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Shabbat Shalom from Bangkok

The Hero Next Door

 

By the Grace of G-d,

Dear Friend,

When you hear the word ‘hero’ does a certain type of person or action comes to mind?

Acts of bravado. Uniquely courageous behavior. Individuals who do remarkable things and stand out through their heroism.

Perhaps, deep down, you think a hero is a ‘larger than life’ kind of character. Something you would not expect of yourself.

I recently bumped into a person that I haven’t seen for quite some years. That person had really aged and since I had not seen her in a long time I hadn’t gotten used to the changes gradually. She was walking with great difficulty down some steps with a stick on one side and a middle-aged child supporting her on the other.

I asked the elderly woman how she was. She sighed deeply, the kind of sigh that speaks volumes about pain and frustration, and responded, ‘I’ve become an old lady…’. 

And then she carried on laboriously climbing the steps to her home.

It dawned on me that here was heroism in an unsung form.

Many a concentration camp survivor has spoken about the urge to touch the electrified fence and just be over with the excruciating life they faced in the death camp. 

If you think about it (although it is truly unthinkable), not to take one’s life in that kind of circumstance, while imprisoned in subhuman conditions is an act of defiance. To continue living such a wretched existence, day in and day out, was heroic.

I know have given an extreme example. Nothing we know of, can be compared to the unspeakable suffering and torture afflicted on our people during the Holocaust.

I use the example to give a different context to the concept of heroism. To make it more relatable and relevant. 

Heroism is living up to what is expected of you, against all odds. 

You don’t have to be a specialist in ageing to know that getting old is not fun.

Clearly, the aches, pains and restrictions that come with old age are a huge challenge.

Breathing in and breathing out when life is full of aches and pains, seems to me to be a form of heroism.

Unsung heroism. Because let’s face it, for the most part, old people are not looked up to as giants. 

The Torah instructs us to honor our elders. Simply, the fact that one has advanced in years, earns them the right to respect. Regardless of their level of wisdom. 

Sounds nice. Who doesn’t want to be respected? It would be wonderful if this Torah injunction would be more widespread. But even where there is respect, old age is a challenge. To me it seems that it may be a greater challenge than anything the elders may have faced before.

For these veterans of life are still on active duty as well. 

They are expected to live and serve G-d according to the best of their capabilities. Notwithstanding their natural propensity to not be in the best of spirit.

Something shared with me a story that happened with their elderly grandfather. For various reasons one of his grandkids didn’t have where to live. They stayed with this widowed grandparent. The other children would ask the father/grandfather ‘how do you put up with the noise and inconvenience of having young kids running around your house’? His response spoke volumes. ‘Just because I am elderly, do I no longer have the mitzvah of working on my ‘middot’ character traits’? 

Such a statement can only be made by someone who is actually elderly and experiencing the changes that come with old age. 

You can’t learn old age from an app.

I know that the ‘oldify’ app is all the rage now. In brief there is this app that if you upload your picture it can ‘virtually’ add decades to your life and show you how you will look when you are old. 

The app does not however give you the feeling of what it feels like to be old. It’s ‘cool’ to be young, energetic and raring to go, and see how your facial features will look in old age. The app doesn’t give you a taste of the chronic pain of rheumatic bones or the dizzy spell of high blood pressure and the frustration of now being able to hold things firmly in trembling hands. 

You think old people are grumpy and foul tempered. Undeniably when we get older, we ‘kvetch’ more. How you can keep from being grumpy when the aches and pains of life catch up with you?

Let’s look at the elders in our society with a lot more respect! 

As to the care providers, the children who devote themselves to caring for ageing parents. They too are heroes.

Once we have reframed the concept of heroism, you will rightfully notice that there is a hero living right next door to you and even in your own home.

This bumper sticker grabbed my attention when I saw it. 

‘Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.’

When you assume that your neighbor is overcoming his own internal struggles you appreciate them in a different light. Rather than noticing the twenty percent that is not perfect about them, you will start to respect them for the eighty percent that is quite okay.

Here is the catch. 

Don’t use this kind of thinking to accept mediocrity from yourself. Excuses should never be used to support our own laziness. 

Rationalizations should be applied solely in viewing others. 

In the context of how we view our fellow Jews here is a way to achieve greater Jewish Unity. See what your fellow Jew is doing in terms of Jewish observance as being a real achievement. Understand that they may have found it really challenging to do that mitzvah. Don’t try and find what they are not doing and be disparaging. View their observance as being one that took supreme effort!

This is a Torah based recipe for mutual respect and acceptance. It is the basis for humility even before those who may seem to be doing less than you.

In the words of the ‘Ethics of our Fathers’ ‘be humble before every person’. 

Treat your fellow as a hero.

It will inspire them to be more heroic.

Understand that the daily choices and challenges you face are your own opportunity for unsung heroism. The difference between making a right choice or a wrong one, is between you and G-d only.

Nobody else may ever find out. The biggest battles are the ones that remain unknown. But who cares? You didn’t do it to be written up in the news headlines. You did it because it was the RIGHT thing to do.

G-d knows. And YOU know. 

And that is all that counts.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Yosef Kantor


Envelope of Cash

 

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

The Israeli division of CTeen, Chabad’s international teen network (we have a CTeen chapter in Bangkok too) was visiting Thailand this week. 

I was invited to speak to them. The attention span these days is not long. I wanted to say something short that would be meaningful to them and leave them with a practical takeaway. 

The following story that happened to me more than two decades ago popped into my mind. 

It was in my early years of providing kosher supervision to local factories through our Thai Kashrut Services organization. The ingredients at a certain factory I had visited were not up to kosher standard. I explained to the factory management that I was unable to provide kosher certification due to the problematic ingredients. 

The factory owners asked to come and visit me at my office. An envelope was put on the table, with a noticeable amount of cash in it. They explained that they had come to talk about seeing how to ‘organize’ the kosher certificate.

Ostensibly they were asking about what ingredients they needed to change. However the cash filled envelope indicated what they really had in mind. They wanted to influence me to certify something kosher even though it wasn’t. 

I was shocked. I had never experienced ‘bribery’ in its raw form before. 

As part of my childhood education I had heard the story of the imprisonment and ultimate release of Rabbi Yosef Yitschak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad. Even after the communist revolution, the Rebbe continued to actively promote Jewish observance. This enraged the religion-hating communists. 

One morning, while the Rebbe was observing yahrzeit after his father, three members of the secret police rushed into his synagogue, guns in hand, to arrest him. Calmly he finished his prayers and then followed them. Facing a council of armed and determined men, the Rebbe once again reaffirmed that he would, under no threat of compulsion, give up his religious activities. 

When one of the agents pointed a gun at him, saying, “This little toy has made many a man change his mind,” the Rebbe calmly replied: 

“Your little toy can intimidate only a man who has many gods (passions) and but one world (this world). Because I have only one G-d and two worlds, I am not impressed by your little toy.”

 (While he was subsequently arrested and faced with the death penalty, a few weeks later the Rebbe was miraculously released and allowed to emigrate to the free world. Click here for more details about his heroic struggle).   

These words of Rabbi Yosef Yitschak Schneersohn, as he faced the loaded gun of a communist officer flashed before my eyes.

I looked at the envelope and felt disgusted rather than tempted. 

Let’s face it, money is a temptation. A big sum of money is a big temptation. But ultimately, when one recognizes that there is but one G-d and that this world is only a temporary sojourn, while the soul lives for eternity, money loses (some of) its compelling allure. 

I thank G-d for having been born to parent who taught me these values. The heroes they told me about were spiritual giants. Stories like this about Tzadikim (plural of Tzadik) who lived in the same physical world as we do, yet were attuned to a higher spiritual reality serve as a beacon of light and inspiration to us. 

Hopefully my sharing with the teenagers about the strength that this story gave me to not be tempted by a unethical bribe, will give them a point of reference when they are faced with moral temptation. 

We need to tell more stories like these.

We need to glorify those who do what is right, notwithstanding whether it is popular. 

When our heroes are not the powerful and the famous, rather the ethical and the benevolent, our society will become a more refined and inspired one.

Later in the week I had the privilege to speak to the kids of Camp Gan Israel when they came to visit the Chabad House Synagogue. 

Much younger kids. I told them the above story of the Rebbe. Are they too young to absorb the message? 

I don’t think so. I heard the story when I was their age. 

It had an effect on me till today. And please G-d will continue to inspire me.

If we inspire the young kids, they will inspire their kids. Their kids will inspire their kids. 

Mashiach will be here way before…..

AM YISRAEL CHAI

A Bangkok/New York/Israel Story

By the Grace of G-d


Dear Friend,

I saw him coming out of the Rebbe’s Ohel and he looked like ‘one of the boys’. Graying beard. Fedora. Long black coat. A typical chabadnik if you judged from his appearance. But if you knew him from before, you would know that his background was totally atypical. 

Liraz, had the soul of a ‘seeker’. His search for the ‘truth’ led him to study Eastern religions and spend more than four years trekking through Asia. A graduate of the one of the IDF elite units, his eventual plan was to cycle from China to Turkey via bicycle. From Turkey he would take a ferry back to Israel.

If there was one ironclad rule that Liraz kept to, it was his decision not to enter any Chabad House. He didn’t want any contact with the observance of Torah. The other religious isms seemed too attractive. It was not easy to keep his commitment not to enter a Chabad House while traveling through Asia but Liraz had thus far successfully avoided entering any Chabad House.

It was in Thailand that his plans took a drastic change. 

While making a new passport in the Embassy of Israel in Bangkok he was told payment can be made only in Thai Baht. A nice fellow traveler offered to lend Liraz Thai currency as he didn’t have any with him. ‘Where will I meet you to pay you back?’ asked Liraz of the magnanimous young lady who had lent him the money. ‘I hang out in the Chabad House’ she replied. To which Liraz said ‘I have a rule that I don’t enter Chabad Houses’. To which the young lady replied ‘I too, am not religious and usually would not enter a place like that, but here it is different. It’s a home away from home for travelers. A warm welcoming environment and no pressure at all’. 

Liraz had no choice but to enter the Chabad House near Kaosarn Rd to return the loan. It was there that he met Rabbi Nechemya. The free coffee and refreshments were a tremendous draw, Liraz recalls. He attended one of the three-day seminars that Chabad of Thailand offers, up in the mountains. A little while after attending the seminar, he realized that the Torah is true and that he would like to live a Jewishly observant life. 

To make a long story short, Liraz went back to Israel, attended a Yeshiva and a few years later married a religious girl and together they are Chabad shluchim on a college campus in Jerusalem. They are a popular couple and run a very successful Chabad outreach program for students.

This part of the story I knew. It had taken several years to unfold, and I was privy to the details as they were taking place. It was inspiring to see the passion that Liraz brought to his Jewish observance.

I greeted Liraz heartily after he finished his prayers at the the Ohel and asked him how things are going.

Things are going very well, responded Liraz. 

‘Actually, one of the students that my wife and I had the merit to inspire to become Jewishly observant, just got engaged to be married. This young man had an interesting idea. He wanted to see what the Lubavitcher Rebbe was doing at the moment of his birth. He calculated the time in New York on the day and time of his birth in Israel. He then went to the website that records all the photos and video footage of the Rebbe and was able to find the moment of his birth. The Rebbe was distributing dollars at that time. A group of children from a Chabad School in Boston was visiting the Rebbe that day and during the minute of his birth these children were receiving dollars for tzedakah from the Rebbe.’

‘There was a young girl named Anat who was receiving a dollar from the Rebbe at that minute’ said the young man to Liraz. 

Liraz asked for the family name of that girl as his wife’s name is also Anat.

After hearing the last name he realized that incredibly, it was indeed his wife Anat, that was receiving the mission of distributing the dollar bill to tzedakah. When she was a young girl, her family had spent time in Boston where her father got a degree from Harvard University. The school had taken the students to visit the Rebbe. The Rebbe had given Anat a dollar and a mission.

This was taking place at the exact same moment as the young man who was later inspired to commit to Judaism by Anat and her husband was being born.

This story, told to me on the eve of the Rebbe’s yahrzeit left me uplifted and inspired.

It adds a deeper dimension to the concept of Jewish leadership. ‘Moshe was a shepherd’ says the Torah. True Jewish leaders are modeled after Moshe. Just as a shepherd needs to look out for every single sheep, so does a true Jewish leader need to look out for every single Jew.

The Rebbe, in his capacity as ‘Shepherd of Israel’ gave Anat the gift to participate in the shepherding of Am Yisrael. As she was receiving her blessing and dollar from the Rebbe, a Jewish boy was being born in Israel. This boy would grow up and be inspired by Anat and her family. 

It was not just to Anat. And it was not a one-time event. 

The Rebbe gave our generation the ultimate gift. He invited all of us to join in this initiative of shepherding the Jews of our generation.

The Rebbe send emissaries/shluchim all around the world to officially represent him and thus the world is dotted with Chabad Houses. From East to West and from North to South.  

The Rebbe also deputized every member of Am Yisrael, to join in this special undertaking.

Don’t be bashful. Invite your friend or acquaintance to deepen their relationship with G-d, Torah and Mitzvahs. In this way they will be connecting to their own quintessential self. Our deepest selves are a part of G-d, and therefore a Jew can never truly be happy in the long term, unless they are actively ‘serving G-d’. Living a lifestyle antithetical to G-d’s intention for your soul, cannot produce a healthy and meaningful life. Cosmically it simply cannot work.

How can you take part? Simply introduce your fellow Jews to a mitzvah that they may not yet be familiar with. 

Introducing a fellow Jew to Torah and Mitzvahs is the greatest gift and good deed you can do for them. You don’t need to know much. The little you know may be more than what your friend knows. Even if you only know the letter Alef, if you meet someone who doesn’t yet even know the ‘Alef’, you should teach them Alef….

The Rebbe chose certain mitzvot to focus on as a beginning step. The ‘10 point mitzvah campaign’ was created to encourage Jews to perform even just one mitzva. Even one mitzvah, done only one time, has eternal value in the eyes of Hashem. 

Don’t take my word for it. Try it. Offer your fellow Jew the opportunity to do a mitzvah. Even if you think they will reject it. You may be in for a surprise. The soul of a Jew is awake to G-d. Sometimes it just needs to be given the opportunity to seize.

May the inspiration of the Rebbe continue to grow and spread as his students inspire other students who inspire further students. Until the day will come when the world will be blessed to be collectively inspired and motivated to serve G-d.

The world with thus be full of peace and meaningfulness with the coming of Mashiach, AMEN

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

 

You are BIGGER... Shabbat Shalom From Bangkok!(NY)

By the Grace of G-d


Dear Friend,

Fine wine gets better with age.

Wise people become more sagely as they advance in years.

A Tzadik, albeit physically passed away, becomes more present, active and alive, even in this earthly world. So says the Zohar.

Last week I shared an example of this regarding the speech by a student of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the UN. The Rebbe had asked for this speech to be delivered in the 1980’s. The difficulties in fulfilling this mission were insurmountable at the time. Twenty-five years after his passing, the Rebbe’s vision to share Universal Morality – the Noachide laws – from the podium of the UN, came to fruition.

This week I would like to share an inspirational experience I had during my trip to NY for our daughter’s engagement just a few weeks ago.

I walked into the visitor area near the Rebbe’s Ohel (resting place) and noticed a visitor who looked different than the average visitor to the Ohel (I have included a picture below). Mathew Charles was indeed not your average ‘Ohel-goer’. He had recently come out of prison where he had spent more than two decades. Mathew looked excited and emotional.

Mathew Charles had every reason to be thankful and happy. He had been released more than a decade early from a thirty-five-year prison term. Due in large part to the activism of the Aleph Institute. The Aleph Institute, the leading Jewish organization caring for the incarcerated and their families, was born directly from the vision, and by the instruction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The meeting with Mathew took me back to the 1980’s when as a teenager, I listened to the Rebbe’s live talks broadcasted from 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn NY to our Yeshiva/Synagogue in Melbourne Australia.

The Rebbe’s message had been a very clear one. Prison is not one of the methods of punishment in the Torah. While it needs to be used in our times to protect society, the rehabilitative aspects must be at its core.

The Rebbe was revealing the deeper cosmic truth of how humans operate.

The only way to change the growing crime rate and prison population was to change the way society operated. For a start we need preventative activism. To ensure the crimes don’t get perpetrated in the first place. Not merely by more policing. That is not getting to the soul and root of the matter. The cause of increased crime is because of the lack of internal morality.

The solution must be to introduce stronger morals to society. A great start would be to teach morals in schools. The Rebbe advocated strongly for a ‘Moment of Silence’ to be instituted at the opening of every school day. A child would need to ask his parent what to think about during that moment. This would be the perfect opportunity for the parent to transmit their values about belief and morality.

It would make a world of difference.

Once a criminal is in prison, he is no longer a danger to society for the duration of his lock up time. This should not be our end goal. We must seek to cure him, to rehabilitate him. The system must consider the inherent ‘divine image’ within every human. G-d said in the Torah that man was created to toil and be productive. When a person has a chance to work towards becoming a productive human being and rejoin society, they can find purpose and meaning to their lives and try to turn themselves around. This motivation would have a great impact on getting people out of jail quicker and have them stay out in higher numbers.

I heard these teachings from the Rebbe in my teens. (Click here for more on this topic) I would never have even imagined that decades later I would meet a fellow human who had had his life rescued through these words of the Rebbe uttered in Yiddish with unwavering moral clarity. How in the world would a Rebbe who never ventured forth from Brooklyn, except to visit his father-in-law and predecessors resting place in Queens, change the reality for prisoners in the USA?

But yes, the Rebbe’s words did change the reality of this world, touching the lives of even those who had made serious mistakes in their lives. A short while ago, nearly twenty-five years after his passing, legislation relating to prisoners inspired by the Rebbe’s approach, was written into law. Legislation that was supported by both sides of the political discussion.

Click here for more details on this story.

Once again, Hashem had given me a window of clarity to see the words of the Zohar, that a Tzadik is more present after his passing, in a real and mundane way.

As I write these lines it hits me with force.

This places the onus squarely on me.

I have been shown the reality of the Rebbe’s continually growing influence and his presence and accessibility for blessing and inspiration.

It is now up to me to avail myself of this blessed energy and commit to achieving things that till now could only be dreamed of. For what was impossible yesterday may be possible today if only you dare to continue to try.

It is up to me to connect to the Rebbe’s soul more deeply by studying his teachings more deeply and fulfilling his directives more energetically. The ‘writing is on the wall’. Big changes are taking place as the Rebbe’s vision goes from conceptual to actual. Counterintuitively, time is working in our favor. It will happen to my undertakings too no doubt.

But here is the caveat. It won’t happen without effort.

I need to intensify my determination.

It is Providential that at the Rebbe’s twenty-fifth anniversary dinner in Thailand, I presented the plans for the new Beth Elisheva Campus – The heart and soul of Jewish life in Thailand. The building we envision is a dream. Nechama and I were sent to Thailand by the Rebbe twenty-six and some years ago. With a blessing and a mandate to do whatever needed for igniting Jewish souls and enhancing Jewish life in Thailand. I’d like to hope that we have carried out his mission with some measure of success thank G-d.

But its time for even greater growth.

Twenty-five years since the Rebbe’s passing calls for a great leap upwards of additional light and holiness. The Beth Elisheva Campus is certainly a leap of note. It will take miracles and communal partnership to bring this to reality.

It is a grandiose undertaking which will revolutionize Jewish life in Thailand for the local community, traveling Jewish community and for the all the citizens of the Royal Kingdom of Thailand. (I look forward to sharing more about this with you in a future column).

Now is the time to embark on this great dream. And on other projects that would only have been imaginary till now. G-d will no doubt bless our efforts with success. 

It is with this sense of renewed commitment and vigor that I prepare to visit the Rebbe’s resting place in connection to his yahrtzeit.

And I invite you to share your name and mothers name so I can pray for you too at this holy place at this auspicious time.

I will undoubtedly hear his message resounding in my consciousness ‘don’t be satisfied… keep on adding and achieving… he who has one hundred desires two hundred, two hundred desires four hundred….’

To you my dear readers, join me in taking that leap. If you are reading these lines, you too are a student of the Rebbe and have been impacted by him.

Therefore, you too can, and should, connect to the Rebbe’s vision for you.

If you were to come to visit the Rebbe, the Rebbe would no doubt show how great he things you are for doing what you have done till now. And then he would ask you to do even more. For as much as you are doing, from the Rebbe’s perspective you are greater than you think, and hence you could be doing even more…

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks captures it in a line, (watch him and several others share their story at the video posted below) “You saw your reflection in the Rebbe’s eyes, and you were suddenly much bigger than you thought you were.”

By adding in acts of kindness and goodness, by doing more mitzvahs, by studying more Torah, by adding more light into the world, we hasten the imminent coming of Mashiach!

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

PS I have traveled to New York to visit the Rebbe’s Ohel in proximity to his Yartzeit. I wish to pray for you while I’m at this very special and holy site, so I ask for your Hebrew name and mother’s Hebrew name (for a Jewish soul we follow the mother’s name, otherwise it’s the father’s) or whichever names you have. Feel free to ask for general blessing or specify the nature of what you would like to pray for. Or visit www.ohelchabad.org to email your prayer notes directly.

For more information about the customs connected to the Yartzeit/Hilula of the Rebbe click here.

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