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Parshas Lech Lecha: The Journey Without, The Journey Within

The Chabad shaliach lighting a makeshift menorah in the Chabad of Asuncion, Paraguay

In many parts of the world, rabbis and yeshiva students will travel to remote places to bring Judaism to the few Jews living there. In this Chabad house in Auncion, Paraguay, the Chabad rabbi builds a menorah out of some locally available "materials."

I live a fantasy life. At least, that seems to be what most people think. When I tell people I got married and now travel the world full-time, many people are envious. They want to know what the trick is, what is the secret, how we manage to live this incredible lifestyle.

Well, not everything about the traveling life is as idyllic as it may seem. Of course, most people wait all year for their vacation, their “escape.” But for those people, the vacation, the travel, really is an escape. It’s short-term adventure. They may leave for a few weeks or even a month, they may go to a relaxing island (like Fiji) or escape to the mountains (like Nepal). Yet, they always leave knowing they will return. It is a profoundly different experience leaving… and not having anywhere to which to return. I don’t have a home to go back to. I have plenty of places where I can go to visit family or friends, but it’s nothing like having a home base. And let me tell you, while that may sound liberating (and it really can be), the truth is that it is incredibly difficult.

That’s the essence of the challenge given to our forefather Avraham, then known as Avram, in this week’s parsha. He is told, “Lech lecha,” “Go by yourself.” He is told to go by himself (well, with his wife, as they are a single unit in the sense of marriage) and to adventure out, to go to an unknown land. He doesn’t keep a house to come back to, he doesn’t bring his parents or his siblings or his cousins. He doesn’t even know how long his journey will be or where it will take him. It is considered to really be the most difficult test of them all (and he had 10 of them). It is hard to leave behind everything you have accumulated, to give up everything and everyone you know, and go alone into the wilderness.

Yet it seems to me that this is exactly what Rabbi Ben has done and now, more recently, me with him. And I can tell you firsthand just how hard it was to be in a foreign land, in a place where I did not even have internet or phones or electricity (at least not when and where I wanted them!), without my home, without my belongings, and most importantly, without my family or friends. To think of doing this at the age of 75, as Avram did, is astounding to me.

Visiting local Jews in Pune, India

In Pune, India, the Chabad rebbetzin took her son and me to visit some local Jews. Living in a part of the world where being a Jew is challenging has not stopped their mission of bringing Torah to all the Jews they meet along the way.

But what is more amazing to me is that when I look around, I realize that this is a miraculous thing to have done. I don’t realize it by looking at my own experiences, not at all, but by looking at the experiences of others. All those Jews who strike out into the unknown, alone but for their spouses, to reach out to Jewish communities and Jewish travelers. All those places – Chabad Houses and Lev Yehudi and countless others – where the rabbi and rebbetzin (and often their children, too) have gone to a totally different and uncharted territory solely in the service of G-d. That is the most miraculous thing of all. To take such a huge step to reach out to others, and to do so only because of love of G-d.

That is what Avram does in this week’s parsha. More than bris milah, more than the binding of Isaac, this is his most difficult test. And all around in my travels, I see people who are doing this every day. We see ourselves and we do not realize the amazing things of which we are capable. We read about Avram doing this amazing thing and think, ‘Wow!’ but we do not realize that we ourselves can be doing that exact same thing! And many people are.

So remember, as you read the Torah and the commandments, that these stories are not as farfetched as you might first think. When G-d gives us the mitzvot to do, He isn’t giving us anything of which we are incapable. If so many G-d fearing Jews can pass Avram’s most difficult test themselves, then each of us can, too. And each of us can pass any test G-d gives us, and keep any mitzvot He gives us, too. We only have to have the faith… and try.

Shabbat shalom.

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Parshas Va’eschanan: Building Our Own Cities of Refuge

Virginia House

We should all strive to make our homes into real places of refuge, by cultivating an atmosphere of love, openness, and security.

As I write this, I am sitting on a bus. It’s a nice bus, a Greyhound, not a third-world bus that seems to be falling apart. We are leaving behind Virginia and my family, leaving behind the home I spent at least a few years in as I was growing up.

Rabbi Ben and I don’t have a home of our own (unless you count our backpacks – we travel like turtles!) so our parents’ homes are a bit like places of refuge for us. If, G-d forbid, something happened and we had nowhere left to go, we would have somewhere to turn. I think this is true even for those of us who aren’t traveling: if something happened, at the very least we can turn to our families for support. (At least, this is the way it should be, ideally.) Our family is our place of refuge.

This week’s Torah portion has a stunning lineup of commandments the Jews are reminded about just before Moses dies. One of these is the concept of cities of refuge. If one person accidentally kills another, he must run to the nearest city of refuge so that he will not be killed by the vengeful family. The Jews are even obligated to put up clear signposts telling the person exactly where to run to get to the nearest city of refuge.

Now, I’m not suggesting that if you accidentally kill someone you should go running to your house (you probably should go to the police)… And you should probably visit your parents even when you haven’t done anything wrong. Yet, we all make mistakes in our life. And when we do, we need somewhere to run. Even if nobody is pursuing us, we need to know we have a safe place to go to. (Haven’t you ever had a bad experience and just felt that “I want to go home and hide” feeling?) Not only do we need a safe place, but we need clear instructions on how to get there, every step of the way, because when we’re feeling terrible about what we’ve done, the mistake we’ve made, we might not be thinking too clearly.

When I’m traveling, I feel comfortable just knowing I have somewhere to go if I ever really need it. It’s an important lesson on the value of family, trust, and support. Everybody needs to know that they have a ‘city of refuge’ – even though we hope to never have to use it.

As we move into the coming week, let’s focus on making ourselves and our homes into cities of refuge for our friends and family. I hope that when something happens to my loved ones, they feel like they can run to me… Even while at the same time, I hope they won’t need to use it. Still, if we focus on making our homes safer and more accessible, we and our families stand to benefit by growing together, growing stronger, and growing closer.

Shabbat shalom!

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Parshas Mattos: Getting Your Priorities Straight

Dog in Stroller

It's really no joke that in Boca Raton, women push their dogs in strollers and pull their kids behind on leashes. Isn't it time we reevaluate our priorities?

If you ever want to see something really strange, go to the Boca Raton Mall – there you see women with dogs in strollers and kids on leashes!

In travel, we’ve seen some pretty bizarre things. It always strikes me as odd when someone places undo importance on something unimportant, while ignoring the thing that really needs attention. One thing that’s often made me wonder is why people in America spend so much money on things that really aren’t priorities. For Rabbi Ben and I, travel and life experience are of primary importance. Until we someday have more money than we know what to do with (G-d, it’s fine with me if you want to make this come true!), I can’t think of any good reason to have an expensive car. There are inexpensive cars out there that are just as safe and just as reliable as the more pricey ones, yet countless people spend money to get that Lexus because – why? A Toyota isn’t good enough?

The fact is, these same people will often skimp on things that really matter. In several recent conversations with friends and acquaintances I’ve been told that once we have children, we won’t be able to travel anymore. Why? Well, first they argue that it’s impractical (I guess kids are an “inconvenience”?), then I am warned that it will be too expensive. Too expensive?! Well, a fancy car is expensive. Instead of spending money on that, we’d be much happier to spend less and just get by with a beat-up reliable old car, in order to be able to travel with our kids at least two months out of the year. In my opinion, travel is a great education for kids, so for me that’s top priority. It’s not about having fun (although travel can be fun); it’s about providing our future children with the most meaningful education possible. But although I often hear other people agree with me that they’d like to take their kids traveling more, I don’t often see them do anything about it. At the end of the day, I think many people are failing to prioritize the true priorities.

Rabbi Huttler, who is related to the holy Baal Shem Tov, speaking at my friend's sheva brachot

Rabbi Huttler spoke at a sheva brachot about this week's parsha and the importance of getting our priorities straight.

Earlier this week, I heard Rabbi Reuben Huttler of Los Angeles, who is related to the holy Ba’al Shem Tov, speak at my friend’s sheva brachot. He pointed out that in this week’s parsha, Gad and Reuven request to be given land the Jews had conquered outside of the proper land of Israel. Moses is pretty upset by this, but Gad and Reuven promise a few things: first, they’ll build pens for their livestock, then they’ll build cities for their children, and then they’ll rush out and fight to conquer Israel with the rest of the Jews. Moses gives them a quiet rebuke: he accepts their offer, but tells them they must build cities for their children and pens for their livestock. Without saying anything else, he reverses the order. This is Moses’s way of telling Gad and Reuven, “Hey, you guys have got your priorities wrong. You care more about your posessions than your children! Tend to your children first, then your material well-being will follow.”

The truth is that we get our priorities mixed up all the time, and we don’t need to travel to see it, although travel does often open our eyes. I shouldn’t have to go to Boca Raton to recognize that pushing your dog ahead of you while pulling your child behind you is wrong. I shouldn’t need to have someone point out to me that if being healthy is important, I should buy organic food and a gym membership instead of paying for netflix and video game systems. I know people who are masters of procrastination, who can make everything seem more important than what they really should be doing. This applies in the home (who doesn’t try to get out of doing chores?), in the workplace (who doesn’t want to avoid that long, difficult, and boring assignment?), and in our personal lives (who doesn’t make up excuses to avoid that one annoying friend?). Does that make this behavior right? No, of course not, but we all do it, all the same.

This week, let’s learn this lesson from Gad and Reuven and work on getting our priorities straight! SHABBAT SHALOM!

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