Not only because the oil wasn’t available due to the attack of the Greek Hellenists on our holy Temple, but because the ethereal concept of light was under attack. The secularist society of the time had no space for optimistic and therefore religious expression.

They’d tell how against all odds a small band of disrupters would simply not accept the status quo. They’d fight back against the war-on-light and they pursue all avenues to procure the critical cruise of possibility. 

If these candles could speak they’d relate how this battle replays itself again and again throughout history. 

They’d tell of a time during the crusades, pogroms, and the Holocaust where the “Greeks” of that era continued to propose darkness as a solution in place of light. Death and destruction were the energy dejour or so they hoped. Yet, lamplighter after lamplighter refused to accept this verdict. It was – among others – Victor Frankl in Auschwitz or Rabbi Y.M. Lau the youngest survivor of Buchenwald and the countless other Rebbes and ordinary people who would not allow their spirit to be snuffed out. They were the Chanukah heroes in their day. 

If these candles could speak they’d talk about a generation of incredible material abundance where the Greek’s dejour wasn’t a nation or a tribe rather a society they told us that hedonism (modern day Hellenism) is the “light” to be worshiped. It told us that we should worship Teslas and our body shapes, our social status “uber alles.” How many friends on any social platforms do we have and how many likes do we get, telling us that this is light and disconnecting and being at peace internally is not woke and is a darkness. It attempted to tell us that vanity is real and authenticity is false. 

Yet the miracle of Chanukah was that we refused to accept society’s norms and real and allowed the Torah’s timeless wisdom to be our oil and guiding light.  

If these candles could speak they’d share how in 2020 during an unprecedented pandemic where all seemed dark, people’s absolute best came out. Like the pure oil made only from the very first drop of the squeezed olive our unprecedented best was exposed. Kindness that we didn’t even know we beheld arose to the surface. 

We shopped for others, we fed one another, we clothed and paid bills for those who were hurting. Each of us in our own way, led our “small armies” into battle and victory over a world illness that threatened to overwhelm us and snuff out our selflessness. 

When push comes to shove, these candles are telling us that history simply repeats itself again and again. It changes shapes and flavors and manifests itself uniquely for the attempted darkness of that time. In the end, if there is a will, then the small army, the underdog can always, and will always prevail over the many – the darkness that threatens to redirect us from our truest mission of light, love and healing.

These candles do speak, for eight nights and days they have the megaphone and they sing this message of hope at their top of their waxy lungs.

Are we open to hearing their song?

The Sweetest Donation

Tis’ the season to be generous. If your inbox looks anything like mine it has been flooded with donation requests. #GivingTuesday requests alone exceeded 100 of emails. I don’t complain since I am one of the senders of those emails.

Face it, organizations all need to survive and non-profits are not different. We all recognise that December is giving month, for whatever reason society has made that a “thing” be it year end tax deductions or just a culture phenomenon and try to leverage that sentiment.

So, when we launched our 30 hour “match campaign” this past Wednesday, we joined hundreds of thousands or organizations that endeavor to tell the world why our cause is important and worthy of support. I am happy to report that our efforts were rewarded and we successfully concluded our campaign raising the entire amount we had hoped for. 

Of the 211 donations that made up the campaign, all were appreciated, but one donation stood out above them all. It was by far the sweetest donation.

My Friend *Phillip is a fellow that I simply know as Phil the Starbucks guy. In fact, that is how his name and number are saved on my cell phone. I don’t know where he lives (at least I didn’t until a few days ago) I don’t know what makes him tick but I do know that he is a lover of ppl.

I know he doesn’t work, and I know he has some emotional challenges but other than talking a few octaves higher than is comfortable, he is mostly harmless and just a nice guy.

Somewhere in the past few years he managed to get a hold of my cell phone number and I often get phone calls or text messages from him and I see the words  “PHIL THE STARBUCKS GUY” pop up on my screen. When I can, I take his calls and talk for a few minutes, other times a text has to suffice, but I realized that in many ways I became one of his few friends that he could talk to. 

Then Covid hit. Everything shut down, even Starbucks. For us dark coffee lovers, this was just an added pain of this crazy pandemic. For folks like Phil, this was the insufferable final straw. His one haven for social interaction was now taken from him. Even when the stores reopened, first drive-through then even the main store, it was only opened as a walk-up-to-the-counter purchase and that’s it. Only a certain amount of people were allowed into the store at a single time and schmoozing and hanging out was strictly forbidden.

This bothered Phil to no end and he made his feelings known. He isn’t on social media so I fielded many of his calls of frustration. First the messages were left on the office line, then to my cell. I answered as many of them as I could promising that things would reopen very soon. Alas, they didn’t open very soon. He ranted and raved about the injustice of it all, and how it wasn’t fair that he couldn’t see me or anyone for that matter.

My heart broke for him but I couldn’t fix his problem but I was able to listen, so I did. When I told him that we’d be having in person services he was delighted and told me that he might even join. Knowing that he doesn’t have a computer to make reservations as was required by our Covid Taskforce, I told him that he’d be welcomed to join us for the holidays without a reservation, just show up and we will seat you, safely separated by his closest neighbor by at least 6 feet. 

I didn’t think he’d show up, since he told me he hadn’t been to Shul in decades, and honestly I was a bit concerned that he would show up since I didn’t want him making much of a ruckus. Well, he did show up and he was on his best behavior. He sat there the entire time and just took it all in. His soul did more praying than his mouth, but I am certain that Hashem delighted in his prayers more than many others. His purity and simplicity shined through his tattered jeans and stained shirt.

After the holiday, he disappeared and after a few weeks hiatus his calls started up again. He always looked forward to us being able to have coffee again and I always agreed. I smiled inside and realized that this pandemic was having a harder toll on some more than others and was grateful that I could at least lend him an ear. He professed his gratitude to me for being there and I patiently accepted his praise and tried to conclude the conversation quickly without hurting his feelings.

With this background you will understand that I found it quite a surprise, when I received an envelope in the mail for our fundraiser from a guy named Phil. I didn’t recognize the last name and the address was not yet in our database but the $18 dollar check was written by the loving but shaky hands of a man named Phil. I still wouldn’t have connected the dots until I I opened the second envelope inside the first envelope which had a Starbucks gift card for five dollars.

It was then that I put the two pieces together and realized who the donor was. Now it was my turn to initiate a phone conversation with him. I found Phil’s number and called to thank him for giving what must have been a very large sum of money for him to the Chabad. Even more, to thank him for the personal touch of the coffee card.

When he didn’t answer I thanked him via a text message.

His text reply: “Tov. See. You. During. Chanukah. To. All Chabad. Touches”.

I am not 100% sure what he meant, but it was consistent with the Phil that I’ve come to know.

No, it was not the largest donation, but it sure was the sweetest.

*A Pseudonym

Hurt People, Hurt People

Hurt People, Hurt People

We are living in a time of unprecedented division in our country. It is the best of times and the worst of times. Never in history – perhaps since the days of King Soloman – has it been this good for the Jewish people in respect to their ability to practice and observe Judaism without the fear of the leaders of a country or it’s citizens interfering.

Yet, the division is also unprecedented. After the elections, I received three emails within an hour, the first one thanking Gd for this pandemic, claiming that barring the pandemic the current president would have won, and was thanking me for helping the election results.

The second email was it’s polar opposite, frustrated with the fact that the election was being stolen.

The third one was downright racist and I won’t dignify it by even discussing anything more about it.

(I am not sure why I got the emails, since I am not that powerful, and I didn’t swing the vote one way or the other.)

Yet, it’s been on my mind wondering why is it that people are so incredibly divided. It isn’t only Jews, it is really all people. This country is split nearly down the middle? Ethnicities that were reliable votes in a certain direction are now split as well. Why?

I think the famous quote attributed to many, “Hurt People, Hurt People” is at play. The premise, if it isn’t obvious, is that a person who is hurt, perpetuates that hurt that they received by then going and hurting someone else. That person then perpetuates it by hurting the next person and thus, generations keep on getting hurt by people who were themselves hurt by others.

People on all sides have been so “hurt” by the other side that there is simply zero space for that other party. I’ve seen it in shul, sadly, and you’ve all seen it on the news and in your lives most likely. One fellow who I hadn’t seen in months, I’d assumed due to covid fears, reached out to me and said, “I can finally come back now that the elections are over.” I thought I misheard, and he was saying now that Covid is over… but upon my question, he confirmed that he in fact meant what he said.

He couldn’t fathom the thought that someone might havea different opinion than him in Shul?

Not that he is wrong, but we have to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, my teacher and mentor excelled at this. He found ways to find common ground focusing on the areas of agreement.

In all the history of our people we have always been arguing. Gd and Abraham regarding the destruction of Sodom. Moses and God regarding the planned destruction of the Jewish people. Abaya and Rava, Rav and Shmuel, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Akiva and hundreds of others. They disagreed without hurting the other. They had different opinions, and they strongly disagreed yet they found a way to disagree and not be disagreeable.

The trick is to reverse the quote. Not, to be hurt and then still not hurt others, but to not be hurt in the first place. Find empathy and rachmanus for the other party. When someone says something disagreeable, let’s try to feel empathy for them and their opinions if we truly feel they are completely wrong. If I feel that they are not 100 percent wrong, I should seek to find the1 percent of common ground where we do agree. When in fact you are hurt, to choose to not perpetuate that hurt by hurting back or by hurting another.

The Rebbe taught that when you are hurting, the only way to heal that hurt is by channeling that negative energy into something positive. In memory of his father passing away, he established a study center for the elderly giving them a new lease on life. When his wife passed away he took the hurt and established an international birthday campaign. To commemorate death by celebrating the beginning of life.

It is counterintuitive but it is in fact the only thing that works. To turn hurt into healing. Pain into growth.

Hurt people, help people is the antidote.

Yaakov’s Torah

Yaakov’s Torah

Wow, it is so warm & toasty in here; I have been waiting for this warmth so long it makes me sad. Yes, sad. You see; I am special. I am nothing ordinary, far from it. People turn to me for solace, comfort, guidance and direction. I am a veritable director for meaningful life.

Take Yaakov for example. I have been watching that fellow since he was a little kid. Ok, not completely true, some of what I know about him, I heard firsthand from some of my “colleagues.” You see, I have traveled a bit. Though my routes begin in other places, before I met Yaakov, rarely has anyone paid the kind of attention that I feel I deserve, if not for me personally, at least “whom” or should I say “what” I represent.

Please don’t judge me just yet, let me have a chance to say my story before you sentence me. Oy, where do I begin my story? In Rhode Island I suppose. Once upon a time the neighborhood I lived in, was born in, raised for my formidable years in, was a thriving bustling community, full of observant Jews who cared for all elements of Jewish Life.

They came to Shul, which is where I lived, and where I got to know people was just down the block from the kosher butcher, one of a few. Over time sadly, the “neighborhood changed” and soon there were less and less Jews, much less practicing ones, to the point that our Shul was left with no choice but to merge with another. “Lech Li’cho, m’artzecho, umimoladeticho, u’mebais, avicho… “Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, and from your fathers house. The move will be good for you the Torah promises Abraham, and so too was I promised, and so I did it. I wanted to continue to hang out with my “colleagues” anyway.

Our new Shul was great. Simply magnificent; It is there that I met Yaakov for one, but it was more than that. There I was introduced to one of the most magnificent edifices I had ever seen as a Shul. I mean this place was absolutely grand. The Shul was so beautiful I had only imagined such places exist. There was the huge main sanctuary, where they prayed on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and the small Shul behind the Rabbi’s place and the holy ark for weekdays. The Hebrew school facilities were in the back, and upstairs. The women’s balcony was splendid in its own rite. They even installed a full proper clean and kosher Mikvah (ritual bathhouse) in the rear of the building with it’s own private and special entrance. I should mention the full kosher commercial kitchen… I could go on but I guess you just need to have been there to fully appreciate it.

I think what impressed me even more though, was the community. There was just such an interesting array of people. There were the old and rigid, the young and fresh, those that wanted every child silent, because that is the “way it ought to be,” those who were more flexible. And then there was Yaakov.

e loved the Shul so, he loved his father, he loved to watch the comings and going in hustle and bustle of the place. You see the Shul was his other home, that, was his fun. Watching the old man pray and then grab a schnapps after morning services, perhaps a few too many after a Shabbat Kiddush, this little kid, just soaked it all in. He cared for me, and for the place.

As time passed, and some of the older folks, passed on or were no longer able to perform some of the basic duties, this young man, Yaakov, assumed the responsibility upon himself to take care of my “colleagues” and I, and also to look after some Shul maintenance, security and basic accounting. Even, as he grew up, moved, married and had kids of his own, continued to take an active interest in our home and me.

I watched as Yaakov’s dear father grew old, from a young man taking L’chaim shots after minyan to an adult who sadly became an angry alcoholic. I saw his mood swings, yet even in his temper tantrums there was the essence of a man in love. He was never physically violent, G-d forbid, perhaps out of respect for me, but his addiction caused his family pain. I saw the tears that would form at the corners of Yaakov’s eyes and times they even overflowed in my presence. Yet the indomitable spirit could not be erased. This was a tragedy waiting to be overcome. Fortunately, Yaakov’s dad had the strength to finally accept his addiction and seek treatment, however, there were many years lost years of forsaken joy.

I watched and I cried with him during his challenges and I laughed with him during his successes. I was there when he married and tended to his ailing sick father, and got reports of his failing marriage and his fathers immanent meeting with death. I watched with frustration yet awareness that while Yaakov struggled this was part of the master plan and I knew in my heart that Yaakov would prevail.

I know everything, and I know that even my time will one day come when I am “retired” from the service. Indeed that time came awfully close recently. Again, thanks to Yaakov I got a new lease on life.

Our new Shul of very many years now, was also growing old, the neighborhood again was going to pieces. Attendance at minyan was down to three days a year, the High Holidays, and even that was with people traveling great distances to make that mini-minyan happen. A pipe burst back in the former Hebrew School area too expensive to fix properly, a patch up job would have to do, the Shul’s roof sprung a leak, much too expensive to fix,. Rain storm after rainstorm finally took it’s toll: shingles had fallen off the roof and the Shul was filled with wet carpets and it smelled musty filled with mold and asbestos.

Meanwhile some months back, perhaps a year or more, Yaakov had connected with a fledgling new organization called Chabad in his now native city of Peabody. He knew as they met for Shabbat at the home of the Rabbi and at Hotels and other meeting venues for holidays and family programs that they were in need of a Torah scroll. Being a member of the board of his beloved other shul he was now in a position to do something about this.

Clearly, as had laid his father to rest in the last year, and ultimately it was good & provided closure for all involved, similarly, it would soon be time to help the now ailing Shul come to a it’s final rest by closing its doors after one last High Holiday service and then a healthy merger to bolster another shul in the vicinity.

But what would be of me? Again displaced, without a home? How could this be right and fair? That is when Yaakov let me in on his plan; He let me know about this young and growing new Shul in his neighborhood that was, by his description, similar to where I had first begun many moons ago. A shtiebel of sorts; except this one had a twist, they focused on outreach and other good activities, however, they did do prayer services and were actually kid friendly and other virtues that were new to me and would be novel to me. I would be moving there, by myself this time, without my “colleagues” to do my part and assist them. I was a little nervous at first, but after being transported respectfully as would be due for me, my stature and all, I actually began to find it warm and inviting.

After so many years of being in a Shul where I was being less and less used and visited, I was relegated to the “other Shul” some twenty years back, I had trouble remembering that last time someone had actually looked at me, much less spoken to me, save little Yaakov of course. This new home however was feeling nice. I was missing my “colleagues” who remained behind. However It was very special to be seen & heard on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, and almost every Shabbat. It was like old times… I felt reborn. I felt like I now had a more meaningful purpose. It didn’t hurt that I now saw Yaakov more regularly than I had in a long while, while living in my previous home. He still looks at me lovingly as he did when was still that little kid in my old shul. And I will add, little Yaakov doesn’t either hurt as much when he thinks back to his youth, his family and his shul, though they were intertwined, there seems to be something that I keep pure for him. I would like to think that I play a little part of that.

You see I am Sefer Torah, and Yaakov is my friend.

This true story happened aprox. 12 years ago and this was written up then.

My Esrog Moment

Today’s already long day came to a crashing end. Literally. During the Covid-19 pandemic every day is a long day when the kids are at home. Trying to squeeze some productivity in the busy holiday season with everyone at home will test the best of us and our patience.

I was getting ready to leave for my weekly Torah Class (on zoom these days) when I heard the bang. Unsure what it was, I heard one of my children – who shall remain nameless – mutter to herself, “uh oh!”

Not a good sign.

Then I heard another child say to this unnamed child, “oh man, you broke it! Tatty is gonna kill you.”

Definitely not a good sign.

Then I heard my wife say to me gently, “you are not going to be happy.”

It was now sealed in my mind, something bad happened.

And then I saw it. My child had knocked over my guitar and broke it. Literally broke the entire head off, it was now being dragged by the still-connected strings.

Now, I am not a super sentimental person, but this was my first guitar I ever owned, gifted to me by a friend and a gifted guitarist and the person who inspired me to learn to play and this was my little escape when I needed music of my soul to be louder than the noise of the world. Not a very expensive piece but valuable enough that the replacement would hurt a bit.

As my daughter – the culprit- came into the room, with her shoulders hunched, my blood pressure was peaking and the lava was starting to erupt out of my internal volcano. I was about to let loose a string of words not fitting for a rabbi at a tone not fitting for anyone.

And then I realized, this is my Esrog Moment.

They tell a story (I’ve heard many variations of this story, this is just one version) of a Chassid that struggled with extreme poverty back in the shtetl. He had few positions, much less possessions of value. There was however one piece of religious Judaica (Tefillin or a Candle stick) that had been bequeathed to him from an ancestor who was a Rebbe and whose Chassidim would pay top dollar for that item.

The wife of this Chossid badgered him endlessly to sell the heirloom and make a small fortune to alleviate their poverty somewhat. He would not hear of it. It’s value far exceeded some temporary financial relief. This was a religious item that had deep spiritual value and he couldn’t fathom exchanging it for mere money.

One day, this wife of this chassid came into her husband’s study and saw a most beautiful Esrog sitting on the shelf. They could not afford even the least expensive Esrog much less such a big and beautiful Esrog; Where had her husband gotten the money?

She noticed that the religious heirloom was nowhere to be found. She did a basic deduction and determined that her holy husband wouldn’t depart with his family relic for some cash, but he would do so to observe a mitzvah in the holiest manner possible. She could not contain her rage and she took the Esrog off the shelf and bit into it, ripping the pitum (stem that sticks out of one of the sides of the citron) off rendering passul (unfit for use).

Her husband the holy chassid came home and immediately saw the damage. He saw his wife and her tears and put two and two together. Rather than lose his temper, he simply turned his head to the heavens and said, “Ribbono Shel Oilam, Master of the universe, if it is Your will that I should not have an esrog to recite the blessing upon for this Sukkos holiday, then I accept it with love!”

An incredible lesson in patience and perspective. That was the story the fell into my head as I started to lose control over my broken guitar.

I told my daughter to come over to me. She walked over afraid and unsure of what reaction I was going to have. I simply took her head in my hands and gave her head a kiss.

She said, “I thought you were going to be angry with me?”

“Did you break it out of anger or on purpose?” I asked,

“No”

“In that case, mistakes happen, try to be more careful next time” I concluded.

We all have our Esrog moments. I have many Esrog moments. I don’t always rise to the occasion. This time I am thankful that I did. I am certain that she will long remember that kiss instead of whatever fury I might have unleashed on her.

This holiday, as Covid keeps us in close quarters we will all have many more Esrog moments.

Will we step up to the challenge and have the right reaction?

To Heal A Broken World

In a world where things seem to be coming apart at its seams, problems abound and inspiration is in short supply. Race relations are back on the front burner, Coronavirus fears continue. Do we open or not? So many of these issues seem to cut along party lines, extending the divide already in place. We must find guidance and strength, though often it comes from the strangest of places.

Today I met a friend for coffee ―socially distanced― who I hadn’t seen in a while. The inspiration for the meeting was that this friend had put out an announcement of his recent engagement. The problem was that his bride-to-be was not Jewish.

I was not sure how to respond to the email notification. To wish him Mazal Tov would be to sanction the choice he made. To ignore it ― aside from being a statement in and of itself – would be a form of silent rebuke. The command to love our fellow as ourselves and even more than ourselves (as the Rebbe would often say) trumps all, so I simply replied, “I love you and miss you, let’s get together for coffee some time.”

To my pleasant surprise, he jumped at the opportunity and we scheduled to meet up today in a Starbuck parking lot. In anticipation of the meeting, I spent many (mind) hours thinking about what I wanted to say to him. Nothing wise was coming to mind, but I figured we’d get together and we’d just see what happens.

So there we were, in the parking lot of the Starbucks, (he was kind enough to sit on the lengthy drive through line to grab my cup of joe) and it hit me. As my friend handed my coffee to me, his exposed arm revealed his many tattoos. Therein lies my answer.

I thought to myself, tattoos have always been a huge NO for Jews. It is rumored that in the days of old, a person with a tattoo couldn’t be buried in the Jewish section of the cemetery. That is in fact not true , but the taboo around it was huge. My grandparents would have wept at the sight of his grandchild’s tattoo.

Why did it not bother me so? Not because I am so woke and new agey. Not because I am better than my grandfather. Rather, as a student of Chassidus and follower of the Lubavitcher I have been conditioned in Ahavas Yisroel (love for your fellow). This means, that  A) I am not in the business of judging people, but far more importantly, B) he is not his tattoo. He is who he is, the tattoo is a choice/decision that he made. It is his new skin color, but it is not his essence. He is a pure and holy soul and he happens to be a great guy with a great sense of humor.

Who is he? What is his soul? I can’t tell you exactly but I can tell you what it is not. It is not his life choices, be they tattoos and intermarriage or daily shul attendance and a kosher home.


There is a famous story told of the Alter Rebbe who raised his orphaned grandson, Menachem Mendel who later became the 3rd Rebbe of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek.

The young child was on his Zeidy’s lap, and stroked his grandfather’s beard muttering “Zeidy Zeidy.” The Alter Rebbe answered, “That is not Zeidy, that is Zeidy’s beard. Where is Zeidy?” The child put his hand on his grandfather’s heart and again said “Zeidy.” Again the Rebbe answered, “that is not Zeidy, that is Zeidy’s heart. Where is Zeidy?”

This continued for a bit with the child pointing to various parts of his Zeidy and finally he jumped off his grandfather’s lap and went behind the door. The Rebbe continued to study and at some point, the child yelled “ZEIDY ZEIDY!” The Alter Rebbe jumped up to see what the matte was and as he got close to the child, the child said, “that’s Zeidy.”

The Alter Rebbe smiled and appreciated the wisdom of what the child had communicated. He conveyed that he’d gotten the message. Zeidy was not a body part, but he was the sum total of what triggered him and got him to jump up.

I share this story as a way of making a distinction between what we do and who we are. They are not one and the same.

My friend is not his tattoo. He is not even his far more significant decision to marry out of the faith. Those are factors that show where his mind is at, but they are not who he is. He is his soul. His essence. That is pure and always remains so. Just as I don’t find it difficult to not judge his skin deep tattoo, so I must find it equally not difficult to just his decision marrying someone not Jewish. Both are not his essence. His essence is his soul.

My obligation to love my fellow as myself is to love their essence, not their skin deep (pun intended) decisions.

Today with race discussions, political divisions, a world that appears to be coming apart at the seams, where people are judging one another based on skin color or political persuasion, is a world that focuses not on the essence on the soul. In such a world there is space, sadly, for such judgmentalism and even hate.

We need to connect with people, not their skin or even their choices. We need to connect to their souls. If the world would do more soul-connecting, we’d find the space to love and not judge.

Based on Chapter 32 Tanya