The Perfect Time to Break Some Bad Habits

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This past Shabbat there was knock at my door. It was one of my students, a 27-year old attorney who frequents Manhattan Jewish Experience and is an important part of our community of young professionals. He came over to share the news that he decided to quit vaping. He had this look of total pride and accomplishment on his face, having broken a habit with which he had been struggling for years.

What gave him the strength? How did he do it?

Although I couldn’t invite my student (he prefers to remain anonymous) into my home – social distancing and all – I gave him a chair in the hallway so we could speak. He told me he had just been for a walk in Central Park where he saw numerous other young people, smoking and vaping. New data released by the CDC warned that young people may be more impacted by COVID-19 than was initially thought. Up to 20% of people hospitalized with the virus have been between the ages of 20 and 44. In China, smokers were 14 times more likely to develop severe cases of the virus than those who do not smoke. When my student saw those stats, he went into his bedroom and did something he said he hasn’t been able to do for years: he threw out all his vaping materials. “Rabbi, I feel so free and if I get Corona, now I can fight it.”

I told my student that his decision to quit vaping, especially now, was in keeping with the highest of Jewish values and principles. As the Torah explicitly tells us: “Guard yourself and guard your soul very much” (Deuteronomy 4:9). The classic commentator Kli Yakar explains: “Guard yourself’ means taking care of the body.” Bodily health is necessary for observing the Torah’s mitzvot (commandments) since in most cases they require physical action of some kind. When the body is unfit or unhealthy, it detracts from our ability to the properly fulfill the mitzvot. In the words of the great Maimonides: “Bodily health and well-being are part of the path to God, for it is impossible to understand or have any knowledge of the Creator when one is sick. Therefore, one must avoid anything that may harm the body and one must cultivate healthful habits” (Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 4:1).

Even more fundamentally, Judaism is a religion of life, a spiritual path that celebrates human life, virtually above everything else. Life trumps keeping kosher. Life trumps Shabbat and – as my student shared – it should also trump the mental discomfort that comes from quitting nicotine. I do not want to oversimplify the addictive nature of vaping and smoking. I know from friends and others it is not easy to stop. But maybe now, knowing the increased dangers these bad habits now pose to young people in defeating this deadly virus, we will have the fortitude to make some real and lasting changes.

In light of the above sentiment expressed by Maimonides, that good health is a means for greater spiritual perfection, we should endeavor to use this time to break other bad habits as well. Texting while driving, eating unhealthily and other substance abuses are the cause of much illness and death. Or what seems as a less harmful, but just as dangerous of a bad habit as speaking ill of our neighbors and colleagues. If our social distancing inspires us to now better appreciate our family and friends, we can express that newfound appreciation by trying to refrain from saying anything negative about them.

If the data shared above can freak out enough people to stop smoking or vaping, then at least COVID-19 will have served some positive function. Let us use our new awareness regarding the fragility and preciousness of human life to become stronger, wiser, and more prudent. Pressure can break a person, but it can also make diamonds. Maybe, just maybe, this terrible virus can help us end some bad habits once and for all.

Riding off the inspiration from his personal triumph, my student decided to create a page to inspire others to do the same. You can follow him on social media at daily_inspirational_wisdom.

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

MJE Connect in the News March 2020

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Check out MJE in the news and learn about our response to Coronavirus

CBS “Virtual Bris”

CBS “Pray at Home”

PBS Metrofocus:

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

A Spiritual Response to the Coronavirus

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In the 1960’s, Reb Shlomo Carlebach would travel to the former Soviet Union to distribute Tefilin, Mezuzot, Yarmulkes and other religious items forbidden in Russia at the time. At the end of one of his trips, as Reb Shlomo was packing his bags in his Moscow hotel room, he heard a knock at the door.

Reb Shlomo saw it was a little boy knocking and so he let him in.  The boy looks up at Reb Shlomo and asks: “Do you know where I can find Rabbi Carlebach?” “That’s me, I’m Rabbi Carlebach but please call me Shlomo – what can I do for you?” he asked. “I was told you have Tefilin,” the boy answers. Reb Shlomo sadly responds: “I’m so sorry, but I’m at the end of my trip and I gave away my last pair of Tefilin.”

The boy became very sad. He looked down at the ground and then looked back up to Reb Shlomo and with a tear in his eye asked: “In a few weeks I’m going to be a Bar-Mitzvah. How can I have a Bar-Mitzvah without Tefilin?” Reb Shlomo went into his suitcase and pulled out a pair of Tefilin which looked old and worn. He knelt down beside the boy and with the Tefilin in his hand told the boy: “These Tefilin belonged to my grandfather, a great Rabbi in Germany. They were also worn by my father in the concentration camps and I have worn them every day since I was a Bar Mitzvah. Promise me you’ll use them and they’re yours.” The boy smiled and promised he would wear them every day.

As the boy proceeded to leave, he turned around and asked: “Wait, Shlomo, do you have an extra Yarmulke?” Reb Shlomo answered: “I must have given away hundreds of Yarmulkes, but I have none left.” The boy looked up and asked: “How can I wear my Tefilin without a Yarmulke?” Reb Shlomo took off his own Yarmulke and handed it to the child and the boy left.

What compels someone to part with something so important, so sentimental and valuable for a complete stranger?

In this week’s parsha, Parshat Ki Tissa we read about the very dramatic incident of Chayt Ha’aygel, the sin of the Golden Calf.  After the sin takes place and all those involved are punished, Moshe turns to the rest of the Jewish community, to the majority of the community who did not participate in the sin and says something strange: Atem chatasem chateah gedolah -“you have committed a great transgression,” v’atah e’eleh el Hashem – “and now I’ll go up to God,” ulai achpera b’ad chatatchem- “maybe He (Hashem) will forgive you for your sin.”

To what sin is Moshe referring? The Jews who committed the serious sin of worshipping the Golden Calf had already been punished! Moshe was addressing the rest of the community that had not sinned, so to what sin was Moshe referring?

My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter suggested it was for the sin of not doing anything. For the sin of remaining indifferent, of being idle. Sure, the majority of the Jews did not engage in the sin of the Golden Calf, but they also failed to prevent their fellow brothers from doing so. The Torah challenges us: Lo Ta’amud Al Dam Re’echa – “don’t stand by idly by thy brother’s blood.” Our Sages teach: Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Laze– “all Jews are responsible one for the next” and so even though only a small percentage of the people actually engaged in the sin, the entire Jewish community was held responsible, because we are all connected.

Whether it’s for the good or for the bad, we’re seen as one and we even feel as one. I remember years ago, before the terrible crash of the Columbia Space Shuttle, the Jewish community felt so proud that one of the astronauts aboard was a Jew. The Jewish community was even prouder when this Jewish astronaut, Colonel Ramon, decided to eat kosher food in space and bring up a Torah Scroll with him from a concentration camp. It made us all feel proud, not only because it reflected well on us as a people, but also because we are all interconnected. Similarly, how embarrassed did we feel, also years ago, when Bernie Madoff, another fellow Jew was taken off to prison for cheating so many people out of so much money? We felt that too because we have this connection.

The great Radvaz compared the entire Jewish people to the body of a single individual. He said that just like when one part of the body is in pain, the entire body is affected, so too each Jew feels the pain or the joy of another Jew, because we are all but different parts of the same organism. In the Midrash, the great rabbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, compared the Jewish people to the passengers of a huge ship that is beginning to sink. The passengers and crewman are scurrying about, desperately trying to find the cause of the sinking ship. They look everywhere until they come across one locked cabin with water gushing out from underneath the door. The crewman kicked open the door and lo and behold there’s this one guy digging away, drilling a huge hole in the floor of his cabin and the water is gushing through.  The passengers shout at the man: “What are you doing?” The man responds: “What’s the problem? I’m just drilling a hole in my cabin! It’s my cabin after all, I paid for it!”

We are all in the same boat. What affects one person affects us all. The coronavirus operates in the very same way. Acting responsibly, following the Health Department’s rules against congregating publicly (which is why we are not holding services this Shabbat), is not only necessary to keeping ourselves safe. It is imperative to help contain the virus for everyone. The Jewish teaching of areivus, the responsibility of one person to the next, demands such a response. Human life is paramount and it is only for this reason that MJE, for the first time in 21 years, would not host Shabbat services.

Areivus is fundamental to being Jewish and is expressed very powerfully through the following halacha in regard to reciting brachot (blessings). If one is eating with a fellow Jew not familiar with brachot, provided you are also eating, you can say the blessing for that other person and all your friend needs to do is have in mind to be yotze (satisfied) with your bracha, and if possible say Amen. However, you, the one saying the bracha, must be eating yourself.  However, this only applies to blessings recited over food. When it comes to blessings said before performing a mitzvah, the halacha is that even if you have already fulfilled your own obligation (for example, you’ve already donned your Tefilin or you have already recited the blessing over the Shabbat candles), you can recite the bracha again for a fellow Jew who may not know.

How is that allowed? You’ve already made your own blessing using Hashem’s name? How can you do it again? The Rabbeinu Nissim explains that when it comes to a birchot hamitzvah, a blessing recited before the performance of a mitzvah, because it is something in which we are all commanded and because all Jews are responsible for each other, you can say the blessing again – for as long as your fellow Jew has not fulfilled their mitzvah, your mitzvah is incomplete. What happens to someone else affects us. We cannot proceed with business as usual if someone else is lacking or is in trouble or in danger, be it after an attack in Israel or the Corona striking our next-door neighbor. Their concern is our concern.

Being a Jew means caring and feeling the pain of others. It means helping a friend who has lost their job, making some calls, helping them network to secure another position or just being there for them emotionally. I remember back in 2008 when the economy tanked and someone said to me: “Rabbi, don’t expect as many MJE participants to come to the Annual Dinner this year (we just postponed this year’s Dinner to June 9th) or to contribute, with the economy being as it is.”  And I remember responding to this person, that the day our participants stop giving back is the day this place shuts down. Not just because we need everyone’s support to continue our vital programming, but because when we stop being there for each other, ultimately, we stop being a community. A real community is comprised of members who care and who sacrifice for each other, who, in times of crisis, do not turn inward, but despite the challenge, rise to the occasion.

My friends, this is such a time. People are scared and uptight about the situation. Older people and those with preexisting conditions feel particularly vulnerable. We need to be there for them. If you have such a friend or family member or anyone else who is feeling isolated or fearful of the situation, call them. Reach out to them and call them often. If you cannot see them in person, use your iPhone so they can see you and feel the concern you have for them. Take advantage of the extra time you may have off from work to do some extra Torah studying. MJE is adding an on-line Zoom class every day from 12:30-1:00pm. And take some extra time to pray. Pray for those who have tested positive for the coronavirus (see list of names below) and pray that Hashem bless our efforts to contain the virus so we can see this ailment pass as soon as possible.

Our fate and destiny are bound with each other and so to beat the coronavirus we must look out for each other, like a family. The truth is, for a brother or a sister, we would do just about anything. We would give them whatever they needed, be it our grandfather’s pair of Tefilin or the shirt off our back. Stay connected, stay safe and keep looking out for each other. May the love and unity with which we approach this moment serve as zechut, as a spiritual merit for Hashem’s blessing of healing and peace.

Shabbat Shalom

People I’ve been asked to pray for:
Avraham Shmuel Ben Rachel
Zev Melech Ben Bedina
(Rav) Zalman Dov ben Esther
Yosef ben Ester
Eliezer Yitzchak ben Shifra
Harav Reuven ben Fruma
Ivriyah Miriam bat Malkah Reizel
Daniel Shmuel ben Miriam
Tziporah Hadarah bat Rachel
Elana Devorah bat Freidel Nechama
Shami Aryeh ben Menucha Sarah
Yaakov ben Rochel Miriam
Shmuel Tzvi ben Roiza Frimet
Shoshana bat Sarah
Yonina Sarah bat Chana
Elchanan Yehonatan ben Chaya
Andre Abraham ben Berthe
Aviva Rachel bat Rivka
Ariella Malka bat Aviva
Yael Michal bat Ruth
Uri ben Priva Chaya
Aharon Shaul ben Rachel
Yosef Dov ben Rivkah Chaya
Leah bas Devorah Basha
Yosef Batsalel ben Ruth
Yaakov Eliezer ben Miriam Masha
Yaakov Yitzchok Moshe ben Devorah
Eta Leah bat Perel
Shaul Michael ben Eta Leah
Eliyahu ben Ahuva
Yisroel Zev ben Atara Karni Dal Beilah

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

Seize the Moment! Purim 2020

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Irena Sendler of Warsaw Poland died on May 12, 2008 at the ripe age of 98. During the Second World War, Irena got permission to work in the Warsaw ghetto as a plumbing and sewer specialist but she had an ulterior motive. Irena smuggled Jewish infants out of the ghetto in the bottom of her toolbox and in a burlap sack, which she kept in her truck, for larger children. Irena kept a dog in the back of her truck that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto. The soldiers wanted nothing to do with the dog and the barking covered the children’s noises.

Irena managed to smuggle out and save 2500 children and infants.

In the Purim story, after Haman’s edict to annihilate all the Jews in ancient Persia is announced, Mordecai goes to Queen Esther for help. He shows Esther a copy of Haman’s decree and asks Esther to go before King Achashverosh to plead the case of her brethren. Esther tells Mordecai she cannot simply appear before the King unsummoned and that she has not been called to the King’s chambers for 30 days. When Mordecai hears Esther’s hesitancy, he famously responds: If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place…and who knows, perhaps you became royalty for this very moment (Megilat Esther 4:13).

Immediately upon hearing this Esther springs into action. She tells Mordecai to gather the Jews of Shushan to fast on her behalf and executes a plan which ultimately turns the tables in favor of the Jews.

What is it about Mordecai’s statement that motivates Esther to act? By saying “salvation will come from another place” he seems to be letting Esther off the hook. If Mordecai’s goal was to inspire Esther to act, why would he tell her that if she failed to do her part, God would save the Jewish people anyway?

Mordecai was a man of faith. He believed God would never allow the Jewish people to be destroyed but by telling Esther: who knows perhaps you became royalty for this very moment, he was informing her that by embracing her situation she could fulfill the purpose of her becoming Queen.

…who knows, perhaps you became royalty for this very moment, is a phrase that should resonate with each of us. Even if we aren’t Kings or Queens, we are all placed within certain environments and situations and we all have a specific purpose and mission in this world. That mission is different for each of us and we are therefore placed within different circumstances to accomplish that purpose.

The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746, Padua, Italy) wrote that every person’s life predicament is their challenge. A poor person is challenged to see if he can be satisfied with the little he possesses, and a rich person is tested to see if he becomes indifferent to the plight of the poor. Each of us comes into the world with certain abilities and deficiencies and the life situations in which we find ourselves provide us with the unique opportunities we need to perfect our area of deficiencies and develop our unique potential.

But we must act. Simply being in the situation isn’t enough. To develop ourselves into the people we were meant to be, we must seize the moment and take action. Mordecai was telling Esther: you’ve been elevated to the position of Queen but the spiritual perfection you can realize from this situation will only be realized if you act – if you go before the King and intercede on behalf of your people. Irena Sendler was just a plumber in Warsaw, but she seized upon the opportunity which her unique situation presented.  In doing so, she not only saved countless Jewish lives, but she may have also fulfilled her own Divine purpose and mission in life.

We may find ourselves stuck in some kind of dead-end job but maybe, just maybe, we were supposed to be there, at least for some time, to be challenged in some new way or perhaps to meet someone we otherwise would never have encountered. I have a classmate from law school who hated his first law job except for the opportunity it gave him to meet this new co-worker with whom he was assigned to work. My friend, who was Sabbath observant invited his co-worker to his home for a Shabbat meal. The co-worker, who had never experienced Shabbat, loved the experience and came back for more. The two became friends and began studying Torah together on a regular basis. Within a year, my friend left the firm but eventually his co-worker became Shabbat observant. That’s not why my friend originally took the job, but maybe, just maybe that’s why he was supposed to work there, at least for that period of time. As Mordecai told Esther: who knows, perhaps you became royalty for this very moment.

The lesson of Purim is that there are no coincidences in life. In fact, the root of the word Purim is pur which means lottery – Haman determined the day to annihilate the Jews by drawing from a lottery. Life may often feel like a lottery, things may appear coincidental or as though they are happening by simple chance, but the message of Purim is that everything happens for a reason. Our task is to realize the growth opportunities presented to us and like Esther, seize upon those opportunities to actualize our unique potential.

Happy Purim!

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.