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From the Rabbi's Desk

From the Rabbi's Desk

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Virtual Reality

With schools taking winter breaks this week, we took a day trip down to Cupertino to see Apple Headquarters.

A special edition book displays the evolution of Apple products. Just 17 years ago, the first iPod was manufactured. Since then, the products have become ubiquitous in millions of homes and pockets, as they have become more powerful, advanced, and sleek.

About one month ago, they opened a visitors center across the street from Apple Park, the new massive circular spaceship-like campus that will house 12,000 employees. At the visitors center, they have an aluminum model of the campus, designed to "tour" the campus through virtual reality. Pointing an iPad at the massive table, one can explore the buildings and surrounding nature and infrastructure.

This dreamlike new-age concept of virtual reality - the ability to overlay an imaginative experience on top of a tangible realistic one is a central theme in this week's Torah.

In blessing his grandchildren, Jacob crosses his hands to place his right hand on Ephraim's head, despite Menashe being the firstborn. Naturally, this was no random act, but a purposeful message.

The Hebrew meaning of Menashe is "forget" - a constant reminder to Joseph that while living in the spiritually devoid Egypt, he must not forget where he came from. So he would reminisce about life in the "good old days", hanging on to the memories of what life was like growing up in the home of his righteous parents and grandparents.

Ephraim, on the other hand, comes from the word "Pri" (fruit), symbolizing a very different approach. It is the choice to be fruitful in a barren land, to impact one's surroundings, to overlay my dreams and visions over a cold hard surface. Yet not to suffice with a "virtual reality", but to truly transform the environment.

This is the preferred method for dealing with life's challenges. Sure, we can gain inspiration and direction from memories. But the quantum leap into a futuristic, advanced reality, to achieve that success, we must embrace our new reality. Not to simply survive despite what life throws at me, but thrive as a result of it. To turn the darkness of our challenges into the fuel that powers our dreams.

Welcome to Winter!

Welcome to Winter!

Well, as much of winter as Petaluma gets. While we are under a freeze warning, it is certainly milder than a Siberian winter. 

Considering that even warmer climates still get the winter designation, it got me thinking. What is winter, if not just snowball fights and icy roads? Is it just a signal that a vacation (or stay-cation) is just around the bend?

The common denominator across the Northern Hemisphere is that the nights are longer. There is a lack of light. The sunlight that we became so accustomed to over the summer months, is now something we can't get enough of.

At first glance, it seems like an unfortunate time of year. It's dark, cold, and unfriendly. Yet it is precisely at this time that an opportunity arises. The opportunity for us to shine, to share, to warm up the night. Light can only be appreciated in contrast to darkness.

It is this season when we huddle together sipping hot-cocoa around the fireplace. It is during this season when the world as a whole gets into the giving spirit. It is at this time, that we gather together with our family and community to light the Menorah and brighten the night. That is what happened this past Sunday night for Chanukah at the river as 300 gathered together to say no to darkness, to fight for light.

A Yiddish expression describes two ways of staying warm. One is to put on a fur coat, ensuring that I am comfortable and cozy. The second method is to heat up the furnace, thereby sharing the warmth with everyone in our circles, and changing the reality from cold to warm.

So whether you are off to Tahoe for some snow, or your are hunkering down for some family time, let's keep the light of Chanukah shining and create the warmest winter for our families, neighbors, and community!

If the Candles Could Speak

If the Candles Could Speak

As the flames dance atop the Chanukah lights, and I gaze into them, I imagine what the uniques message of each of the candles might be.

Naturally, the 1st Candle is a trailblazer, a Maccabee, forging ahead despite all odds. This candle shines in stark contrast to the heavy darkness surrounding it.

When Candle #2 comes into play, we realize that with a partner in the quest for light, it is warmer. It is brighter. The dense fog is beginning to lift. Together they resolve to introduce Candle #3. The troops are beginning to rally. Light is no longer a dream. It is a mission.

With Candle #4, it seems like we are finally shifting the equilibrium. The Menorah is balanced. And though half still remain unlit, the darkness already knows that it doesn't stand a chance against the confident advances of light. This is proven on night #5 when the scales tip in favor of truth, positivity, love, and kindness.

By the time Candle #6 is lit, it seems like we are unstoppable. Nothing will get in the way of eradicating darkness and evil.

As we light Candle #7, we enter into a full sprint towards the ultimate finish line. And as Candle #8 leaps to greet the Shamash (leader candle), the world practically explodes in a dazzling light show as victory is achieved.

This may seem like a distant dream, wishful thinking in a chaotic world. Yet, when we each light a Menorah in our own home, this journey becomes a reality for our own family. Displayed proudly in windows and doorways, it extends to our neighbors. And as the streets fill with light, a community of light warriors (present-day Maccabees) emerges.

On Sunday, this community will come together at the riverfront in the heart of Petaluma to light the community Menorah, and the path of light will expand. And the unstoppable force of Candle #6 will race across the hills and join cities around the world from the original public Menorah lit by Chabad in SF's Union Square since 1974, to the menorah at the Eiffel Tower, in Rome, and the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin. It all starts with one candle at home with your loved ones, and culminates with a world overpowered by a unanimous quest for light.

Let your light shine this Chanukah!

We'd like to wish you and your family a happy, luminous, and meaningful Chanukah!

Oil Experiment

Sizzling golden delicious latkes. Fluffy, jelly-filled doughnuts. The miracle of the oil.

After a hard-fought battle, the victorious Maccabee soldiers returned to the Holy Temple, only to find it in a complete disarray. The Greek army had turned the place upside down, and in doing so, had broken the seal of every jug of oil, rendering them unfit for use in the Menorah.

After a search and rescue operation, one flask of oil is found, Though it is meant to burn for one day, it miraculously burns for a full 8 days, the time needed to produce new oil. Hence the celebration of Chanukah. Hence the oily delicacies. Hence the extra calories.

But why oil? What is the significance of oil, turning Chanukah into the most celebrated Jewish holiday of the year?

Try this. Take some oil, and mix some other liquids in with it. Shake it up, turn it upside down, dance a Hora with it balanced on your head. No matter how hard you try, the oil will rise to the top. It will not be daunted by these other (dark) forces pouring down upon it. It will not be influenced these outside forces. It wil simply bounce back like a spring.

It is this message of the oil that is so important to internalize. When negativity gets us down, when challenges seem to rock us off our feet, when life mixes us up like a cocktail at a party, don't panic. Whether this chaos is taking place in our personal lives or it seems like the whole world is upside down, we can be confident that we will persevere as the Jewish Nation has throughout the millennia.  Inside of us we have an oil-like quality that will help us float back to the top.

On Chanukah, somewhere between the Menorah and the Sufganiyot (jelly donuts), we find our inner oil. And the flame burns bright.

Wishing you and your family a Happy Chanukah!

1st Time Shabbat Candles

You may have noticed that our weekly email is late this week, and has arrived after Shabbat, rather than before.

On Friday, we celebrated our daughter Bella's 3rd birthday, and with it, the very first time she lit the Shabbat candles. 
Please enjoy this video of Bella preparing for Shabbat!

As a young girl begins her journey through life, she has dreams and aspirations of changing the world, making an impact, doing monumental things. But the thought may occur to her, how can I? The world is so big, the darkness so intense. How can my candle illuminate beyond my immediate circle? How can the warmth penetrate the sometimes frigid atmosphere that surrounds us? How can I hope to transform an entire complex world?

So she lights her Shabbat candle. A single flame. Yet a radiant one. And the nature of light is that it attracts. Everyone wants to be next to the campfire. Light does not remain lonely for long. And so a wick shows up nearby. A quick transfer of light later, and the impact has doubled.

Before long, a veritable army of light has emerged, ready to take on any dark forces out there. And as we all march with our candles held high and flames burning brightly, the darkness can sense: it doesn't stand a chance.

It's this message of empowerment that we want Bella to take as she lights her Shabbat candle every week. Yes, she can light up the world, one brilliantly shining flame at a time.

Uganda

Uganda. 

The country once ruled by a tyrannical dictator, Idi Amin. The location where terrorists landed a plane full of Israeli hostages. Subsequently, the dramatic and highly successful Operation Entebbe to rescue the hostages took place.

Now, it becomes the 100th country to have a permanent Chabad presence, serving the needs of the Jewish businessmen and tourists year-round. This news was shared at last week's conference of some 4,000 Chabad rabbis in NY. You can view some of my personal highlights 
here and here.

Why would anyone leave the comforts of home and community to go to the Jewishly uncharted territory of Central Africa? 

This week we discuss Jacob leaving the comfort of his parent's home in the land of Cna'an (not yet Israel - as Israel was Jacob's alternate name, which he had not yet been given). Destination isCharan, where Laban would swindle and cheat him.

But Jacob realized life isn't about living where it's light, where the scenery is picturesque, where civilization happens to be civilized. There's another world like that - angels don't encounter evil, nor do they experience feeling of hatred, jealousy, or negativity. But in this world, it's all about lighting up the darkness; making positive change wherever we and in whatever we do.

So while Kampala, Uganda may not seem like an ideal vacation spot, it, along with 4,000+ communities around the world, presents an opportunity to make an impact on Jewish life, contributing, uplifting, illuminating. So long as there is a dark spot on the planet, so long as there is a person in the farthest corners of the globe without the opportunity to celebrate his or her Jewish identity, we still have work to do.

It's like the message of the upcoming holiday of Chanukah: Light up the night! 

Two Brothers

Two brothers. Yet they could not be any further apart.

While Jacob was a kind, soft-spoken scholar, Esau was a wild hunter. One led a life dedicated to the spiritual, the other a life dedicated to self. One was righteous and became the forefather of our nation. The other wicked and became the prototypical nemesis of the Jewish nation.

The big question is, why are we giving Esau a hard time? Esau had a natural predisposition to all of this. Even while in the womb, it was already foretold that Rebecca was carrying two very different babies. Esau was born full of wild red hair. Doesn't it seem like things were stacked against him, excluding him from ever being an A student?

The Chassidic masters explain quite the contrary. Esau had an extremely lofty soul, with incredibly powerful potential. Had he succeeded in taming the beast as it were, had he applied himself to just and noble causes, he would have absolutely excelled.

The lesson: At times we may feel like due to circumstances beyond our control, we have limited capacity. Whether it is the family we come from, the place we live, or the opportunities that came (or didn't come) our way. Dejection and despair can set it. Why even try?

The truth is, let's not let anything external define us or hold us back. Let's reach deep within, discover the amazing treasure trove of talents and blessings, overcome the challenges, and like a candle in the darkness, shine even brighter than we could have imagined.

Life After Death

Quite the emotional roller coaster this week. A funeral of a community member, welcoming our baby to the tribe (his name is Meir Nosson), and last night a crowd of 160+came to hear a first-person account by Dr. Eisenbach of his time in the concentration camps (Pics coming soon). Our children having the opportunity to connect with a 94-year hold hero.

I'll share with you a thought that occurred to me as Dr. Eisenbach was holding our baby.

The very first Jewish burial takes place in this week's Torah, as it describes at length Abraham's efforts to bury his wife, Sarah. Interesting to note that the name of the Torah portion is Chayei Sarah - the life of Sarah, though the entire episode takes place after her passing. 

The message is that death and tragedy should not be the final chapter of the book. Rather as Dr. Eisenbach showed us, we can perpetuate the legacy of those before us. We can carry on their mission. We can allow them to live through us. 

This is the story of Jewish continuity midor l'dor - from generation to generation, passing the baton, or more accurately, igniting our candle from our ancestors' flaming torch, until one day it blossoms into a torch of its own. 

In this format, life keeps on living.

And as he covered his eyes, reciting the Shema, the same prayer that millions of Jews said on their way into the gas chambers. Yet, here he stands as a proud Jew, with family and success, dedicating his life to spreading a message of kindness and hope. A powerful moment, an inspiring message:

Am Yisrael Chai!

It's a Boy!

In recent weeks, we packed two bags. One was an evacuation kit, dreading an impending disaster. The other, a hospital bag, in anticipation of a newborn baby.

As I sat with Devorah in the hospital, I thought about the dual purpose of the building. Emergency room visits transported by ambulances with sirens blaring. Sometimes for injury or illness, sometimes for the happiest of occasions; the birth of life.

Looking out of the window, just beyond a row of houses that survived, lay the ruins of homes that were consumed by the Tubbs fire. The image evoking sadness for those who had lost so much, and yet, in the walls of the recovery room so much happiness and light.

Doctors and nurses there for the tough moments in the wake of devastation and tragedy, and there for the best; for birth, healing, and life.

Three angels visited Abraham (who was recovering from his circumcision), each with a mission. One to heal Abraham/rescue Lot, one to deliver the good news that they would be blessed with a baby, and one to destroy the city of Sodom.

As we navigate this puzzling world, we can wonder at times, why me? Why have I been blessed with life? 

The answer may be beyond us, but one thing is clear. Now that we are here with the fires finally at 100% containment, we are here for a reason. Let's make it worth it. 

No one knows this better than Dr. Jacob Eisenbach, who as a child hid from the Nazis during the Lodz ghetto roundup. He was eventually discovered and deported to Auschwitz. His brother, who was in hiding with him, voluntarily joined him on the transports, refusing to be separated. While Jacob survived the war, his brother was not as lucky.

How do you pick up the pieces, how can we celebrate when others are suffering, how do we move on and make it worth it? Find out how Dr. Eisenbach did it this Thursday.

And in the meantime, I'm grateful to Hashem for being the recipient of blessings, for being chosen for happy occasions, for the Miracle of Life; a beautiful baby boy.

 

iPhone X?

iPhone X. 

Last night, while most of humanity was asleep, Apple's latest version of their popular smartphone went on sale. Within minutes they had sold out of their expected stock, and the miracle devices are now only available weeks out.

Now selling for more than the average computer, these little devices have changed the landscape of technology in the last 10 years. While it used to be weird if you saw someone walking down the street talking to themselves, now it is the norm to have a smartphone. From camera to music player, personal assistant to GPS, it has become the industry standard for a new millennium.

How did this come to be? From not being comfortable. Yes, we had a cassette player, and yes we had a rotary phone, and sure we had a road atlas, but let's not rest on our laurels when we can achieve something better. This is not an exact quote from Steve Jobs.

This is the message of this week's Torah portion Lech Lecha (ch as in Challah 😉) - Go out from your father's home to the land that I will show you. This is Hashem's instruction to Abraham. Yes, you discovered monotheism and are comfortably set up in your own spiritual life. But think larger, get out there, make something amazing happen, be the start of a nation. Destination yet to be decided, but Lech Lecha - Keep on moving.

While the iPhone might be more of a pursuit of personal gratification, Abraham's pursuit was one of selfless spiritual fulfillment. We all have our comfort zones, and often times it gets the job done. But imagine if we push the (email) envelope and head out to discover, to expand our horizon. Abraham shows us that the sky is definitely not the limit.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Comfort

These last weeks have been very difficult for our county. Battered by some of the harshest forces of nature, many of us have friends who have lost their homes. As the fires are slowly reaching full containment, here are some thoughts:

Devastation surrounding us. Petaluma spared. Reminds me of Noah surrounded by the raging floods. Safe in the ark. The Hebrew word for ark is Teivah. Teivah also means words. One way of finding solace and security is to enter into words. Words of Prayer, words of Torah (we started a
new season of Torah Studies), words of Kindness.

Noach's name means comfort. Petaluma and the region turned out in force to support and comfort. (
Shabbat Dinner of Unity & Comfort tonight in Santa Rosa). Let's continue to be there for each other every day. Let's keep the kindness and love for our neighbors even once the smoke clears.

When Noach left the ark, he found the world in shambles. No home, no landscape, nothing. Yet, he found the inner strength to rebuild. To start a new world. To look towards the future. We are that future. Thank you, Noach! After the Holocaust, (Nov 9, we are hosting a 
Holocaust survivor as a guest speaker) our relatives bravely made a similar decision - rebuild. While our past colors us, our future defines us. Thank you to my grandparents! Here in Sonoma County, we too will rebuild.

As evacuations are lifted and the smoke begins to thin, I stopped by to show gratitude to the brave heroes who continue to fight these wildfires on the ground and by air.

Wishing you a Shabbat of Comfort, Peace, and Unity!

Favorite Yom Kippur Moment

My favorite Yom Kippur moment?
A young couple strolling around Lucchesi pond look up, see our sign for High Holiday services, remember that it's the holiest day of the year and join us then and there for Neilah - closing of the gates - the spiritual climax of Yom Kippur.

Ever try to snap a thread? It's easy. However, take multiple threads, twist them together into a rope, and no amount of force can break them. On Yom Kippur, the best way to ensure a good and a sweet new year is to add another Jew to our beautiful collective rope of community.

Now it's on to Sukkot, where we all sit together under the same roof, the mystical canopy of the sukkah, and differences melt away in the face of unconditional unity.

In Las Vegas, two opposite forces. The indiscriminate shooting that did not differentiate between mother, doctor, officer. And then the indiscriminate acts of love performed by random strangers, realizing that one person's blood is not redder than the next. Let's continue to flood the airwaves of the world with kindness, love, and unity. 

#togetherunited

Siblings

As a parent, one of the most important things to me is to see my children playing nicely together. Or at the very least, getting along.

In fact, there are times when they are technically misbehaving, and yet I can't help but feel proud and smile. Like when they bring their blankets downstairs on Shabbat morning and build a fort together. They are working as a unit, and the harmony that is the result is truly beautiful. Their distinct personalities seamlessly join together to compliment each other and form an energy uncomparable to that of one single child.

The same is true in the classroom, the workplace, and any other environment. And the same is true with the Jewish community.

We always read the following verse the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah: Moses tells the Jewish people "You are all standing this day before God". From the elders to the water carriers. Just as we are not complete without all the limbs of our body, so too each and every individual is precious to the full picture.

What's the key to being inscribed for a good and sweet new year? Unity. That we all stand together. When we do, our Father in heaven cannot help but look down and smile. Regardless of any particular misstep that we may have taken, the sum total is a gravity-defying force, a heart-melting harmonious community.

May we all be blessed with a Shana Tova!

Irma hit home

A major relief effort has been ongoing. 50 Chabad Rabbis flew to Houston from around the country to help; offering counsel, bringing supplies and donations from their communities, and rolling up their sleeves to physically help with the cleanup.

The nation barely caught its breath from Houston when Hurricane Irma arrived. Personally, this one hit home. A close friend of mine and his family run the Chabad in S. Martin. The Island has reportedly been devastated. My friend had to take shelter in an inner room - the Mikva - within the "hurricane proof" Chabad center after the door was shattered by the 185mph gale-force winds. 

With 95% of the Island sustaining damage, the airport destroyed, and surrounded by ocean waters that have still not calmed, the island is isolated. There is no possibility yet for evacuation. Shabbat will take place in one of the remaining secure buildings. And with more storms on the way, help is yet to arrive. 

While I am still processing all of this, here are a couple of thoughts:
1) Every tragedy affects someone's close friend. Every catastrophe is drastically affecting someone's family. That woman in the doctor's office is someone's mom. It's a matter of empathy to put ourselves in their shoes and feel their reality.
2) For someone going through hardship, the emotional support offered by friends, family, and random strangers is often just as meaningful as physical supplies. It lets them know that they are not completely alone on an Island.
3) A birthday is like a personal Rosh Hashanah, a time of growth, renewal, and reflection. As I celebrate my birthday this week as well as 2 of my sons' birthdays, I reflect and appreciate all of the blessings in my life, and am super thankful for what we have. Water, electricity, a roof over our heads. Health, safety, and even toys to quarrel over.

A woman arrives at the Western Wall to pray for her sick brother. A friend who accompanied her wishes her "May you have many worries". 

Taken aback she asks to explain what kind of blessing that is.

Right now, the friend explained,  you are so consumed by your brother's illness, that nothing else registers on your radar, everything else pales in comparison. When life is running smoothly, all of a sudden you notice the ripped shoelace, the overcooked eggs and the mess in the playroom.

May we all have many worries. And many many happy occasions to share together.

Who is Harvey?

Simply incredible. A catastrophe beyond the capabilities of any movie set. The power of nature unleashed. Thousands displaced. Lives turned upside down. Property damage galore (if you can even see your property underneath the floodwaters wreaked by Hurricane Harvey).

But what I really found incredible was the response. Regular folks joined rescue teams and first responders in doing anything and everything to save and help people in trouble. Communities around the nation took up the cause, sending 
goods and supplies to Houston. Chabad in Houston, though themselves affected by the storm, immediately set up a "boots on the ground" relief effort with hundreds of volunteers. Celebrities and regular people donated to the cause. The selflessness and outpouring of kindness. That's what was incredible.

Which got me thinking: Where were these heroes before? Where were all these do-gooders last week? Where did they appear from?

When our oven stopped working this morning (in the midst of getting ready for First Fridays), I got my answer. The gas is there in the pipes, it even seeps out when you turn the knobs. But it still won't start without a spark to ignite it; to turn unchannelled energy into focused passion. 

The kindness of these responders is real. Their devotion and tireless efforts are from the heart. Hurricane Harvey was merely the (gigantic) spark that set it aflame. That let their true selves, their care for another human being, shine forth.

May we find ways of igniting our sparks, of unearthing our treasures of energy, love, and goodness, without the need for tragedies and devastation, but also, and perhaps with even greater enthusiasm, in times of peace and happiness.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those impacted by Hurricane Harvey, and we wish them all an easy path to recovery, rebuilding, and growth.

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