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We've all seen pictures of optical illusions: which line is longer? Is it a vase or two faces? Which dots are darker? But did you realize that every instant you are encountering optical illusions?
Lying in bed just days before his passing, Rebbe Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Chasidut, was discussing this very topic with his son, Rabbi Dov Ber. "Do you see that ceiling beam," the Rebbe asked his son. "It is pure G-dliness," he declared.
Touching the beam, Rabbi Dov Ber objected, "But father, all I feel is material wood."
"That is because you are touching it with physical hands," his father explained.
Does it seem hard to imagine that everything in this world is, as Rebbe Schneur Zalman proclaimed, pure G-dliness? Try considering the following and it might be easier.
Every part of matter is made up of atoms and even smaller particles. These atoms and all of their particles are constantly in motion. Yet, when we look at a ceiling beam for instance, what we see is a very solid, stationary object.
Now, rather than discussing particles of matter, consider pure G-dliness. According to Jewish philosophy, G-d is very much in touch with the world He created. He did not simply, as some believe, create the world and then leave it to its own devices. In fact, the world continues to exist because, and only because, G-d is constantly reinvesting His life-force into the world. This means that each and every object, from the largest building to the smallest particle, from the squirmiest jello to the most solid ceiling beam, exists only because it is constantly being reinvested with G-dliness. It is pure G-dliness!
When Rebbe Schneur Zalman explained to his son that he was feeling physicality because he was using his physical hand, it's like the old-fashioned 3-D glasses that let you see everything three dimensionally, or rose colored glasses that make everything seem rosy. The fact that everything looks 3-D or seems rosy doesn't mean that either of those conditions are true. Similarly, because we look at or touch things with physical limbs doesn't mean that they lack G-dliness.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe has been saying for some time now that Moshiach is already here; if we only open our eyes we will see him. Most people don't go through life with their eyes closed. So what does "open your eyes" mean? Perhaps the Rebbe is not talking about physical eyes but spiritual eyes.
How do we open our spiritual eyes? How about trying to see the positive points in others. Or, every time something happens "coincidentally," realizing that it is Divine Providence that orchestrated the event. Or, thanking G-d for all the good you have in your life (if this seems difficult, spend just a few moments with the less fortunate and you'll understand that there's a lot to be thankful for).
Looking at everything with spiritual eyes is unlike using rose-colored or 3-D glasses, though. For, with spiritual eyes, we see the true essence of everything; as Rebbe Schneur Zalman declared, everything is pure G-dliness. And once we have exercised our spiritual eyes in this manner, they will be healthy and fit enough to see Moshiach, who is already here.
One of the main reasons that the Exodus from Egypt occupies such a central role in Judaism (we mention it daily in our prayers) is that this original exodus symbolizes the daily spiritual exodus which must take place in the life of a Jew. The Hebrew word for Egypt, "Mitzrayim," comes from the root word "Meitzar," meaning limitations and obstacles. It is up to every individual to liberate himself from his own internal limitations and boundaries, thus freeing his G-dly soul to express itself and seek spiritual fulfillment.
This week's Torah portion, Vaeira, tells of the very beginning of the events which led up to the Jews' triumphant liberation from bondage. By studying the circumstances of the Egyptian exodus, we see how we can apply these lessons to our own personal and spiritual journey as well.
The first plague to afflict the Egyptians was blood; every drop of water in the land was affected. Therefore, the first step toward spiritual liberation must also somehow be connected with transforming "water" into "blood."
Water symbolizes tranquility, coldness, and lack of emotional excitement. Blood, on the other hand, is a symbol of warmth, enthusiasm and fervor. The Torah asks every Jew: Do you truly want to leave "Egypt," to overcome your self-imposed limitations? The first thing you must do is turn your "water" into "blood." Transform your apathy and inertia into enthusiasm and love of Torah and mitzvot. Infuse your life with a warmth and fervor directed toward G-d and holiness.
A person may claim, "Is it not enough that I simply perform the mitzvot, learn Torah, and avoid that which is forbidden? Am I not a good Jew even if I don't feel any enthusiasm for what I do?"
Chasidic philosophy explains that coldness and apathy are the source of all evil. When one is cool toward something, it means that he is totally uninterested in it. We see that when something truly close to the heart is mentioned, our pulse quickens and we "warm" to the subject. Coldness signals the mechanical performance of the commandments and leads to eventual spiritual deterioration.
The first action to be taken toward spiritual liberation is to replace our lukewarm dedication to Judaism with warmth and enthusiasm. We should be at least as equally enthused about Judaism as we are about other facets of our lives.
One of the practical ways this expresses itself is when we perform a mitzva in a particularly nice way. The desire to enhance our observance leads to our observing the precepts of Judaism out of love. This, then, is the first step towards going out of our own personal Egypt and ending our collective exile.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
CROWN HEIGHTS DIARY: CHANUKA
by Esther Altmann
I stood outside on the gray drizzly afternoon, staring intently at a huge twenty-some-foot-high video screen. I had rushed to the event from several blocks away, and, standing in the soft mud of the unfinished construction which surrounded us, I was moved to my core by the sense of being part of a whole, of immense power, and eternal unity. For I was standing amid a group of Jewish men, women and children who were, thanks to modern technology, standing together with thousands of other Jews whose images were projected onto the screen at which we all peered in wonder.
At no other period in history could the ultimate unity of all Am Israel been so palpably and graphically displayed and understood as now, when with the aid of a satellite hook-up we stood as one, lighting Chanuka menoras together with tens of thousands of other Jews on four continents. It was with great wonder and awe that I watched as my fellow Jews in Paris stood in front of the Eiffel Tower to join Rabbi Alain Goldman, head of the Rabbincal Court of Paris, in lighting a 25-foot-high menora.
Thousands of French Jews swelled in enthusiastic fervor. They lifted their little cups in salutation: "L'chaim, Lubavitcher Rebbe!" Switch back to the face of the Rebbe, intense and beautiful, serene, studying the scene, a scene which he created by his insistence and unswerving devotion. Then came the familiar strains of the "Marseilles"--transformed into a chassidishe tune, fallen out of favor with the French--but now enclothed in new shining holiness.
No sooner had they drunk their "l'chaims" than we were switched to Moscow where the Palace of the Kremlin had been transformed into a vast Jewish meeting place to host the lighting of another great menora. The chasid who was honored to light it, Reb Avrohom Genin, had suffered at the hands of the Communists, spending years in Siberia as punishment for the "crime" of performing many clandestine circumcisions during the dark, oppressive years of the regime. I was a spectator to the triumph of this twentieth-century Maccabee, as his gnarled hand reached up to light the menora.
The camera moved to focus on the pure face of a Russian child reciting one of the holy Torah verses memorized by Hashem's "warriors" all over the globe. If I could be here on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn witnessing this miracle simultaneously occurring in Paris, Melbourne, Moscow, Hong Kong and Israel, how could anyone give disclaimer to a G-d who is omnipotent?
The camera switched again, and this time, we were at the Western Wall. The crowd there gathered huddled under umbrellas, just as we sheltered under our umbrellas here in New York. The Israeli Sefardic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Eliyahu, lauded the Lubavitcher Rebbe for his amazing accomplishments for world Jewry. A Russian child thanked the "Lubavitchskoe Rebbe" for remembering the plight of the innocent children caught in the Chernobyl debacle and flown to medical care and the hope of a healthy life in Israel.
The rain came down softly and my feet sunk deeper into the soft mud of the construction around me, but I was overwhelmed and filled by the mood, the visceral knowledge of our eternal communion and primal bond, Jews and G-d. "Nes Gadol Haya Sham" (a great miracle occurred there) and also here in front of "770," and I was a part of the miracle which is so strongly in evidence.
The camera scanned a modern, high-rise skyline, and we were now in the Far-East where Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon led a stalwart group of Jews in faraway Hong Kong. Sitting in neat rows in a hotel, they gathered to light a beautifully crafted menora and to smile and wave and make contact with us so distant in space, yet mystically bound to them. "Hello, world," they were saying, "we also are one with you. Am Israel Chai!" In Melbourne Rabbi Joseph Gutnik stood by as lovely Jewish children joined in the recitation of the Torah verses. He read a message from the Prime Minister, and acknowledged the leadership of the Rebbe, who looked on with characteristic intensity from inside "770." There, in Australia it was already the next day. Time may have eluded the bond, but the Jewish People is still one, even "down-under."
Time and time again the image of the Rebbe stared out of the gigantic screen, and I was overwhelmed by the realization that he is the one man responsible for all that I am seeing. It is his intransigence in the face of all odds that has made possible the reunification of thousands of Jews with their faith, their people, their life-blood, the Torah. It is his insistence that all Jews be Jews, fulfill their souls' desire to live according to the will of their Creator which has enabled his tens of thousands of followers to accomplish miracles in the face of apparent apathy and even active resistance.
The immense trailer housing all the electronic paraphenalia, the enabling technology, took up half a block outside Lubavitch Headquarters, other sallelite dishes were perched above "770," and cameramen recorded our images as we watched the screen. I was participating in an historic event, and felt privileged and thankful to be there, to be a Jew, to have been touched by this spiritual magic. It is easy to allow my mind to fly to another, imaginary scene, when all the technological apparatus will record an event exceedingly more spectacular ushering in the true "New World Order." I pray we will all be privileged to be there, soon.
IS SAYING MAZAL TOV ENOUGH?
Modern medical wisdom recognizes that good health and successful care depend on a patient's emotional state and mental attitude. For centuries, it has been customary for Jewish women to adorn both the birthing room and the cradle with Psalm 121 (Shir Lama'alot). The Psalm states our declaration of dependence upon the Creator for our safety and well being, and His commitment to guard us at all times. If you are expecting a child or know someone who is, you can get a free, beautiful, full color print of the Psalm by writing to LEFJME-Expectant Mother Offer, 824 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11213. Or call (718) 756-5720.
JUDAISM AND SURROGATE MOTHERHOOD
Scientific advances have spawned a host of complex ethical issues. Surrogate motherhood is but one of the many such dilemmas. Questions of maternal identity and the propriety of renting one's womb are problems that were hardly imaginable just a decade ago. The Torah, however, provides us with the Divine wisdom and guidance to cope with these issues. A lecture, given by Rabbi Howard Jachter, will focus on various Jewish legal issues such as artificial insemination, the validity of a contract to bear a child, and what determines maternal identity. The lecture will be at Congregation B'nai Avraham, 162 Clinton St. in Brooklyn Heights on January 9 at 8:00 p.m. For more information call (718) 596-0069.
A delicious Shabbat afternoon meal, a lively atmosphere, an informative Scholar-in-Residence, and a thrilling program for children spell out the monthly family Shabbat programs offered by the Chabad Center of White Meadow Lake, New Jersey. For information about the January Shabbaton, call (201) 625-1525.
LIFE'S TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
From a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
continued from last week's L'Chaim.
The difficulties, trials, and tests of life are themselves the means by which we are to attain our ultimate objective--that the soul achieve the lofty spiritual level it once possessed before it descended into the body: "The soul that you have given me is pure." The purpose of life is for the soul to regain that level of original "purity" and even transcend it--for one hour of teshuva [repentance] and good deeds in this world is worth more that all the lifetime of the spiritual World to Come.
So you see that life's trials, tragedies and difficulties actually bring us closer to our goal, our raison d'etre; they are part of the divine system of toil and endeavor enabling us, finite mortals, to reach the highest levels of rewards and goodness--which can only be earned by meaningful "labor" and effort. It follows that one must not allow the difficulties of life's trials (or even one's failure from time to time) to overcome the double joy of being G-d's children and of having received His promise "Your people are all righteous."
Now along comes an individual--yourself--who is not just an ordinary person, but one who has heard of the light of Chasidic teachings, what is more, who has actually studied Chasidism, what is more, one whom the Alm-ghty has refined and purified through affliction; yet you are in a mood of despair, you "find no place for yourself," etc. Your estimation of your own worth and spiritual level is so far below the truth that it contradicts not only faith but simple logic as well. The Alm-ghty has given us an irrevocably firm promise that ultimately no one will be rejected by Him, and He does not require of the individual deeds that exceed his ability--for the Alm-ghty does not present His creations with unreasonable demands. G-d wants only that one's deeds measure up to his abilities. And G-d declares to each of us, "Make an opening for Me even as the point of a needle, then I will make an opening for you as wide as the entrance to a hall."
All this is the declaration and promise of the Alm-ghty to us. Now you come along and say that your analysis of the situation is different; it is an analysis that leads to despair. You wring your hands and persuade yourself that from time to time you are descending lower and lower. One can ask the classic rhetorical question," When the teacher's opinions contradict the pupil's, to whose opinion do we listen? You should ask yourself this question. It seems to you that the situation is depressingly hopeless; the Alm-ghty says it is not so. Is there any doubt who is right?
So much for arguments: Now to get down to practical matters: You must know and realize that you are one of our community of chasidim, which means in turn that you are connected, as a leaf or branch, to the "Tree of Life" of our saintly Chasidic leaders. This connection has the effect expressed by the verse, "You who cleave to G-d your G-d are alive, all of you, this day." Our sages comment: "Even on a day when the world is dying, you live; and just as you are all alive today so will you be alive in the spiritual World to Come." So you see that you have a personal promise from our Sages that you are alive today and that you will be alive in the World to Come. In light of all the above you must utilize your time to practice Torah and mitzvot in the spirit of Yirat Shamayim [awe of G-d]. You must also utilize the artistic talent, with which the Alm-ghty has blessed you, to further religious feeling. You cannot delay this task until tomorrow, for tomorrow has its own tasks; today, you must do today's tasks. To accomplish these goals you must be aware that all hindrances are plans of the yetzer; you must bring this into your mind and intellect, into your heart and emotions and into practical levels of thought, speech and deed.
When you apply yourself to this task, though it might well seem to you that you can only make an inroad as tiny as the point of a needle, the Alm-ghty will respond by granting you success; as promised, G-d will "make an opening as wide as the entrance of a hall." I hope you will not take the delay of my response into consideration, and that you will respond very soon with heartening tidings--mainly that you have begun to act in the spirit of the above.
What is included in the "Bible"?
The Bible is called Tanach in Hebrew, an acronym for Torah, Neviim (Prophets) and C'Tuvim (Writings). The Torah covers the period from the creation of the world to the death of Moses. The Prophets contains eight books--Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets. The third part of the Bible, C'Tuvim--or Sacred Writings--contains Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nechemia and Chronicles. Scripture is another name for the Bible.
Tevet (coinciding with December 31 this year). It is the yartzeit of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Chasidic philosophy.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman's works incorporated the whole spectrum of Jewish thought. The philosophical system he created is a synthesis of the mystical and revealed aspects of Judaism. But Rabbi Schneur Zalman was not "merely" a cold, analytic scholar, as the following story reveals.
Once, Rabbi Dov Ber, Rabbi Schneur Zalman's son, was studying late at night, his infant son in a cradle nearby. Rabbi Dov Ber was so immersed in his studies that when the baby fell out of the cradle he did not hear the child cry. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was also studying in another part of the house. But he heard his grandson's cry and quickly went to pick him up.
"You must always hear the cry of a child," Rabbi Schneur Zalman rebuked his son.
This simple admonition is like the rallying cry of all of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's descendants and followers since then. Rabbi Schneur Zalman devoted his life to hearing the cry of every child--regardless of his chronological age. Indeed, within each one of us there is a child crying out to his Father in Heaven, waiting to be picked up, brought close. Rabbi Schneur Zalman's teachings, especially his main work, the Tanya, were written to help enable one to achieve that very closeness.
Rabbi Shmuel Butman
In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, and the route of the invasion led through White Russia. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, leader of the Chasidic movement in White Russia, who had twice been accused of high treason, turned out to be a most loyal patriot. Although the French conqueror was hailed in some religious Jewish quarters as the harbinger of a new era of political and economic freedom, Rabbi Schneur Zalman saw in Napoleon a threat to basic religious principles and spiritual values.
The Rebbe had nothing but contempt for the man whose arrogance and lust for power knew no bounds, and who represented to the Chabad leader the antithesis of humility and holiness. The Rebbe urged his numerous followers to help the Russian war effort against the invaders in every possible way. With the aid of his followers behind the enemy lines, some of whom were employed by the French Military Command, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was also able to render valuable intelligence service to the Russian generals at the front.
When the French armies approached Liadi, the Russian generals advised Rabbi Schneur Zalman to flee. In August (1812) the Rebbe hastily left Liadi, leaving everything behind, and fled with his family towards Smolensk. For some five months Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his family suffered the hardships and perils of the road and of an unusually inclement winter, until they reached a village in the district of Kursk. Here the Rabbi succumbed to a severe illness in the final stages of the harrowing journey, and passed away at the age of sixty-eight.
Traditions and records preserved in the family of Rabbi Schneur Zalman provide interesting details in connection with the Rebbe's last and fateful journey. From an account by Rabbi Nachum, grandson of the Rebbe, relating his personal experiences, we learn the following details:
It was on Friday, the 29th of Menachem Av that the Rebbe fled from Liadi on the advice of the generals commanding the Russian armies in that area. Sixty wagons were put at his disposal, but they were not enough, and many had to walk on foot. A number of armed troops were assigned to accompany and protect the caravan. In view of the rapid advance of the French army, the generals suggested that the best route for the flight of the Rebbe would be through the town of Bayev. But the Rebbe decided to head for Krasna, urging the caravan to make the utmost haste, in order to cross the river Dnieper at the earliest possible time.
After covering a distance of about two miles, the Rebbe suddenly requested the accompanying troops to let him go back to Liozna. Arriving at his deserted house, he ordered his men to search the house carefully to make sure that nothing whatever, however trivial, had been overlooked. The only things found were a pair of worn-out slippers, a rolling pin and a sieve, which had been left in the attic. He ordered these to be taken along, and to set the house on fire before the enemy arrived, first removing the sacred Torah scrolls from the adjacent synagogue. Then he blessed those of the townspeople who remained in the town, and speedily departed again.
No sooner had he left the town on the road leading to the Dnieper than the avant-coureur of Napoleon's army reached the town from the opposite end. Presently, Napoleon himself with his entourage entered the town on their galloping steeds. Napoleon inquired after the house of the Rebbe, but when he reached it, he found it ablaze, the fire burning beyond control. Napoleon wished to have something which belonged to the Rebbe and offered a rich reward to anyone who could bring him anything. But nothing was there. [It seems that Napoleon practiced some sort of sorcery for which such an object was required.]
During all his long and arduous journey Rabbi Schneur Zalman kept in touch with the situation of Russian Jewry caught in the gigantic Franco-Russian war. The retreating Russian armies, using the scorched earth policy in order to deprive the enemy of vitally needed supplies, exacted a tremendous sacrifice from its own people. At the same time the invading armies plundered everything they could lay their hands on. Starvation and ruination were the order of the day, and the Rebbe's heart went out to his suffering brethren, who were the most hard-hit victims of the invasion.
The Rebbe had foreseen Napoleon's invasion of Moscow as well as his defeat there. He also predicted that Napoleon's final defeat would be at the hands of his own compatriots. At the same time he knew that the retreating French armies, starving and desperate, would plunder the Jewish communities which lay in their path. Arriving in Piena, the Rebbe embarked upon a relief campaign to aid the Jewish victims of the war, including resettlement plans, fund raising, and relief distribution. For ten days after his arrival in Piena the Rebbe worked feverishly on his plans and projects to alleviate the plight of his brethren. Then, he fell ill, his condition worsening day to day. At the conclusion of Shabbat he composed a letter full of mystical allusions, and a few minutes later he returned his soul to his Maker.
From Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Kehot Publication Society
And I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians (Ex.6:6)
It is far easier to physically take the Jews out of galut (exile) than it is to remove the inner galut from within every Jew.
(Rabbi Yaakov Shimshon of Shpitovka)
But the wheat and millet were not smitten (Ex. 9:32)
Why didn't G-d destroy the millet and the wheat along with the rest of the crops in the field when He sent the plague of hail? The answer is that Pharaoh had to have at least something left to lose. A threat is only effective when something dear is being threatened. Had Pharaoh's land been totally decimated by the hail, he would not have been motivated to heed any further warnings issued by Moses.
These are Aaron and Moses...These are Moses and Aaron (Ex. 6:26, 27)
Aaron, the first kohen (priest), embodied the proper worship of G-d, and by extension, symbolizes prayer in general. The job of the kohanim was to offer the sacrifices in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem; in our time, when we have no Temple, prayer must take the place of these sacrifices.
Moses, on the other hand, epitomized and symbolized Torah learning.
The juxtaposition of the two names and their repetition in the reverse order teaches us that there are times in our daily lives when one aspect takes precedence over the other. Sometimes we stress prayer, as a preparation for performing mitzvot and learning Torah, and sometimes we learn first in order to pray more effectively.
If Israel will keep just one Shabbat properly, Moshiach will come immediately. "Though I have set a limit to 'the end,' that it will happen in its time regardless of whether they will do teshuva or not... the scion of David will come if they keep just one Shabbat, because Shabbat is equal to all the mitzvot.