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When's the last time you played in the snow--made a snowball, or a snowman, or an igloo?
They say no two snowflakes are exactly alike. But when you get right down to it, they're all made of the same stuff.
It's sort of similar to the Jewish people. No two Jews are exactly alike. But deep down, we all have a lot in common. We share a common history, religion, ancestry. And we all have a "pintele yid" a little spark within each one of us that unites us with each other and G-d.
You can't make an igloo, or a snowman, or even a snowball with just one snowflake. But when you join together a lot of snowflakes, you can make just about anything your imagination desires; there's strength in numbers.
When Jews get together, for a family "simcha" or just an impromptu gathering, an enormous amount of potential to make good things happen is there, too. Get together with friends or family to watch the last flickering flames of the Chanuka menora and eat some hot latkes, or to celebrate a birthday, or just because. Think of how different, yet similar, each person is, and what good things you can do, together, with your limitless potential.
In the Haftorah which accompanies this week's Torah portion of Ki Tisa we read about Elijah the Prophet and his famous confrontation with the prophets of Baal. Elijah addressed the Jewish nation and said, "How long will you waver between the two? If G-d is truly G-d, then follow Him, and if it is Baal, then go after him."
Elijah told the Jewish People: your inability to choose between the two alternatives is the worst possible spiritual path, even worse than choosing outright idolatry.
How can anything be worse than idolatry--ascribing G-dly powers to an object? Is it not better to reach some sort of compromise, to maintain a belief in G-d, but to nevertheless incorporate some elements of paganism? Why did Elijah say that it is preferable, G-d forbid, to actually worship idols?
Maimonides wrote that the worship of idols arose from human error, from a faulty understanding of the natural world. When some people looked at the physical forces governing the world, they mistakenly believed that those forces themselves should be worshipped, not realizing that it is G-d who causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall.
When a person worships an idol, be it one made of stone, or the planets and stars in the sky, he thinks that by placating these objects he will receive more blessings in his life. This, then, is the difference between a true idolator and a Jew who straddles the fence, never making a clear choice between idolatry and worship of the One, true G-d.
An idol worshipper may one day arrive at the conclusion that idolatry is wrong and return wholeheartedly to G-d, after having admitted his error. But it is far more difficult for a person who is "straddling the fence" to realize the error of his ways and see that he is committing a sin. For his part, he thinks that he is still a good Jew, for he still maintains the outer semblance of Jewish observance.
An idolator, even one who believes in a false god, believes that his god is the source of all life. He seeks spiritual truth, albeit in the wrong direction. But one who professes to believe in G-d yet secretly pledges obedience to an idol seeks not truth, but convenience and comfort. He wants to benefit from both worlds, covering all possible bases.
A person who vacillates is also more detrimental to those around him. An idol worshipper is more easily avoided, and not likely to lead others astray, who could be deceived by outward appearances.
Elijah's message holds true for us today. It is far easier to avoid obvious pitfalls in spiritual matters than to stand on guard against finer, less conspicuous compromises. But it is these finer points which ultimately define our intellectual honesty and our faith.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
NO DAY WITHOUT KINDNESS
by Esther Altmann
She was a unique woman who lived in the harshest and cruelest of modern times, but Sarah Shimanovitch would have stood out had she lived in any age, for she was a true "woman of valor." Born in 1910 in the village of Dokshitz, Russia, she was the daughter of Rav Aaron Tumarkin, a noted Chasid and rabbinic scholar. The family later moved to the city of Kharkov, where Sarah married Rabbi Shlomo Shimanovitch.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, much of the Jewish population of Kharkov relocated to the Asian province of Samarkand far away from the European front. The Shimanovitches arrived in Samarkand, only to find that hunger was prevalent and people literally fell down in the streets for lack of food. Rebbetzin Shimanovitch's family, though, knew no hunger even during those bleak days, this due only to the ingenuity of their mother.
The Rebbetzin's daughters remember how she used every means to obtain food not only for her own family, but how she saved many others as well, from starvation. They recount a time when she obtained a cow skin. After spending many hours scraping the hair from the hide, she boiled it together with bones to make a thick, glutinous soup. This "ptcha," containing gelatin and other nutrients made the crucial difference between life and death for many a recipient of Rebbetzin Shimanovitch's kindness.
Since during the Communist regime it was illegal to be a rabbi, the Rebbetzin's young husband spent the years of exile in Samarkand in hiding. This thrust the entire responsibility of maintaining the family on her. Fortunately, she was a woman who persistently faced the challenge and prevailed. She had an unshakable faith in G-d and a great willingness to sacrifice for Judaism. She was an optimist who believed in accomplishing, even against all odds. This, plus a creative and inventive nature, served her all through her life.
During the war the army conducted "oblata," searches to ferret out any young men who were avoiding the military. Rabbi Shimanovitch had his usual hiding place for these surprises. But one day, the soldiers appeared as if from nowhere, and there was no time to hide. The young man asked his wife, "What should I do?" There seemed to be no way out. She replied: "I once read a story about the Vilna Gaon, which said that he wore his tallis and tefillin all day. Put your tallis over your head and go into the corner as if you're davenning, Hashem will help us."
Her husband did as she said, and in seconds the soldiers burst through the door. "Are there any young people here?" they demanded. "No, no one ," she replied.
"Who is this man, here?"
"He is just a crazy old man. He can't do anything; he just prays a whole day for the war to end."
The soldiers searched the whole house, thrusting their bayonets into mattresses and looking into closets. Finding nothing, one soldier said, "Let's get out of here, we're just wasting time." With that they left, never lifting the tallis to check who was concealed beneath.
When the war finally ended, the Shimanovitches settled in Montreal. The desperate struggle over, Mrs. Shimanovitch turned her talents to new horizons. A true lover of life and of people, she devoted herself to building up the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Montreal, and no matter what was needed, she looked after it herself; nothing was too menial or too difficult. Her health had been ruined by the hardships she endured during the war, but she never thought of sparing herself. If tzedaka boxes filled with heavy change needed to be collected, she went herself to retrieve them. To her, a day without some act of charity was impossible, and she pursued her good deeds with the same diligence others reserve for the business arena.
After the Hungarian Revolution thousands of Hungarian Jews fled their country and came to America, some settling in Montreal. In this situation, too, Rebbetzin Shimanovitch found outlet for her expansiveness. An orphaned brother and sister who had been taken into foster care by a Hungarian-Canadian family in Montreal were about to be placed in a non-Jewish home. When she heard about this, Mrs. Shimanovitch took them under her wing and cared for them as if they were her own.
Several years later when they moved away, the girl left a set of watercolors behind. Rebbetzin Shimanovitch found the paint box, and this discovery opened up a whole new facet of her life. She had long composed poetry which had been published in the Jewish world; now her talent was directed to the visual arts. For, confirmed experimenter that she was, a set of paints proved an irresistible lure to her creative vitality. From that time until her passing she was devoted to her art, and produced a body of work that could worthily grace the walls of a museum. Her "golden hands" and her eye for color and composition united with her irrepressible exuberance to produce scenes of Jewish life which touch the viewer with their simplicity and authenticity of perception.
Rebbetzin Shimanovitch lived to pass on her heritage of love to dozens of children and grandchildren. Her fragile health was never allowed to stand in her way; she was a warrior in the service of her Maker. Nothing made her happier than to extol the glories of a Torah life to the as yet uninitiated. She lived completely every day, extending herself to family and strangers alike. To her grandchildren she was "Bubba-candy," for she never forgot to bring them little sweets when she visited. To the Montreal rabbinical students she was "the mother of the Yeshiva." She was a woman who loved her fellow human beings and interested herself in all aspects of this world. She embraced life with both arms and entered into the fray of existence with her whole strength. She never lost the feeling of awe and wonder inherent in everything and she was a star performer in the drama of life.
THE FOREFRONT OF JUDAISM
G-d endowed women with an extra measure of understanding and sanctity. A lecture, by Miriam Swerdlow, considers the commonalities of exceptional women of various times and places. The lecture will take place on March 2, 8:00 p.m., at Congregation B'Nai Avraham, 162 Clinton St. in Brooklyn Heights. For more information, call (718) 596-0069.
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 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, full color print of the Psalm by writing to LEFJME-Expectant Mother Offer, 824 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11213. Or call (718) 756-5720.
PLEASE TELL ME
Sichos in English, which has been translating the Rebbe's talks into English for the past 14 years, recently expanded their service to the English reading public. "Please Tell Me What the Rebbe Said" is specifically prepared for children, ages 4-14. It is based on the Rebbe's talks each Shabbat and is ready by midweek. To subscribe or for more information, call (718) 778-5436 or fax (718) 735-4139.
From a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Jews have always been "a minority among the nations," even in the best of times. At the same time "their laws differ from those of any other people," and they differ not only in regard to special occasions, or special aspects of life, but they differ in every aspect of the daily life. For the Jew, the Torah and mitzvot are the guide to daily happiness, and this is the simple life and the source of life and true meaning of "Torat Chaim"--the Law of Life, and the definition of the mitzvot as the essence of Jewish life, "whereby Jews live."
It is clear that being in the minority, Jews must have special reinforcements from childhood on, in order to be able to hold their own in the face of overwhelming odds.
If it was difficult enough to live as a Jew in countries where Jews were persecuted or confined to ghettos, there was one redeeming factor at least, namely that under those circumstances Jewish adherence and loyalty to the Torah and mitzvot were not put to the test. An individual Jew could sever his ties with his people, but that involved a sudden and complete break; it was therefore rare and extreme. But in the free countries, and under the present economic and social conditions, there are no outside barriers separating Jew from gentile; the road to assimilation is wide open, and the danger is all the greater since the process is a gradual one. No sudden break with tradition is entailed, but a gradual deviation, step after small step, leads in that direction. There is a parable for this, about the boy who strayed from the road and later found himself in the midst of the woods. He got there by making a small false step off the road, which led to another, and yet another.
The conditions and environment in a country such as this call, therefore, for an even greater spiritual reinforcement of the Jewish boy and girl than ever before and elsewhere. This reinforcement must be of such strength and duration that the Jewish child will always be conscious of the fact that no matter what the environment is, he is the bearer of the sacred tradition of the Divine Torah and mitzvot and belongs to a people that is holy and different. For this, it is essential that right from the earliest childhood to adolescence the Jewish child should receive the fullest possible Jewish education, throughout his formative years.
Hence, when a Jewish boy completes his compulsory education, it is an absolute must that for a couple of years, at least, he dedicate himself to the exclusive study of the Torah and sacred subjects, in a most conducive atmosphere of a yeshiva, without distraction of secular studies.
This would have been my opinion even if college entailed no more than the distraction of secular studies. Actually there is much more involved. Theoretically a college and its faculty should not try to impose any particular views, much less a way of life, on the students. Actually however, the student cannot help being impressed, on the conscious and subconscious level, by the views, and outlook and way of life of his professors. These, as well as the whole atmosphere of a college, are unfortunately, not compatible with the Jewish way of life, and frequently if not always quite contradictory to it. This is so even in colleges which are theological, or having so-called religious studies. Needless to say, the whole atmosphere of college is in violent conflict with the Shulchan Aruch way of life, whereby the Jew is totally committed--in every detail and aspect of his personal daily life--to the Torah and mitzvot and the service of G-d.
In other words, the Jewish boy (or girl) entering college, yet desiring to retain the Jewish way of life in accordance with the Torah, finds himself tossed about in the raging waves of conflict between two contradictory worlds. He is at a further disadvantage in finding himself in the minority camp, since those sharing his views and convictions are few on the college campus, while the forces pulling in the opposite direction are overwhelming; forces he must confront at every turn--among the student body, faculty members, text books, newspapers and periodicals. It is very doubtful whether even an adult and mature person who is subjected to such "shock treatment" day after day, would not be shaken.
I can speak from experience and personal knowledge, having attended various colleges and seen the painful inner upheavals of Jewish students, and having for many years been the confidant of Jewish students who are otherwise reluctant or shamed to open their hearts. I can therefore state with the fullest measure of conviction and responsibility that he who sends his child to college during the formative years subjects him to shock and profound conflicts and trials and invites quite unforeseen consequences.
In view of all the above, it is my definite and considered opinion that all Jewish children, upon completing their compulsory secular education, should devote at least several years to the exclusive study of the Torah, without the interference of other studies, not even training for a trade, in order to obtain the maximum insurance against all risks and dangers that their future life may hold, when they attain adulthood and settle down to a family life.
Another point which is often the subject of misconception--the importance attached to a college degree from the economic point of view. Statistics show that the majority of college graduates eventually establish themselves in occupations and businesses not directly connected with their courses of study in college. The moral is obvious.
Why do we use a simple, round ring during the wedding ceremony?
The shape of the ring signifies that just as a circle has no beginning and no end, so may the devotion and love of the new couple for each other be never ending. Some even have the custom to have any engraving (such as 14k) polished off so that the ring is completely smooth.
About the meeting between the wicked King Achav and Elijah the prophet. We read the words "Elijah went to appear before Achav."
The stories of Elijah the Prophet appearing at different times and in different ages are many. And I am reminded of one such story of the Besht (Baal Shem Tov).
The Besht's students constantly begged him to show them the Prophet Elijah until he finally agreed. One Friday afternoon, as was their custom, the disciples were hearing words of Torah from the Baal Shem Tov. Suddenly he said, "I would like to smoke a pipe."
The Baal Shem Tov's disciples ran around looking for someone willing to lend a pipe, knowing that even the most mundane act of their Rebbe had spiritual ramifications. They returned, however, empty-handed. The Besht looked up and saw a Polish squire walking nearby. He asked his students if they would see if the squire was willing to lend his pipe.
The students approached the squire, and not only was he willing, but he walked over to the Besht to give it to him personally. The squire proceeded to light the pipe, and while the Besht smoked, they discussed the year's harvest, whether there would be enough grain, etc. The Besht's disciples, in the mean time, took no notice of the squire and stood around discussing the latest teachings of their Rebbe.
After the squire left, the Baal Shem Tov declared, "I have kept my promise. I have shown you the prophet Elijah."
The disciples were shocked. "Why didn't you tell us it was Elijah, so that we could ask him to teach us?"
"If you yourselves had understood and asked who it was, I would have been permitted to reveal him to you. But since you did not understand, I could not do so."
So many times in the past few months the Rebbe has been saying that Moshiach is here, we must only open our eyes--understand--and then he will be able to reveal himself to us.
As we continue to pray for Moshiach, to perform additional acts of kindness to hasten his arrival, to study about Moshiach and the Messianic Era, let us not fall into the trap of the Besht's students. Let us make sure that our eyes are not only open, but that we are truly ready to see Moshiach when he is revealed.
Rabbi Shmuel Butman
Reb Mendel had just visited the Baal Shem Tov, and had stopped in the town of Zolochov. His visit was no accident, though, for he had been asked by the Baal Shem Tov to pass through the town and convey his warm regards to Reb Michel, the water carrier of the town. Reb Mendel was honored to perform this favor for the Besht, and was himself very anxious to meet this man who was most certainly one of the hidden saints and mystics--members of the Baal Shem Tov's circle of followers.
He entered the town and immediately stopped one of the residents and asked for directions to the home of Reb Michel. Following along the main road, he turned and turned again through the winding alleys until he had left the more prosperous looking streets, and found himself in the poorest section of the town. Here the houses were no more than toppling huts which barely could withstand the elements. Reb Mendel again inquired after the water carrier, and was directed to one shack which stood amongst this sad lot.
He approached the door and knocked, and a women appeared at the door. Reb Mendel lost no time in relaying the message: "I have come to give regards to your husband from the Baal Shem Tov from whom I have just come."
A bright smile flashed across the woman's features, and she replied, "My husband is not at home right now, but I expect him to return shortly. If you wish, please come in and sit down." Reb Mendel carefully entered the dark recesses of the hut and located a shaky chair on which he lightly perched.
As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he was able to make out his surroundings. The shabbiness and poverty of the dwelling were all too apparent. The wooden walls were peeling and split and many of the window panes were cracked. The furniture was sparse and what there was was literally on its last leg. Small children, unaware of their ragged appearance, scurried happily about playing their games, occasionally casting a furtive smile at their guest.
He had no more time to study the room because in walked his host, Reb Michel, exclaiming with joy, "Sholom Aleichem! How happy I am to receive greetings from the Baal Shem Tov! My wife, you must prepare a festive meal in honor of our esteemed guest. Why, it's quite an occasion when we receive regards from the Tzadik."
His wife hurried to a corner of the room and prepared a modest repast while the two men chatted about the situation in the court of the Baal Shem Tov. Finally she reappeared with two small plates, each one bearing a small portion of fish and a slice of bread. Reb Mendel made the blessing on the bread and ate together with his host, and soon, the woman returned with steaming cups of tea. She offered Reb Mendel a sugar cube to sweeten the beverage, and he was about to slip it between his teeth, as was the custom, when he heard the children whispering: "Surely he will save some of the sugar for us. After all, it's bad manners to eat up everything. And won't that sugar be a great treat!"
Reb Mendel put down the sugar and sat without drinking, seemingly absorbed in his own thoughts. "What is wrong, my dear friend? Why don't you drink?" asked Reb Michel with great concern.
"Forgive me, but I cannot help feeling great pity for you and you family. How difficult it must be to have to endure such terrible poverty," Reb Mendel replied.
"Before you reach that conclusion, please let me explain our situation to you using a parable. Once, there was a rich man who planned a wedding for his only daughter. It was to be the most sumptuous and elegant occasion which the town had seen in years. All of the townspeople were invited, and the town's paupers, especially, were counting the days until the great feast would be served. Finally the great day of celebration arrived, and the town's poor gathered in huge numbers to enjoy themselves at the celebration.
"Suddenly, just as the bride was being led to the chupa she collapsed in a faint. The panic-stricken family surrounded the girl and tried to bring her to. The town's doctors were summoned to help, but alas, no one could revive her. The shaken wedding guests were at a loss for what to do and they began to leave in small groups. Only the paupers, who had anticipated the wedding with such longing sat down to partake of the feast. The tragedy of their host did not dampen their spirit, 'After all,' they said, 'the food is all prepared; why shouldn't we enjoy ourselves and eat it?' One of the paupers, though was a more sensitive soul, and he couldn't bring himself to even look at the food, so deeply did he identify with his host's pain."
"My wife and I, you see, are like the sensitive pauper in the story. And the wedding is meant to represent the Bais Hamikdash, the Holy Temple where the guests, that is, the Jewish people used to gather to rejoice with their host, the Holy One, Blessed Be He. We, the sensitive guest, are so anguished by G-d's tragedy, the destruction of the Holy Temple, that we cannot bring ourselves to enjoy the offerings of this world. So, my friend, we refrain from feasting at our host's table, knowing how much He is suffering because of the pain of His children in the long and bitter exile. In this world we make do with the minimum, but we are waiting to rejoice together with Him in the Eternal Holy Temple."
This shall they give, every one that passes among those who are numbered (Ex. 30:13)
The commentator Rashi explains: G-d showed Moses a coin of fire and said, "Like this shall they give," to teach us that when a person gives charity he should do it with fiery enthusiasm.
G-d showed Moses a "coin of fire" to show the similarity that exists between money and the phenomenon of fire. Fire is a vital element without which the world could not survive, but it is also capable of great destruction. So, too, are the characteristics of wealth. When a person utilizes his money in the proper way, it brings great benefit to many, but when it is used improperly terrible damage may be inflicted.
And they shall give--venatnu--every man, a ransom for his soul to G-d (Ex. 30:12)
The Hebrew word "venatnu" (they shall give), spelled vav, nun, tav, nun, vav, is read the same from left to right or right to left. This teaches us that when a person gives charity, he should not worry that he will suffer any lack, for the goodness he sows will be returned to him as in return.
In this era, the generation of the "footsteps of Moshiach," it is essential that one not follow the dictates of rationalization, for mortal reasoning can mislead a person. Rather, we should observe the Torah and its commandments out of simple and unquestioning faith in G-d.
(Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber of Lubavitch)