Posts on the topic of "Challenges"
This year, I got a shock right before Rosh Hashanah.
My bike was stolen.
About a year ago I received a bicycle as a birthday gift. (My first one since elementary school!) It quickly became my main mode of transportation, as well as my primary source of exercise. I took it everywhere and loved it.
Last week I rode it to a meeting in Jerusalem, near the Old City. The meeting lasted only two hours, but when I came out my bike was totally gone – no helmet, no lock, no trace remaining.
It was a real shock and, after filing a police report, I had a long walk home to think about why this might have happened to me.
I realized that I'd been feeling a bit self-inflated about my bike. It just had a tune-up and I was feeling really great about it. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that – the Almighty wants us to be energized and productive.
But I was harboring a bit of self-pride about the whole thing. You know, "Aren't I so cool." And this was getting in the way of my building a relationship with God.
You see, a relationship with God starts with the recognition of His profound greatness. The more we see the unparalleled power of God, the more we put our human-ness into perspective. Arrogance gets in the way of that; humility enables it to happen.
Unfortunately humility has gotten a bad rap. Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Humility is the recognition of our own place in the universe. By not letting our ego – our sense of "self" – get in the way, we can tap into our near-infinite Divine potential. As "the most humble of all men" (Numbers 12:3), that humility is precisely what made Moses the greatest of all time.
As Rabbi Noah Weinberg writes, the Talmud likens arrogance to idol worship: both push away the presence of God.
Rosh Hashanah is the key day of the year to forge a connection with God. So it seems that going into Rosh Hashanah, having my bike taken away was the dose of humility necessary to knock me down a notch… and make that deep "High Holiday" connection with God.
And there's more good news: My homeowner's insurance pays for a replacement.
Shana Tova!READ MORE...
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This week I read the horrific story of Thalidomide, a drug which pregnant women took during the late 1950s and early '60s to counter the nausea of "morning sickness."
Many children born to these mothers were too deformed to survive; those who did survive had a soaring rate of birth defects – most commonly stumps of arms and legs.
Today there is a whole group of armless survivors called "Thalidomide kids." They include an amazing guitar player who plays with his toes, and a filmmaker whose feature documentary on the disastrous side-effects of Thalidomide, "NoBody's Perfect," won the 2009 German Film Award for Best Documentary.
The drug was pulled from sale in 1961 after doctors linked it to birth defects.
Now – this week, 50 years later – the German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal has finally apologized for the damage caused.
Also this week my mother told me that when she was pregnant with me (in 1960-61), the doctor suggested looking into the possibility of Thalidomide.
Thankfully, she refused.
Imagine what my life would be like, had my mother made a different decision.
Life is so complex, so fraught with perilous decisions at every turn.
Some people prosper, while others suffer.
We see "bad things" that happen to us, and may feel that our lot in life is unfair. Yet what about the many things in life that could have happened – the near-misses – that we don't even know about?
When put in this perspective, our own set of challenges becomes easier to bear. No, I didn't suffer the disaster of Thalidomide. But I do have my own set of challenges. And I embrace them, knowing that my life is closely guided by a loving and caring God.READ MORE...
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The world suffered a huge loss this week with the passing of Shoshana Chaya Shachar, a young mother of four from Moshav Matityahu.
Shoshana Chaya was the wife of Rafi Shachar, a graphic artist who designed some of the earliest iterations of the Aish website, and who has been creative director for some of Aish.com's most successful viral films.
Shoshana Chaya's life was not easy. She lost her father at an early age, and battled many years from the illness that would eventually claim her life. Yet her optimism and cheer never waned.
At the funeral, Rabbi Zev Leff, the spiritual leader of Moshav Matityahu, spoke of King Solomon's immortal words from Proverbs chapter 31 – "Aishes Chayil" (Woman of Valor) – that we sing at the Shabbat dinner in tribute to Jewish women. Why, asked Rabbi Leff, does the verse compare this accompished woman's value to "far beyond pearls"? Why not gold or some other valuable commodity?
Rabbi Leff explained that the process of becoming a pearl occurs when a microscopic intruder enters a mollusk and settles inside the shell. The mollusk, being irritated by the intruder, secretes a chemical which ultimately produces a pearl.
In other words, the pearl's greatness is achieved only through having endured trials. In that regard, Shoshana Chaya Shachar was a master.
Rabbi Leff then wondered about a seeming contradiction: One verse describes the rarity of such a pearl: Aishes Chayil mi yimtzah – "a woman of valor, who can find?", but then testifies that "rabos banos asu chayil" – "You, God, have made many women of valor." So is such a woman rare, or common?
Rabbi Leff answered: A careful reading of the verses shows that a woman of valor is rare to "find" – in other words, attaining this level doesn't come automatically. Only those who the Almighty has challenged with irritants – of those, God has "made" many.
Also at the funeral, Shoshana Chaya's teenage son Yaakov spoke eloquently of his gratitude for lessons learned from his mother:
"I learned from you that whatever happens is good. And though we might not understand what God is trying to tell us, it's always for a good reason. You taught me to see the good in every hard situation. I learned so many lessons and I'm lucky I got to learn them at such a young age – so that I get to use them my whole life. I learned how to appreciate what I have now and not look at what I don't have. I learned how to appreciate my family. And I learned that life is good."
Shoshana Chaya was known to have absolute dedication to her family and friends. What struck me when I visited the shiva house was the care and concern that Rafi and the four children show for each other. They offer genuine support and encouragement, and are committed to sticking together to help each other. It is this unity that will enable them to pass this tragic time, and it is this legacy of love that Shoshana Chaya leaves behind. May her memory be for a blessing.READ MORE...
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In 2007, a British woman named Claire Lomas was paralyzed from the chest down after breaking her neck and back in a horse-riding accident. She had no chance of ever walking again.
Until the Israelis came along.
When an accident left Israeli entrepreneur Amit Goffer as a quadriplegic, he designed the ReWalk suit, an ingenious device that enables people with lower-limb paralysis to "walk." ReWalk uses an array of motion sensors to detect upper body movement, which then causes the bionic leg braces to ambulate.
This month, Lomas became the first paralyzed person to complete a marathon not using a wheelchair. She began the London Marathon on April 22 with 36,000 other participants and completed the 26-mile route 16 days after the race began.
"Once I started, I just took each day as it came," she said. "And every step got me a step closer."
The change from wheelchair to walking is profound. Not only in terms of mobility (ReWalk can climb stairs), but also being able to speak eye-to-eye with others goes a long way in building dignity and self-confidence. Goffer, the inventor of the system, says: "When I was injured the first thing I was offered was the only thing: a wheelchair… There hasn't been a real change [in technology] for centuries."
Ironically, Goffer cannot benefit from his own invention. As a quadriplegic, he has only partial use of his hands, but not enough to operate the ReWalk.
To me, this is another chapter in the Israeli story of bringing positive change to the world. The Jewish people are masters of hope and spirit - for millennia the cutting-edge leaders in agriculture, medicine, technology and, of course, the ethical system we're now celebrating on the Shavuot holiday.
Rabbi Henry Harris of the Aish Center in Manhattan shared with me this beautiful story:
A woman in our neighborhood recently passed away after a long struggle with cancer. Her husband spoke at the funeral and shared that when his wife was diagnosed with cancer over seven years ago, she decided that she did not want the disease to take over her or her family's lives.
She kept things a secret from her young children and put her best foot forward every day while battling, struggling, and dealing with a lot of pain.
Finally her doctor told her that she did not have much more time. She decided that she was going to tell her youngest son (now 13) when he came home from camp at the end of this past summer.
When the boy came home, he could immediately tell something was wrong, and his mother proceeded to explain. Her son's response was simple but powerful. He said "Why you?" She has always been a model mother and citizen, a giver, a powerful and positive force in her community and in the world... so the question was very real... Why??
Here was her answer: "When I first started dating and immediately found the love of my life, I didn't ask 'why me?'. When I became pregnant in the first year of marriage when so many of our friends struggled for years to conceive, I didn't ask 'why me?'. When I was fortunate enough to never struggle financially as my husband was blessed to be making a good living, I didn't ask 'why me?'. When my older children got married with the same ease and started their own beautiful families, I didn't ask 'why me?'. So I'm not going to start asking now!"
Such faith and clarity in the face of adversity is rare and very special. In a moment like that, who can blame a person for breaking down? Instead she stood strong and true. I know how impactful this one story of her life was to me. I can only imagine how she affected those around her in her lifetime through those positive choices. A true inspiration. May her soul be elevated.READ MORE...
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The second annual Jerusalem Marathon is set for March 16, with 15,000 participants from 50 countries – each with his own motivation, challenge, and goal to reach.
One of these is 26-year-old David Haft, originally of Los Angeles, now living in Jerusalem. David shared with me his story:
"I grew up as the fat kid. I got picked on for being slow and fat, and was always chosen last in sports. I ate fast food almost every day and spent hours in front of the TV – a terrible combination for physical and mental well being."
Now weighing in at a healthy 160 pounds, David has been training the past four months for the grueling 26-mile run up and down the hills of Jerusalem. A daily routine of stretching, weight-training and distance runs, coupled with a healthy eating regime, has gotten him into great physical and mental shape needed to take on this challenge of a lifetime.
David’s turnaround came when he began getting more interested in his Jewish roots. “My mother is Israeli and the last time I visited I was six years old,” David says. “I thought Israel was an undeveloped, dirty place. But then I went on a birthright trip and that really opened my eyes.”
David returned to Israel to pursue his Jewish education at the Aish Yeshiva, where today he continues to study full-time. David says:
“I learned that the only way to achieve my purpose and potential is to have a strong and healthy body, which can lead to a more positive state of mind. Maimonides writes (Deyos 4:1) that the body is the vehicle for the soul – the stronger the body, the more we can achieve our purpose in the world. Our body is a gift and we have a duty to look after it."
The Jerusalem Marathon is also a forum for philanthropy. Many participants are using the run in order to raise money for good causes. David found one that really spoke to him.
"Self Discovery is an organization which inspires people to think big, get focused, reach their potential, and then positively influence others around them. They run seminars that help young people identify their personal strengths and goals, and eliminate obstacles standing in the way. It's a great cause which is making a huge difference in many people's lives. In fact it helped motivate me to run the marathon in the first place."
David is hoping to be an inspiration for other kids who grew up not feeling great about themselves. He wants to show that with focus and discipline, everyone can achieve great things.
It is poetic justice that David is making the Jerusalem Marathon a focus of his mind-body transformation. Jerusalem, the Holy City, is also well-known for its beauty and challenging terrain. The March 16 event will take runners through important historical sites including the Old City, Sultan's Pool, Mount of Olives, Mount Zion, the Knesset, Mount Scopus and many more.
The Jerusalem Marathon offers five options for runners: the full marathon (42 km), half-marathon (21 km), 10 km race, 4.2 km race, and a “community jog” of 400 meters.READ MORE...
By now you've probably heard about Stephanie Decker, the Indiana mom who lost her legs protecting her children when a monster tornado sucked her 8,000-square-foot house into its vortex and caused it to completely collapse.
Stephanie describes how she and her two small children went down into their basement to ride out the storm when the violent winds began to break glass and literally move her house. In a split-second decision, Stephanie tied them up in a blanket and threw her own body on top of them in order to protect them from falling debris. Everything from furniture to steel beams landed on her ― puncturing a lung, breaking seven ribs, severing her two legs.
Stephanie prayed to survive and to be able to see her children grow up. Her 8-year-old son crawled out from the rubble and ran for help, while Stephanie made a farewell video on her cellphone. In the end, Stephanie's life was spared and the two children walked away totally unscathed.
This is one of those unique stories that gets to your core ― the kind that brings great sadness and inspiration at the same time. And with Jews around the world celebrating Purim today, I keep coming back to the words of Queen Esther. She knew that approaching the King without an appointment was punished by death, yet she viewed her mission to save the Jewish people thusly: "If I perish, I perish" (Esther 4:16).
When it comes to sacrificing for something that we deeply believe in, we are capable of super-human efforts.
And this has me asking: What am I capable of?
If Stephanie Decker could give up her legs for her children, what can I do for my family? Is there any sacrifice too great? If Esther was ready to give up everything to save the Jewish people, what can I do for my community? What could I do for the world?
Purim is a holiday of great joy. It is also a time of awesome spiritual power. Our Sages say that before embarking on her dangerous mission, Esther recited Psalm 22 ("Ayelet Hashachar"). So too, every individual can recite Psalm 22 and pour his heart out to the Almighty on Purim day.
The world is in desperate need of repair, on so many fronts. We each have a super-human capacity to fix things, to achieve the Jewish mission of tikkun olam. Let's make this Purim a great one.
with thanks to Yonit RothchildREAD MORE...
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FINAL: In Friday's rescheduled semi-final game, the Shabbat Stars of Beren Academy won a decisive 58-46 win over Dallas Covenant to advance to the State Championship, as Zach Yoshor led the team with 24 points.
In the final, following a well-deserved Shabbat rest, the team fought valiantly, going into locker room at halftime tied at 19-19, but couldn't hold on and lost 46-42. A dramatic ending to an amazing story. Beren-sanity!
UPDATE: In what one U.S. newspaper called "a Purim miracle," an injunction filed with U.S. District Court has prompted the Texas league to rearrange its schedule and allow Beren Academy to participate in the state basketball tourney.
Though Beren officials had opposed legal action, some players and parents filed suit alleging a violation of religious freedoms ― essentially forcing the league to abide by what should have been a common-sense decision. The lawsuit itself is a fascinating read.
Throughout the ordeal, Beren's players have acted with graceful maturity and brought loads of positive PR to the institution of Shabbat. Whatever happens in their playoff game, these kids are total winners.
Remember when Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur ― and became a Jewish hero?
A similar clash of principles is playing out this week in Texas.
Beren Academy, an Orthodox Jewish day school in Houston, won its regional basketball championship to advance to the Final Four of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools.
Unfortunately, the tournament game is scheduled for 9 p.m. Friday, which falls on Shabbat. Beren's players announced they would not attend, saying that nothing ― short of a medical emergency ― would trump 3,000 years of Jewish observance.
Beren Academy appealed for a change in game time, but the league refused ― even though the other three semifinalists announced willingness to make the accommodation. The league has been heavily criticized by a wide spectrum of concerned citizens including an NBA coach and a U.S. Senator.
Interestingly, the league's bylaws expressly forbid any games from being played on Sundays, in deference to Christian teams. In other words, the league already makes an accommodation for religious observance.
Why the double standard?
* * *
But I think there's a bigger question: Are these boys being short-changed? Are they missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to realize their championship dreams, to excel in the spotlight, and to bring positive PR to a Jewish day school?
To me, the answer is obvious. After having worked hard all year to post a 23-5 record (the best season in school history, what one writer called "a Hoosiers season in yarmulkes"), these kids are surely disappointed.
But in the long run, loyalty to Jewish ideals and standing up for what's right are much greater lifelong lessons.
Especially in today's world, with fads fleeting at cyber-speed, young people need strong core values.
Nobody knows whether Beren would have won the championship. But with write-ups everywhere from ESPN to the New York Times, they have, paradoxically, excelled in the spotlight and done an award-winning job of representing the Jewish people.
Albert Katz, a junior guard, told the Houston Chronicle:
Talk about a teachable moment.READ MORE...
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The biggest sports story of the year is Jeremy Lin, the 23-year-old Asian-American basketball player now lighting up the NBA.
Here’s a guy who – despite being a high school star – was ignored when they handed out the college scholarships.
Instead of complaining, Lin worked even harder: He was accepted to Harvard (with no scholarship), got good grades, led the Harvard basketball team to its best season ever, and set all-time Ivy League records.
Incredibly, Lin was ignored again – totally passed over in the NBA draft. (Perhaps because he doesn’t look like the stereotypical basketball player...)
What happened next is an amazing testament to human perseverance.
A few weeks ago, Lin was languishing in obscurity, playing with the D-League Erie Pennsylvania Bayhawks.
Meanwhile, all four point guards on the New York Knick’s roster were being eliminated – one by one – due to injury or incompetence. That’s when Lin was propelled into the Knick’s starting line-up and got the chance to prove himself.
And that’s when it all clicked. In his first four starts, he scored 109 points – getting off to the fastest start of any player in NBA history. (See Lin tearing apart the LA Lakers for 38 points.) Overnight, Lin electrified the league and became a superstar.
Superlatives like Lincredible and Linsanity are being tweeted at record rates, and he has become a role model for 15 million Asian-Americans and billions of Asians worldwide.
The only one who isn't talking hype is Lin himself, a spiritual and humble person who credits his success to God and his teammates.
This story – of a man widely ignored, who believed in himself and shone bright when opportunity knocked – reminds me of the biblical story of King David (1-Samuel ch. 16).
David was a humble shepherd whom nobody paid much attention to. With a ruddy complexion, he looked a bit different. He was the youngest of eight sons.
Then the big day came: God told Shmuel the prophet to go to the house of Jesse and select the most worthy of the sons to be the King of Israel.
Shmuel examined seven of the sons, one by one, but did not find the special quality he was seeking. Then, almost as an afterthought, Jesse mentioned his youngest son, David.
Shmuel immediately knew that he was to coronate King David.
We all know the end of the story: David went on to slay the mighty Goliath, establish the Jewish capital in Jerusalem, compose the timeless Book of Psalms, and lead the Jewish people to extraordinary material and spiritual wealth.
None of us know when our moment will come. It may sometimes seem that life is conspiring against us, and we may question whether we even possess the talent to succeed. The key is to continue to work on ourselves, to believe in ourselves, and to keep our eye on the ball.
Then, when the right moment comes, we will recognize it, rise to the occasion, and achieve the true greatness we were all born to possess.READ MORE...