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Shabbat Shalom from Bangkok

Magic Wand? Yes or No?

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

As a rabbi, people confide in me. The problems they share with me sometimes seem insurmountable.

In those untenable situations the only thing I can do is offer an empathetic ear.

It is at those times that I find myself saying ‘if only I had a magic wand…I would solve the problem’.

Do I really want a magic wand solution to problems?

Yes, and no.

Paradox?

Indeed!

Yet eminently livable.

Avraham did have a kind of magic wand. The Talmud speaks about a special stone the Avraham possessed that had the power to heal sickness in a miraculous way. When Avraham passed away, G-d did not leave the miraculous stone available to us mortals any more.

Now, if Avraham had a miraculously endowed healing stone, why do we find in this week’s portion that after his circumcision he was in pain.

Why didn’t Avraham use his miracle stone to heal himself?

The answer is that Avraham didn’t want to employ miraculous short-cuts when it came to fulfilling G-d’s instruction to him of circumcision.

The whole purpose of G-d’s instructing him to circumcise was to place a G-dly sign into the physical flesh. The experience was to be a fusion of two worlds.

The G-dly command of Brit Milah was to be embedded in the physical flesh of Avraham. In the physical world the result of cutting flesh is pain. To truly be a fusion of heaven and earth, that pain needed to be felt in the physical flesh of the one who was being circumcised.

Avraham was not about to circumvent that unique bringing together of the holy and the mundane by employing miraculous means.

G-d Himself did not want to interfere with Avraham’s earthly observance of the mitzvah either. Thus He did not heal him immediately after the Brit. It was only on the third day that G-d came to visit Avraham and sent Rafael the angel of healing to heal him. By day three it was already not a wholly supernatural healing. After three days’ circumcisions begin to heal naturally.

That’s a lesson right there to all of us.

Stop looking for the ‘magic wand’ to free you from the exertion and efforts that loom before you.

Don’t feel threatened or overwhelmed when doing the right thing looks hard.

On the contrary.

Embrace the challenges. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. The no-nonsense, no-shortcut path is the most meaningful.

Because it’s what G-d intended for us in the first place.

Recognize that G-d places us here on this earth, not only to arrive at a particular destination.

The very journey itself is what He wants of us.

G-d placed us in a physical world, where things don’t just happen by themselves in a miraculous way, not because he doesn’t want us to have good lives. Rather it is because he desires and cherishes our input and efforts. By working in the physical world according to spiritual ideals, we are impacting the world and elevating it.

G-d wants our physical life and all the efforts we expend in doing a mitzvah, to be imbued with a connection to G-d.

That’s why doing the right thing requires effort.

Having miraculous bypasses to obviate the need for natural and sometimes even strenuous efforts would not be the proper way to serve G-d. It would be missing the very point that we are placed here for.

Click here for a story that illustrates this point.

It also gives us a healthy perspective on spending money.

All too often, doing the right thing is not cheap.

Does it seem like living a Jewish life costs extra money?

If it seems that way, it’s probably because it is that way.

A non-Jew doesn’t need mezuzahs on their doorposts nor do they require an Etrog on Sukkot. Fulfilling the mitzvahs have an unavoidable expense.

Rather than resenting spending money on a mitzvah, rejoice in the additional expense. Recognize the beauty and holiness of it.

When you use your hard earned money to perform a mitzvah you are refining and elevating the materialism that money represents.

Getting something for free takes away that process of the elevation of your money and the efforts that earned you the money.

Do I want the ‘magic wand’?

According to what I have written above, no. For its our natural efforts which G-d wants of us.

Yet, as Jews we certainly do want miracles as well.

The birth of Yitschak described in this week’s Parsha says it loud and clear.   

Abraham was one hundred and his wife Sara was ninety when their son Yitschak was born.

A miraculous, nature-defying, conception and birth.

Yitschak was the first Jew by birth.

As the forefather of the future Jewish nation his coming into existence in such a miraculous way, was an indication of the supernatural future of the Jewish nation.

Am Yisrael has always been a miraculous nation. It started that way, and has continued that way till this very day. And so it will be forever.

Yes to miracles or ‘no thanks’ to miracles?

Sounds contradictory.

I have a simple resolution for this contradiction.

Leave it up to the Almighty.

While I definitely pray to G-d for miracles, I understand that in the absence of miraculous otherworldly assistance, it is precisely my enthusiastic and persistent efforts that G-d awaits.

G-d sometimes makes miracles.

Sometimes He doesn’t.

Not because He can’t, but because He doesn’t want to.

It may be the G-d wants you to shvitz a little as you work through things according to the natural course of the world operating according to the laws of nature.

For those who have access to the Mega Lotto, consider that if He decides to have you win the lottery, it may not be a bad idea to buy a ticket. One ticket is enough though. And don’t hang around twiddling your thumbs till you win. You may not be the winner

It’s actually really simple. A Jew wants to do what G-d wants them to do.

Which is to work naturally on the one hand. Pray for G-d’s blessing in making one’s natural efforts successful. As well as praying for G-dly miraculous intervention. Once those blessings come, its not time to rest, rather one must use those G-dly blessings as a stepping stone for even greater efforts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

Long Island and Laos!

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

What do Long Island, New York and Luan Prabang, Laos, have in common?

Both start with the letter L.

I am not sure if I can think of other similarities.

What are the differences between them?

Many. But here is one that may interest you.

A global survey released two years ago by the Anti-Defamation League revealed that the least anti-Semitic country in the world is … Laos.

The reports regarding the state of anti-Semitism in New York are quite different. In a 2017 report we are told that ‘Anti-Semitic incidents in New York soared 90 percent last year compared to 2016’.

Presumably the reason for this discrepancy is quite simple. While there are millions of Jews in New York ‘ken yirbu’, Laos doesn’t have more than a few handfuls of Jews who call it home.

It was in Luan Prabang, Laos not Long Island New York that I landed last Sunday morning.

To participate in the completion of the writing of a Sefer Torah and the ensuing celebration. Literally, a mini Simchat Torah. The final letters of the Torah were written by dear friend Josh Goldhirsh -  who with his wife Robyn had commissioned the new Torah. The ink was allowed to dry and then the dancing and singing began.

We certainly made history. I think it is safe to say that it was the first Sefer Torah completed in Laos.

I got goosebumps.

But not only from the excitement and emotion of completing a Torah in such an incongruous setting.

In addition to the simple story there was a historical tapestry, woven throughout decades that was coming alive in front of my eyes.

The threads of this tapestry started on Simchat Torah of 1969 in the Rebbe’s synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. They further developed in 1980 in the Rebbe’s private study. The opening of Chabad in Asia, and eventual opening of the Laos branch just one year ago, all feature in this story. As does a tragic car accident on the Long Island Expressway that took the lives of a very special philanthropic and community active couple at age 81. The story took a very inspirational turn in a unique Bar Mitzvah celebration on October 8, 2018 of Jews originally from Long Island but now living in Luan Prabang.

Let me start from the end and work my way to the beginning.

As we were finishing the last letter of the Torah I was told the following story by Lauren R. originally from Roslyn, Long Island.

‘The plans for the Bar Mitzvah of our only child Ari Nathan were simple. From when he was a little boy, we knew that my father – a passionate community activist and observant Jew - would conduct his grandsons Bar Mitzvah at a ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  Two years ago, my parents, Itchy and Helen Adelson were killed in a horrific car crash as they were on their way to a friend’s wedding. With the tragedy, the Bar Mitzvah plans also came crashing down. When my work took us to Luang Prabang, Laos a year ago, I knew that organizing a Bar Mitzvah would be a real challenge. But Chabad had opened a branch in Luan Prabang, and I went to see the Rabbi to discuss Bar Mitzvah lessons. Initially I had thought to plan a Bar Mitzvah sometime in the beginning of next year. The Rabbi insisted on checking the ‘real’ date. It turned out that according to the Jewish calendar, Ari Natan was turning thirteen on Shabbat October 6. Getting a minyan during low tourist season in Laos didn’t seem possible. BUT, said the rabbi, ‘we are having an event on Sunday, with other Jews flying in to celebrate and we can read the Torah on Monday and do a Bar Mitzvah. Actually, your son who is a kohen will have the first Aliyah in the new Torah’

‘Imagine that’ said Laurent. From not having a minyan for the Bar mitzvah to inscribing a letter in a new Sefer Torah on Sunday, getting called up to that new Torah and having all the rabbis of Thailand present is like some kind of a dream’

Laurent went on to tell me a little bit about her parents who were true shining lights in the Long Island Jewish community. First in Roslyn and then in Westhampton.

‘I even visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his private office with my parents’ said Laurent. ‘I was inspired by his deeply penetrating and caring eyes’. The experience that took place in close to forty years ago, still remains indelibly engraved in my memory’.

Things started to make sense to me now.

The Rebbe had stated his mission many times. To spread Torah and help Jews anywhere and everywhere. Even in Luan Prabang. Had he really mentioned Luan Prabang? Well, perhaps not explicitly but certainly alluded to it. Read on and judge for yourself.

Just a week earlier I had been sitting in the Sukkah in Bangkok studying an address given by the Rebbe on Simchat Torah fifty years ago.

‘Think about it. Hashem has to worry about three billion people, and nonetheless thinks about a Jews who lives in South Africa, South America or in a remote location in Asia. He sends a special messenger to bring that Jew the most precious things that He has – the Torah’

The Rebbe went on to explain that G-d has plenty of angels who would gladly carry out His bidding. Yet He chose to send this message via individuals who move out to these locations to bring the word of G-d even there. The privilege is indescribably great. Thus the Rebbe encouraged those in attendance to embrace and implement his vision of spreading Torah to all four corners of the earth.

On the Sunday after Simchat Torah, participating in the bringing of a Torah to Laos it dawned on me that the Rebbe’s words were being recognized. Luan Prabang would certainly fit the bill of ‘remote’ at least in terms of Judaism.

Here we were. Shluchim – emissaries of the Rebbe, bringing a Torah for a Bar Mitzvah. To a boy whose mother had merited the Rebbe’s holy gaze on her face when she was a young girl. To the grandson of two unforgettable Jewish community activists. They had died tragically; the Bar Mitzvah seemed to be left hanging. Hashem detailed Providence had been set into motion.

Torah was now being brought to an even more remote location in Asia than ever before.

Ari Natan’s Bar Mitzvah – probably the first in Laos – was celebrated with much joy and tearful emotion.

Ari Natan donned his late grandfathers Tefilin and proclaimed proudly ‘Shma Yisrael, Ad-onai Elo-henu, Ad-onai ECHAD’

Long Island Jews and Luan Prabang had been brought together by a common theme. In each location, the unity of G-d was being proclaimed. By donning the Tefilin and reciting the Shma Yisrael, Ari Natan highlighted the singular mission statement of the Jew to proclaim the unity of G-d wherever he or she may be.

The message is clear.

True, G-d does not NEED to resort to us frail humans to do His bidding. He could get it done without us.

Yet, G-d CHOOSES to us to represent Him. He gives us the privilege and opportunity. To serve Him. To share our knowledge and devotion to Him with others. To inspire fellow Jews to get closer to G-d via learning Torah and doing Mitzvot. To inspire all fellow humans to commit to the G-dly moral code also known as the ‘Seven Noahide Laws’.

It’s not limited to rabbi’s or ‘official’ outreach persons. Each and every one of us is able to inspire and encourage and teach by example. Each in their own circle of influence.

Together, by studying Torah and doing more Mitzvah’s we can change the world.

To be a brighter place. A holier place. A true abode where Almighty G-d feels comfortable.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

PS If you are in Bangkok on Monday night, please join us for our son Efraim’s Bar Mitzvah.

Dancing for 3300 Years

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

Time to rest up after the flurry of spirited Chagim during this past month?

‘No way Jose’, (as they say).

You would think that after finishing the Torah reading cycle on Simchas Torah we would get a breather. Couple of days off. Till we start again.

Right?

Wrong!

On Simchas Torah itself, we reinforce the never ending cyclical experience that defines our relationship with Torah. We immediately restart the reading of the Torah from ‘Bereishit’ – ‘In the Beginning’. After finishing the reading of Five books of Torah we bless each other by saying ‘Chazak chazak venitchazek’ (‘be strong, be strong, may we be strengthened’) The restarting of the Torah take place within minutes of that zenith.

Isn’t repetition boring? This is NOT repetition.

Isn’t it demoralizing to reach the climax of completing the Torah only to have to crouch down and make our way to the beginning again?

Here’s the beauty of the Torah. It is absolutely not going back to ‘square one’ to begin reading the Torah anew.

It’s a new beginning. A beginning that builds on top of the peak of previous study.

Last year you may have started the Torah and hopefully even completed the annual cycle.

This year you are wiser, older and more experienced.

Your more educated self takes all that knowledge and perception and learns the Torah anew.

The Torah is limitless in its depth and breadth. As much as you will know, there will be more to know. Deeper understanding. Greater clarity.

However old or young you may be. The Torah is for you! However much you may have learned till now, a new level of meaning and understanding awaits you. All it takes is the motivation to implement Torah study in your life.

And granted, it may take a bit of effort on the part of your fingers. (Unless you have voice recognition in your computer. Then your fingers don’t even have to work. Smiley face).

Type (or say) ‘daily torah study’ or a variation of that, into google and you will see what I mean. There are so many opportunities for daily Torah study.

Till here is applicable to us all as Jews wherever we may be.

In the Thailand region, Hashem has reinforced this ‘no-rest-keep-moving-advancing-dancing and REJOICING’ concept for us.

Hashem has blessed us with a Sefer Torah celebration taking place in Luan Prabang Laos this Sunday.

Less than one week away from the major dancing with the Torah on Simchas Torah we get to dance again.

A childhood friend from Australia, Josh Goldhirsh and his wife Robyn have donated a new Torah to the recently reopened Chabad House in Luan Prabang.

Please G-d I will be heading out there on Sunday to celebrate this joyous and momentous occasion with them. My voice is still quite hoarse from sermonizing and singing heartily on Simchas Torah. I pray and am confident that Hashem will restore my vocal cords to be able to fully participate in the amazing celebration of a new Sefer Torah. Details below. Sorry for the late notice… If you are in the region you still have time to join us.

A week later, on Monday October 15, Nechama and I are overjoyed to be granted the gift by Hashem of celebrating our son Ephraim’s bar mitzvah here in Bangkok. Another opportunity to dance. Details below. Please join us at the Simcha if you are able! We would be overjoyed and delighted to celebrate together with you!

During the grand finale of the ‘seventh hakafa-dance’ on Simchas Torah, I looked down at the floor.

I saw feet and shoes.

Moving in a rhythmic dance.

I then looked up and saw the feet were holding Torah’s.

I looked down again and noticed that the floor was not that clean. After hundreds of feet had gone round and round the Bima dancing joyously, it was inevitable that the floor would have some grime.

Would I rather a clean floor? On a regular day, certainly. But not if it meant that the Synagogue was like a museum and the Torah was treated like a main exhibit.

Isn’t it incredible. Sotheby’s specializes in selling things that are not used.

Torah is the most precious and priceless thing in the world.

Yet they are constantly in use.

Our grandparents danced, cherished and studied the Torah. Thank G-d our grandchildren are studying the same Torah. For all of times, Am Yisrael will USING the same Torah.

Unlike a valuable item in a museum which must be kept behind class and only looked at in sterile conditions, the Torah must be current and accessible. The moment we view it as a ‘relic’ or ‘historical artifact’, it is doomed to be lost to us.

Our Jewish identity cannot and does not exist without being defined by our attachment to the Torah. Not for any significant amount of time that is. A savvy investor knows that the wise investments are those that have a track record of stability and reliability. Fads, styles, fashions and the ‘isms of our times, they come and they go.

Our Torah is the most reliable thing on earth. It is here to stay. A constant. The Torah we dance with, is the same Torah we have danced with for 3,300 years.

Unchanging.

Do you now wonder why the floor got a little dirty? Floor tend to get a little dirty after 3,300 years of dancing.

Actually, I am overjoyed that thank G-d in our Synagogue you can tell that the floor was after Simchas Torah dancing. Hundreds of feet, large and small bounced up down off the floor in joyous abandon.

When I viewed it like that, the dirt looked so pure. Radiant. It represented ‘yiddishe nachas’ the lively Jewish spirit that our community is blessed with.

Click here for a chasidic story illustrating a similar point.

Have I convinced you that we should not be looking to take rest?

If not, read on.

Airplanes are rarely given a chance to rest. They arrive, get refueled, checked and sent out to their next destination. I used to wonder if that was safe. Till I learned that constant use of engines with proper maintenance, is safer than risking corrosion by inactivity.

Humans, unlike motors, do require rest time. Some call it ‘down time’. I would rather refer to it as ‘rest and refresh’ time. Not to power down. On the contrary to build up strength to power up even higher than before.

But the goal has to be to START AGAIN. In a new way. A more powerful way. A deeper way. Rest is not an end, it is a means to a new beginning.

This Shabbat is refered to as Shabbat Berishit – the Shabbat of Beginning. It’s a chance to still gather up the ‘Holiday energy’ and infuse that unique holy energy into the mundane ‘rest of the year’ transforming the ordinariness into holiness.

Shabbat Shalom and may you have a very meaningful, festive and enjoyable Shabbat.

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

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