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It Once Happened | Moshiach Matters
by Rabbi Eli Hecht
At a meeting in the firehouse one evening, when an outbreak of fires caused by arson was being discussed, a veteran firefighter asked, "Why are we spending all of our time putting out fires, when we should be looking for the arsonist who is starting them?" Many of the firefighters concurred and an investigation ensued. The arsonist was apprehended and the fires abated.
I think of this story often when I consider how people deal with their emotional needs. Some are always busy putting out their emotional fires while others search for the cause, thus not allowing the fires to ignite. I think that by looking within, our lives will be emotionally healthier and happier.
And yet, it seems that people will do anything to avoid introspection, something especially appropriate at this time of year before the High Holidays.
For instance, whereas there are many down-to-earth books available to help a person improve relationships and emotionally stability, the book Angela's Ashes has been on the best seller list for 86 weeks. It is a first-hand, miserable memoir of family neglect, childhood suffering and total abuse. In truth, there is a powerful message one could take from such a book: "I'm actually quite lucky. Compared to this person I grew up in a functional family." However, few people reading the book come away with those sentiments. Rather, it merely serves as an opportunity to push off introspection and personal growth.
In the pursuit of the ultimate thrill which will make one feel that he has lived life to the fullest, new adventures are constantly being devised. For instance, there is a new craze to try and outrun a charging bull. Or, if a person isn't concerned about the possibility of dying, he can try climbing Mt. McKinley (91 climbers have died since 1932). Presently there is a waiting list to challenge the mountain.
Another way one can put off having to make a personal "reality check" is by watching the world go to pieces. Whether it is a fearful monster tearing up New York City or the worry of asteroids destroying the world, neither of these plots come close to the newest film in which the star saves the world but cannot save his own marriage. Saving one's marriage, afterall, requires instrospection, personal growth, sensitivity, a move away from egocentrism.
Certainly, it is difficult to recognize and even more difficult to correct personal limitations and flaws. If love covers a multitude of sins then surely self-love not only covers them but buries them. Yet, by dealing with fantasies we avoid the real self. We deny ourselves the inevitable fact that we are responsible for our deeds and when we act responsibly that is when we really feel good.
I believe that a person who wants to be happy and fulfilled must be ready to give up something. Or conversely, to be satisfied with what he has. The Jewish Sage Ben Zoma had a saying, "Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot." We need to be in touch with our real selves. And what better time than now?
This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, opens with the mitzva of bikurim, first fruits. "And it shall come to pass, when you come into the land...and take possession of it...you shall take the first of all the fruit of the soil...and place it in a basket; and you shall go to the place where the L-rd your G-d will choose."
The mitzva of bikurim applies only to specific fruits. Whoever cultivated these fruits was obligated to bring the first of his harvest to the Holy Temple, thanking G-d for His bounty.
When did this mitzva first apply? The conquest of the Land of Israel took 14 years. Were the Jews required to bring their first fruits immediately upon entry, or did they have to wait the 14 years until the division of land was completed? One opinion of our Sages is that the mitzva applied immediately; the other, that it did not apply until each tribe received its portion of land.
Whenever we find a controversy in Torah, even though there can be only one ruling, both opinions are the "words of the living G-d." Our Sages' opinions are all part of the Divinely-revealed Torah, and each contains an important teaching.
The intention behind the mitzva of bikurim is to express our thanks to G-d. The one who brought his first fruits to the Temple was required to declare, "G-d took us out of Egypt...and brought us to this place," enumerating G-d's many kindnesses.
In the same way that there are two opinions as to when the mitzva of bikurim first applied, so too are there two stages in our daily expression of thanks to G-d:
The first stage commences upon awakening when we recite "Modeh ani - I offer thanks to You." This declaration of gratitude stems from the pure faith in G-d, the birthright of every Jew. Because it is an integral part of our nature (and requires no prior contemplation), we say it immediately upon regaining consciousness. The second stage occurs during morning prayers. These expressions of thanks come after a period of preparation and reflecting on G-d's greatness.
The above dichotomy is reflected in the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of general Chasidut and Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidut, whose birthdays were just celebrated on the 18th of Elul.
The Baal Shem Tov emphased arousing the innate faith of every Jew. His teachings are thus analogous to the opinion that bikurim applied immediately and to our declaration of "Modeh ani," which requires no prior preparation. Rabbi Shneur Zalman's special emphasis was on the Jew's intellectual comprehension of G-d and the need to prepare ourselves before serving Him. This corresponds to the opinion that bikurim applied only after the conquest of Israel, and parallels gratitude which follows intellectual meditation. This preparation before prayer ensures that our faith will permeate all aspects of our soul, and enables us to thank G-d more fully.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Volume 34
Excerpted from "Return,"
published by Feldheim Publishers
by Professor Herman Branover
Dr. Branover now resides in Israel where he is a professor of
magnetohydrodynamics at Beer Sheva University.
In the summer of 1968, I was concentrating entirely on Jewish problems and was little concerned with truth and justice on a global scale. Time passed, but there still was no hope, not even the smallest possibility, of leaving [the Soviet Union]. Nevertheless I increasingly felt the day was coming nearer when it would be possible to go. Indeed, I continued my work at the Physics Institute of the Latvian Academy of Sciences and to write articles and books on magnetohydrodynamics, but it be came more and more difficult to concentrate on these subjects. I gradually resumed my open participation in Jewish activities, attended the synagogue again instead of the secret minyan, and this gave me great pleasure. It didn't matter that the synagogue was located on the other side of town and that on Shabbat and holidays I had to walk four kilometers to get there and four kilometers back, in the heat of the summer and the cold of winter, morning and evening.
I was especially moved by the month of Elul. This is the last month before the New Year-Rosh Hashana-designated for the Jews as a time of spiritual stock-taking and self-improvement. In the course of the last days of this month special prayers - selichot- are recited. They are said in the early morning long before the rising of the sun.
It was a wonderful sensation - rising in the middle of the night to walk to the synagogue through the dark, empty streets. The cold night would smell of the autumn dampness, of fallen leaves. I would pass groups of mushroom pickers with baskets and buckets, who were piling into trucks that were taking them from the city to the forests. And we few Jews would go forth with the knowledge that we were doing what our grandfathers and our great-great-grandfathers did at this time of the year - prepare for the days of Judgement and renewal and plead with our Creator to inscribe all Jews from the four corners of the earth in the Book of Life.
We went to be judged before the Omniscient, and it was both awesome and joyous. Reciting and hearing the selichot prayers evoked in me thousands of associations, reconstructing the atmosphere of shtetl life in the Jewish Pale of Settlement long, long ago. I could see and feel how the old sexton, huddling in a tattered, long black coat against the pre-dawn chill, would tread from house to house, knocking on closed shutters, reminding the Jews that it was time for the Almighty to bestow blessings upon His children who were scattered in a hostile, cold world. And the Jews would leave their dilapidated homes and hurry to the little wooden synagogue, dimly lit by flickering candles and kerosene lamps. Old men with beards and young boys with curling side-locks...
I would be filled with nostalgia and longing for the shtetl-physically poor but spiritually overflowing with upward ascending spirit. These reminiscences were an inexhaustible source of moral admonition and inspiration during the whole year and especially on the eve of the Day of Judgment and Repentance.
There was always the feeling at this time of the year that we were heading toward something great, joyous, a little frightening, but most of all exalted. It was somewhat similar to how I used to feel before exams when I was a student, but now this was infinitely more important and elevated. And along with the awe and the inexpressible feeling of heightened expectation, pride and even a sort of gloating overcame me when I saw that the supposedly all-powerful Soviet regime-with all its arm, uniformed and secret police, ubiquitous Communist Party, tanks, airplanes and atom bombs and gargantuan state machine-stood powerless to prevent a handful of unarmed defenseless Jews from serving their eternal G-d.
For the autumn holidays themselves I usually went to Transcarpathia. There vestiges of Jewish communities were still preserved. These communities were not as strong as those learned in Torah. Dozens of shuls and mikvas were still functioning. During my visits there I became friends with yet another wonderful person-Yosef Mordechai Kagan, the underground rabbi for Mukachev and all Transcarpathia.
Officially Yosef Mordechai took in empty bottles at a glass collection station built in the courtyard of his house, but his real work was leading Jewish life in Mukachev, Khust, Ujgorod and other towns. The life story of this man was horrible . His first wife and six children were killed in Auschwitz. Miraculously he survived and, thanks to his deep faith, was able to make himself return to live and work and even to build a new family. Then, from 1950 to 1953, to avoid arrest, he hid from Stalin's bloodhounds, sent out for his arrest. There were entire days and nights that he spent buried under mud in a ditch by the road, but never once during those three years did he forego a single mitzva. While this was going on, his second wife heroically raised four little children.
In the home of Rabbi Yosef Mordechai I learned a great deal about Jewish laws and customs. Among other things I acquired the art of baking fragrant Shabbat challot and since then I have baked challa at our home for every Shabbat.
The time I spent in Transcarpathia was wonderful. Contact with Soviet reality was suspended, almost completely broken. Everything was devoted to G-d, Torah and the Jewish people; every minute was filled with Jewish learning. During the Ten Days of Penitence from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, I devoted many hours each day, in the Chasidic tradition, to reading the Psalms of King David. I recited the entire book up to three times a day, and once I was able to repeat the reading a full five times in the course of a single day.
Rambam for 20 Elul Av 5758
Positive mitzva 84: All offerings to be brought to the Sanctuary By this injunction we are commanded to offer all sacrifices only in the Sanctuary. It is contained in the words (Deut. 12:14): "There you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you." It is prohibited to offer any sacrifice whatsoever outside the Temple.
Excerpted from a free translation
In the Days of Selichoth, 5723 
......The feeling which the Days of Awe inspire goes deeper than a sense of apprehension in the face of Divine judgment. It is a feeling of Yirath Haromemuth - a sense of awe and trepidation that is inspired by the consciousness of the unfolding event of the "coronation" of the Supreme King of Kings, blessed be He; a coronation in which every individual Jew participates. For this is the essence of Rosh Hashanah.
The "coronation" of the Creator of the Universe as the "King over all the Earth," for which we pray and which we actually carry out on Rosh Hashanah, renews the personal union of each Jew with G-d; it is the direct and inward union of each individual as an individual, and not merely as a part of the community or people as a whole.
The "coronation" is accompanied by the personal petition of each and every one of us that the Almighty accept this coronation, and thereby is created the mutual union of "We are Thy people and Thou art our King."
..... Unfortunately, for various reasons, the inspiration engendered by the Days of Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Return has not always, nor everywhere, been put to the best or fullest advantage. In some congregations, and in many individuals, the inspiration evaporates with the passing of the Days of Awe, without a discernable change or improvement in the personal day-to-day life of the individual Jew and Jewess. And where there is a lack of improvement on the individual level, there must inevitably be a lack of improvement on the social level.
One of the main reasons for this failure is that the spiritual awakening and inspiration of the Days of Awe are not directed towards the self, but towards matters relating to others. Not infrequently these auspicious days serve as an occasion for general pronouncements on world problems - "messages" that do not implicate anyone in particular, least of all anyone in the immediate environment. This approach "satisfies" everybody, all the more so since it has some claim to "justification" in view of the fact that Rosh Hashanah embraces the whole of Creation, and the world is not lacking in universal and vital problems requiring improvement or change.
The concentration on, and preoccupation with, such lofty world problems and re-solutions (resolutions which, in the majority of instances, are beyond the control of those making them) provide a convenient justification for diverting the necessary, vital and utmost attention from the self, from self-searching and the reappraisal of one's personal life (precisely those areas where personal resolutions can be effective).
An indication as to the proper use of the spirit of these holy days is to be found in the details prescribed for the Mitzva of Sounding the Shofar, the only special Mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah. This commandment does not prescribe the use of an ensemble of instruments, but only one; and that also not a delicate instrument producing extraordinary musical compositions. The insistence is that the Shofar be a plain horn of an animal, and "all sounds are proper in a Shofar." Thus, the Shofar emphasizes that the orientation should be, first and foremost, on the individual self, with the accent on the duty to introduce sanctity even into the ordinary and commonplace of the daily life of the individual, and then into the social life of the individual as a member of the community, and so forth.
May G-d help that every Jewish Man, Woman and Child, especially those who are spiritual leaders, should take full advantage of the sacred moments and the soul-stirring inspiration of the Days of Awe - not in the direction of general world or national problems (which, however important, are not the purpose of Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Return, either of the individual or for the community) but in response to the urgent call of these days: "Make Me King over you" - to accept the Sovereignty of G-d, as one's own King and Master, which calls for Teshuvah, Tefilah, Tzedakah-Return, Service, Righteousness-all of which should begin at home, in the self; and then around the self, in the congregation, and the environment at large.
And may the spiritual awakening and inspiration of these days illuminate and permeate every day of the year, so as to intensify the union between each Jew and G-d into a profound attachment that will express itself in the daily life according to, and in harmony with, the Divine Torah and Divine commandments. Surely, the change for the better in the spiritual life will bring a change for the better in the material life, and the next year will be a blessed one in every respect.
With prayerful wishes for a "good inscribing and sealing; a good and sweet year..."
WAREHOUSE TO BOYS' HOME
Earlier this summer the Esther and William Benenson Home for Boys opened its doors in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. The Home joins the Home for Girls opened by Tzivos Hashem last year. The Boy's Home is located in the former synagogue of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the Rebbe's father. The Communist government had appropriated and gutted the synagogue, converting it into offices and a warehouse. The synagogue, returned to the Jewish community by the Ukrainian government, has been totally renovated and refurbished. Seventy-five orphaned and abandoned Jewish children from across the C.I.S. have moved into the Home. Tzivos Hashem, the international Jewish children's organization, also runs youth activities, Passover and summer camps, and a medical clinic in the C.I.S.
More than halfway through the month of Elul, Jews the world over are getting ready for the upcoming High Holidays. As spiritual self- improvement and teshuva (literally "return") are the order of the day, let us take a closer look at what teshuva really entails.
When a Jew who was not raised in a Torah-observant environment and did not receive an authentic Jewish education starts to keep Shabbat, eat only kosher and increase his performance of other mitzvot, he is commonly referred to as a "baal teshuva," one who has returned.
Despite his inexperience and lack of practical knowledge, the unchartered territory he is now exploring is not considered new; he is merely "returning" to his true self.
At the same time, a Jew who was raised within the "four cubits of Torah" also prays three times a day that G-d "restore us in complete teshuva before You." Regardless of our level of observance or familiarity with Judaism, all Jews are required to "do teshuva." How can this be?
The answer lies in the fact that Torah and mitzvot are nothing new to the Jewish soul. Judaism simply "fits" us; it is a manifestation of the essential bond that connects each and every Jew to G-d. A Jew can grow up unaware of his Jewishness, completely oblivious to the existence of Torah, yet he still possesses a "pintele Yid," an eternal spark of G-dliness that defines his being.
"Religious" and "secular" are man-made labels that alienate and divide. Whether putting on tefilin for the first time or resolving to do the tiniest good deed specifically to hasten Moshiach's arrival, we're all in the same boat, steered by the same "Captain." For each and every mitzva is of inestimable worth, drawing us closer to our true inner selves.
The Torah portion of Ki Tavo contains a section known as the "Reproof" - punishments that will be inflicted on Israel if they do not obey G-d. On a deeper level, however, these curses are directed at the Evil Inclination, as the Torah states several chapter later (Deut. 30:7): "And the L-rd your G-d will place all these denunciations upon your enemies, and on those who hate you." This will reach its culmination in the Messianic era, when "I will cause the impure spirit to depart from the land." At that time, all of Israel's enemies, both within and without, will be destroyed.
I have not deviated from Your commandments, and I have not forgotten
The Sefat Emet asks a question about this verbal declaration, which concerns certain tithes that were given to the Levites every third year: If a person hasn't deviated from G-d's commandments, isn't it self-evident that he hasn't forgotten them either? Why the seeming redundancy? Rather, he goes on to say, it is entirely possible to perform a mitzva yet "forget" what one is doing - if the mind is focused on other matters...
Because you did not serve the L-rd your G-d with joy and gladness of heart...therefore will you serve your enemies (Deut. 28:47-48)
Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidic Movement, would cite this verse to underscore the importance of serving G-d in a happy and joyful manner. Doing so brings joy to G-d Himself, as it were, and has the power to nullify all decrees.
In the morning you will say, "Would that it were evening!" And in the evening you will say, "Would that it were morning!" (Deut. 28:67) The early Chasidim interpreted this "curse" as impetus along the path of self-improvement: When you wake up in the morning and consider the quality of your G-dly service, you will pine for the superior level of the night before. In the evening, when assessing the day's spiritual progress, you will find that you have descended even further, and hope to return to that morning's level.
Many years ago in Poland there lived a wealthy Jewish merchant who bought flax from the nobility and then resold it abroad. At the same time, he pursued the holy mitzva of "pidyun shevuim," ransoming prisoners. (In those days it was not unusual for Jews to languish in debtors' prisons when they failed to pay on time for leasing inns or other properties.)
One day the merchant was on his way to the estate of one of the Polish landowners, when he fell asleep at the reins of his carriage. As he dozed, the horses wandered off the path. When the merchant awakened he found himself on an unknown road . In front of him was a carriage driver fixing a broken wheel. Inside the carriage, a Polish gentleman sat looking angry and impatient. The merchant asked the nobleman if he could be of any assistance.
"Yes, you certainly can," he replied. "I would be most grateful if you would drive me to the inn just fifteen minutes ride from here. I could use a bit of whiskey, and I will be happy to treat you to some also in return for the favor."
"I will be happy to take you to the inn," the merchant replied. On the way they spoke amiably, and the nobleman discovered that the merchant dealt in flax, which was one of his primary crops. "What a happy coincidence," he thought, and they a greed to meet again to conduct some business.
When they arrived at the inn the Jewish innkeeper rushed to offer the Pole, who was his landlord, hospitality. The merchant went into the other room to say his afternoon prayers. He couldn't help but overhear snippets of conversation. "Moshke, you had better pay up the rent, now!" the landlord barked. The Jew responded meekly about the terrible snows which had kept customers away.
The merchant finished praying, and was about to leave, but the innkeeper begged him to partake of some refreshments. "No, I'd better be on my way," the merchant replied. "But tell me, are you having problems with the landlord?"
"He's drunk now. I hope when he sobers up he'll extend me credit a bit longer." The two Jews bade each other farewell, and the merchant departed.
When the flax harvest arrived, the Jewish merchant remembered the Polish landlord. He went to the estate, and the Pole was glad to make a deal with him. They settled on a price and drew up a contract. The conversation was friendly, and the merchant mentioned Moshke. "How is our friend, the innkeeper?"
"Oh, I had to put him in prison. Imagine, after all the chances I gave him, he still didn't pay me! Now, it's his wife's problem to come up with the money!"
"What! I can't believe you actually imprisoned the poor fellow! How much does he owe you?" asked the merchant.
The landlord mentioned a figure, exactly the sum agreed upon for the deposit. The merchant placed the money in the Pole's hand, and said, "There is the money he owes you. Now, set him free!"
"Fine. Now give me the money for the deposit and we'll conclude our deal."
"I'm sorry, Sir. I have no more money with me."
"I don't believe it!" exclaimed the Pole. "I have never seen such a thing. You have just given all your money to an utter stranger, and in the bargain, you have lost out on a wonderful deal which could have made you a tidy profit!"
What you say is true, Sir, except for one thing-that Jew is not a stranger to me, he is my brother, and it is my duty to redeem him."
The Pole was stunned. "You are a fine fellow. I will sign the contract without a deposit. I will also write a letter of recommendation to my brother-in-law, who is also a flax merchant. He will be anxious to do business with you."
The Jewish innkeeper was returned to his joyful family, and the gratitude they felt toward the merchant was inexpressible. But how on earth would they ever be able to repay him for his kindness? "I wouldn't sell my mitzva for any amount of money!" the merchant declared, and they parted in happiness and with a deep feeling of brotherhood.
The merchant proceeded to the other landlord with the letter of recommendation. Just as the first Pole promised, his relative was happy to sell his flax to the Jew. They were about to conclude the deal when the merchant heard a child crying i n Yiddish, "Daddy, Mommy, I want to go home!"
"Why is a Jewish child here, away from his parents?"
"I had to take him so his parents would pay what they owe me!"
The merchant suddenly rose from his seat. "I can't do business with a man who would take a child as hostage!"
The Pole was anxious not to lose the sale. "Fine. I'll have the child returned, just let's finish our business." Just as his brother-in-law had done, this man also concluded the deal without a deposit, and the merchant made a very nice profit on the sale of the flax. In addition, he accrued yet another precious mitzva to his account when the child was returned to his grieving parents.
The Jewish merchant was rewarded in this world as well as the next.
But he was blessed with yet another great reward, the birth of two sons who lit up the world with their holiness, the illustrious tzadikim, Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk and Reb Zusia of Anipoli.
The Zohar states that the rainbow is one of the signs of the Redemption. The rainbow symbolizes the purification and refinement that the world underwent by means of the Flood. Before that time the clouds were made of coarser matter, which did not reflect sunlight. After the Flood had purified the world, the clouds too became more refined: they reflect sunlight, and a rainbow is produced. In this lies the connection between the rainbow and the Redemption, for at that time the entire physical world will attain the peak of refinement.
(The Rebbe, Parshat Noach 5721-1960)