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Apples dipped in honey. Children waving little flags decorated with Torahs. Breaking the fast with the family. Shaking the lulav and etrog. The month bursting with Jewish holidays is over. How many of us took full advantage of the numerous opportunities at our fingertips to do simple mitzvot, or eat traditional food, or participate in a passel of customs?
If you're feeling a little remiss or just a trifle negligent, don't worry. You have plenty of opportunities to incorporate acts-for-a-higher-purpose, deeds which transcend your day-to-day existence, into your life. And you don't have to wait until the next Jewish holiday some two months from now, or even Shabbat, to afford yourself the opportunity.
One day one of the virulent anti-Semitic members of the Hungarian parliment appeared with a copy of the Code of Jewish Law in Hungarian, and to the glee of his friends read those extracts in which a Jew is told which hand to wash first, which shoe to put on first, which lace to tie first, and so on. This produced gales of laughter from his friends.
"How absurd! How ridiculous!" they cried in scorn.
At this point, the prime minister rose and as the House became quiet, he said: "On the contrary, gentlemen. How sublime when even a single act such as tying a shoelace has a meaning in a person's life!"
It might seem a bit difficult to turn an act as apparently insignificant as tying a shoelace into something sublime. But certainly there are more consequential acts in our lives which can take on deeper meaning once we realize that they are, indeed, "sublime."
Take jobs, for instance. Jobs can bring ego, status, or power, not to mention money, health insurance and other monetary benefits. But jobs become more meaningful when the ultimate goal is greater--such as having in mind that a portion of the money earned will go to charity.
The same is true of eating. Enjoy the cheese cake (or that crisp, crunchy red delicious apple if you're into eating healthy). And while you're enjoying it think about how you'll put all the nourishment you're getting from it to good use. Like, now you'll be refreshed and energetic enough to be patient with co-workers, friends, maybe even family!
Turn the new car you're shopping for (and able to afford because of your ego, status and power producing job) into a mitzva machine. You can use it when you offer your neighbor a ride to the supermarket while his/her car is in the shop. You can drive it to the local Jewish library and take out a book about Jewish mysticism, the weekly Torah portion, an English Talmud, or a Jewish video for the kids.
Even your lawn mower can get into the action. Mow your neighbor's patch of grass that borders your lawn and you've used it to perform an act of kindness.
The list is endless. It goes on and on. Isn't it exhilirating to think that you can connect with the Divine just by tying your shoelaces!
The first portion of the Five Books of Moses, Bereishit, gives us an account of the creation of the world, and concludes with the words, "And G-d finished on the seventh day the work which He had made." How does this verse fit in with the prohibition against labor on the Sabbath? If G-d completed the creation of the world on the seventh day, does it not imply that some labor was done on that day too?
Rashi solves our problem by explaining that G-d's clock is more precise than our own. Human beings, who cannot measure time as accurately as G-d Himself, must cease from work several minutes before nightfall to make sure we do not violate Shabbat. G-d, however, knows exactly when "the seventh day" begins, and He went on creating the world right up until the last moment. To us, whose vision is not so perfect, it would have appeared as if G-d ceased to work on Shabbat itself.
Every letter, word and sentence in the Torah is precise, and included in order to teach us something positive. What then are we to conclude from the fact that G-d continued His labor right up until the very last possible second, something which we must be careful not to do?
We are taught by our Sages that "G-d created nothing superfluous in His world," including the creation of time itself. Every organism, every object, and every minute has been created with a Divine purpose in mind, and must be fully utilized and not squandered. Even one second can make a difference.
Every person in the world is created with his own individual talents and abilities, and each of us is given the right circumstances in which we may use them to the fullest. At this time in history, the end of the sixth millennium since the creation of the world, we stand at the threshold of the Messianic Era. We can counter the claims of a person who says that his actions hold no importance, as our exile is almost over and that only a few minutes remain. How can an insignificant individual possibly add to the accumulated good deeds of the generations who went before us, including our forefathers, Moses, the Prophets and the Sages of the Talmud, who were spiritually superior to us in every way? he may ask. The Torah, however, teaches us that the opposite is true. Every minute we are allotted is precious, and indeed, the whole of creation may hinge on a single second. Even a tiny good deed can tip the balance and bring Moshiach now, the culmination of the entire creation.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
WORDS FROM THE HEART
Michel Schwartz with the Rebbe
by Esther Altmann
Fifty-five years ago a little boy sat in a Brooklyn yeshiva in deep concentration, but he had no idea what his rebbe was saying. Michel Schwartz's attention was fixed on his numerous sketches in the margins of his notebook and every other paper available. His studies were O.K., but no school-work could compete with his obsessive love of drawing.
Descended from a long line of rabbinical scholars, Michel was expected to follow that well-trodden path to Torah scholarship, but art beckoned him in another direction. His parents agreed that after his bar mitzva, Michel could attend a school where he would receive special attention in art. Michel, in turn, agreed to continue his Jewish education after-school hours. This arrangement had unanticipated and far-reaching effects on Michel's future artistic life.
Michel engaged in advanced Jewish studies during his teenage years in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Crown Heights, housed in the building known around the world simply by its address, "770." It wasn't long before Michel's unusual artistic talents were noticed and he was recruited to illustrate a feature called "Curiosity Corner" in a children's journal published by Lubavitch. Every illustration had to be approved by Rabbi Menachem Schneerson (now the present Rebbe, shlita) who headed the Lubavitcher publishing house at the time.
Those conferences provided Michel with his first contact with the present Rebbe, shlita, from whom he received his earliest direction in the essentials of true Jewish art. The Rebbe, then a young man who had just arrived from Europe, knew exactly what he wanted, and was acutely aware of all the latest trends in the field of children's journalistic literature. He told Michel that he wanted the style to be modern--"like Dick Tracy," but every element had to be presented with a strictly Jewish eye. Michel considers the Rebbe a phenomenon, "What a genius; you feel you're in the presence of a great man."
Eventually Michel's attendance at the yeshiva ended, but his attachment to the Rebbe had become a fixed element of his life. In his words, "I'm the most unchasidic chasid you've ever met;" but his art belies his strong ties to the chasidic world and Jewish values.
After completing art school, Michel enjoyed a long career in the field of graphic art. But there came a point in his life when he wanted to do something more meaningful. For Michel Schwartz that translated into doing "something Jewish"--he wanted to do something "for my people." A lively and engaging conversationalist, Michel Schwartz projects a warm love for his fellow Jews and a passion to instill in them a love of Judaism and what he calls the "beauty, holiness and wisdom of our writings." Reaching back into his scholarly roots, he took his love for Hebrew letters and applied his technical skill and artistic talent to the study of the Hebrew alphabet to make it the focus of his art.
Utilizing his expertise in graphic art, Michel set out to devise his own version of the Hebrew alphabet. In a blend of figurative art and Hebrew calligraphy, Michel creates beautiful representations of Jewish life and philosophy. One work, for example, which was composed for the Torah-writing campaign launched by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, shows a sea of abstract human figures, all reaching toward a Torah scroll. As they draw closer to the Torah, the figures themselves become letters, Jews becoming one with the Torah. Another, depicting the martyrdom of an early Sage, shows the Torah scroll burning, while the letters fly up to Heaven, in swirling patterns of Hebrew scripture. His creative repertoire includes sculpture, calligraphy, and portraiture, with works exhibited in the Knesset, the Jerusalem City Hall, and the White House, as well as in many private collections.
Many of his works are thoughtful and not easily "read" by those unfamiliar with Jewish sources. Michel Schwartz's love of art is matched only by his passion for teaching his fellow Jews about the wonders of their heritage. To that end, each of his works is accompanied by an explanatory a pamphlet which explains and illuminates the message he is transmitting through his art.
For the Lubavitcher Rebbe's 80th birthday, Michel conceived the idea of painting a portrait of the Rebbe; but he wanted this portrait to be something special--more than simply another good likeness. The unique portrait which resulted melds form and script by superimposing the Rebbe's figure over the entire text of the first discourse the Rebbe delivered upon assuming the leadership of the worldwide Lubavitcher movement.
Later, in 1989, during an informal audience with the Rebbe, Michel received an unprecedented request: "I want you to make another picture...a picture of what the world will be like when Moshiach will come." Michel was not only stunned, but also somewhat confounded by this unexpected solicitation. After accepting the Rebbe's commission, he went home and began turning over in his mind the enigmatic words "another picture," for hadn't he created a great many works throughout his career? Finally, Michel realized what the Rebbe had probably meant. It could only be another painting in the same style as the portrait of the Rebbe he had created ten years before. A subsequent meeting with the Rebbe confirmed this, and Michel embarked on his most ambitious work to date, a huge composition worked over the meticulously hand-lettered texts of Jewish Sages throughout history, all referring to the advent of Moshiach. In all, 387,000 letters comprise the background over which are superimposed in translucent ink images of the Future Redemption. Asked why he thought the Rebbe had wanted such a painting Michel answered: "The Rebbe has a great love for the 'letters'--they have a world of wisdom in them; ... the Rebbe has a tremendous knowledge of the letters and what they mean and how they have helped us to survive."
A familiar Chasidic statement teaches that words uttered from the heart have the power to penetrate the heart of another. The same may be said of Michel Schwartz's work--art which is produced from the heart, penetrates the hearts of its viewers. Through bonding the holy letters with universal Jewish themes, he links the past with the present and future affording a panora of the Jewish experience. Michel Schwartz's art inspires those who see it with an enthusiasm and a pride in their unique Jewish destiny.
From a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
I received your letters. Needless to say, I was somewhat taken aback by the tone of your letter. It is a good illustration of how it is possible for a person to read and to learn and to receive instruction from books and teachers, and yet when it comes to actual experience, all this instruction goes by the wayside.
I refer to the thing which you have surely learned in Jewish ethical books and especially Chasidut about the tactics of the yetzer hara [the evil inclination] to instill a spirit of depression, discouragement and despondency in order to prevent the Jewish person from fulfilling his divine mission. This is the most effective approach. If the yetzer hara would attempt to dissuade a person directly from fulfilling his mission, he would not be easily misled. However, instead, the yetzer hara tries to discourage the person in all sorts of ways, using "pious" arguments which unfortunately often prove effective, at least to some degree.
This is exactly what has happened in your case, and I am surprised that you do not realize it. The proof is that from the information I have received, I can see that you have accomplished a great deal more than you imagine.
Let me also add another important and essential consideration. You surely know of the saying of the Baal Shem Tov that a soul comes down to live on this earth for a period of 70 or 80 years for the sole purpose of doing another Jew a single favor, either materially or spiritually. In other words, it is worthwhile for a Jewish soul to make that tremendous journey and descent from heaven to earth in order to do something once for one fellow Jew. In your case, the journey was only from the U.S.A. to X*, and can in no way be compared with the journey of the soul from heaven to earth, and however pessimistic you may feel, even the yetzer hara would have to agree that you have done not only a single favour, but numerous good deeds. Even your work with the nursery children alone would have justified it. When you consider further, that every beginning is difficult, especially where there is a change of place and environment, language etc. and yet your beginning has proven so successful, one is surely justified in expecting that as time goes on and the initial difficulties are minimized and overcome, there will be more than a corresponding improvement in the good accomplishments.
As for your mentioning the fact that no one seems interested in your work, etc., surely you will admit that G-d, whose knowledge and providence extends to everyone individually, knows and is interested in what you are doing, especially as you are working in the field of education of Jewish children, boys and girls, which is so much emphasized in the Torah. After all, to teach children to make a blessing, to say the prayers, etc., is living Yiddishkeit. (I need hardly add too, that I am interested in your work.) If it seems to you that it has been left to you to "carry the ball" yourself, it is surely only because there is confidence in you, and that since you have been sent to X., you undoubtedly have the ability, qualifications, and initiative to do your work without outside prompting.
Since one is only human, it is not unusual to relapse occasionally into a mood of discouragement. But as has been explained in the Tanya and in other sources, such a relapse would only serve as a challenge to bring forth additional inner reserves and energy to overcome the tactics of the yetzer hara and to do even better than before.
I trust that since you wrote your letter your mood and outlook have considerably improved and that this letter will find you in a completely different frame of mind. Nevertheless, I am sending you this letter since one is, of course, only human and subject to changes of mind as mentioned above.
Finally, I want to say that the above should not be understood to mean that if you do find yourself in such a frame of mind you should try to conceal it and not write about it, for our Sages say that "when someone has an anxiety he should relate it to others," for getting something off one's chest is a relief in itself.
One should also bear in mind, as Rabbi Shneur Zalman stated most emphatically in the laws of learning and teaching Torah, that a person engaged in teaching children should especially take care of his health, since it directly affects the success of his work. I trust, therefore, that you are looking after yourself in matters of diet and rest, etc., and that you will always be in a state of cheerfulness and gladness.
* To preserve anonymity we aren't including the country's name.
What are "sheva brachot?"
There are seven blessings which are recited over wine during and after a wedding ceremony. When a minyan is present the sheva brachat are also recited at meals during the week following the wedding. It has become customary to prepare a marriage feast for each of the seven days after the wedding and they are commonly referred to as "Sheva Brachot."
This weeks Parsha is Bereishit, the Sabbath on which we begin, once again, reading the Torah.
The Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, o.b.m., publicized an adage concerning Shabbat Bereishit: "The manner in which we conduct ourselves on Shabbat Bereishit determines the nature of our conduct in the entire year to come."
This upcoming Shabbat represents the transition from the holiday atmosphere of the month of Tishrei to the day-to-day life of the months that follow. In fact, the month which we are about to enter, Cheshvan, has no holidays in it. It is a complete change from the previous month which is saturated with holidays. And this is one of the reasons why Cheshvan is sometimes referred to as "Mar-Cheshvan," "mar" meaning "bitter." For it is certainly a bitter change of pace from the month of Tishrei.
This progression to a more ordinary pace of life is represented by the phrase, customarily mentioned at the end of the month of Tishrei, "And Yaakov went on his way." This means that the Jewish people begin to go about their lives within the natural order of things-- but with a difference.
For, the festive month of Tishrei, as a whole, has a spiritual influence on the entire year. Shabbat Bereishit actually conveys that influence into our worldly frame of reference. May we all be successful at putting this potential into reality this year.
Rabbi Shmuel Butman
Rabbi Avraham Benyamin Sofer was the son and successor of the illustrious rabbi known as the Chasam Sofer . Rabbi Avraham Benyamin, who was called the Ksav Sofer, was appointed by the secular government to the head of Austro-Hungarian Jewry. To mark the Ksav Sofer's appointment, a gathering was made with all the heads of the Jewish communities throughout Austro-Hungaria. At the gathering, the Ksav Sofer addressed the crowd: "In honor of my illustrious guests, I would like to make a surprise presentation." All eyes turned to the rav as he removed his wallet and withdrew from it a small silk pouch. He opened it and took out a gold coin. "This coin is a half-shekel, the same coin used in the Tabernacle and the Holy Temple for sacrifices, and other needs."
Everyone in the room craned their necks to get a better look at the coin. Each person wanted to see it and hold it in his own hands, to experience a personal brush with history. The Ksav Sofer continued, "I received this half-shekel from my father, who received it from his father and so on through all the generations of my family from the times of the Holy Temple. This coin is the only one left; it is unique in the entire world."
An excited murmur passed through the crowd as the coin was passed and lovingly examined. While this was occurring on one side of the room, the rabbis across the room sat discussing its weight and shape and exchanging their differing opinions. A short while passed when suddenly one voice rose above the others saying, "Where is the half-shekel now?"
Everyone started searching for it, but it was as if the coin had disappeared into thin air. The Ksav Sofer turned white. He turned to the assembled crowd and said, "I do not, G-d forbid, suspect anyone of taking the coin. It is forbidden to suspect another Jew. But, it is possible that while your thoughts were so absorbed with the coin, one of you might have accidentally laid it down amongst his other possessions. Therefore, I ask you to please look through your things, and perhaps you will find it."
Everyone did as the rabbi requested, but the coin was not found. Then, the Ksav Sofer had another idea. "Since the coin has not been found, please check your neighbor." Everyone agreed, but suddenly one elderly rabbi who was known as a great scholar, opposed this idea. "It would be good to wait for fifteen minutes. Perhaps the coin will be found."
The Ksav Sofer agreed, but after the fifteen-minute wait, the coin failed to turn up. The elderly rabbi requested another fifteen-minute waiting period, but again it wasn't found. When a third time the rabbi asked for another fifteen minute period, everyone was coming to the conclusion that the rabbi had quietly pocketed the coin and was stalling in the hopes of finding a graceful way to extricate himself from the situation. Even the Ksav Sofer said, "Despite the request of the honorable rabbi, I won't extend the time. In the next five minutes please check your neighbor."
The rabbi again rose and with tears in his eyes, pleaded with the Ksav Sofer to wait yet another fifteen minutes. The Ksav Sofer stood in silence for the allotted time while the elderly rabbi stood in a corner and prayed. Many of the assembled notables were confident that the rabbi would soon admit that he had taken the coin, and waited expectantly.
Suddenly the shammes (orderly) rushed forward and exclaimed, "We found it! After the meal we removed the tablecloths and shook out the crumbs. I started thinking maybe we accidentally shook the coin into the garbage. I searched for it and just now I managed to find it in the garbage."
When everyone settled down, the rabbi asked permission to speak. "Gentlemen, I also have in my possession a gold half-shekel which has been passed down in my family as well. When I set out to attend this worthy gathering, it was my intention to share with you my prized possession, and so I brought it with me.
"But when our host surprised me by bringing his coin, and in addition saying that his was unique, I left it in my pocket. Imagine what would have happened if we had searched and the coin had been found in my possession! I would have been considered a thief. Each time I requested another fifteen minutes, I prayed that in the merit of the Chasam Sofer I would not be shamed. Thank G-d, my prayers were answered and the coin was found." The rabbi removed the coin from his pocket and solemnly looked at the half-shekel, which was identical to the other.
When the gathering drew to a close the Ksav Sofer again addressed the crowd. "Do you know why we gathered today? It was to explain the words of the Mishna which teach that we should judge every person in a meritorious fashion, rather than assume that he is guilty. At first glance, the Mishna appears clear and simple. But we can see for ourselves that if we had found the coin in the rabbi's pocket, would anyone have believed that he hadn't stolen it? Especially when I had stressed that it was the only one like it, would anyone have believed that there was another like it in this very room? So we are gathered here to understand that sometimes circumstances point to someone's guilt, but we should still see him as innocent. We see how deep is this Mishna and how far we must extend ourselves to really fulfill this commandment."
After the fair
It was the custom of most merchants years ago to obtain their goods by periodically attending a great fair where all kinds of merchandise were sold wholesale and in bulk. The merchants would take the large packages home, sort through the contents and then use them as they saw fit.The month of Tishrei is similar to such a wholesale fair, during which we obtain huge portions of holiness and joy in doing mitzvot--enough to last us the whole year. The only condition is that we actually open the bundles and use their contents. These bundles are opened up and used for the first time on Shabbat Bereishit.
In the beginning G-d created (Gen. 1:1)
The final letters of the Hebrew words "G-d created"--"bara elokim et"--are alef, mem, and tav, and spell the word "emet"--truth. Truth is the foundation upon which the whole world stands, and without which the entire creation would be unable to exist.
G-d rested from all the work which He had created to be done. (2:3)
Rashi explains that the words "to be done" teach that the world was created incomplete, as it were, requiring the active participation of mankind to attain perfection. But how can we, insignificant as we are, complete the act of creation? The Torah's own words, "created to be done" assures us that this perfection is within our grasp, and is part of G-d's plan. Each of us has the strengths and talents to improve the world and elevate it into something holy and Divine.
The Redemption as a whole is within the grasp of every Jew. It is like a treasure kept locked in a chest for which the key has been given to each Jew. Each Jew has the potential to open the chest whenever he desires. For every mitzva a Jew performs has the potential to tip his own personal balance and that of the world at large and bring about deliverance. Thus, each person has the potential to bring about the Redemption when the reward for the mitzvot, the expression of G-dliness in this world, will be revealed.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)