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Though most of us breathed, slept and ate the Gulf War, the victory that took place there last year has faded quickly from our collective national memory. Most of the troops are back, old glory has come down, and the yellow ribbons are faded. The "B" rations prepared in the event of a long, dragged-out war have been airlifted to Russia where they will be distributed to the hungry souls there. Whatever can be neatly wrapped up from the war is being finished.
There's another victory in the Persian Gulf, though, whose anniversary we Jews are celebrating this week. And though it happened not one year ago, but over 2,000 years ago, it has not faded from our collective Jewish memory. It is the festival of Purim.
2,347 years ago in ancient Persia, the wicked Haman schemed to destroy the Jewish People. But through a miraculous sequence of events, involving Mordechai and Queen Esther, the tables were turned; Haman and his henchmen were hanged on the gallows.
The modern-day Haman, Hussein, tried to use high-tech weapons to wreak havoc on the Jewish people in the Holy Land. But, miraculously, even those SCUDs not deflected by the Patriot Missiles did minimal damage compared to similar attacks elsewhere in the world.
Haman, in those days, did not need to resort to newfangled inventions in his attempt at the first "Final Solution." With the mere signing of a royal proclamation giving him the power to do as he pleased, our fate as a people seemed to be sealed.
But, Haman's plans were foiled by Esther, who had been placed in the palace by G-d to deflect Haman's evil decree.
Every year the victory of the survival of the Jewish people, despite all odds, is celebrated on the joyous Festival of Purim. And although the story of Purim happened thousands of years ago, its lesson of faith and trust in G-d is as relevant today as ever.
This year, celebrate Purim, and send a message of true Jewish strength--that trust in G-d is stronger than anything.
This week's Torah portion, Vayikra, is the first portion in the book of Leviticus. It discusses the various types of sacrifices the Jewish people were commanded to offer during the times of the Tabernacle and later the Holy Temple. In the description of the first few types of sacrifices, the wood used for the fire on the altar is mentioned numerous times.
The Talmud relates that when the Jews returned to Israel from the Babylonian Exile, after the destruction of the First Holy Temple, they found no wood for the altar in the Temple's storehouses. Several families banded together and donated wood. Later, these families were given the permanent honor of supplying the wood for the altar. The Sages decreed that the days when the wood was donated should be celebrated as a minor festival by the families.
Interestingly, there is another instance in which celebrations are connected to wood. The Mishna states: "There were no other holidays as great to all of Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur." One of the reasons for the joy on the 15th of Av was that this day marked the end of the harvest of trees whose wood would be used to burn the sacrifices.
What is so significant about the wood for the altar that its donation mandated an actual holiday, and its harvest brought such joy to the entire Jewish nation?
The wood was not merely fuel for the fire by which the offerings were burnt; it played a far deeper role in the spiritual function of the Holy Temple, and was an essential element of the sacrifices themselves.
But to grasp the importance of wood, we must first understand the significance of the sacrifices. According to Nachmanides, an individual bringing an offering was to have in mind that the animal being slaughtered was in his place. Only through G-d's good will did He accept an animal in exchange.
There were many different types of offerings, and the thoughts accompanying each of them varied. For example, when a person brought a sin offering, he was required to dwell on thoughts of repentance and make amends for his wrongdoing, whereas the thanks-offerings aroused a deep love for G-d. Each offering was to be brought with its appropriate reflections and meditations.
But the most fundamental thought of all, no matter which offering was brought, was that of giving oneself totally over to G-d. This absolute self-sacrifice transcended any personal emotions or motivations. Only after this requirement was met could the individual go on to express the emotions demanded by the particular offering.
This self-sacrifice was expressed by the burning of the wood on the altar. The Torah likens man to a tree. The burning of the wood symbolized the willingness to sacrifice oneself without personal considerations. For, when bringing an offering, the donor might derive some degree of satisfaction, personal glory or benefit from the act. However, the burning wood reminded him that there should be no such ulterior motives. The celebrations surrounding the provision of wood for the altar therefore epitomized the purest and most lofty aim of the sacrifices themselves.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
HANK AND THE CULT
by Rabbi Shea Hecht
One day I got a call from a shaky-sounding Mr. Stern, telling me that his son Hank joined a cult and hadn't come home for the last three days. I reassured him that I would investigate and see what the boy was up to. Hank didn't come home the next day nor over the weekend.
I decided to enlist the help of a very likable fellow named Avraham David who was often a guest of ours for the Shabbat meals. When Hank had ocassionally visited our home in the past, Avraham David had spent many hours in friendly conversation and song with Hank. I felt that his presence would have a positive affect on Hank.
Ten o'clock Monday morning, Avraham David and I were on our way to his high school.
"We would like to speak to one of your students, a boy named Hank Stern. I'm his Rabbi," I said to the secretary.
She went to speak to the vice-principal, and he called Hank out of class. After a few minutes of fruitless discussion, I left, leaving Hank with Avraham David. They were alone for over an hour while I talked with the vice-principal.
When Avraham David and Hank finally emerged from the room, their eyes were red from crying. Hank was too choked with emotion to say much, but he gave me a hug before going back to class.
"What went on?" I asked Avraham David.
He said, "Well, I told him my whole story."
"What whole story?"
"That I'm a convert," he said.
"I never knew that," I said.
"Well, I don't necessarily advertise it. I figured that you were well aware of it anyway."
"I'm amazed. What happened?" I asked him.
"I told him that it took me almost two years of constant struggle to become a Jew. I had to argue with rabbis and convince them of my sincerity. I had to study and wrestle with my own doubts and fears, but I saw this as the greatest blessing on the face of the earth. I was willing to suffer through the pain of circumcision as an adult and give up everything to become a Jew.
"Then I looked at Hank and said, 'And you are willing to walk away from your Jewish heritage without even knowing the first thing about it, tossing it away for a lot of shtick and hocus-pocus.' Rabbi, I really spoke from the guts to this kid, and I think I really got to him."
This was the first real step in Hank's return.
What finally snapped Hank Stern out was an amazing incident. It was on a Shabbat, immediately preceding Purim. In shul before the evening prayers, Hank sat down to learn something about the holiday with several of the congregants. The focus of the lesson was a talk from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a discourse the Rebbe had delivered a few years back. I kept an eye on Hank during this time and saw that he was especially impressed by it. Afterward, he was full of questions. When had the Rebbe said this, and in what language? I told him it had been about four years ago, in Yiddish. Then he wanted to know if it had been translated into English. I told him it had.
After we came home from shul for the Shabbat meal, Hank seemed very distracted. He had a far-away look. At least three more times he asked, "Are you sure that the Rebbe said those words four years ago?" I assured him that he had. Finally, after dinner, we went into the living room together and sat down. I could see something was gnawing at him.
"You want to tell me?" I asked.
He buried his face in his hands and sat silently for nearly a minute, then spoke: "Two nights ago the leader of my cult held a prayer meeting, and he talked about the holiday of Purim. He told us that the night before, G-d had come to him in a dream and taught him some amazing revelations about Purim. What he taught us was almost exactly word for word the teachings I learned tonight from the Lubavitcher Rebbe." Breathing hard, he got up, walked to the bathroom and threw up his dinner.
Most guys cry when they crack. Hank Stern vomited. That the cult leader stood completely unmasked as a phony was too much for Hank to handle all at once. But now it was over. Hank's heart had opened; now the seeds could fall in and grow.
Like others who find their Jewish souls after having been involved with a cult, Hank went to Israel. He sent me a long letter describing his feelings and experiences.
He wrote that at age eight he had asked his father to buy him a pair of tzitzit. Mr. Stern had told Hank to forget the tzitzit, that he would buy him something much better than tzitzit--a big toy dump truck. Hank went on to write, "If I had cried for that pair of tzitzit like I cried for other things I wanted, I would never have become a member of that cult."
From Confessions of a Jewish Cultbuster by Shea Hecht and Chaim Clorfene. Rabbi Hecht is rabbi of Seaview Jewish Center in Canarsie and a member of the executive committee of NCFJE. He can be reached at (718) 735-0200 or 1-800-33NCFJE
A BEAUTIFUL GEM
An educational brochure discussing the Seven Laws of Noah has been published by the Chabad Mobile Centers of Israel. Available in French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, Arabic, English and Japanese, the brochure describes the Noachide Code as "a unique set of laws valid for all mankind, teaching us how to behave in order to realize the true potential of our lives and bring the world to its most perfect state." To receive a copy, call (718) 756-1898 or write to 820 Eastern Pkwy, Bklyn, N.Y. 11213.
PURIM AT SEA
Celebrate Purim this year on a yacht! The Spirit of New York will set sail at 7 p.m. around the waters of New York City on Purim, March 18. Participants will enjoy a cocktail buffet by Levanas, be entertained by a Klezmer orchestra, and witness a star studded performance including comedian Richard Morris and concert violinist Leonid Levin. The Megila reading will be accompanied by a backdrop of slides depicting scenes from the Purim story. The evening is sponsored by the Chabad-Lubavitch Centers of Manhattan. For information call (212) 864-5010.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR WOMEN
A bi-weekly class explores the relevance of the Ten Commandments and the Revelation at Mount Sinai to Jewish women. The class takes place on alternate Wednesdays at 12:30 p.m. It is held at New York University. For more information, call Chabad at NYU at (212) 998-4945 or Machon Chana at (718) 735-0217.
From a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
One of the explanations of the mitzva of shalach manot [gifts of food to friends given on Purim] is that by observing it we rectify a corresponding transgression committed by some of our people in the days of Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus arranged a sumptuous banquet. The food and drinks served at this feast were not kosher. At the same time the holy vessels of the Beit Hamikdash [Holy Temple] which were in the custody of the Persian conquerors were used in a degrading manner. Nevertheless, some Jews participated in the banquet and partook of the non-kosher food. When we commemorate the downfall of Haman and the frustration of his murderous plans after the Jews had completely returned to G-d, we celebrate the festival also by sending each other shalach manot of ready-to-eat food and drinks, thus demonstrating our loyalty to G-d in general and to His laws of kashrut in particular.
There is a more profound explanation also. Persia, in the days of Ahasuerus, was the mightiest empire in the world. It also boasted the most advanced civilization. On the other hand, the Jewish people at that time were in despair; the Holy Land and the Beit Hamikdash lay in ruins. It was widely circulated that G-d had abandoned His people. This was supported by miscalculations purporting to show that the seventy years' exile foretold by our prophets had ended, yet the promised liberation had not come. This, in fact, was one of the reasons why Ahasuerus made the pompous feast and dared to profane the holy vessels.
Under the circumstances, when the head of the mightiest world empire and civilization arranged the royal feast, inviting representatives of all nations, the Jews among them, many Jews could not resist the temptation. They were not deterred by the fact that this banquet was to mark the beginning of a new "era" of complete assimilation and were deluded by the friendly slogan of "no compulsion." Thus, they became a party to the profanation of the holy vessels.
Symbolically, the profanation of the holy vessels also marked the desecration of the Divine soul which forms the sanctuary of every Jew. The purpose and mission of this Divine spark is to light up one's immediate environment and one's share in the world at large with the light of the highest Divine ideals. Far from fulfilling their soul's mission upon this earth, those weak Jews lent aid and comfort to the forces of assimilation and darkness. By partaking from the "food" of Ahasuerus they contaminated both their bodies and souls.
Purim and the mitzva of shalach manot, therefore, reminds us not to be carried away by the outer sparkle of foreign civilization or cultures and not to be misled into assimilation by the notion that it appears to be in no conflict with our spiritual heritage.
We are a unique people, as stated in the Megila: "There is one people (although) scattered and spread among the people of the world, (yet) their laws are different from those of other peoples." We have preserved our unity and uniqueness despite our being dispersed in the world, because we have preserved our laws. It is by preserving our Torah and mitzvot that we Jews in general, and our youth in particular, can best contribute towards the enlightenment of the world at large and bring real happiness to ourselves, our people and humanity as a whole.
What are the mitzvot of Purim?
There are five special mitzvot of Purim:
- We listen to the reading of the Scroll of Esther (Megila) in the evening and during the day.
- We send gifts of food--at least two kinds of ready-to-eat foods--to at least one friend on Purim day.
- We give charity to at least two needy individuals on Purim day.
- We eat a festive meal during the day (kreplach and hamentashen are traditional Purim foods).
- We add the special Al HaNissim prayer ("Concerning the Miracles") to our prayers.
Purim is a holliday we are all busy preparing to celebrate. Bake (or buy) hamentashen, pick up a grogger, decide what costume to wear, invite some friends over for the Purim meal. '
But wait a minute. What if Moshiach, who could come at any moment, comes before Purim? Will all of our plans and arrangements be for naught? We can eat the hamentashen, but what about the groggers, costumes and food?
Interestingly enough, the Talmud says that "All Festivals will one day cease, but the days of Purim will never cease." Our sages have also said that of all the writings of the Prophets, only the Scroll of Esther will endure.
What is so special about Purim and everything connected to it that even when Moshiach comes it will continue?
The solemn day of Yom Kippur is referred to in our holy books as Yom Kippurim, which means the day that is like Purim. Our sages have explained that what we accomplish on Yom Kippur through fasting and prayer only approaches, is only likened to that which we can accomplish through feasting and rejoicing on Purim. For, to attain holiness through feasting and rejoicing, to transform the physical into spiritual, is much more difficult than holiness attained through afflicting oneself.
Each day during the month of Adar, and this year, both months of Adar, are days of rejoicing. We are taught that joy and happiness break all boundaries. What we can accomplish through happiness and rejoicing far surpasses what can be accomplished in any other manner.
From the holiday of Purim, and the fact that it will continue once Moshiach comes, we learn the value of simcha--joy. May the simcha of this Purim and each day leading up to it break the final boundaries of this exile so that we can celebrate Purim all together this year in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Shmuel Butman
The charges against Mendel arrived in an official-looking envelope from the Rumanian government. A former friend who had a grudge against him had falsely accused him of absconding from Rumania with government funds, and although he now lived in Russia, they were pursuing their claim against him in a local court. Mendel was in serious trouble and not at all sure of how to exonerate himself.
He decided to present his whole story to the famous tzadik, Aryeh Leib, the Shpoler Zeide, and see what advice the Rebbe could give him. After having listened to Mendel describe the problem at length, the tzadik said: "Don't worry about the trial. Just be sure to have the proceedings postponed until the day of Purim. And as for a lawyer, don't worry about that either, because I'll send a very good one to plead your defense."
Mendel felt the burden being lifted from his shoulders. "Rebbe, how much will I have to pay for this lawyer," he asked with some trepidation. "And, how will I recognize him?"
"There is an orphaned girl whom I'm trying to marry off, and I need three hundred rubles for the dowry. If you give me money for this great mitzva, I'll send the lawyer at my own expense. You will recognize him because he will be wearing a white hat and red gloves."
Of course, Mendel was more than happy to comply. He handed the money to the tzadik and returned home to arrange for his case to be heard on Purim. He was successful in his endeavors.
As for his part, the Shpoler Zeide had a very unique method of influencing the official government sphere. On Purim, he had been known to gather a group of his intimates for a special kind of Purim-spiel or play. This "jest," however, was not meant in humor, but was a serious cabalistic means of affecting the outcome of dangerous legal dilemmas. In the course of the Purim-spiel the case at hand would be enacted by the tzadik and his company, and a positive verdict would be handed down.
On the day of Mendel's court appearance the Shpoler Zeide had his associates dress up as judges and various court officials. One man was instructed to blacken his face in order to act the part of the Rumanian prosecutor, two others were appointed judges, and the local rav was the chief justice. The Shpoler Zeide himself acted the part of the defense attorney, covering up his shtreimel with a white cloth and donning red gloves. The cast was completed with one man taking the part of the informer and another the part of Mendel, the accused.
The Purim-trial began with the reading of the accusation by the Rumanian prosecutor, but whenever he tried to speak the other members of the court laughed at his attempts. Next, the accuser gave testimony. Finally, the Shpoler Zeide rose to deliver his case for the defendant. His case was stated in a manner which left no doubt as to the innocence of the accused. In his argument he proved that the entire charge was false, and that even if it had been valid, the Rumanian government would have had no legal claim to the money in question. When he finished speaking the judges handed down their verdict: Mendel was acquitted.
Then the Shpoler Zeide and all the other Purim-spielers adjoined to the dining room where they enjoyed the festive Purim meal. Later that night the tzadik received a telegram from Mendel relating the good news and saying that he was on his way to Shpola.
Upon his arrival he went immediately to the Rebbe and related all the details of the trial. What a spectacular delivery the defense attorney made! What erudite arguments, why, the courtroom was spellbound! The chasidim listened with increasing wonder lighting their eyes. The details of the case were amazingly familiar to them. The events of the courtroom mirrored the "script" of the tzadik's Purim play!
"Well, Mendel," inquired the tzadik, "so you liked the lawyer I sent?"
"Rebbe, that's what I'm saying. He was wonderful, everyone agreed!"
"Know, then, that he was no human being, but an angel sent down from heaven, created as a result of the tzedaka money you gave for the poor orphan. If you have the merit, you may see him again when you are tried at the Great Tribunal on High, for he will be your attorney when you are called to give an account of your life on this earth."
If his offering be from cattle (Lev. 1:3)
Three types of burnt-offerings may be brought upon the altar: cattle, sheep, and fowl. A wealthy person is self-assured and prideful, and therefore most likely to sin. For this reason he must bring the largest and most expensive offering, "from the cattle." A less affluent person, less likely to sin, fulfills his obligation by offering a sheep. But the poor man, who is already humbled by his poverty, need only bring "of the fowl," the least costly type of offering.
And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar (Lev. 1:7)
Even though a heavenly fire descended from on High to consume the offerings, the priests were still required to bring ordinary fire as well, to the altar. We learn from this that one may not rely solely on the "fire that descends from on high"--the natural, innate love of G-d which is present in the soul of every Jew. Each of us must also bring an "ordinary fire," kindle that innate love of G-d by taking the initiative and contemplating His greatness, to further nurture that inner spark.
If any person sin through ignorance against any of the commandments of G-d...and do any of them (Lev. 4:2)
There are times when even a mitzva can be considered a transgression. If a person fulfills a commandment of G-d, with full knowledge that he is doing a mitzva, yet he thinks he is doing a great favor to G-d by his compliance--this attitude is in itself sinful.
And if a person should sin...by doing one of the commandments of G-d, concerning things which ought not to be done (Lev. 4:27)
Two disciples of the Maggid of Mezeritch once chanced upon each other. Naturally, the conversation soon turned to matters of Torah.
"Oy," sighed the first. "What will be with us after 120 years? How will we be able to face our Maker, having committed so many transgressions during our lifetimes?"
"I'm not worried about my sins," replied the second. "We have been granted the path of teshuva [repentance] to take care of those. What concerns me is our mitzvot. How will we be able to appear before G-d and defend such paltry mitzvot as we have to our credit.."
We must ask for the Redemption as a worker (demands) wages for his work--if he doesn't demand it, there is no (legal) obligation to give it to him immediately. Likewise should we demand the Redemption.
(Sichot Chofetz Chaim, ch. 14)