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"We can learn a lesson from everything we see or hear," taught Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov.
But does this dictum apply to secular art as well? Most certainly, as the following story illustrates.
Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, was shown three paintings.
The first painting depicted a war and its incumbent horrors. It showed a wide battlefield with many soldiers in combat. The officers were observing the soldiers through a telescope. The scene evoked tremendous fear. There were streams of blood as well as wounded and dismembered people everywhere.
The second painting was of a planted field with stalks growing. It had a pleasant ambiance: the sun shone brightly and a small bird stood on top of a stalk. Many art experts were impressed by the scene because it was captured so brilliantly as to appear real.
A simple farmer who viewed the painting commented that it did indeed look real, except for the bird on the stalk. Although the bird was small, the weight of its body should still have bent the stalk -- and in the picture, the stalk stood tall as those surrounding it.
The third painting depicted a courtroom scene from an earlier era. Both the prosecutor and defendant were present; the prosecutor demanded the death penalty for the defendant. The defendant's son was shown entering the room to proclaim his father's innocence. One could discern two expressions on the defendant's face: the fear that gripped him, and the pleasure he felt as his son tried to save his life.
The Rebbe drew valuable insights from each of the scenes.
In the war picture we can see a depiction of the internal spiritual battle which each person has with his evil drives.
The scene of the field teaches a profound lesson. One's Divine service can look beautiful, and give the impression of being alive. However, if it is lacking the ability to "bend" -- submission to G-d's will -- it ceases to be real. True goodness can only be achieved by setting aside the limitations of personal ego.
Finally, the courtroom painting shows that when a person is being judged, if he even once performed a good deed for another Jew, this gesture of kindness acts as a defender -- a character witness. The pleasure he feels as a result of this defense is great indeed.
From: "Listening to Life's Messages" by Rabbi Dovid Polter, based on the teachings of Rebbe.
This week's Torah portion opens with an unusual expression: "Eikev ("if" or "because") you listen to these laws..." Instead of the more common word "im" to denote "if," the Torah uses the word "eikev," which means "heel."
According to the Torah commentator, Rashi, eikev alludes to the "simple mitzvot usually trampled underfoot" -- those mitzvot whose importance is sometimes denigrated.
Rashi's explanation is based on a Midrash which states: "These are the simple commandments that people are not always careful to keep; they toss them under their heels."
The Midrash is not referring to a person who considers these mitzvot to be trivial, G-d forbid, or who scorns them intentionally. Rather, the Midrash refers to a Jew who accepts that these mitzvot must be observed and who endeavors to keep them, yet keeps postponing their observance until they are "tossed under the heel."
Such a person is likely to divide G-d's commandments into categories, according to what he perceives as importance.
To him, the "important" mitzvot are the "head" and must take priority. "Let me first observe the 'important' mitzvot perfectly ," he says "then I'll start with the others." The simplest mitzvot are left for last. According to this way of thinking, the Jew does not demand of himself a level of conduct that is "within the letter of the law" until he considers himself to have mastered the "important" mitzvot.
What is the consequence of such an outlook? When this person is asked to love every single Jew -- including those he does not know personally -- he replies, "How can you ask that of me? It's hard for me to love people I do know! How can you expect me to extend it to Jews I've never met?"
When pressed to observe mitzvot even more scrupulously than is required he replies, "No! There's got to be a certain sequence in observing mitzvot. Demanding that I do more than the basics is like asking me to walk in the street barefoot while wearing a beautiful tie around my neck! You've got to start at the beginning and work your way up."
While these arguments may sound logical at face value, they are nothing but the counsel of the evil inclination.
In truth, the foundation of a Jew's G-dly service is his faith; it is predicated on the acceptance of the yoke of heaven, not on intellectual arguments or rationalizations.
The function of the mitzvot is to connect us to G-d. Every mitzva that a Jew observes strengthens his bond with G-d, regardless of whether it is an "important" commandment or a "simple" one, i.e., related to the "head" or to the "heel."
If any mitzva allows us to draw nearer to G-d and unite with Him, why not do it immediately?
Adapted for Maayan Chai from Likutei Sichot, Vol. 19
Robert Grossman, freelance photographer for The New York Times in central and western Africa, never felt very close to his Jewish roots. He grew up in what he calls "very Christian" north-western Connecticut, and his was from "the only Jewish family in town."
Stationed in Abidjan, but accompanying Times correspondent Howard French wherever news strikes, Grossman has had precious little contact with anything Jewish.
"I'm never in one spot for very long," he says. "That's the nature of my job."
A few months ago, as rebel forces were nearing Zaire's borders, Grossman received word from the home office to position himself in that country's capital, Kinshasa.
Laden with his assortment of cameras, Grossman arrived in Kinshasa's Hotel Memling, the city's foreign media bastion. He hadn't been there half a day when a fellow journalist inquired if his Jewish name attested to his religion and, if so, had he met the local rabbi yet.
Kinshasa was not a place where Grossman expected to find a rabbi, but before long his new acquaintance introduced him to Chabad-Lubavitch emissary Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila.
"We shook hands," says the young photographer, "and he immediately invited me to his house for a meal, and I met his wife and family."
Robert Grossman was clearly stirred by the warm reception. He not only became a regular fixture within the community, but accepted Bentolila's invitation to stay in the emissary's house.
"He opened up his doors to me, gave me a key and said, 'You come and go as you please.' It was very comfortable, especially since I was completely out of money. And he was totally accepting, regardless of when I was coming and going."
Soon enough, Grossman became involved in the ritual side of Jewish community life. He attended services and started to recall relatives and family events from his childhood. Some of his old notions were changing. He decided, for instance, that he was only going to marry a Jewish woman. It was a startling change, making his connection with his roots complex, confusing, even painful.
"I certainly bought myself a lot of headache," he says and smiles.
He was pleasantly surprised when, several weeks into his stay in Kinshasa, Bentolila suggested to him to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, which he didn't get to do as a youth. The entire community was invited and Grossman was invited to make the blessing over the Torah reading.
"It was, more than anything, part of my being welcomed into the Jewish community," he confides, "which was very significant, spiritually. It was a wonderful thing."
Grossman describes Rabbi Bentolila as the central figure in the 100- 120-family Jewish community.
Bentolila made it his business to keep the community tightly knit, Grossman says. The rabbi recently acquired a small restaurant, where everyone chips in and dines together on excellent food. This was also an opportunity for many of the men whose families left for security reasons to spend time with friends.
Rabbi Bentolila turned the local synagogue into a headquarters of sorts. The community emergency provisions and communications were stored there and when things got tense, in the final weeks of the rebellion, the synagogue was where local Jews received most of their up-to-the-minute information.
According to Grossman, Jews, particularly Israelis, are very well liked in central Africa. "They're more egalitarian in their treatment of Africans," he explains.
"Bentolila is very popular among the Africans," Grossman continues. "He's one of the only whites there who's learned the local language, Lingala. And he's French Canadian, so he speaks both French and English as well."
Grossman left Kinshasa and returned to Abidjan a few days before the rebels marched in. For photographers, the coup was a disappointment, owing to the virtual absence of violence and confrontation. ("Nothing there to shoot," he comments wryly.) He's not planning to return to his new-found brothers for some time now, as his work continues to govern his hectic schedule.
"I don't know how this is going to affect my future. It certainly put Judaism back in the forefront of my mind, where it hadn't been for years. I want to see where it takes me from here."
Reprinted from the Lubavitch News Service Update, #42.
Jewish literature contains volumes of books discussing the meaning, from the simple to the mystical, of our prayers. But, as "the main thing is the deed," one shouldn't wait until he understands even the simple meaning of the words to begin praying. For, "According to a widely accepted tradition, those whose limited knowledge and memory do not allow them to meditate properly on the particular mystical meditations that apply in the course of the prayers, need to bear in mind only one comprehensive intention - that their prayers be heard by G-d together with all the meditations that are explained in the works of Jewish mysticism."
(The Book of Chabad-Lubavitch Customs)
20 Menachem Av, 5739 
To All Campers in Gan Israel, Everywhere-- G-d Bless You All!
I was pleased to hear that the camp season was proceeding successfully for you, strengthening both your physical and spiritual health.
No doubt there is no need to explain to you that with man in general the health of the body is intertwined with the health of the soul, and with the Jew in particular the state of the soul is bound to the observance of the Torah and its mitzvot of which it is said "for they are our life and the length of our days."
You are a children of a wise and understanding people, as the Torah attests about Israel that it is a "wise and understanding people." As the soul animates the body, you surely understand that the needs of the soul -- i.e. the study of the Torah and the observance of its precepts -- take precedence to everything and that is what causes the Jew to be healthy and wholesome in both soul and body.
May you continue with this kind of conduct, by way of a continuous and intensification throughout the year to follow, and as our Sages of blessed memory answered us that nothing can stand in the way of a person's will and intention. This means that everything depends exclusively on your own attitude.
This is relevant especially in the context of the month of Elul which follows the camp season. For the Torah states that Elul is an acronym for the words "Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li -- I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me." And the term Dodi (my Beloved) refers to the Almighty who loves His people Israel, the young and old, and because of this love He wishes for us our true and ultimate good.
No doubt you will fully utilize these days which are days of preparation for the New Year coming -- which will be most auspicious for us and all of Israel -- to strengthen the conduct and attitude of "I am to my Beloved," that is a conduct inspired by a love of G-d and a willingness and desire to fulfill His will. Then you are assured that "My Beloved is to me" -- that the Almighty, may he be blessed, will make you succeed and bless you and all those that are close and dear to you, with all physical and spiritual needs.
14th of Kislev, 5717 
Students of the Talmud Torah of Congregation Adas Jeshurun
I received your letter in which you expressed your desire to be blessed with success in the study of the holy Torah, and also that your parents should be blessed in all their needs.
Since you desire such blessings, I take it that you, on your part, are doing all you can to help in the fulfillment of these blessings. By that I mean that you are studying with diligence and devotion, and are conducting yourselves in the way Jewish children should. In this way I am sure that the promise of our Sages, "He who tries hard, succeeds," will be fulfilled in your case. In this way also you will do a great deal that your dear parents enjoy good health and well-being and real joy from you.
I was glad to see that you remembered the poor and needy children, and have sent a donation for them. Your donation has gone to help the needy children in our educational institutions in the Holy Land. I hope that, together with this financial tzedaka [charity], you also do spiritual tzedaka, that is to say, using your good influence on your friends, that they too study with diligence, and even children who do not as yet get the same good education as you get, may be persuaded to join you in the Talmud Torah, for if they will admire you, they will want to be like you.
The first ritual circumcision in Europe's oldest synagogue in over 40 years took place recently. The 800-year-old AlteNei Shul in Prague, Czech Republic was the site of the brit mila of Menachem Mendel Barash. The child's parents, Rebbi Manis and Dina Barash are the Rebbe's emissaries to the Czech Republic. A festive meal, music and dancing attended by 150 members of the Jewish community followed in the town hall.
THE JEWISH RENAISSANCE FAIR
The 19th annual Jewish Renaissance Fair has a new look. On Sunday, August 31, the fifteen acre campus of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey, will be transformed into an exciting world of drama, music and comedy. Led by the cast of BT Media's "Twist of Faith," the Fair adds great theater to its history of music and comedy. For the children the Fair is a virtual wonderland of music, puppeteers, storytellers, magicians, jugglers and clowns.
Carnival games, Arts and Crafts Village, hayride, bumperboats and special comic olypmics add to all the excitement. This year one price admission includes everything except food, arts & crafts and books.
Advance tickets are available for $2 off the gate price. Children under 6 are free. For ticket locations, directions, or more information call (201) 267-9404.
The 20th of Av, is the yahrzeit of the Rebbe's father, Reb Levi Yitzchok. Reb Levi Yitzchok, or "Reb Levik" as he was known, suffered greatly at the hands of the Communist government. But throughout his ordeal, he remained stead fast in his commitment to teach Torah. He encouraged and inspired those around him to observe mitzvot and reconnect to their rich traditions.
In 1939 Reb Leivik was arrested for teaching Torah, which the Communists said undermined the authority of the government. Reb Levi Yitzchok was sentenced to five years in exile.
Reb Levi Yitzchok stood as a great inspiration then and in our time as well. His efforts helped many Jews hold onto the teachings of the Torah when those around them wanted to eradicate all traces of religious life. In addition, many of the people Reb Leivik taught and inspired went on to be positive influences to their brethren.
In the 5th chapter of Pirkei Avot we learn about people, such as those Reb Leivik inspired to teach and influence others.
It states: "Whenever a person causes many to have merit, no sin shall come through him."
This does not mean that if a person has a positive influence on others he will no longer have free will and be prevented from sinning, but that when a person brings so many other people to do the right thing, as did Reb Levi Yitzchok, the positive influence this generates prevents him from becoming involved in situations where he might be led to sin.
We hope and pray that we will soon be led into the era of Moshiach, when every influence will be a positive one, and every situation will be one that leads only to good.
He who says...what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours--this is a median characteristic, and some say that this is the characteristic of the people of Sodom (Ethics of the Fathers 5:10)
An individual who behaves in this manner, not wanting anything from others and unwilling to give of himself, does not seriously threaten the existence of the world. Yet, if this same attitude is adopted by an entire society, it leads to the degradation and indifference of Sodom, where poor people died in the streets from hunger.
There are four types among those who give charity (Ethics 5:13)
Two men once came to Rabbi Yehuda Landau, to collect for a poor person. "How much does he need?" Rabbi Landau asked. After citing a particular sum, Rabbi Landau offered the entire amount, minus a few gilden, to the two visitors. They did not understand his gesture. If he could afford to part with such a large sum of money, why not the entire amount? "The Torah states, 'One who wishes to give but that others should not -- he begrudges others.' One must leave room for others to perform the mitzva of charity as well..." Rabbi Landau explained.
Which is a controversy for the sake of heaven? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai (Ethics 5:17)
Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner used to say, "Only people the stature of Hillel and Shammai could engage in controversy for the sake of heaven. People on our level, however, must avoid even this type of disagreement."
The 20th of Av is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson (known affectionately as "Reb Leivik"). The father of the Rebbe, he was a reknowned and brilliant scholar and kabbalist, and a fearless, devoted community leader.
It was just a few days before Passover, 1939. Thunderous knocking on the apartment door startled Reb Leivik and Rebbetzin Chana. Opening the door, Rebbetzin Chana's heart sank. Their four nocturnal visitors were none other than officers of the dreaded N.K.V.D. (forerunners of the K.G.B.).
One of the officers roughly shoved a search warrant into Reb Leivik's hands. For three hours they searched the entire house, looking for incriminating evidence against Reb Leivik. Finally, they ordered him to come with them.
For five long months, Rebbetzin Chana was frustrated in her attempts to discover the whereabouts of her husband. Then she was officially notified that he was in prison, and she could bring him a package every ten days.
Accused of continuing the "illegal" work of his relative the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok -- teaching Torah and maintaining yeshivas -- he was seen as an enemy of the State. Reb Leivik was exiled for five years to a small village in Eastern Asia, far from any Jews. Rebbetzin Chana was frantic. Her husband was elderly and weak. She petitioned the government, but to no avail. The sentence of exile would be carried out, but she would be allowed to meet with her husband before he left .
At their brief, pain-filled meeting, Reb Leivik asked his wife for her forgiveness for all the anguish and suffering she was enduring on his account.
When, a few weeks later, Rebbetzin Chana received a postcard from Reb Leivik informing her of his arrival in Kharkov, she bought a ticket to Kharkov to meet her husband there. When she arrived at the prison, she was greatly saddened by his appearance. In just a month, his health had deteriorated to the point where she barely recognized him. The next day, he was sent to Alma Ata and then on to Chi'li, a small town distinguished only by its absence of Jews and its miserable climate.
For the next two years, Reb Leivik lived alone, reporting to the N.K.V.D. every ten days. The long walk to the police station was exhausting and debilitating to Reb Leivik and took its toll. But his indomitable spirit was not broken by his terrible exile, and he took every opportunity to extend himself to any Jews with whom he came into contact.
Rebbetzin Chana joined her husband for the last three years of his exile. She cared for him physically and particularly spiritually, ingeniously preparing homemade ink so that he could record his brilliant and voluminous Torah insights on the margins of his precious books.
The years passed slowly and painfully. Finally, the five-year exile was almost over. With great anticipation, they looked forward to resettling in an area with a Jewish community and amenities, making life far more tolerable.
Then, a Jewish worker in the local N.K.V.D. office informed them that since Russia was at war, the government was going to forbid all former prisoners to leave their place of exile until peace was declared. How could they stay indefinitely, when they needed a daily battle of wits to survive?
Two of Reb Leivik's loyal supporters, Hershel and Mendel Rabinowitz proved a great help. They shouldered the responsibility of rescuing Reb Leivik from his predicament. In order to free him, they needed an official document stating that he had completed his term of exile; a statement of support from a relative; a courier to deliver these documents to Reb Leivik in Chi'li; permission from the district commander for Reb Leivik to leave the area; large sums of money to bribe the proper officials all down the line. All of this had to be done before the government in Chi'li received official word that exiles would be forbidden to leave.
Six weeks later, their tremendous efforts were rewarded and the necessary documents were obtained and delivered to Reb Leivik. Immediately after Passover, the Schneersons packed their few belongings and traveled secretly to Alma Ata where, for the first time in five years, Reb Leivik was able to share all his thoughts and accumulated knowledge with his fellow Jews.
But there were to be no tranquil years of teaching and study in his newly adopted city. His illness and years of deprivation took their toll, and he was confined to bed. Though he was ailing, the police continued their harassment.
The people of Alma Ata did all they could to make the ailing Rabbi comfortable. They sent for an expert doctor from Leningrad to examine the Rabbi, and obtained hard to find items, that usually only the very rich could afford. As the summer passed, Reb Leivik's condition worsened slowing.
On Wednesday morning, the 19th of Av, Reb Leivik's voice was inaudible, yet his lips moved incessantly. Towards evening, seeing that there were visitors sitting by his bedside, Rebbetzin Chana decided to take a short rest, to prepare for another long night ahead of her.
A half hour later, Rebbetzin Chana was awakened by her guests' sorrowful crying: Reb Leivik had passed on, and his neshama had found its eternal rest.
Hershel Rabinowitz later said that he bent over to listen to what Reb Leivik was saying and he heard "Your footsteps are not known," and "Oy! The footsteps of Moshiach!"
Excerpted from A Day to Recall, A Day to Remember by Rabbi S. Avtzon
"The death of the righteous is compared to the burning of the House of our L-rd." (Talmud Rosh Hashana 18b) The true intention of this epigram is that the tragedy of a Tzadik's passing is also a descent which must bring us closer to the building of the Third Holy Temple.
(The Rebbe, 20 Av, 5747)