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Rabbiner Schochet

Rabbiner Schochet


Mayor Mr. Heinz Winterwerber, Community Council Leader Mr. Strauss, Mr. Ezra Cohen, members of the community council Mrs Rubenstein, Dr. Horowitz – guest of honour and dear friend of Chabad, Mr. Ira Laibowitz, Kvoid Harabonim (Chief Rabbi Sasoon) – acharoin acharoin choviv Kvoid Hashluchim – Horav Yisroel Diskin – head of Chabad of Germany, Rabbi Chaim Berkhan – head of Chabad of Dusseldorf, fellow shluchim - ladies & gentlemen.

Thank you for that very warm introduction. It is a delight, an honour and a privilege to be here, joined with this wonderful Jewish community; and particularly to be here on behalf of Rabbi & Mrs Barkahn and Chabad of Dusseldorf. This has been a memorable and monumental day for Chabad of Dusseldorf what with the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Rohr Chabad Centre, the start of writing a Sefer Torah, and of course this special dinner. The work of Chabad of Dusseldorf, their accomplishments, their selfless dedication are nothing less than inspirational to myself - and many others besides and I’m sure you all join me in wishing them continued blessings and success in all their outstanding endeavour.

I want to share with you two recent personal experiences I had. A little while ago I found myself standing in Theresienstadt, about 40 kilometres outside Prague. There, I was taken to a small courtyard, at the end of which was a brick wall. And behind this brick wall was a tiny room. On one wall in this room was written the Hebrew words dah lifnei mi atah oimed - "Know before Whom you are standing," the clearly determined mizrach - east in this makeshift synagogue as one would find within many synagogues today. On another wall, amazingly, in beautiful Hebrew lettering was embossed im eshkachech Yerushalayim - "if I forget thee oh Jerusalem." And as I stood there praying I pondered upon the incredible fact that there will have been Jews in that room, knowing that they were praying quite possibly their last, and yet still they lived with a dream and a vision of seeing Jerusalem – of a better tomorrow.

We may be living in the Twenty-First century. We may still be encountering physical or spiritual hostility in parts of Europe; whether because Anti Semitism is on the rise yet again or because the apathy that so pervades us gives way to assimilation and whatever else besides.

And in the face of this many people despair. Many may revert to what Israel Zangwell referred to as the ghetto shtoop – assuming the hunched posture of indignity. Yet even as some may sometimes look to run from it all, Chabad is right there, inescapably so, ensuring that we have no cause to ever hide – enabling us to walk tall and proud in the faith and the belief of a better tomorrow.

A little after that trip to Prague I was on a plane with my dear wife returning from a solidarity trip to Israel. This elderly woman sat next to my wife Chani and myself. She was part of a group of seventy senior citizens who also came to Israel. She told me which community she comes from and wonderful her rabbi is. I asked her if she knew the rabbi of Mill Hill Synagogue, which is my shul. “Oh yes. Sch…Sch…Schochet. I don’t like him!” My wife smiles and asks sweetly, ‘why not?’ “Oh he’s very controversial. I don’t like his views at all. Not my kind of rabbi!” She looks at me and sees me smiling and says, “I’m sorry if you have anything to do with him, but I just don’t like him!” Later she’s standing with some friends who identified me from a weekly column I write in one of the papers and as I walked past with my wife this same lady says, “What is your name?” My wife smiles, “Chani,” and then quickly beats a hasty retreat. I said “Yitzchak.” “What is your surname? She persists. “Schochet,” I said, sheepishly. “And so you are! Are you the rabbi?” Trying to make light of an otherwise embarrassing situation and hoping she’ll take it all in good humour I reply, “Well let’s just say I am very, very closely related to him!” “Oh good!” she says, “As long as you’re not him! I really don’t like him!”

It’s good therapy sometimes to forget yourself, drop the image and let others tell you like it is. We got along really well throughout the flight, this lady and I. She was very grateful for my help, putting her jacket up into the overhead compartment, taking it back down; Helping her with the remote control – taking it out, putting it back, and even sharing a laugh or two with her.

It’s amazing how people are so quick to jump to conclusions and form preconceived notions, judging and passing verdict without ever really experiencing matters first hand.

For the record I’m not suggesting she’s wrong. But aren’t we to one degree or another guilty of the same? We are quick to pass judgement on other people without ever really looking beneath the surface. Is there hope for the forlorn Jew if we just judge them then write him or her off as another statistic?

That’s what makes this, such a precious moment as Chabad Lubavitch marks its successes, and take another step forward toward another milestone of accomplishment. Because while many Jews may be ignored, cast aside as yet another lost statistic, Chabad is working some of its legendary magic bringing them back into the fold – giving them a deeper sense of pride and belonging.

You know, when I think of Chabad and I try to find the right sort of analogy with which to capture its essence, I come up with a rather unusual parallel. I think it is best compared to a game of tag. Do you remember how you played tag as a child? One person is it, and then he runs around chasing other people - reaching out, touching them and saying "you're it" and so it goes round and round.

Is that not the uniqueness, the power, the beauty of Chabad? Special emissaries like Rabbi Chaim and Devorie Barkahn        and the many other Chabad rabbis, whether in this room, here in Germany and indeed throughout the world, chasing after Jewish souls, reaching out, touching them emotionally, spiritually, sensitively, impacting them, transforming them - but it doesn't stop there, the modus operandi of Chabad is that now "you're it!" You've got to go out there and touch someone else and affect someone else in the same sort of way. And so it goes, a ripple effect, which reverberates around the globe - impacting the world in a way like no other. 

They tell the story of Mr. Goldstein who stops coming to synagogue on the weekend. The rabbi goes to enquire as to his welfare and is amazed to find the man in perfectly robust health. “Mr Goldstein, you’re looking fine. Why don’t we see you anymore?” “Well Rabbi, it’s like this. When I turned 90 I was fairly sure I had done my time and so I waited. But nothing happened. Then before I know it I turn 95 and I figure I’ve had a good life my time is up. Again nothing. Before I could even think about it I was turning 100 and I was certain that it would be any day.” “So,” says the Rabbi. “Well now I’m 105 and I’m convinced G‑d has forgotten about me, and I sure not going back into synagogue to remind Him!”

My friends, ladies and gentlemen: We live in a world which seems so riddled by chaos - A world in which people are wandering aimlessly, looking for greater meaning - greater purpose. A world where adults seem so out of touch with their children and children and youth seek comfort in the impediments that infest our society - A world in which our brothers and sisters in Israel are hurting and Anti Semitism alas seems to rear its ugly head yet again. A world which is gripped by terror, and where some may despair in the misconception that G‑d has forgotten about me.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe ORM, in his great and luminous wisdom foresaw the challenges that this world would confront. But he also looked beyond into a better world – a world where good would triumph over evil, freedom over oppression, spirit over matter. So he sent out rabbis, first maybe a dozen or so and then over the course of time, several thousand to every corner of this globe, from Alaska to Argentina, from Nova Scotia to New Zealand, from Idaho to Istanbul, to help transform this world, dispelling the darkness with the light of Torah and tradition, goodness and kindness – bringing the message to everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, that G‑d has not forgotten about you.

The Rebbe never had any biological children – any natural heirs, but by his own testament, he had countless spiritual children – millions upon millions of spiritual heirs. Every Jew across the stretches of this planet who has been touched or is yet to be touched by the magic of Chabad are part of his greater family. Such was his love for everyone. Such is the love of Chabad for everyone. And therein lies its success. It's not a job, it’s not a cult, it's not structured upon corporate mentality; it's a labour of love, it's a passion, it’s a way of life.

Every Chabad representative strives for the ultimate, yet never feels that he or she has arrived. They have huge aspirations yet remain humble and unassuming. They say: I want to, and can, do it all -- yet, no matter how much they will have done, they know that there is still more to do. 

Consider the following story: The scene is a tiny town in Alaska. The young Chabad rabbi walks into the Mayor’s office and announces his presence. “I’m here to bring the spice and spirit of Judaism to the Jews of Alaska.” “That’s very fine,” says the Mayor, “but there are no Jews in this particular town.” “No synagogue, nothing?” asks the surprised rabbi. “Nothing.” “Well I’ve travelled all this distance, can I at least speak in one of the local schools?” The arrangements are made and that same afternoon this young rabbi is speaking to a group of non-Jewish primary school kids about Judaism. “And who amongst you has ever seen a Jew?” the rabbi asks at the end of his talk. After a small moment of silence, a little hand is raised. “I have,” says the little blond girl. “My Mom.” (Apparently she got married there and then the husband left and abandoned them).  

Now what is the rabbi going to relay to this young girl and her mother? What kind of message can he impart to such deeply assimilated souls? Go to synagogue? There is none. Join some Jewish social group? They’re the only ones in town. Leave? That wouldn’t go down very well. But he did leave her with a sterling thought that is as penetrating as it is simple. “You know, for Jews there’s a very special day each week and it’s called the Sabbath. Jewish mothers and daughters throughout the world have a special custom where they light a candle just before the onset of this special Sabbath. They light a candle, which symbolises illumination, warmth and peace.” And then he added something, which I find incredibly moving. It is said when Moshiach comes, he’ll first arrive in New Zealand as they are that much ahead and the last place he’ll arrive at is Alaska – the two furthest stretches of the universe, separated by more than twenty-four hours. He told this young fair-haired girl: “Imagine so many thousands of people across the globe lighting that candle each week. It’s all a chain reaction, which begins at sunset in New Zealand and ends with sunset right here in Alaska. Be sure to light your candle! You’re the last link on the chain! The rest of the world is waiting for you!

Could you imagine what the world would be like if we all paused long enough to think ourselves as the last link on the chain. That is the ultimate message of Chabad. To simply challenge each of us to dare to consider that “the world is waiting for you.”

As in the famous words of Maimonides: Man is obligated to reflect upon the world as though it is evenly balanced, and it is his or her one good deed that can tip the scales and bring salvation to the entire universe. In simple terms, the world is waiting for you! And in virtually every country spanning the length and breadth of our universe there is a Chabad Centre with a wonderful Rabbi and a wonderful Rebbetzin with their wonderful family – dedicating their lives, 24/7 with a sense of eternal optimism, encouraging their surrounds to take a moment of spiritual respite from their otherwise tumultuous workload in life – to think beyond the confines of their own limitations, their material pursuits, their next conquest. To remember the time-hallowed words of our Sages: “Man was created alone – singular, because he is obligated to say, for me was this world created.”Each of us must be concerned about the fact that the world was created for me and if the world was created for me then the world is waiting for me to make the differences that will positively affect all mankind.

In a few days time we will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Six hundred thousand: That was the number of men aged between 20-60 who left Egypt – who encountered a desert devoid of any meaning and purpose. And who, along with their wives and families received the Torah and transformed that wasteland – building a sanctuary, a haven, which both man and G‑d could call home.

Two thousand four hundred: That was the amount of men gathered in a banqueting hall in New York City several months back – each a shliach – a representative of the Lubavitcher Rebbe – a Chabad emissary – living in another part of the world. Sometimes deprived of all the typical Jewish luxuries we take for granted; sometimes deprived of basic Jewish necessities like a Jewish school - a mikvah, even essential kosher food products. But while the world-view might see this as deprivation – to a shliach & shlucha it’s a challenge. And while for them manna doesn’t fall from the heavens, they look toward the blessings and the miracles and over time a spiritually desolate desert is transformed into an oasis where Jews can feel at home again. A Chabad House is built, a mikvah is built or refurbished, a Jewish school or seminary is built: And all in the name of love – Ahavas Hashem and Ahavas Yisroel – a love for G‑d and a love for another Jew – another human being out there.

Two young Jewish brothers, real trouble makers were kicked out of one school and the next because of their misbehaviour. Finally, with no other alternative, the parents enrol them in this strict Catholic reformatory school, which had a reputation of zero tolerance for misbehaviour. The older brother is escorted into the dean’s office – a senior priest while the other waits outside. “Young man,” asks the priest, “where is G‑d?” The boy shifts his feet uneasily but says nothing. “Young man, I asked you a question. Where is G‑d?” The boy squirms a little, but his lips remain sealed. The priest’s voice is now raised several octaves: “Young man. Are you listening to me? I asked you, ‘where is G‑d?”’ The boy looks up at the priest with a weak smile but still doesn’t say a word. At this point the priest comes menacingly from around the side of his desk, towering over the young child and bellows: “I’m going to ask you one more time, where is G‑d?” At which point the boy jumps out of his seat, runs out the door and down the hallway, bumping straight into his little brother. “What is it? What’s wrong? Why are you running?” The older one says: “We’ve got to get out of here man! They lost G‑d and they’re blaming us!”

Some say this world is devoid of religious values. Some say this world has lost sense of spiritual direction. Some say this world is always teetering on the brink. Chabad says let’s not waist time determining the faults, focussing on the negative. That’s destructive energy – it’s damaging, a futile exercise. The Rebbe’s vision and Chabad’s mission is about moving forward and getting on with the business of building, brick by brick, soul by soul, for a better, more peaceful, more illuminating tomorrow.

Chabad says: It’s not important that you run a public company. What is important is that you make an effort to build a loving home and family. It’s not important that you succeed in solving the world’s problems. What I important is that you cared for your neighbour. It’s not important that you look beautiful. What is important is that you look for the beauty in others.

Chabad says for hundreds of years, perhaps since the beginning of time, a piece of this world has been waiting for your soul to purify and repair it. And your soul, from the time it was first emanated and conceived, waited above to descend to this world and carry out that mission. Your footsteps were guided to reach that place. And you are there – now! Chabad says if you knew you only had moments left – ask yourself, who would you call, what would you say, where would you go, what would you do – then – what are you waiting for. After all, the rest of world is waiting for you.

As I started, so I’d like to finish with another personal experience. A little while back I attended to a rather unusual funeral. The man was a Holocaust survivor, one of the kinder-transport. I’m always a little overwhelmed when dealing with that sort of situation, filled with a deep sense of awe and humility in the presence of such an individual who endured the depths of hell and prevailed. Only this one came with an added emotional twist. The son approached me with an envelope and a pair of tiny, ever so tiny red shoes. The envelope contained letters written from this survivor’s mother to himself, detailing everything that was going on in her life until her deportation to Auschwitz, never to be heard from again. The shoes had apparently been retrieved after the war – they belonged to a younger sibling who perished as well. The request of this man was that these items be buried with him.

My own mother was one of the “hidden children” during the war, so I appreciated how these artefacts were more than just precious to this man – they were an integral part of his whole identity. 

The image of those tiny red shoes being put into the sand several feet above his coffin will be one of those things that remain permanently etched in my memory. It was like a piece of painful history being laid to rest at last. But with that came an altogether different kind of realisation.

Those little red shoes – they never had a chance in life. They never saw the inside of a Jewish school. They never experienced the interior of a synagogue. They never relished in the kaleidoscopic experience of Jewish living. They never knew what it really meant to live as a Jew. They only knew what it meant to die as a Jew. When you think about it in context, it’s nothing short of a miracle that we are able to join here celebrating life – Jewish life – just a mere sixty years on. And each and every one of you sitting here is very much a part of that miracle. Whenever one might find Jewish life somewhat burdensome or even threatening, I’ll show you one and a half million such pairs of shoes who would have given anything just to take another step forward in their Jewish experience, in liberty, as proud Jews.

Chabad of Dusseldorf, Rabbi Chaim and Devorie Barkahn, like other shluchim throughout the world are committed to one purpose. To reach out to all those little red shoes and every other colour besides – big or small. Where there is no community to build one. And where there is already a community, to compliment it – to assist it – to bring its own spice and spirit in looking to help further develop it. To help make this world the better more spiritual place it was always intended to be.

In conclusion I want to share with you my favourite signature story: A philosophy professor stood before his class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty pickle jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks, about 2" in diameter. He then asked the students if the jar was full? They agreed that it was.

So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles, and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles of course rolled into the open areas between the rocks. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.

The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course the sand filled up everything else. He then asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded unanimously - "yes."

The professor then produced two cans of beer from under the table and proceeded to pour their entire contents into the jar-effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed. "Now" said the professor, as the laughter subsided,

"I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The rocks are the important things - your family, your faith, your children’s education, your health, your friends - things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else, the small stuff. If you put the sand in the jar first," he continued, "there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your life and your happiness. Play with your children, educate them, take time to get medical check ups – physical and spiritual. Enhance the dimensions of harmony within your home – with your spouse and your kids. Look to always add to the religious fabric of your household. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and take a holiday. Take care of the rocks first - the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand." One of the students raised her hand and asked (as some of you may be wondering) what does the drink represent? The professor smiled. "I'm glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always room for a couple of beers."

To the Barkhans I say, you certainly set the example of such sense of priorities most admirably. To all of you - friends and donors to Chabad, you know that’s what we’re all about. Helping people the world over to put the rocks before the pebbles and the sand and of course, saying l’chaim - toasting life for all that it is, all that it does for us and all that we bring to it.

May we indeed merit a couple of beers as G‑d says l’chaim – “to life” to the world, and we in turn will be able to toast the long awaited dream of only eternal bliss and everlasting redemption forever more. Amen.