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Shabbat Shalom from Bangkok

Rich and sweating?

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

Life is defined by movement. Heartbeat. Pulse. Air moving through the lungs. The first cry of a baby is the sweetest sound possible*.

Silence is golden? True to an extent. But not really. Deathly silence is not golden. It is a sign of absence of life.

I recall attending the bedside of a person who passed away. A family member, thought that perhaps they had detected a flutter of the eyelid of the departed. To counter the hopeful and wishful thinking of the relative, the hospital staff quickly connected a heart monitor and showed the straight line. The unmoving heart was a sure sign of no life and the very disappointed relative conceded that indeed the worst had come to pass.

Movement is a requisite for life and growth is a byproduct of life.

Here’s the thing. Just basic growth is not really enough. For some it’s actually a copout. As a living human being you don’t need to do anything to grow. Without contributing any effort your hair gets longer, your nails grow and your passport age advances.

Well, almost nothing. You do have to provide your body with nutrition in order to stay alive and thus grow. In the olden days that took a lot more effort than today. Much less time was available for other pursuits. Today, many people have leisure hours at their disposal and can afford to just ‘hang out’ or as they say today ‘chill out’.

Is ‘chilling out’ and just staying alive enough to live up to G-d’s expectations of us?

Chanukah teaches us that just sticking to the default and going the bare minimum needed to stay alive is not enough to illuminate the world.

To do what G-d expects of us in this world requires that we put forth effort.

Living in our own comfort zone is not enough to be considered putting forth a true effort. Pump up the volume and aim for new frontiers. Once those additional efforts are part of your norm and come easily, ramp up your efforts even more and exert yourself to achieve more.

This is how Chanukah works. Day one we light one candle. Day two we light two. And so it continues successively. Till we reach the special number of eight which represents the transcendence of nature represented by seven – as in the seven days of the week.

The message is crystal clear. Add. Then add again. Keep on improving. Add more lights. Expend more effort.

Ironically, by putting in effort, you are more at peace. Provided you are doing meaningful things. Slouching and evading your responsibilities does not ultimately lead to more happiness.

This is a law of nature which is counterintuitive.

There are a number of such rules, which are obvious once we point them out, but are not our natural state.

For example:

Controlling our natural desire for indulgence seems to be an imposition on our personal freedom. Say I feel like eating seven-layer cake and my wife tells me not to. A foolish husband will say ‘why are you nagging and telling me what to do’. While the truth of the matter is that refraining from those redundant calories is not to the detriment of our health. On the contrary it is one of those situations where ‘less is more’. Eating ‘more’ may actually lead to ‘less’ in terms of feeling energetic and healthy.

How about exercise. Sure, being a couch potato has its allure. Pulling yourself to the treadmill or swimming pool is not always easy. It’s a kind of slavery. Probably a person who would arrive to our generation with a time machine would think that we are a crazy society. Wealthy people congregating in a gym and running till they break out in a sweat. Lifting weights till they groan under their burden. ‘So much money and so enslaved’? thinks the man from the past.

Indeed, it’s a huge switch in our thinking. In the olden day’s rich people were defined by their ability to choose to be inactive. The poor had to work, shlep, run and lift heavy things. However today we know that for optimum health we need to exert our physical bodies.

It really boils down to allowing your head to do the thinking and deciding. The first Rebbe of Chabad authored the Tanya which contains this very fundamental message. Our minds are meant to steer our hearts and deeds. Practice doing what you know intellectually to be correct, health and right. Do not do whatever you ‘feel like’ based on your emotional urges or natural animalistic drives.

I always wonder why people don’t see the obvious correlation between exerting oneself Jewishly and enjoying enhanced spiritual well-being.

I am talking about sensible, balanced people. Who limit their food intake to be healthy. People that go to the gym and exercise regularly. They obviously know that doing what ‘you feel like’ is not a recipe for wellness.

Yet, when it comes to participating in developing their souls by enhancing their Jewish observance, a different set of values is sometimes applied.

Did you ever think to give your preteen kid a choice of whether they would like to brush their teeth? Yes, it’s a pain and a bother but you don’t wait for your kid to become a scientist and understand how plaque affects the enamel on the teeth. You tell him ‘listen here, I am your parent and you’d better go and brush your teeth’.

So why would you give your kid a choice of whether to participate in Jewish life? Yes, it’s easier not to go to a Chanukah celebration as it may take some efforts on the parent’s part. You may have to juggle your schedule. But that is the only way to gain better spiritual health.

Chanukah reminds us. Our efforts are critical. Growth, true growth can only come if we exert ourselves. If we don’t want to fool ourselves, we have to honestly admit that once our exertion level has become a norm we have to hold ourselves accountable to new levels of output. It’s comfortable to put on cruise control and stay at the same level. It behooves us though to do whatever we can to reach our full G-dly potential.

Add a mitzvah to your repertoire. It seem difficult? Great! That means you are making an effort. Making an effort means that you will truly grow in your relationship with G-d through your actions.

The G-dly way is to keep growing. Not natural growth rather effort based growth. We will never truly be happy until we go all the way.

May G-d bless you with everything good. Ever increasing good. Better health. More nachas from your loved ones. Prosperity. Peace of mind. Until we merit that final game plan – the coming of Mashiach, Amen!

Shabbat Shalom

Happy Chanuka (starting on Sunday night)

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

PS

* I got to think about the cry of a newborn yesterday, as we received the news from New York, that G-d blessed our son Mendel and his wife Chani with a healthy baby girl.

Overwhelming feelings of gratitude to the Almighty for His kindnesses to us fill our family’s hearts.

The Blessing of No Selfies on Shabbat

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

Imagine if you didn’t have to shlep and actually travel to a tourist attraction but could get the memory of your desired trip implanted into your brain.

After all, what really remains of the touring trips we take? Isn’t it just the memories we have created through our travels?

Wouldn’t it be cool to just go to a ‘touring download clinic’ and choose what memories you want to have. Presto, a few minutes later you walk out enriched with memories of having visited your place of choice. No need to buy ticket, to sit in a seat on cramped seat in an airplane.

In a sad twist, a psychologist told me about a real scenario regarding someone who had lost their ability to remember anything.  His wife wanted to go on holiday, whereas the husband insisted it wasn’t worth his effort. He knew that unfortunately he would have no memories of his trip. He argued that while he would enjoy the holiday during the time he was actually experiencing it, the fact that he would not remember anything made it unattractive to him. The psychologist urged him to make the trip for the value it had for his wife. Even if it would not produce memories for him, he should see the value in the actual act of benevolently accompanying his wife.

The downside of being too caught up in ‘creating memories’ is the fact that it takes away our being present in the actual experience we are engaged in. In today’s world of gadgets and communications, we almost never allow a meaningful experience to be bereft of the ubiquitous ‘selfie’, tweet or Instagram. Sometimes we are not truly ‘present’ in the moment because we are too busy doing things to preserve the moment for the future.

(Thank G-d for Shabbat when we actually unplug from the external stimuli and focus inward. We spend time getting in touch with our own souls, we place emphasis on our relationship with G-d and spend quality time with our families and friends).

So how important are memories?

Well, it really depends on how you use them.

Do you use them to lean back, feel good and doze off?  

Or do the memories form a base from which you get energized and inspired to continue in your life mission.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was a great sage and a saintly man. It is puzzling that he proclaimed to his students before he passed away ‘I don’t know in which direction they will take me after I pass away’. How could he have any doubts about the fact that he would be headed straight for the Garden of Eden after his passing.

What Rabbi Yochanan was sharing with his students was the fact that he was so busy in his work in serving Hashem that he hadn’t had a chance to think about where he was in terms of his righteousness.

When you are busy enjoying a wedding of a loved one or selling merchandise at a trade show, there is no time to calculate or reminisce. While one is in the midst of doing something and progressing in their goals it is not the appropriate time to pause for nostalgic remembrances.  

‘TODAY is a time for doing – tomorrow will be the time for enjoying the reward’.

This is how the sages instruct us to lead our lives.

Our world is filled with opportunity to partner with G-d. Every time we overcome our natural instincts and choose to do what is right over what is convenient or expedient, we have made the world a bit more holy. Every good deed, every charitable and magnanimous act tilts the worlds balance to purity and saneness. There is so much to do. So little time to do it in. Taking time to dwell on memories can be a threat to doing new things.

At the same time, the Torah tells us that we must take the time and make the effort to remember.

Remember that G-d took us out of Egypt. Remember that G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. That’s why we keep the day of Shabbat holy. Remember dark moments of our past history so as not to repeat past mistakes. Remember our inspirational moments. The G-dly revelation at Sinai.

These remembrances are what give us the impetus to leap forward in an energetic recommitment to following in Hashem’s path.

Feelings of gratitude are also enhanced by memories. Remembering humble beginnings makes one’s gratitude for the subsequent blessings much stronger.

Yaakov states in this week’s portion how he feels humbled by G-d’s kindnesses to him. ‘I crossed the Jordan river with just my walking stick’ said Yaakov, ‘now I have grown into two camps (one consisting of a large family and the other consisting of the great wealth I have amassed.)’.  

In conclusion: remembering the past is clearly a very important component in living an inspired life the way G-d wants us to live it.

It is not a call to rest, it is an inspiration to do more.

It was with this thought in mind - that we got together with friends and community members last night to celebrate moving into our new home in the La Maison building (opposite the Beth Elisheva Synagogue).  

We reminisced that exactly twenty-six years earlier I had first landed in Thailand on my exploratory visit that led to our arrival here several months later. This memory filled us with gratitude to Hashem for blessing us so magnanimously. More importantly it was a call to action. For together with the accumulation of years and blessings comes the opportunity to do more. To build more Jewish life. To broaden and deepen the opportunities for Jewish observance in this country.

The celebration coincided Providentially with the ninetieth wedding anniversary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his wife the Rebbetzen. The remembrance and celebration of this milestone is a source of great inspiration as it was this union that effectively bonded the Rebbe with us the student and chasidim. This marriage led to his subsequent acceptance of the leadership of the Chabad/Lubavitch movement after the passing of his father in law the sixth Rebbe. The remembrance of this day fuels the drive to try to live up to his ambitious expectations of his students and emissaries.

Memories: Remember that truly valuable memories are those that are real! In other words, do the right thing because it’s the right thing. Not because you think it will look good in the pictures. The memories will be created automatically as a result of your experiences.

Once you have memories, by all means use them wisely.

Use them to recognize how blessed you are.

Even more importantly, get inspired and energized by them.

Shabbat Shalom

PS It was a few minutes short of midnight last night when I received the call that Mr. Salim (Shlomo) Eubanni had passed away. As I went to the hospital to oversee the arrangements I recalled the first Torah discussion I had with Salim twenty-six years ago. He stood at the helm of the Even Chen Synagogue with dedication and determination. Salim was a talmid chacham who was meticulous in his personal observance of Torah and Mitzvot and steadfast in upholding the standards of Torah-true Judaism he so fervently believed in. Salim will be sorely missed by our community and by the beautiful family that he and his wife Sally are blessed with.

Burial will take place in Israel next week. A funeral service will likely be held here in Bangkok before the departure to Israel. As arrangements are still being finalized please send me an email if you wish to be updated.

Wedding: Rain but Shining

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

The marriage ceremony was just beginning. Menachem Wilhelm, (son of Rabbi & Mrs. Nechemya Wilhelm of Chabad House in Bangkok’s backpacker district) was already standing under the velvet chupa which was positioned under the open sky. His bride had just entered the chupa when the first drops began.

Holding the chupa under the open sky is an ancient custom. It symbolizes the blessings of G-d to Avraham our Patriarch that his children be like the stars of the sky.

True, the weather forecast did say rain. While several guests brought umbrellas thanks to the weather forecast, most didn’t. The forecast didn’t give an exact time and what are the odds of the rain starting just as the ceremony is underway. If the rain had started before the chupa, they would have waited till it passed. But it caught everyone unaware. After the ceremony had begun.

Nu, nobody is going to interrupt a marriage ceremony because of a light drizzle. Seconds later it became apparent that it was not drizzle, the drops were quite heavy. A few moments after that, the pace of the rain increased. The guests ran for cover while the immediate family continued the chupa ceremony. Rapidly, the rain increased to the level of a monsoon. Standard for Thailand, but uncharacteristic for Israel. Still, the bride continued her seven encirclements of her groom as the families bravely stood there. The chupa canopy was falling lower and lower under the weight of the accumulated rain. At some stage it became quite impossible to continue and the families conceded and moved indoors thus temporarily pausing the ceremony. Once they did that, the rain quickly tapered off and a few minutes later the ceremony continued outdoors.

Although it started off quite extraordinarily, the rest of the wedding celebration went more predictably and was extremely joyous thank G-d.

The wedding took place only two days ago (you can wish the Wilhelm’s Mazel tov by clicking here) and I haven’t had a chance to hear how the newly married couple feels about the unexpected drama at the start of their married life. However, knowing the groom’s family very well, I am absolutely sure that they will view the rain at the chupa as a blessing from G-d.

The major world events of this week are a good backdrop against which to put things in perspective.

Earlier this week missiles were falling in Israel. The fact that in our own country Jews are hounded and pounded by enemy fire is tragic and unacceptable. The loss of life at the hands of our enemies is painful beyond words.

We must also pay attention to the miracles though. The casualty count was miraculously low. Not because the missiles are ineffective. When they score a direct hit, they are tragic.

An anti-tank missile actually did hit a bus. Which went up into flames immediately. Miraculously, it was moments after the soldiers had gotten off.

In other news this week, the California wildfires are reported to be the worst in America’s recorded history. The loss of life is tragic. Myriad homes were consumed by the uncontrollable fires which even wiped out an entire city. This disaster has impacted the lives of scores of thousands. In many ways it has irreparably damaged their lives.

My friends and colleagues in the affected areas of California have galvanized to provide support and help. Click here for more info.

It would be insensitive of me not to recognize a rained out chupa is quite an inconvenience and disappointment. True, it seems like quite an insignificant issue compared to the aforementioned real life and death matters going on around us. Still, it is certainly not something I would wish for anyone. (Watch the clip and you will see how ludicrous it was).

The downsides of chupa under heavy rain? First of all, I am sure the rain damaged the new and costly fancy wedding clothes. The pictures of the chupa were affected without doubt. I am sure there are many other details that were affected by this unexpected deluge.

The only thing that was absolutely unaffected is the actual marriage of the young man and young woman standing under the chupa. They exited the chupa as a married couple. Moreover, the powerful G-dly blessings that accompany every wedded couple were in no way diminished. On the contrary, it would seem that in Jewish tradition the rain only serves to emphasize the Divine blessings that will ‘rain down’ upon this couple as they enter their married life. After all, rain is quite literally a life giving elixir that comes down from Heaven. It symbolizes that all of our material sustenance comes from G-d.

Here is the point:

Too often we miss the point. We get sidetracked and distracted. When driving a car, getting distracted is downright dangerous G-d forbid. When living life, getting distracted from our primary goals can lead to living an uninspired life. Or even worse, being mildly depressed G-d forbid.

For example, Bar Mitzvahs sometimes become more about the ‘bar’ and the party than about the ‘mitzvah’.

When preparing a family for the bar or bat mitzvah of their child I emphasize the importance of not losing sight of what the celebration is really about. It is about the privilege and responsibility of entering the age of being obligated in performing the mitzvahs of the Almighty.

Yes, the celebration is important. But it is a celebration of the primary achievement of Bar Mitzvah. And we need to keep our ‘eyes on the ball’ and not lose our way.

With weddings, it is even more common to lose sight of what a wedding is really about. Wedding preparations are sometimes focused on things that are not meaningful in the greater picture. Exaggerated amounts of time and money are spent on things that are fleeting and extremely short-lived. Clothing, makeup, pictures, menus and so on.

Certainly all these things are important ingredients for a joyous wedding celebration. And the Torah does instruct us to rightfully mark the beginning of a new Jewish family with unbridled joy. The right perspective is critical though. So that the secondary is not treated as primary which would relegate the primary to secondary.

Primary in a marriage is the commitment to honor, cherish, respect and love one another. Critical to the success of the union is entering the relationship under the G-dly canopy. Realizing that a Jewish marriage and home can only succeed if built on the foundation of Torah and Mitzvahs.

Rain can ruin clothes. It can cloud pictures. It can scare away the guests to run indoors for cover. It cannot adversely affect the real and enduring meaning of marriage.

This is a message that we can all take for our own lives.

When you face a disappointment because of something not going the way you anticipated or wanted, it may help to take a moment and think about what your primary goal in life is. Very often the primary goal is unaffected. It is merely the circumstances that have not lived up to your hopes.

Our mission and goal is as stated in the beginning of the Torah to recognize, serve and bring and awareness of G-d into our own lives and to our surroundings.

I bless you that Almighty G-d give you everything GOOD in your life, so that you can carry out your primary mission in life, from a position of health, nachat, prosperity and happiness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

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