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Shabbat Shalom from Bangkok

Plain/Plane Thievery

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By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

It felt surreal to be sent to the waiting room at the immigration in Israel. The young immigration officer had asked me a number of questions. ‘I see you sometimes come to Israel for only twenty-four hours, why?’ I explained that indeed, a few weeks ago I had come for one day to attend a funeral. A while before that, I had come for a day and a half for a wedding. This didn’t allay her doubts and I was sent to wait in the side room as she did further investigation. Thank G-d it didn’t take all that long and I was handed back my passport with an immigration permit.

It was a minor annoyance. It came on the heels of a delayed flight. An inexplicable headache that was getting stronger. My fedora hat that was had been bent out of shape. It had fallen under my computer bag in the overhead compartment, although I was sure I hadn’t place it there that clumsily.

The worst part of the trip was yet to become known to me.

I had come to Israel to attend a memorial gathering and after getting settled in the hotel, I was ready to set out to the Har Hamenuchot cemetery to lead the prayers.

In my computer bag I had a considerable amount of cash that was intended to alleviate the plight of a particular needy family. Before I left the hotel room I thought it would be prudent to put the cash into the safe.

I rummaged through my bag to get the envelope with the money. I looked again. I took everything out of my bag. I searched my other bag. I turned the bags over and felt every surface. No money. Strange. I had hidden it away in my bag. It had been tucked into a place that was not easy to reach. But I couldn’t find it.

There is a tradition that when one loses something one gives money to Tzedaka and the merit of the tzedaka helps to find the lost item. I took some shekels and put them aside for charity.

The tzedaka helped. A few minutes later I found it. ‘It’ in this case refers to the envelope in which the cash had been placed. I remembered it because I had folded it a certain way before I hid it in my bag. But it was empty. It was very helpful to find that envelope because it allowed me to realize what had happened.

I had been robbed. On the plane. I had slept deeply for five hours. Sitting up straight in my economy class seat. At the time, after waking up from a deep non-interrupted five-hour sleep, I was amazed at how well I had slept. Now I wonder if I had slept too deeply. Someone obviously went into my bag and combed through its contents. That would explain why my hat which had been placed by me on top of my bag, landed up under it. Someone had obviously pilfered from my bag as I sat on that Royal Jordanian flight. Did they somehow manage to induce my sleep? Maybe my headache came from that? Too much of a conspiracy theory here. Especially when taking into account that I hadn’t drunk anything before I fell asleep. Not even a cup of water.

Bottom line. I had a lousy flight. Irksome delay from midnight to 3am. Robbed on the way. Massive headache on arrival. Inexplicable hesitation by border control to allow me into the country. Actually the waiting time in the border room was a blessing in disguise. After a few cups of water from the water cooler my headache started dissipating. But the money theft once discovered was difficult to perceive as a blessing.

I cannot say I was totally untroubled by all this. I was certainly not dancing in the streets with joy. However, I know that G-d’s Divine Providence runs every detail of our lives and thus I was not overly distressed. it was more of a feeling of ‘what is this meant to teach me’ rather than ‘why did this happen’. And I was worried about helping this family that was relying on the funds I was bringing for them.

As all of this sunk in I was able to reflect on the events and think about it more objectively. Nothing that happened was really all that unusual. A quick google search told me that theft in airplanes is not uncommon. A call to my travel agent got me confirmation of that. The airline told my agent that while they are aware that this takes place, there is nothing they can do about this phenomenon. Getting stopped at the border for a secondary check happens to many people. As a non-Israeli passport holder the immigration agent wanted to be prudent before allowing me in. Delays and headaches certainly happen all the time. Things not working out the way you anticipate is a reality for so many people. Why was I making a big deal of it?

The realization came to be with clarity.

I had become used to miraculous success. So used to it actually, that when things didn’t glide along extraordinarily it left me feeling that something was wrong. Even when arguably it could be written off as ‘that’s life’.

Hmm. This got me thinking further. Why didn’t the supernatural success accompany me this time? Was I somehow less spiritually attuned? Why hadn’t I merited to the undeserved Divine Providence that accompanied me so regularly and eased my way through the twists and turns of life?

The Jewish tradition of asking a Tzadik to pray on your behalf is well-known. My wife had asked me before I left whether I had written my customary note to be placed at the Rebbe’s Ohel. She asked me three times to be precise. Each time I answered that I had written. And that was the truth of course. But deep down I knew that it was only partially true. The note I had written about my upcoming trip was part of a blessing request written last week. Usually, just before my flight I write a separate note just for the trip. Trips require so much blessing. I had not really prepared spiritually in the same way I usually do.

I am not saying I was punished for that. Not at all. I hadn’t done anything wrong. And nothing unnaturally or extraordinarily bad had happened to me. Everything that happened is explainable by the laws of averages and plausibility’s.

Simply, I was not lifted onto the wings of obvious Divine supernatural success during the first stage of my trip. It was almost like Heaven was saying ‘you want it your way, without turning to G-d in prayer for obvious Divine accompaniment, have it your way. See how the natural order of this world doesn’t always smile’. And then a series of unpleasant - albeit purely natural - events happened.

Of course once I realized my mistake, I immediately sent a note to be read at the holy space of the Rebbe’s resting place.

The results were swift in coming. I mentioned my predicament to my philanthropic friend who was hosting the memorial event and he immediately undertook to replace those funds so that the poor family would be helped. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

And then everything else started to return to the blessed pattern I have become accustomed to. All my appointments and meetings started falling into place with the kind of precision that is an obvious sign of revealed Divine Providence. It feels so humbling to be the recipient of this kind of unearned benevolence from the Almighty.

Thank you Hashem for allowing me to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ as the saying goes. To be reminded of how important it is to be mindful and aware of our dependence on G-d for every single nuance of our lives!

Here is what I want to leave you with.

First of all, a practical tip. I just learned, after twenty-five years of travel, that the thievery on planes is something to be reckoned with. When traveling with valuables and cash, they need to be guarded more closely.

Another message for life that I would like to highlight. Don’t take for granted the blessings that are already part of your ‘package’. A potent analogy of this would be that you only truly appreciate the working pipes in your home, when the plumbing in the house goes awry. A problematic toilet makes you aware of what has been taken for granted for so long.

Don’t wait for something to go wrong G-d forbid, to begin to sing praises to G-d for all the things in your life that are working. There is so much that is a blessing and ‘on-track’. Appreciate it and thank G-d for it.

Furthermore, what I learned most uniquely from these events that occurred to me on my trip, is the power and importance of prayer. Perhaps even more importantly, I wish to highlight the need stay away from the pitfall of lethargy and inaction in not taking engaging fully and connecting to the power of prayer to G-d.

One of the fascinating misconception I have come across is as follows. Some people think prayer should be reserved for the ‘big things’ in life. Like health and other serious business like that. They seem to think it will be too much of a ‘burden’ to mention the ‘smaller stuff’ to G-d and that somehow they should just grin it, bear it and sweat it out.

It reminds me of this telling analogy. A fellow was trudging along the road from yehoopitz to yenehekvelt. Along came a wagon and offered him a ride. Thankfully our weary hiker climbed onto the carriage. The magnanimous host told his guest to make himself comfortable and put his heavy backpack down on the floor of the carriage. The guest responded ‘I so appreciate that you are giving me a ride, I wouldn’t want to take further advantage and make your horse shlep the extra weight of the bag as well’.

Sounds foolish. Sometimes we do the same. Sure, for the ‘big things’ of life we turn to G-d. For health and major things obviously we need to turn to Hashem. For the ‘small things’ we seem to sometimes tell him ‘G-d, I don’t want to burden you with the small things, its kind enough of you to handle the ‘big things’’. Most of us don’t say this consciously, but sometimes we do say it subconsciously.  

My dear friend.

May G-d guide you and carry you on His wings. May G-d carry the Jewish people on the ‘wings of eagles’ to the much awaited time of our Redemption with the righteous Mashiach.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

Are you waitlisted?

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

I have heard the saying ‘the most important thing in life is showing up’.

Think about it this way: ‘If you are on the waiting list for a flight, you will certainly not board the flight if you don’t even go to the airport’.

In other words, don’t give up and decide you won’t succeed without even going to where you are supposed to go.

But how does one know where to go?

Ah. About this King David said in Psalms ‘man’s footsteps are planned from Hashem’.

Or as our Sages wrote in the Talmud: ‘the feet of a person are responsible to take him to exactly where he needs to go’.

Once your feet take you to where you are supposed to be, the rest will work out too. Hashem runs His world, we have to do our bit, allow our feet to go where they need to go and not hide passively under the bed.

When I got the notice that Dan R. was recovering from a major heart surgery in Manilla, I asked my colleague Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi to go visit him. He showed up at the hospital and started asking for Dan. The staff were not really understanding who he was looking for.

Jesse R, Dan’s son, concluded the story. ‘I spent twelve hours at my father’s bedside and finally I was going to go home for some respite. I was getting my parking card stamped at the front desk when I heard someone asking for my father Dan R. I looked and saw it was a rabbi….’

Divine Providence. The minute that the rabbi arrived Hashem organized to have the son at the front desk to ensure that the visit was carried out. And an important visit it was. Rabbi Ashkenazi put on Tefilin and said Shma with Dan. Five days later, after Dan contracted a lung infection in the hospital, he passed away.

Jesse now knew a rabbi, so he called him immediately after Dan’s passing to discuss his father’s wishes to have a Jewish burial by Rabbi Yosef Kantor in Thailand. Instinctively, the family thought to bring ashes back to Thailand to have a burial ceremony. Gently, Rabbi Ashkenazi advised him that Jewish burial absolutely prohibited cremation. The Jewish burial took place a few days later in the traditional way.

Rabbi Ashkenazi felt uplifted to have been the right person, at the right time, in the right place, to help facilitate a fellow Jew’s final journey according to our hallowed traditions.

Last week saw me take a very brief trip to New York. One of my stops was to pray morning services at a synagogue in Manhattan to see O.T. who is a generous supporter of our work in Thailand. I rarely get to meet him as he doesn’t ever visit Thailand. But since he does business in Thailand he feels it is proper to support Jewish life there as well. Actually, all I wanted to do was give sincere thanks for his unwavering support over the year. I hadn’t coordinated an official meeting with O but figured I would see him at morning services which he attends daily.

‘My luck’, he didn’t come to that particular minyan that morning.

Hey, no such thing as ‘luck’. I mean Divine Providence.

Ok Divine Providence. But the bottom line is that I had planned to see him, and out of all days, the day that I came, he didn’t come. I was feeling mystified.

The rabbi of the congregation told me to wait a few minutes as he may come to a Brit scheduled a short while later. In the meantime I opened a book of Torah thoughts written by great Sephardic rabbis.

I couldn’t believe my eyes….

I had opened to an erudite Torah essay written by Rabbi Shalom Mashash the chief Sephardic rabbi of Jerusalem who had passed away in 2003. His essay was in honor of the fiftieth year of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s leadership. It was written several years after the Rebbe’s passing.

One of the thoughts written there, relates to our Parsha.

Usually, the new parsha of the week starts after a break of at least a few spaces. Click here for the beginning of last weeks parsha to see an example.

This weeks portion, Vayechi, starts without any break. The text just runs on. To the extent, that it is hard for the Torah reader to see where to start. Click here to see what I mean.

A question that is addressed by several commentaries is, why is there no break at the beginning of this weeks parsha?

Rabbi Mashash shared the following explanation:

Last weeks parsha speaks about Yaakov’s life!

This weeks parsha speaks about Yaakov’s passing…

For the vast majority of people, end of life is the end of a chapter.

The end of the earthly, physical life that they lived here on earth.

It heralds the beginning of a new chapter of life.

Spiritual life.

For Yaakov, and saintly tzadikim, end of life here on earth is not the end of a chapter.  Neither is entry into the next life a new chapter.

For even when a tzadik is alive in this physical world, he is living in a sublime spiritual reality. Yes, he needs to eat and drink, but his life is not about the sensory enjoyments of life. Belief in Hashem, awe of G-d and love of G-d, these are the realities that occupy and motivate him.

That life continues even after the physical life here on earth finishes.

The Torah illustrated this by not showing a chapter break between Yaakov’s physical life and his spiritual one after passing.

The timing of the message was impeccable. It happened last week, when we were reading Veyigash, the very portion that ends without a break. This week we are reading Vayechi, the portion that starts without a break.

I didn’t get to meet the gentleman I had wanted to meet… but I got far more than that.

I got a Heavenly sign that my feet had taken me where I needed to be. From all the thousands of books in the library, I had happened upon a book that contained a scholarly tribute to my beloved Rebbe. An article that was related to the very portion of Torah read this week. The content of the article was directly related to a chasidic gathering I was going to be chairing the next day.

I felt euphoric. I left that synagogue with a bounce in my walk. Inspired to keep ‘showing up’ even if I am not always sure that I will succeed. It is up to me to do my part.

As the Rebbe once wrote to someone. When you are not sure what to do, ‘sleeping is never the right response’. Don’t run away and try to hide. Do something. Even if you don’t see how your action will solve the matter.

When a Rebbe speaks we listen.

Because while a Rebbe lives in the physical world, they are spiritual lighthouses. Their lives here in this world are all about spirituality. It’s not that they live ascetically. It is a mitzvah to eat, to marry, to handle money for benevolent purposes. Honor doesn’t tempt them. Their material lives are a ladder to the Divine. For true tzadikim, money doesn’t sway them. In a simple analogy, just like most of us will never be tempted to murder someone else G-d forbid, a true Tzadik is never tempted to do anything that is not Divinely mandated.

Most of us cannot reach that level. But we can be inspired to climb up the ladder of personal growth. To be a bit more mindful of the ‘true’ values of life. Goodness and kindness. Belief in G-d and integrity in interpersonal relationships. More mitzvah performance, less selfish indulgence.

Now that’s called a real ‘life’.

Not life ‘Coke adds life’ which was a branding slogan in the late 70’s.

‘REAL life’ is being more connected to the ‘life of life’, Almighty G-d the Creator of the Universe and all therein.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

PS following on the above, by Divine Providence an urgent case has reached me. And through me it is now reaching you….

M.C., who lost his wife, leaving him with four children without a mother, heroically married a young widow who was left to fend for her four children. M.C. works hard to support the large combined family as his wife provides the home environment so needed for these suffering children. They barely makes ends meet but manage to survive. Till they were hit with unexpected and unwanted expenses. Two of the children urgently need several months of emotional therapy at $120 per session. The suffering of these poor children is already so great… at least we can try to help them weather the storm and overcome their challenges so they can become upright and self-respecting young men and women.

Please help these poor orphans! Click here for our humanitarian fund and give tzedaka to pay for a therapy session and thus give hope and a brighter future to these suffering children.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanuka!

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

It must have felt eerie. To have the most powerful man in Egypt, the power behind the Pharaoh, know your childhood secrets.

Imagine being granted an audience with the chief minister of a super power. Out of the blue they start asking you questions about pranks you pulled on your sibling’s in your early childhood. Or they show that they know about your family rivalries and secrets, the nature of which you would never share outside the four walls of your house. (Today you would assume that there was a secret camera in your house. Three and a half thousand years ago that wasn’t within the realm of the imaginable).

That’s the way the brother of Joseph felt when they stood before him asking to buy grain during the regional famine.

Unbeknownst to them Joseph was their brother. He knew them literally from the cradle. A stranger would indeed never have been privy to that level of intimate knowledge about the family. But Yosef was not a stranger. There was not even a remote thought in their mind that the governing minister of Egypt was their long lost – sold – brother. So the uncanny knowledge this minister had into the minutiae of their family life left them ‘spooked out’.

The story unfolds in this week’s Torah reading and next week’s as you can read in the clickable links.

All their questions became answered immediately once Yosef revealed his true identity. It was like turning on a light in a pitch black room after one has wandered around the room bumping into various items and not knowing what the nature of the room is. One could be groping around a room which contains a sink, metal instruments and other accouterments and not know the nature of the room. Is it an operating theater? A home kitchen? Perhaps a science lab. Without the gift of sight and light and without the benefit of other information, you would literally be ‘left in the dark’ as to the exact function of the room you are in. The moment the light goes on, in a split second, everything becomes clear. The myriads of questions you had about the odd shapes and various textures of the objects in the room, becomes self-evident immediately upon being able to see.

With our Jewish identities it is sometimes not very different.

I have heard from many a searching Jew, that he or she have gone through periods in their life feeling like something is missing. Not feeling entirely happy with their lives even though everything seems to be going well. Their mundane successful lives were lacking true depth and meaning. Some may have temporarily assuaged this feeling by experimenting with other cultures, religions or philosophies. They may have even started to believe that Judaism was merely an ethnicity or cultural context.

Till they saw a swastika paraded by anti-Semites and their blood started boiling. Or they heard about a heinous shooting in Pittsburgh or G-d forbid a missile falling in Israel and they couldn’t just go on with ‘life as usual’. Perhaps they read in the news headlines about a fellow Jew committing a crime which is grossly unethical and bad and they cringed upon reading it.

They then started to wonder. Why am I reacting so passionately? Do I really care so much about my Jewishness?

On the positive side, people have shared with me that after engaging with their Jewishness by participating in Jewish events and performing mitzvahs they had the warm feeling of having ‘come home’. The amazing thing is, that these are people who didn’t have any prior Jewish experiences in their lives until they were many decades old.

It is difficult to make sense of this. I have a friend who grew up in a traditional home and used to observe quite a few mitzvahs to the best of his ability. After the horrific terror attacks in France a few years ago, he sent me an email that was painful to read.

Here is what he wrote:

I am not writing this to disrespect you … I have lost all faith in organized religion and I believe strongly that all religions are manmade and that religion is a form of brainwashing. None of us would feel Jewish if we had not had a Jewish upbringing.…

I can’t blame him for thinking that his ‘Jewish conscience’ is a byproduct of his Jewish upbringing. He was brought up with Judaism from his early childhood on.  He does not yet realize that even those who are not brought up with Jewish observance feel a sense of inner peace and ‘homecoming’ when they respond to the needs of the Jewish soul within them.

It is an existential reality. The Jewish soul only feels satisfied when it is engaged in a purposeful relationship with G-d.

My friend who thinks that feeling Jewish is all about the way you were brought up, is in for a surprise. In my eyes, a pleasant surprise. I don’t know when it will happen. I do know that it will happen though. My prayer is that he gets back to his Jewish senses when he is young, healthy and energetic. This way there will still be time to realign himself on a more wholesomely Jewish track and contribute his share to the glorious destiny of our people.

This is a powerful inner message we take from Chanuka. The story of Chanuka is the victory over the overwhelmingly stronger enemy, finding the untainted, sealed oil and the miraculous eight days that the Menorah burned. The oil used needed to be sealed by the unbreakable seal of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest).

This flask of oil symbolizes the spark of Jewishness within us. It is a spark that cannot be contaminated. Almighty G-d has sealed it and it remains inviolable.  Come what may, the Jewish soul retains its pristine holiness and innocence. No force in the world can harm it.

This Chanuka I got to see the ‘flask of oil’ – Jewish spark in action.  This is a story that is seven-plus decades in the making.

Dan Rosenthal came to shul in Bangkok when he was seventy-five years old. For the first time. After living here for many years something pulled him to the Synagogue. We put on Tefilin for what I believe was the first time in his life and subsequently every time we met we would lay Tefilin. It was a blossoming relationship that I enjoyed with Dan whom I last saw at our son's bar mitzvah a short time ago. He loved the joy and the dancing. During our last formal meeting just before Yom Kippur the topic of burial came up. I told Dan, who has several children, none of whom are Jewish, to make sure to convey his wishes for a Jewish burial in writing. As well, he should be sure to include a percentage of his estate to Jewish charity so that his Jewish legacy should continue.

These are standard things I make sure to mention to people. Not because I think something will happen to them in the immediate future. I have simply seen too many people leave this world without having addressed the topic of burial in their final wishes.*

Little did I know that a bare two months later I would get the notice that Dan had passed away after an emergency surgery during a visit to Manila. His wishes were made clear to his son. ‘If something happens, call Rabbi Yosef Kantor and arrange for a Jewish burial in Thailand’. (On Sunday please G-d the burial will take place here in the Jewish cemetery in Bangkok at 4:00 PM).

Here is a classic case of the indomitable spirit of the Jew. A ‘flask of oil’. Untainted. A soul can never lose its G-dly qualities. But this soul was not fed with the things a Jewish soul really craves. A Tefilin laying, some Tzedaka to Jewish causes, Passover Seder, Torah study. For many decades the soul seems neglected in terms of tending to its Jewish needs. The ‘oil’ doesn’t seem enough to last for more than one day. Maybe till the bar mitzvah. Maybe not even.

Miraculously the ‘oil’ lasts for eight days.

Smack in the middle of his eighth decade his soul was obviously as inspired as ever. It started shining ever more brightly. Bright enough that in the few minutes he had before going under the surgeon’s scalpel he expressly stated his final wishes to be buried as a Jew.

Dan came into the world as a Jew. Dan will leave the world as a Jew. The ‘oil’, the ‘pintele yid’ (spark of Jewishness) remains uncontaminated till the end.

I am sharing this important information. To save time and concern. To make sure you don’t get ‘spooked out’ when all of a sudden the urge to be more Jewishly engaged wells up in your soul. Recognize that you can never run away from who you truly are. A Jew is born a Jew and remains a Jew and will never truly feel fulfilled without feeding and engaging with his or her neshama – Jewish soul.

The Torah teaches us this unequivocal truth. This is the basis of everything my colleagues and I do. This was the unwavering message of the Rebbe to our generation. Do a mitzvah because it’s the most natural and wholesome thing you can do for self-actualization. The truest expression of your inner self is recognized when you live your life in sync with your inner being. It is the only way to true tranquility and peace of mind and spirit.

Let us embrace our inner ‘oil’. Smothering it doesn’t work. Thousands of dollars spent on therapists won’t change the reality of the truth of who we are. It is our choice to consciously progress in our own self-realization and actualize our inner potential.

The message of Chanuka is:

Discover the spark of your true Jewish self. Kindle your personal menorah through engaging in Yiddishkeit by studying Torah and observing Mitzvah’s. Don’t try to do everything at once. Gradually. One day at a time. One additional mitzvah-light at a time. Until all eight branches of the candelabra of your soul are illuminated and shed the beautiful light and inspiration of G-d’s teachings to all of your family, your community and by extension to all of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom & Happy Chanuka

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

* (It is also painful when a person who wants Judaism to continue for eternity doesn’t explicitly leave a Jewish legacy gift from their estate. Next of kin and heirs may not always share the vision and views of the deceased. It was the generations before us that provided for us and we need to provide for the future so that Judaism has the wherewithal to continue to flourish in the next generation. I am happy to report that several people have shared with me that they have included The Jewish Association of Thailand and Chabad Foundation of Thailand in their planned giving. For more information feel free to contact me).

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