Living With The Times | A Slice of Life | What's New | Insights
Customs | A Word from the Director | It Once Happened | Thoughts that Count
A little-known fact that might have escaped many of us this past month is that December 7, historically remembered as Pearl Harbor Day, was the date this year when the U.S. troops were sent to Somalia. Their mission: to help fight the war against hunger amongst the starving Somalian people and to ensure that the provisions are properly distributed.
The U.S. Government's decision to use military might for food distribution is akin to the disarmament talks of last year when the U.S. and Russia agreed to lessen their military spending and divert some of the money to the promotion of agricultural activities.
What's the connection?
The Isaiah Wall stands opposite the United Nations building in New York. It displays the quote from the Prophet Isaiah concerning the Messianic Era: "...they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations will not lift up sword against other nations, neither will they learn war anymore."
At the time of the Disarmament Talks the Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed out that these types of humanitarian actions are a foretaste of the Era of the Redemption, when the fulfillment of the verse in Isaiah will be actualized.
At that time there will be true and perfect peace in the world, a peace which has been the eternal hope of all people, all nations, all religions.
It is a peace which will be actualized during the Messianic Era.
And it is a peace which will affect not only nations, but all people, each community, every individual.
Not only does the pattern of events in the world at large give us a foretaste of the Redemption, it also shows us the enature of the activities necessary to better prepare us for its arrival. The unity, cooperation, and sharing espoused by the world powers are fundamental steps necessary in preparing the world for the Redemption.
Our Sages teach that G-d created the world so that He would have a dwelling place among people. This ideal will be realized only in the Era of the Redemption. What is the essence of this concept? Just as it is in a person's home that his personality finds expression without restraint or inhibition, it will be in this world, G-d's dwelling place, that G-dliness will be revealed without restraint.
To aid in this revelation, unity is appropriate. This unity should be expressed not only on the level of feeling, but also through concrete acts within our daily lives.
Each one of us can affect the world, by making unity and peace a priority in our lives and letting it influence our interaction with everyone around us.
No words in the Torah are chosen arbitrarily, least of all the names of the weekly Torah portions. The name of a particular Torah portion expresses the essence of that section and tells us something about its content. This being the case, why is this week's portion entitled Vayechi ("and Jacob lived"), when it deals exclusively with the events which led up to his passing?
The answer to this question lies in understanding the true meaning of life. Is life our temporal existence in this world, where we are constantly faced with extinction from numerous forces threatening us at every turn? Or is true life something even greater?
Only G-d, the source of all life, can rightly be termed "alive," for He is never changing and exists forever. In this sense, only G-d truly lives, for His existence does not depend on outside forces. But human beings may also attain eternal life, by cleaving to that which is Eternal. G-d is the only entity which lives forever; attaching oneself to Him enables mere mortals to do the same.
"And you, who cleave unto G-d--all of you therefore live today." This is the reason that the Jews are called "alive" by our Sages, for they cleave unto the Eternal Living G-d.
This is demonstrated most clearly when a Jew encounters difficulties and obstacles lying in his path, which serve to make his passage through life all the more challenging. Leading a carefree existence unencumbered by problems is no test of our attachment to G-d; successfully overcoming life's hurdles is what reveals our true devotion and commitment to serving G-d. It is only then that we may be considered "alive."
This illustrates why this week's Torah portion is named Vayechi. It was precisely just prior to Jacob's passing in Egypt that the meaning and purpose of his life was fully revealed. The years Jacob had spent in the Holy Land, although fraught with various trials and tribulations, were insufficient to adequately demonstrate his true devotion to G-d. It was only on his deathbed, in the lowest and most abominable land on earth at the time, that Jacob's true "life" could be recognized by all.
The Talmud states that "Jacob did not die...as long as his seed is alive, he lives too." The continued existence of the Jewish people and their adherence to G-d and His Torah follows in the footsteps of their forefather Jacob and ensures his eternal perpetuation.
Furthermore, it is precisely now, at the very end of our long and bitter exile, that our adherence to Torah and our faith in the imminent coming of Moshiach demonstrates the attainment of true and eternal life.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS...
by Marc Wilson
Some of my best friends believe the Messiah is coming soon.
Yossi and Mariashi Groner of Charlotte are my friends. Yossi quotes from U.S. News or The Wall Street Journal, and you hear the analytical keenness of a Harvard MBA. Mariashi expounds on current educational theory and you know you have encountered the self-actualized renaissance woman. Yet you behold Yossi in full beard, black fedora and frock coat, and Mariashi with seven little ones in tow, and you instinctively hum the score to "Fiddler on the Roof."
Yossi and Mariashi are followers of "The Rebbe," Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Grand Rabbi of the Chasidic dynasty of Lubavitch. The Rebbe is the seventh generation descendent of The "Elder Rebbe," Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, whose inspired theology fused the intellect and Rabbinic Judaism with the ecstasy of the fledging Chasidic movement.
Lubavitch's mission is to ignite the spark of Judaism dormant in the soul of alienated, marginal Jews. Fulfilling this mission demands inestimable sacrifice by its adherents, often requiring them to leave Brooklyn, the spiritual epicenter of Lubavitch, for far-flung venues where compatriots, not to mention kosher provisions, are as scarce as hog jowls in Jerusalem. Yossi and Mariashi were sent to Charlotte 11 years ago to establish a Jewish outreach center of the Carolinas.
Yossi and Mariashi know only too well that their mission's success depends on them living as anomalies among the upscale, largely assimilated Jews of their community. As they go about their work, their deeper motives are a source of continual scrutiny and skepticism. Their steadfast convictions are frequently misinterpreted as intolerance and xenophobia.
The skepticism they engender stems primarily, I think, from the inability of onlookers to believe that people who are so deeply enmeshed in reality can still be so staunch in their faith in the basic goodness of humanity.
Lubavitch's most noteworthy conviction is the belief that we are living in times ripe for the advent of the Messiah. The issue has become the fascination of network news and periodicals. The Rebbe--nearing his 91st year and recuperating from a stroke--has spoken with ever-increasing fervor about the imminence of Messianic times. He demands that works of charity, spirituality and lovingkindness be intensified to pave the way.
His disciples take him seriously. Some even dare to murmur the nearly unspeakable: "Perhaps the Rebbe is the Messiah." This is denied by some, not so much as untrue but as immaterial, irrelevant.
What makes the Rebbe believe that the time is near? One would assume what one typically assumes of religious spokesmen for the apocalypse: The world is an utterly depraved place, beyond all hope of redemption. Only a superhuman figure could lift us from the wretched quagmire.
No! The Rebbe's belief emanates from an entirely affirmative, optimistic reading of the capacities of humankind: The human race, he states, is on an upward climb.
The real point of contention, however, is not whether one subscribes to a particular theological doctrine. The injury to the human spirit for which the critics, not the Rebbe and his disciples, must be held accountable is the mockery of hope.
The idea of humanity's ultimate reconciliation has an attractive ring... from afar. We are OK, even uplifted, when the aspirations are part of an esoteric liturgy or choir chant. We pray and pray for evil to give way to good. But when someone dares to say "It's happening!" we impulsively jeer, "You gotta be crazy!"
The all-critical question implicitly in this cycle of faith and derision is: "Do we, the human family, yet have the capacity amid our weary cynicism to believe that the world can come to a lasting resolution in which decency will triumph?" That question alone is our safety net between honor and utter purposelessness, between human being and automaton beast.
A voice beckons us to love of neighbor and of G-d. And we instinctively mock them. If we can come so far as to banish that most heinous form of cynicism and replace it with faith in humanity's boundless potential for good, the who-and-when of Messiah's advent will soon be resolved--or may even become superfluous. And the mission of beloved anomalies like Yossi and Mariashi will have achieved its ultimate goal.
Marc Wilson is a writer in Atlanta. Reprinted with permission of the author from the Charlotte [North Carolina] Observer.
NEW IN HONG KONG
Rabbi Avrohom and Stery Zajac
Rabbi Avrohom and Stery Zajac (pronounced Ziontz) recently moved to Hong Kong to aid in the Chabad-Lubavitch Activities in the Far East. They already have a full schedule of classes for adults and children, as well as enhancing the ongoing projects of Rabbi Mordechai and Goldie Avtzon which include holiday programs, summer camp, a nursery school and Shabbatons.
Jewish children in the New York State Public School system who would like to learn more about Judaism can contact the NCFJE Released Time Program at (718) 735-0125. Released Time is approved by the N.Y. Board of Education, and takes place during school hours on Wednesday afternoons.
JEWISH FAMILY EXPO
Make sure to visit this year's new and improved Jewish Family Expo at the Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center from January 24-February 2 The Expo includes animated exhibits, entertainment and arts & crafts. For more information call Tzivos Hashem at (718) 467-6630.
TESTS OF FAITH
From a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
To begin with, it is obvious that the blessing of offspring who are healthy both physically and spiritually, is largely dependent upon the conduct of the parents. For, just as the physical health and constitution of the parents have an impact on the physical health of the children, so does the mental and spiritual condition of the parents affect their offspring.
Indeed, as every intelligent person understands, the spiritual aspect is stronger than the physical, so that the order should be reversed, namely, that the spiritual impact is predominant.
Inasmuch as the Torah declared that the Jews are "Believers, the sons of believers," meaning that in addition to one's own belief in G-d, one has the cumulative heritage of countless generations, beginning with Abraham, the first believer, in the Source of blessings being G-d, the Creator and Master of the universe. If a human being who introduces a certain system must give guidelines as to how the system works, how much more so is it to be expected that G-d would provide guidelines as to how a human being, and especially a Jew, must live. These guidelines were revealed at Mount Sinai when the Torah and mitzvot were given, and were transmitted from generation to generation, not only in content, but also in the exact terms. Thus, the Torah provides the guidelines as to how Jews have to conduct their lives, especially their family life. But inasmuch as a human being, however perfect he may be, is liable to fail occasionally, G-d has provided the way in which misdeeds can be rectified, namely by way of repentance which, as our Sages declare, was created even before the world. And teshuva is effective not only in respect to the future, but also retroactively to a large extent, inasmuch as G-d is omnipotent and is not restricted in any way.
It is a matter of common experience that it is part human nature that parents will make every sacrifice for the benefit of their children, even in a case where the benefit may not be certain, but only prospective.
All of the above is by way of introduction to my earnest pleas that regardless how it was in the past, you will strengthen your commitment and adherence to G-d's Will, the Creator and Source of all blessings, particularly in the area of the strict fulfillment of the laws and regulations of Taharat HaMishpocho (Family Purity) which, aside from the essential aspect of their being Divine imperatives, have the Divine Promise of reward in terms of healthy offspring, physically, mentally and spiritually.
Needless to say, when it comes to carrying out the commandants of G-d, it is absolutely irrelevant what neighbors or friends might say when they see a radical change in the everyday life.
Herein lies the answer to many questions, including the question of why this or that mitzva has to be observed. For a human being to question G-d's reasons for His mitzvot is actually contradictory to common sense. If one accepts them as Divine commandments, it would be presumptuous, indeed, ridiculous, to equate human intellect with G-d's intellect which would mean limiting G-d's intellect to that of a human being. By way of illustration, one would not expect an infant to understand the importance of nutrition as set forth by a professor who has dedicated his life to this subject, even though the difference between the infant and the professor is only relative in terms of age and education, and in fact, the infant might some day surpass the professor. There can be no such comparison between a created human being and the Creator, where the difference is absolute.
It should therefore, be a matter of common sense to understand what the Torah explains clearly, that any doubts and difficulties a Jew may have in matters of Torah and mitzvot are only tests of his faith in G-d, and that a person is equipped with the capacity to overcome such tests. It would be illogical to assume that G-d would impose obligations which are beyond human capacity to fulfill. Indeed, if one has more difficult tests, it only proves that he has greater capacities to overcome them.
In summary, just as when we received the Torah and mitzvot at Sinai, we accepted them on the basis of "we will do" first and then, "we will hear-understand," namely on the basis of unconditional obedience and readiness to fulfill G-d's mitzvot regardless of our understanding them rationally, so has our commitment been ever since. And while we must learn and try to understand as much as possible, prior knowledge and understanding must never be a condition to living up to the guidelines which G-d has given us in regard to our actual way of life and conduct.
What is the reason for dancing at a wedding?
Part of the mitzva of "making the groom and bride happy" is to entertain them with dancing. By dancing around the bride and groom, the community expresses its support for the couple. The Talmud relates many instances when the greatest of our Sages set aside their uninterrupted study of Torah for the sake of entertaining the couple. In accordance with Jewish law, men and women dance separately with a mechitza (divider) separating them.
This coming Wednesday (January 13) is the 20th of Tevet, the yartzeit of Rabbi Moses Maimonides, otherwise known as the Rambam.
The Rambam lived in the 12 century and was a great philosopher, doctor, and Jewish scholar. But he is probably best remembered for his encyclopedic codification of all 613 commandments of the Torah in his magnum opus, the Mishne Torah.
In the Mishne Torah, the Rambam enumerates and details all of the 613 laws of the Torah. He places the laws relating to the Jewish king, and Moshiach, at the very end of his work. In the introduction to these laws he states that the Jews were commanded to fulfill three mitzvot upon conquering and entering the Land of Israel: To appoint a king; to kill the descendants of Amalek; to build G-d's Chosen House.
It would seen that these mitzvot should have been mentioned much earlier in his work if they were, in fact, so important! However, the Rambam chose to organize the Mishne Torah in this fashion to emphasize that the true and complete performance of all the mitzvot of the Torah will be attained only when a king rules over Israel. The Rambam then defines Moshiach as a king, who will not only redeem the Jews from exile, but also restore the observance of the Torah and the mitzvot to its complete state.
For many, this would seem a rather novel approach. Yet, the Talmud states that "the world was created solely for Moshiach." This being the case, we certainly must do everything in our power to prepare ourselves for Moshiach's imminent arrival.
What is within the power and reach of each individual, great and small? Good deeds, charity, studying concepts and laws associated with Moshiach and the Final Redemption, fostering peace between family, friends and co-workers, and actively waiting for and anticipating his arrival each and every day.
Rabbi Gershon, the brother-in-law of the Baal Shem Tov, had finalized his plans to travel to the Holy Land. A disciple of the Besht, he conferred with him before his departure and was told: "When you arrive in the Holy Land make sure to attend the yeshiva of the holy Ohr Hachayim in Jerusalem. He has two separate yeshivas there--one in which they study the revealed Torah, and another, known to only a very few people, where he teaches the esoteric secrets of the Kabbala. Do everything you can to be admitted to the second yeshiva short of divulging your identity, unless you have no choice."
Rabbi Gershon's journey was successful and he arrived in Jerusalem and proceeded directly to the Ohr Hachayim's yeshiva. Anxious to see how they learned there, he attempted to join the students as they reviewed their study. But each time he approached them, he was told that it was permissible to attend the yeshiva only with the explicit permission of the Ohr Hachayim himself. When the tzadik would enter the study hall to deliver his daily lesson, all strangers would be asked to leave.
Rabbi Gershon decided to approach the Ohr Hachayim personally and request his permission to learn. "Who are you?" inquired the Ohr Hachayim.
"I am a Jew who has come from Poland and I desire very much to study in your yeshiva," answered Reb Gershon.
The Ohr Hachayim gave him a penetrating, critical look and asked, "Are you fluent in the study of the Five Books of Moses and the Talmud?"
"Yes, I am," replied Reb Gershon.
"Then I give you my permission to remain here, and I will instruct my staff to accommodate you," the tzadik said.
Rabbi Gershon was pleased with the outcome and settled down for the week to learn in the yeshiva of revealed Torah. All the while he was inquiring as to how to gain admittance to the yeshiva of Kabbala. He discreetly asked various students about the secret yeshiva, but none of them had the slightest idea what he was talking about. Those few who were the privileged students, refused to answer his repeated questions. So, Rabbi Gershon was forced to approach the Ohr Hachayim again and ask for permission to attend the yeshiva of esoteric study.
The Ohr Hachayim was surprised by the request. "How do you know about the other yeshiva?" he asked, as he stared into Reb Gershon's eyes, plumbing the depths of his soul.
Reb Gershon, wanting to avoid a detailed response, just looked down and said, "I was told by my brother-in-law." He hoped that his answer would pass without further comment.
"What is his name?"
"Oh, his name is Yisroel," was the matter-of-fact reply.
"I don't know him, but you may come to my lecture tonight," was the reply.
For the next three nights Reb Gershon learned Torah with the select group of students, but on the fourth night when he presented himself to the doorkeeper, he was refused admittance. He was astonished and turned to the doorkeeper crying, "Why have I been refused admittance, when I have the permission of the Head of the Yeshiva to attend?"
"I'm sorry, but I am following the instructions of the holy rabbi. He said that you are unworthy of learning the secrets of the Torah , since you have not attended to the needs of the Sages."
Reb Gershon turned away, puzzled, but resolved to do whatever was necessary to rescind the decree of the Ohr Hachayim. He noticed that the tzadik donned a special pair of shoes and head covering before entering the bathroom. The next time he saw the tzadik put on the special hat, he ran quickly and brought him the shoes. Rabbi Chaim noted Reb Gershon's actions, but said nothing.
From that time forth, Rabbi Gershon was allowed to resume his midnight studies. He remained happily drinking in the learning at Rabbi Chaim's yeshiva for the next few months. One day, he told the tzadik that his own brother-in-law was a holy man.
"What is his name?" inquired Rabbi Chaim.
"His name is Reb Israel Baal Shem Tov," Reb Gershon said.
"Oh," cried the Ohr Hachaim, "Of course I know him well. I see him very often in the supernal worlds. He is a tzadik of unsurpassed greatness."
"Now I understand what happened to me in the Heavenly Court," continued Rabbi Chaim. I had been sentenced to have some terrible calamity occur to me because of using a respected student of the Baal Shem Tov to perform a menial task for me. It was only through the intercession of the Besht that I was saved. If you had told me your true identity at once, I would have been saved the entire incident."
After this conversation, the Ohr Hachaim no longer permitted Reb Gershon to study in his yeshiva for, as he said, "You do not need me to teach you, if you have the Baal Shem Tov as a rebbe."
And he said to Joseph, "Behold! Your father is sick." (Gen. 48:1)
Before Joseph's lifetime there was no sickness in the world. It was Joseph who pleaded for G-d to show His mercy by allowing people to become ill prior to their passing away, so that they might repent of their deeds and prepare for death.
(Baba Metzia 87)
He laid his hands wittingly, although Menashe was the first born (Gen. 48:14)
Jacob had sanctified and purified his physical body to such an extent that his limbs and organs could do nothing else but obey the will of G-d. His right hand, therefore, placed itself on the head of the one to whom G-d desired that the blessing be given.
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet (Gen. 49:10)
The reason that the Hasmonean dynasty could not sustain itself and eventually died out is that Jewish royalty belongs only to the tribe of Judah. Even though the Hasmoneans sanctified the name of G-d when they were victorious over the Greeks, they erred in appropriating the kingship for themselves, ignoring the command of their forefather Jacob.
He (Judah) washes his garments in wine (Gen. 49:11)
"Wine" is symbolic of the joy a Jew feels when he follows G-d's commandments. One may increase this joy by studying Chasidic philosophy, the "wine" of the Torah. When a person delves into the meaning of Divine Providence and begins to understand that everything which happens in this world is according to Divine decree, it arouses a love of G-d in his heart which leads him to increased joy and fulfillment.
A person's spiritual labors should be imbued with a constant yearning for the Redemption. Our Sages taught, "What is the light that the House of Israel is awaiting? It is the light of Moshiach." Thus, too, they taught, "When a man is led into the Heavenly Court he is asked, "...Did you yearn for the Redemption?" So since one is obliged to serve G-d constantly, all day long, it is clear that this hopeful anticipation should likewise be constant, all day long.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)