Musings and Schmoozings

Uncle Mottel

Beitar, Israel, Spring of 1998.

I had stopped off in Israel for a week, on the way back to Sydney, Australia, where I was studying for my Rabbinical Ordination.  I had driven down from Kfar Habad in my rental car to visit my great-uncle Rabbi Mottel Altein, Shlit”a.  A Torah Scholar and Chassidic Giant–Uncle Mottel was the ‘real deal’.

As I sat down in their living room, Uncle Mottel leaned back on his chair and started the conversation by asking me, “Yisroelik – nu, so what are you learning for your Semicha [Rabbinical Ordination]…?”

“Um…Siman [Code] 97-110 – the Laws of Milk and Meat…” , and I then started proudly listing the commentaries that we were expected to master for our Semicha exams.

Leaning forward and with a smile–Uncle Mottel challenged me to do more. 

“Yisrolikel – that is what everyone ELSE is learning. But what are YOU learning?!


The Jewish Month of Elul, the final month of the year, has arrived. Its crisp evenings and shorter days, herald a time of self-reflection and introspection. With the upcoming Jewish New Year, it’s time to get serious and reconnect to G-d.

But we ask ourselves: Perhaps I have already maximized my ‘growth potential’? We already did this exercise last year! Can I do any better than what I already am doing? Perhaps when G-d looks at me it is WYSIWYG?

For me, my Uncle Mottel erased that thought, and refused to allow me to settle for less than what I was capable of. “Yisrolikel – you can do more!”

We all can do more, and so long as we are breathing – there is still more mountain left to climb.

G-d sees greatness in us, whether we see it ourselves or not. At this special moment of the year, it is time look at ourselves from Hashem’s perspective—instead of our own.

It’s Elul, let’s do some spiritual growing.

Shabbat Shalom,

"One Caramel Macchiato..."

 Many have set out to change the world. Wicked tyrants, wealthy tycoons, generous philanthropists—all people with big-time aspirations and who either swing a big stick or a mighty checkbook.  

However, the Rambam (Maimonides) takes another approach to the ‘Change the World’ idea. He writes, loosely translated : A person should always see the world as hanging in balance, with you–the individual, and your individual act, as having the power to change the World’s destiny to the ‘Good Side’.

Me…My mitzvah…Change the world?!

Talk about megalomania!

Which reminds me of a story told of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who as a confident young Rabbi declared, “I’m going to change the world!”

Then he rethought, “The world is an awfully big place—that’s impossible!”

Setting a more reasonable goal, the Rabbi decided to merely change his country, only to realize that even that goal was impossible. Then he thought about changing his town, his neighborhood, and finally his own household--each time resigning himself to the fact that changing them was beyond the limits of his control.

Finally, the Rabbi came to the realization that all that was in his control was the ability to change was himself.

 “Aha!”, he exclaimed. “But if I change myself, then I may in fact influence my household, which may in fact change my neighborhood, and perhaps the town, the country…and one never knows—maybe the World.”

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was later famous for his teachings of Mussar, a system of ethical and moral conduct.

At 7am this past Wednesday morning, at a Starbucks in S. Petersburg, FL, a lady pulled up at the drive-thru window and asked to pay for a ‘caramel macchiato’ for the stranger in the car behind her. With this small kind act, a ‘pay it forward’ chain of 378 customers was started, which lasted until 6pm--as each person covered the drink of the customer behind them.

Perhaps all it takes to change the world is a couple of (Star) bucks, and a desire to share with others.

Now, let’s go change the world.

Jewish-Identity Theft


“And it will be, because you have listened to my voice.”
If you will listen to my voice regarding the light (or simple) [mitzvot] that are trodden underfoot–then, “G-d will keep his promise…”
-- Deuteronomy, 7:12, Rashi ad loc in Italics

“Moshe was the most humble man on the face of the Earth” -- Bamidbar 12:3.
Moses prophetically saw the generation prior to the exile
[literally the generation of the Heels of Mashiach] and he was humbled.

--Likkutei Torah, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, First Chabad Rebbe

As usual, after the weekly Torah Studies class finished, we sat around shmoozing. The conversation turned to the hard realities of growing up Jewish in anti-semitic Soviet Russia.

One attendee clutched her Magen David proudly and said, “Growing up in Russia, I would always wear my Magen David. I never wanted anyone to make a mistake about who I really am…”

She could easily have passed for a gentile, yet she insisted that her Jewish Identity be clear to everyone--no matter the repercussions.

Another woman then told of her experience when she received her Russian passport. Soviet citizens would receive their passport at age 16, in which the holder’s nationality would be listed. Ethnic Russians (and ‘lucky’ Jews) were listed as Russki or Ruskaya –while Jewish citizens were listed as Yevrey, or Yevreyiskaya. The Russkaya stamp entitled the holder to ease of employment and academic access. Yevreyiskaya?–A permanent mark of hatred and scorn, and a life filled with challenge.

Arriving home with her new passport, she opened it up and was shocked to read that she was listed as RUSSKAYA – Russian!  

Rushing back to the government office, she said to the clerk. “I believe that you made a mistake! I’m JEWISH, not Russian. Please fix it for me.”

The stunned clerk replied, “You seemed like a nice person, I was only trying to do you a favor…”

What a display of heroism, pride and honor!

Listening to this conversation, I was silent and quite humbled.  Certainly, the Magen Dovid (a symbol) and a passport (Does G-d really care about what is written in my passport?!) don't fit in the category of important Mitzvot--or even 'Light-weight Mitzvot' that are 'trampled underfoot'. And yet—here were two people who unceremoniously risked so much to maintain these marks of Jewish Identity. 

Perhaps, these stories of simple, yet courageous displays of Jewish Pride—are what humbled Moses so many years ago. While Hitler tried to exterminate Jewish Life, and while Stalinist Russia attempted to steal Jewish Identity and Faith -- in a class 8,000 miles away and decades later, we sat listening to stories of courage and defiance, of people who fought to retain their identity and who thrust it proudly in the face of their oppressors.   

In a day and age in which ‘Identity Theft’ is a common issue – let’s protect our Jewish Identities. By proudly expressing our Judaism—we will protect our Jewish ID. In the world we live in—it may not be easy. Some may say that it is downright uncomfortable–but it sure seems easy compared to the struggles of two proud Jewish women in the USSR.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yisroel Hecht 

Isaiah's Comet

What is the shortest distance between two points? Of course, a line.

Just don’t tell that to the consortium of scientists who announced yesterday the stunning accomplishment of the Rosetta Mission–a mission that has a space-craft catching a comet. Looking at a map on the mission’s website, the track of this space craft has a closer resemblance to the journey of a meandering, staggering drunkard, rather than a meticulously planned path that has been lauded by experts as “shooting a bullet with a bullet—a billion miles away!”

To paraphrase a motto of the Baal Shem Tov: Every that one observes in life, must become a guiding light. So what can we learn from this?

A few standout aspects of the mission:

Gravity Assist –A significant portion of the propulsion of the Rosetta spacecraft stems from the ‘Gravitation Assist’ it has received from the wide, circular orbiting path. Using the gravitational pull of large objects which are certainly not the desired destination (Earth three times, and Mars once), –Rosetta has used the energy harnessed by these ‘fly-bys’, to move into its present precise location.

Mission Purpose: Scientists have pointed to comets as a potential source of the origins and building blocks of the solar system. The purpose of Rosetta is to analyze Comet 67P to enlighten scientists as to the source of Life on Earth and Earth’s development.

A Lengthy Hibernation:  During one of these wide orbits, the spacecraft was so distant from the Sun (1 Million Miles!) that the craft went into a near four-year hibernation. Despite this, it now stands in perfect position.

Rosetta’s mission parallels our soul’s life-mission on Earth.

Placed on Earth, the souls is charged with the mission  to uncover the source of it all—G-d.  Embedded in this world are sparks of G-dliness, which we reveal with every mitzvah. The soul is sent on this challenging mission with no less lofty a goal than to expose the Divine, the true building blocks and fundamental reality of our world.

Mission success is never as simple as a straight line of accomplishment. We tend to swing from one extreme to the other. At times, we achieve great progress.  At other times, we experience terrible missteps in the wrong direction--having lost track of our objective, we confuse life’s ‘bright lights’ with our distant Comet's guiding light.

Our solar arrays are fully unfurled, yet unable to give our lives the positive spark of true vitality. We have become so distant from our sun that we have spiritually shut down and we lie dormant.

Looking at Rosetta, we find inspiration. Much like the craft employs its circuitous trajectory as a means to its destination—so too we must realize that life’s mistakes can subsequently power us in the 'right direction'. Judaism instructs us not to merely repent for our mistakes, but rather to do Teshuva—a corrective maneuver which returns us to our Mission, but now with the ‘Gravitational Assist’ directly resulting from our wayward trip.  

In the final words of the Haftara this Shabbat, Isaiah urges us:  “Lift your eyes heavenward”, Isaiah says, “ and you will see Who created these. He brings forth their legions by number, He call them all by name. Because of His abundant might and powerful strength--there is not missing even one [orig. Heb. Ish -Person]"

This Shabbat, perhaps these words have an even deeper meaning. Let us look heavenward, and may Rosetta inspire us to find our source, and to never feel that we are ever terminally off-mission.

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