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Rabbis' Blog

Thanksgiving even when it doesn’t feel right

A friend confided in me that Thanksgiving this year will be dreadful as he won’t be celebrating with family back east. I hear this sentiment from so many here in town and it’s all over my social media feed. Clearly, eight months of our new reality has not prepared us for the emotional drain of being alone, especially at times when we are accustomed to being with those we love most.

But I have yet to hear someone suggest canceling Thanksgiving altogether. Regardless of the restrictions on celebrating with family and friends, the national holiday will be observed as always, and I believe there is something to be learned from this that can help us going forward.

Thanksgiving was first observed as a celebration to give thanks to G-d for new- found freedom and a good harvest. While the pilgrims originally celebrated out of genuine feelings of gratitude, over time it became a scheduled national holiday, drifting away - for many - from its original intent, which some may argue has stripped it of its meaningfulness. But here is a different angle to consider.

The Stillerman family owned a grocery store in Brooklyn in 1950s and their nine year old son Nochum would make periodic deliveries to the home of Mrs. Chana Schneerson, the mother of the world renowned leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe.

Over time he became more comfortable with his high profile customer and once asked her what was the Rebbe’s favorite prayer. Several weeks later she shared with him that her son’s favorite prayer is twelve Hebrew words recited immediately upon awakening, known as “Modeh Ani.”

“I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great,”  it reads in English.

I find this striking since there are so many beautifully poetic prayers in Jewish liturgy, customarily recited in settings more suitable for spiritual inspiration. Yet the Rebbe most appreciated the simple prayer we say while still in bed, even before we have had the chance to properly orient ourselves. Although it may seem mechanical, starting the day with an expression of gratitude regardless of the circumstances or how genuine it may feel at the moment is the best way to set us on the right course.

We need to get used to the idea of expressing gratitude even if we don’t really feel it. I was raised hearing stories of family members who recited prayerful liturgy every day while imprisoned in Soviet gulags or Nazi concentration camps, when they had every reason not to welcome a new day. But those daily habitual words of gratitude kept them anchored in their belief and trust that the world is not a random jungle and there is meaning and purpose to every circumstance.

Although our current times may feel like a nightmare, and Thanksgiving this year is missing its usual pomp and ceremony, the fact that it’s still on the calendar should inspire us to incorporate certain meaningful practices into our daily schedule, regardless of how we feel about them.

Dedicate time every day for quiet reflection on purpose and meaning and share these moments with your family. Do an act of goodness and kindness every day and seek ways to inspire others to do the same. Positive routine behaviors—even mechanical—can shape our reality and the good we do today will become the seeds from which the fruits of tomorrow will grow and brighten the future in ways we can only imagine.

Are you hating 2020?

 

Eight months into COVID madness I hear from so many that they expect only the worst from 2020 after so many disappointments. Aside from the pandemic’s devastating impact on public health and our economy, the forced isolation that has brought with it lonely birthdays, Passover, High Holidays and now Thanksgiving is having a demoralizing effect.

Last weekend over 5,000 Chabad rabbis faced a similar disappointment as the annual Chabad Lubavitch Convention was staged online instead of in the halls of Brooklyn for obvious reasons. Sure there would be workshops, presentations and plenty of inspiration, but I and most of my contemporaries expected a damper of a convention since its main appeal would simply not exist on so many levels.

Then something wild happened.

Each year the convention features a Saturday night event called Melave Malka, the traditional meal held at the close of Shabbat. Since the thousands of Chabad rabbis all over the globe would be celebrating the conclusion of Shabbat at vastly different times, the organizers conceived a rolling Melave Malka event which started Saturday night in Australia while New York was still sleeping and as Shabbat concluded in more time zones other rabbis joined the program culminating with Alaska and Hawaii close to 24 hours later.

All went according to plan, until some rabbis in Australia woke up Sunday morning and, in the spirit of the convention, tuned into the Zoom program that was reaching its final minutes with our Hawaiin colleagues. The atmosphere was so joyous and compelling, they continued sharing chassidic stories, words of inspiration and camaraderie - which ultimately continued for a total of 138 hours!

The unending flow of Chassidic inspiration was electrifying and guys in multiple time zones were tuning in at all hours of the day and night, to the point that it was officially closed on Thursday evening with over 1,000 participants online. While the event set a record for the world’s longest Zoom meeting, more importantly, it transformed an otherwise forced online convention into the most inspirational convention experience we ever had. 

In this week’s parsha Toldos we learn how Yitzchak intended to bless his eldest son Eisav but blessed Yaakov instead, thanks to an elaborate deception arranged by their mother Rivka. The explanation of why this scenario of dishonesty was the right thing to do at the time is beyond the scope of this message, but the fact remains that the tremendous blessings of Jewish destiny came to us in an awkward and uncomfortable fashion. This teaches us that at times the best emerges from what can seem to be the worst.

I and my colleagues experienced it this week and I hope and pray we merit such a transformation on a global level as well. That these terribly dark and frustrating times imminently lead to a brighter future, the era of Moshiach, when the world will be healed of all illness, suffering and jealousy and peace will prevail for all.

Through learning more Torah, doing more Mitzvot, increasing our charitable giving and encouraging everyone to add in goodness and kindness we can make this happen even faster.

Just Do Your Job

 

In a non-COVID reality I would most certainly be in New York this weekend for the International Conference of Chabad Emissaries, where thousands of Chabad rabbis serving around the globe converge on Brooklyn to learn new ideas, share strategies and gain new inspiration to enhance our mission of preparing the world for an era of peace and perfection in every way.

But I’m writing this message from home, the legendary convention is happening entirely online this year and the overarching theme is obviously about continuing our vital work despite the global COVID disruptions.

Yesterday Chabad of Argentina was featured and I was inspired to hear how their activities are flourishing despite a seventh-month long national lockdown. Not only are they reaching more than triple their audience through online classes and events and social distancing holiday activities, but a young Chabad couple managed to create a vibrant community from scratch after moving to a new neighborhood in Buenos Aires mere weeks before the lockdown began!

Rabbi Grunblatt, the senior Chabad emissary in Argentina shared that the inspiration for this unending activity despite the challenges stems in part from an experience he had in 1982. Argentina was then under military rule and had just suffered a humiliating defeat in the Falklands against the British. In that chaotic political and economic environment, the young Rabbi Grunblatt struggled desperately to keep Chabad activities afloat, but one day found himself without enough money to pay the bus fare.

In despair he placed an international phone call to Chabad Headquarters in New York and expressed his frustration and fear of the future to Rabbi Hodokov, the Rebbe’s chief secretary. Almost immediately Rabbi Hodokov called him back with the offer of a loan and a message from the Rebbe. “You were not sent there to make political and economic calculations. Your mission is to strengthen Judaism and disseminate Chassidic teachings. G-d will help you succeed.”

In this week’s parsha Chayei Sara we read how Avraham sent his trusted servant Eliezer on the mission of finding a suitable wife for his son Yitzchok from his own family back in Charan - a shady corner of society at the time. Eliezer was plagued with doubt and uncertainty about his chances for success but Avraham assured him that G-d would help despite everything that could go wrong.

Expecting a long and arduous desert journey Eliezer packed 10 camels but miraculously arrived at his destination that very day towards evening. He made a deal with G-d that the first girl to offer him a drink of water would be the lucky match and even before he finished speaking Rivka was standing at the well and kindly served him a drink of water.

When everything worked out so perfectly in the most wondrous way, even Rivka’s father Besuel and her brother Lavan, two of the most debased and callous biblical characters were compelled to admit that it was the work of G-d.

The message is clear. Even when times are tough and the future so uncertain we have no business calculating our chances of success. Just do your job confidently and joyfully and G-d will take care of the rest.

 

Hachnasat Orchim: It’s more than just feeding people

 

The hospitality industry has taken a big hit during COVID. Global chains are closing hotels around the world and local Bed  & Breakfast style inns are finding it harder and harder to get by. On a more relatable level, the universal social etiquette of hosting has been severely compromised as we are warned to stay home as much as possible.

But hospitality is more than a business, a social venue or a charitable cause. For Jews, hospitality - Hachnasat Orchim in Hebrew - runs to the core of our heritage and is an important trait we learned from our first patriarch Avraham.

Living at the crossroads of civilization, in a barren desert connecting Africa and Asia, Avraham established an inn which exceeded all modern-day hotels in quality and customer service. Not only did he provide much needed food and water to the famished travelers, he planted an orchard to provide them with delicious fruits and a pleasant ambiance. Delicacies such as butter, meat and the like were on the menu and it was all free of charge. The only thing missing was WiFi.

The defining characteristic of this plush desert resort was the fact that there were four entrances so that guests coming from either direction would find the entrance quickly and easily. The elderly and venerable Avraham himself welcomed and served his guests, engaging them in meaningful conversations which made ideological waves across the globe.

In this week’s parsha Vayeira we learn how important this Mitzvah was to Avraham and how it came to define us as Jews. At age 99 he entered a covenant with G-d by having a circumcision and three days later, while in excruciating pain from the procedure, he experienced a divine revelation like none before. Yet, despite his physical pain and spiritual delight, when he spotted three travelers within earshot of his tent, he ran towards them and welcomed them into his tent with his traditional five-star service.

Clearly, the level of service that Avraham provided far exceeded his guests’s needs, but Hachnasat Orchim is about the host focusing on providing for another, even at his or her own expense. Avraham truly cared for every human being and therefore sought to provide for every one in the most luxurious fashion.

His nephew Lot was so influenced by Avraham’s teachings of compassion that despite breaking away from Avraham and settling in the sinful cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, he continued to observe the tradition of Hachnasat Orchim. The Sodomites outlawed hospitality, but when Lot spotted two men approaching Sodom one evening he risked his life to welcome them into his home.

The golden standard of Hachnasat Orchim is Avraham’s signature contribution to humanity; the ability to transcend our own comforts and focus on the needs of others. And while the current public health crisis severely hinders our ability to host guests in the traditional fashion, we must continue to care for each other and ensure our friends and neighbors not only have bare necessities but have access to luxuries as well.

Thank you to all those who partnered with us to prepare over 100 Shabbat Care packages of Challah and Matzah Ball soup for our community. We look forward to a time when we can host you all personally, but until then please enjoy these Shabbat delicacies as we all perpetuate Avraham’s glorious legacy of hospitality.

 

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