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It Once Happened | Moshiach Matters
It's getting to be that time of year again. Gift shops and supermarkets have set aside a place in their card racks for "Jewish New Year" cards.
What's the point of sending out Rosh Hashana wishes? Maybe we're letting Rosh Hashana become just as commercialized as so many non- Jewish holidays?
Definitely not! Wishing friends and relatives a sweet, New Year, along with any other blessings you wish to include, is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.
"I will bless those who bless you," G-d informed our illustrious ancestor Abraham. By blessing someone else, we precipitate receiving our own Divine blessing. The weeks before Rosh Hashana are an especially good time to "reach out and touch someone," whether in person, via telephone or mail. When you offer the hope that they be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year, your are actualizing a blessing for yourself.
"But wait a minute. Who am I anyway to be blessing someone else?" you wonder. In the Talmud, Rabbi Elazar teaches, "Never let the blessing of even a common person be considered insignificant in your eyes." For, as the Talmud continues, two great men, King David and the prophet Daniel, were blessed by simple people and those blessings were fulfilled.
Just how far does this concept of the value of a simple person's blessing go?
The quote above is preceded in the Talmud by these words: Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, a High Priest said, "Once, when I entered the Holy of Holies, I beheld the Holy One and He said to me, 'Ishmael, My son, bless Me!' I said, 'Sovereign of the Universe, may it be Your will that Your mercy overcome Your anger, and that Your compassion overrule Your attributes; let Your conduct toward Your children be with loving kindness... and may You overlook strict Judgment.' The Holy One bowed His head to me [in confirmation]." According to the Talmud these words of Ishmael ben Elisha are the same prayers G-d, Himself, offers.
In this coming year, 5758, may we bless our friends and relatives -- and thereby ourselves -- with a year of mercy and compassion, loving kindness and the forgiving of transgressions, by one another and by G-d.
This week's Torah portion, Shoftim, opens with the mitzva: "Judges and officers you shall place at all your gates."
The Torah is eternal; so too are all its commandments. Appointing "judges and officers" thus applies in every age and in all locations, and contains a practical directive for our daily lives.
Every Jew is an entire world, a microcosm of the greater world at large. And just as the world is divided into regions and cities, so too may the individual Jew be said to inhabit various "cities" in which he lives and acts. These "cities" are the thoughts we think, the words we speak, and the deeds and actions we perform.
As with every city, the domains of thought, speech and deed are protected by gates; indeed, it is a mitzva to install them at their entrance. A gate is a portal, a doorway through which all who wish to enter the city must pass. A gate can be opened and closed; when it is firmly shut, no one can intrude.
The Torah's instruction to appoint "judges and officers" at the gates of our individual "cities" is directed to all Jews, young and old. Furthermore, all Jews are endowed with the ability to carry out the command successfully.
When a Jew is aroused to perform good deeds, he must open his "gate" as wide as it will go. But if, G-d forbid, his "city" is in danger of invasion by the Evil Inclination, he must shut the "gate" immediately and refuse it access.
How do we lead a G-dly life? How is it possible to carry out G-d's will? By properly utilizing the limbs and organs with which we are blessed.
A Jew's eyes must be used for reading Jewish books in which is written G-d's laws about how to conduct our lives. Our ears must be used to listen the counsel of our teachers and to hear only words that are appropriate; our nose, to breathe the pure air of Torah and mitzvot, in a wholesome environment where we can breathe freely. Similarly, a Jew's mouth must only open to accept kosher food and drink.
And who is the "judge" who makes these decisions between right and wrong? The "judge" is our intellect, our capacity for rational thought; the "officer" within us makes sure that the "judge's" decisions are enforced.
When we all make the right judgments and obey the Torah's commands, we will merit, with G-d's help, the appointment of the "judges and officers" of the Sanhedrin of the Third Holy Temple, and the complete Redemption with Moshiach, may it be now!
Adapted for Maayan Chai from Likutei Sichot, Volume 14
by Judith Broder Sellner
Michoel Muchnik has no doubt about the answer to the age old question: Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Although artists themselves disagree, during a recent interview, Muchnik, a Lubavitcher Chasid living in Brooklyn's Crown Heights, clearly showed that the colors of his art reflect the spectrum of his life.
Born in 1952 in Philadelphia, Muchnik enjoyed a colorful, imaginative childhood. "My brothers and friends and I were always involved in creative projects. We'd arrange a parade for a holiday, put on plays, circuses, auctions, and create the costumes. We even designed a complete miniature golf course."
During his teen years, however, Muchnik first began to recognize his artistic talent which he pursued at the Rhode Island School of Design. "In those days my work was very detailed and artistic, but dark -- even weird. Old barns, dead trees, things that on the surface lacked any life."
When did color burst into Muchnik's dark and searching youth? "When I finished at the Rhode Island School of Design, I spent a year in Binghamton, New York. I began studying Chasidic philosophy and started to introduce color into my art. In retrospect, I think it was very symbolic; I felt color coming into my life through Chasidut."
After that year, Muchnik enrolled in the Lubavitcher yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey. Understanding that nothing should distract him from his yeshiva studies, he withdrew from his art almost entirely.
When he returned to painting, it was with a new outlook and focus. "I realized that you have to utilize things for a higher purpose, to show values in what you're working with. Art is a unique way of portraying Jewish ideals. That's what's so exciting about it."
Through his Chasidic studies, Muchnik learned that the intellect must rule the emotions and that the artist must guide the work; the art should not lead the painter. His illustrated gift edition of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) published in 1986 by Behrman House is a perfect example of how he channels his vision through his art. Each painting relates to the Chasidic interpretation of the sayings.
For example, one verse (3:22) likens people to trees: "Those whose wisdom exceeds their deeds are like trees with many branches and few roots; conversely, those whose deeds exceed their wisdom are like trees with many roots. The latter can withstand strong winds and harsh weather." Muchnik depicts the roots with such symbols as a mezuza, tzedaka box, a menora, holy Jewish texts, a wedding ring, and Shabbat candles. "It was the crown of my old style," the artist says of the line art borders and earth-tone paintings, in a primitive, art naif style. The book became a main selection of the B'nai Brith Book-of- the-Month Club.
However, this is but one aspect of Muchnik's success. His works have also been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, the Goldman Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Art Expo in New York, and the International Judaica Exhibition in Jerusalem.
He has traveled widely, exhibiting his work and lecturing on Chasidic art throughout North America, Europe, Israel, South Africa, Hong Kong, and Japan. Hadassah magazine has often published his works, Shaare Tzedek hospital has also used his art, and American Greetings, Palpot (Israel), and UNICEF have made greeting cards from his paintings available to a wide cross-section of people.
In Muchnik's words, "People buy my art because of the content. The form and composition are not the end; the end is the meaning, to portray an idea of Torah and to inspire viewers in their Jewishness. A few weeks ago a woman showed up on our doorstep. 'Remember me?' she asked. I recalled speaking with her about my work at an exhibit in Chicago. She told me that after the exhibit she returned to the Chabad shul to study, then went on to Bais Chana (a women's learning institute in Minnesota)."
Muchnik continues to explore new concepts in his work. "You can burn out on one idea. You have to grow, and your work grows with you," he says. "My early works were rather childlike; now they're more romantic and allegorical."
One of his current favorites, "Toward the Redemption," portrays a ship filled with spices -- all the good deeds the Jewish people have done through the millennia. At the helm he places a king, Moshiach, heading toward Jerusalem and the Third Temple, the symbol of Redemption. He uses soft shades of green, aqua, and peach -- the glow of sunrise -- curved lines and spring symbols -- doves, flowers, fish -- representing hope and renewal.
He has incorporated the Holy Temple in all of his latest works, and its presence is felt everywhere in Muchnik's studio. It's in the center of a vineyard on a mural-in-progress commissioned for a private wine cellar; it's a focal point on an urn painted in acrylic and gold leaf on bark paper, a medium he likes for its biblical antiquity; it captures the viewer's eye in "The Tzadik's Clock," based on a story relating differing views of the clock's ticking -- to most it represents the ticking away of life, but to the Tzadik in this tale, each tick brings him closer to the Redemption. This motif in his paintings seems to reflect the personal renewal Muchnik has realized in his devotion to Judaism, leaving little doubt that his art indeed imitates life.
Reprinted with permission from Chai Today Magazine
[Ed's note: Thanks to the efforts of Yechezkel Shimon Gutfreund, some of Muchnik's art is on the Internet. Point your browser to: www.utexas.edu/students/cjso/Chabad/gallery/muchnik/muchnik.html
"Each person has to recognize, and publicize among his widest circle of influence, that we must accept the rulings and advice of 'the judges' and 'the advisers' of our generation. In general, this refers to all rabbis, for 'our rabbis are our kings,' and in particular, this refers to the leader of our generation -- the judge, adviser and prophet of our generation."
(The Rebbe, Parshat Shoftim, 1991)
18th of Tammuz, 5714 
I have received your letter of June 13th, in which, after a brief biographical outline of yourself, you present your problem, namely, that you recently became aware of a feeling of apathy and indifference to the religious rites and practices, due to a perplexing doubt to the authenticity of the Jewish tradition, by which you undoubtedly mean the Torah and mitzvot, and you wonder how this may be logically proved.
I hope that this is indeed your only difficulty which has weakened your observance of the mitzvot maasiyot [mitzvot involving actual deeds] in daily life; in most cases the true reason is the desire to make it easy for oneself and avoiding a "burden" and then seeking to "justify" this attitude on philosophical grounds. In the latter case the problem is more complicated.
In the hope that you belong to the minority, I will briefly state here the logical basis for the truth that the Torah and mitzvot have been given to us Jews by Divine Revelation.
This is not very difficult to prove, since the proof is the same as all other evidence that we have of historic events, in past generations, only much more forcefully and convincingly.
By way of illustration; if you are asked, how do you know there existed such a person as Rambam [Rabbi Moses Maimonides] (whom you mentioned in your letter) author of Hayad Hachazaka, Sefer Hamitzvot, etc., or the like, you would surely reply that you are certain about his existence from the books he had written, and although the Rambam lived some 800 years ago, his works now in print have been reprinted from earlier editions, and those from earlier ones still, uninterruptedly, going back to the very manuscript which the Rambam wrote in his own hand. This is considered sufficient proof, but efforts are made to reconcile them in the certainty that both have been written by the same author.
The same kind of proof substantiates any historic past, which we ourselves have not witnessed, and all normal people accept them without question, except those who for some reason are interested in falsification.
In many cases the authenticity of a historic event is based on the evidence of a limited group of people, even where there is room to suspect that the witnesses were not, perhaps, quite disinterested; but because there is nothing to compel one to be suspicious, and especially if we can check the evidence and counter-check it, it is accepted as a fact.
From the above point of view, any doubts you may have about the authenticity of the Jewish tradition should be quickly dispelled.
....At any rate, millions of Jews knew and still do know that G-d is the Author of the Torah Shebiktav [Written Torah] and the Torah Shebaal Peh [Oral Torah], which He gave to His people Israel not only to study but to observe in practice in daily life, and make it a condition of the existence and welfare of our people as a whole, and of the true happiness of every individual Jewish man and Jewish Woman.
How do these millions of Jews know, and how did they know in the past that the Torah is true? Simply because they have it on the evidence of their parents, millions of Jews that preceded them, and these in turn from their parents, and so on, uninterruptedly back to the millions of Jews (if we include women and children and those above and below the age range of the 600,000 male adults) who witnessed the Divine Revelation at Sinai.
Throughout all those generations the very same content has been traditionally handed down, not by a single group, but by a people of many millions, of different mentalities, walks of life, interests, under the most varying circumstances, places and times, etc., etc. Such evidence cannot be disputed.
It is difficult, even in the course of a letter, to elaborate, but I am sure even the above should dispel any of your doubts, if indeed, you had any serious doubts, as to the authenticity of our tradition, and that you will from now on not permit anything to weaken your observance of the mitzvot, the observance of which itself illumines the mind and soul more than any philosophical book can ever do. I shall be glad to hear good news from you. I wish you success.
From coast to coast, literally, Chabad is moving kids into the computer age. Chabad of Port Washington, in Long Island, New York has installed computer stations in their nursery school and is simultaneously helping the children become computer literate and Jewish literate. Using Windows 95 and Jewish educational software, children learn Hebrew vocabulary as well as simple Jewish holiday facts.
Chabad of Pacific Palisades in California uses computers at their Sunday morning and weekday afternoon Hebrew School to keep kids "plugged in and turned on" to all things Jewish. Contact your local Chabad-Lubavitch Center to find out what high-tech Jewish educational opportunities they're offering for youth and adults.
HIGH HOLIDAY GUIDE
The Electronic version of the High Holiday Guide is now on line at: www.chabad.org in the "Festivals" section. You can get a glimpse into the next 60 days, hear the sound of the Shofar, and see the rooster which will be used for Kaparos on the Eve of Yom Kippur. Recipes for Honey Cake, Challah and other holiday goodies are on line, as are numerous essays and insights to the holidays.
This week we entered into the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is a time of making an account of the previous year, and resolving to do better in the coming year. The Rebbe explains how the service of the month of Elul gives us the opportunity to reveal the greatness of the unity of the Jewish nation in numerous different ways:
While each individual Jew has to make an account of his own actions, all Jews are working toward the same goal of improving in the coming year.
During Elul, there is an emphasis on prayer. When it comes to prayer, the service of the heart, all Jews are equal. Even something as important as Torah knowledge does not effect the simple, heartfelt outpouring of a sincere heart.
Another area which shows Jewish unity is the increase in charity during Elul. When we give tzedaka we are acknowledging the fact that we are all one, that every Jew has a responsibility to his fellow Jews. Moreover, the commandment to give tzedaka has been placed upon all of us equally.
Just as in the month of Elul we are preparing ourselves to be judged by the Heavenly Court, in this week's Torah portion, Shoftim, we read about the importance of appointing earthly judges. The Torah states that the judges must be positioned "at the gates of the city," to ensure that the people will follow the laws of the Torah both inside the city and out. This is a lesson for us in our time as well.
The Torah's laws do not merely exist in a synagogue, a home or even just within a Jewish community. They are a part of us no matter where we go. Even if we happen to find ourselves outside of our "city," we are still required to act in accordance with the Torah.
During this month of Elul, as we prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana by increasing in prayer, charity, and acts of kindness, let us add a prayer, a supplication, for G-d to send us Moshiach now, so that we may once again serve Him as we were meant to, in the Holy Temple.
Let your house be a meeting place for Sages (Ethics, 1:4)
A person's home should always serve this function, to the extent that it defines the nature of the home. Even when the Sages are not present, their constant influence will continue to inspire the home and its inhabitants.
Keep away from a bad neighbor (Ethics, 1:7)
The Mishna does not say, "Keep away from a wicked neighbor," for the intent is not for one person to judge another's conduct. Rather, we are being instructed to determine whether closeness to an individual is beneficial or detrimental to our divine service.
(Beurim L'Pirkei Avot)
Avtalyon said, "Sages, be careful with your words..." (Ethics, 1:11)
When Sages impart words of wisdom, which encompass matters of faith and the fundamentals of Divine knowledge, it is important for them to express their views in clear, unequivocal language that cannot be misinterpreted.
Receive every person with a friendly countenance (Ethics, 1:15)
Even if a person is constantly occupied with Torah study, he should not distance himself from other people for fear of losing time for study. Rather, he should receive them cheerfully and happily.
One day, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov summoned one of his Chasidim and asked him: "Do you want to learn how to be a pious man?" "Yes, Rebbe," said the Chasid.
"In the city of Odessa, in a narrow lane in the harbor district, there lives a certain longshoreman. Go stay with him -- from him you will learn the meaning of piety."
The Chasid traveled to Odessa and located the man the Baal Shem Tov had described. The man accepted the Chasid's offer of a modest sum in return for a few weeks' lodging, and the Chasid settled in to observe the conduct of his pious host.
But if the visitor expected long hours of prayer each morning, followed by study by candlelight through the night, he was disappointed. His host proved a simple, unlettered Jew, who arose early each morning, prayed simply and quickly, and went off to work at the docks. In the evening, he would return, recite the evening prayers, eat his simple meal, and go to sleep. Thus, the Chasid spent the better part of the week growing no wiser and considerably more bored with each passing day.
The dock worker's garret consisted of a single dim room, sparsely furnished, its only window, a small pane set high in the wall. One day, while his host was away at work, the restless and curious Chasid climbed up onto a table to look out the window. To his dismay, he found himself looking out into a backyard where all sorts of criminal activities seemed to be going on at all hours of the day and night.
When his host returned that evening, the Chasid asked him: "Tell me, how can a Jew live in proximity to such neighbors? Couldn't you find a place to live that is not back to back with such an establishment?"
Now it was the longshoreman's turn to be dismayed. "I've lived here for twenty years," he said, "and not once did it occur to me to look into strangers' yards to see what they were doing. You, on the other hand, are hardly here a few days, and you're already climbing on tables and spying on every sinner in the neighborhood."
A man once complained to the Baal Shem Tov: "I saw written in a holy book that if a person refrains from speaking of trivial matters for forty days, and abstain from all material pleasures for that same period, he will merit that the prophet Elijah will reveal himself to him and teach him the secrets of creation.
"Well, I did exactly that. For forty days I ate only hard bread and water, deprived myself of sleep and in other ways afflicted myself. Above all, I guarded my tongue and spoke of no worldly matters. Yet, the prophet Elijah did not appear!" "Come with me," said the Baal Shem Tov.
They went out into the courtyard, where the Baal Shem Tov led the way to his stables. "You see that fellow over there?" he said to his visitor. "For the last forty days, he hasn't spoken of trivial matters. In addition, he leads an extremely ascetic existence. He hardly sleeps and subsists only on hay and water. He even walks around with nails in his shoes. Nevertheless, he has yet to receive a visit from Elijah. Because, unfortunately, he's still a horse!"
A man once came to the Baal Shem Tov and poured out his heart: "Rebbe!" he cried, "I don't understand what is happening to me. A while ago, I decided to dedicate myself to the service of the Almighty, and I immediately found myself invigorated with spiritual life: when I prayed, my soul soared in ecstasy; when I studied Torah, the gates of wisdom opened before me; when I did a mitzva, I was suffused with a wonderful joy. But soon after, I lost it all. My prayers are dry. When I try to study, I stare for hours at the page without comprehending a word. My deeds have become mechanical and devoid of meaning. Rebbe, what happened?"
"Let me tell you a story," said the Baal Shem Tov. "A man once entered a shop in which all types of delicacies were displayed. He noticed that people were partaking of the food free of charge, with the consent and encouragement of the shopkeeper. So, he decided that he, too, should take advantage of the shopkeeper's generosity. After sampling each dish on the counter, he served himself a generous helping of a particularly appealing food.
"'Wait a minute, my friend,' objected the shopkeeper. 'That'll be 50 kopecks.'
"'But I don't understand,' said the surprised customer. 'Why are you suddenly demanding payment? Up until now, you allowed me to eat for free!"
"'Only because it is in my interest that people sample my wares," replied the shopkeeper, "so that they may learn how desirable they are. But after you have already tasted them and have appreciated their worth, it's time to start paying for your pleasure."'
"Nothing worthwhile in life is free of charge," concluded the Baal Shem Tov, "particularly in matters of the spirit. The sublime pleasures of divine service can be acquired only with the currency of perseverance and toil. Nevertheless, the Almighty offers a free 'taste' of His intimacy to all who seek Him with a true heart. But once one has sampled these heavenly wares, it's time to get to work."
Reprinted from The Week in Review, published by V.H.H. For subscription information call (718) 774-6448
Look with favor, L-rd our G-d, on Your people Israel and pay heed to their prayer; restore the service to Your Sanctuary and accept with love and favor Israel's fire-offerings and prayer; and may the service of Your people Israel always find favor. May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy. Blessed are You, L-rd, who restores His Divine Presence to Zion.
(From the Amidah prayer said three times daily)