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Have you ever wondered why so many Jewish celebrations and holidays are associated with food? And why something as popular as "bagels and lox" (you won't find it listed as a traditional food in any book of Jewish observances) has become customary Jewish fare?
Consider the bagel. The empty space in the center, some would suggest, is there to remind us that being a gastronomic Jew is not enough. If our Jewish experiences are limited to eating bagels and lox, or even potato latkas on Chanuka and matza ball soup on Passover, there is a big hole in our Jewish living and learning.
Or, perhaps the hole is there to nudge us to make "space" for G-d and Judaism in our everyday lives. It can remind us that there is always "room" for improvement in our interpersonal and Divine relationships. And it is symbolic of the fact that mitzvot and rituals are anything but "empty."
What of bagel's sidekick, lox? Salmon, the fish from which lox is derived, are famous for swimming upstream and even leaping up water-falls. They do this in order to return whence they came. Salmon attempt to do the impossible and are not only successful, but continue to flourish.
The journey of the salmon is related to the experience of the Jewish people as a whole and to every individual Jew. As a nation, we have always gone against the tide. We yearn to return to our roots. We have survived despite the fact that mightier and more powerful nations have attempted to annihilate us. And whereas the Jewish people, Jews, and Torah continue to endure and flourish, those nations that persecuted us no longer exist.
As Mark Twain stated so eloquently near the turn of the century: "...The Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian people rose and filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made vast noise, and they are gone or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal, but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains."
There is, of course, a Chasidic spin on why we Jews are so "into" food:
The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, interpreted a verse from King David's Psalms, "Hungry and thirsty their soul prayerfully yearns within them" to mean that our hunger and thirst for food and drink is rooted in the fact that "the soul prayerfully yearns." The soul, the Divine force within each of us, wishes to refine and return to its G-dly source the spark of holiness that lies trapped within the desired food and drink. Each soul is designated sparks which only she can set aright. In other words, although we experience physiological hunger, the true "hunger" is the longing of the soul for the sparks of sanctity in the food which are uniquely related to her and are her responsibility to redeem.
Similarly, when a Jew prays for material needs, although his prayers may appear to result from personal desires, the true, impelling force behind the outpouring of the soul is the hunger and thirst of the soul to fulfill G-d's Divine plan-the creation of a "home" for Him in this physical world which will be fully expressed in the Messianic Era.
So, the next time you get a craving for bagels and lox, don't feel bad. You just might be helping your soul fulfill her essential desire to transform the world into a perfect, peaceful, harmonious home for G-d and all of creation.
This week we read the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, which contains the circumstances leading up to the marriage of Isaac and Rivka.
When Abraham told his servant Eliezer that he was sending him to find a wife for Isaac, Eliezer was worried. What if the bride didn't want to come with him? Abraham therefore reassured Eliezer that everything would work out the way it was supposed to: "G-d...will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there."
With these words Abraham promised Eliezer that his mission would be successful. A heavenly angel would precede his path to ensure that the entire matter was concluded properly. Eliezer had nothing to worry about, as the details of his mission would be arranged from Above and were completely out of his hands.
We find, however, that when Eliezer reached Aram Naharayim and asked Betuel's permission for the match, he quoted Abraham as saying, "G-d...will send His angel with you, and prosper your way, that you may find a wife for my son."
Why did Eliezer change Abraham's words, telling Betuel that Abraham had said that the angel would go "with him," when Abraham had promised that the angel would go "before him?"
By going "before him," the angel, in effect, did all of the work. Abraham promised Eliezer that his steps would be directed from Above, and in truth, this is what happened:
Eliezer experienced a miraculous shortening of his journey, arriving in Aram Naharayim the same day he set out. When he reached the well and began to pray, no sooner had he uttered the words than Rivka appeared. Eliezer understood then that his mission had been accomplished, realizing that the angel had arranged for all of the events and circumstances to fall into place by themselves.
If, however, Eliezer were merely a bystander, a passive player in the whole affair, it would make no sense for him to tell this to Betuel when asking for his permission for the proposed match. If the match with Isaac and Rivka had already been arranged in heaven, why would Betuel's permission be necessary?
Thus Eliezer told Betuel that Abraham had promised that the angel would go "with him" - merely to help him succeed in his mission. In such a case Eliezer was playing an active role, and Betuel's agreement could logically be sought.
On the other hand Eliezer remained aware, as should we in our personal service to G-d, that if we remain committed to our Master and invest the necessary effort, then our success is guaranteed.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Volume 25
Jerusalem's Milky Way
by Barbara Sofer
Imagine keeping a strict no milk, no wheat diet while breast-feeding your eighth child, not because he or she is allergic, but because you are supplying milk for a stranger's baby. Or imagine expressing milk for someone else's child when your own was stillborn.
These are everyday stories of unheralded heroism in what may be the world's most unusual project, called simply Mother's Milk Bank and run out of one of Jerusalem's most religious neighborhoods. The recipients don't have to be religious or even Jewish, just babies in need. There are a very small number of babies for whom no synthetic substitute can replace mother's milk; it can't be bought, and the epoch of wet-nurses has long passed. A decade ago, if the baby's mother was unable to breast-fed, the baby was doomed.
Enter Bracha Mann, 53, an ebullient, devout, attractive mother of 13 whose family has been in Jerusalem for 10 generations. Nine years ago Mann, who lives in the Mekor Barukh neighborhood, had never heard of a milk bank; a high school graduate, she had no formal knowledge of medicine or nutrition. One of her daughters had begged her to come along on a difficult get-well visit: her neighbor had just given birth to her third child, but the first two had died soon after birth.
Mann worried about what she would say to the woman. Perhaps the new baby was equally doomed. Should she offer congratulations or sympathy? "All I could think of was to ask her if there was anything I could do to help her," she recalls.
The woman began to weep uncontrollably. Between sobs Mann understood that she attributed her babies' deaths to her inability to breast-feed them. If only she could get mother's milk, she knew this baby would live.
"I had no idea if she was fantasizing or speaking from medical knowledge," Mann says. "But she was so distressed that I heard myself promising that she would have milk by the end of the day.
"Outside, my daughter said she was shocked by my rash promise. After all, I wasn't nursing. But I was determined that even if I had to go down the streets of Mea Shearim with a shofar and a megaphone, I'd have milk by that evening."
Mann began knocking on doors in the most strictly Orthodox neighborhoods, asking if there was a nursing mother in the house. Some people were shocked at the request, but others were willing to contribute or directed her to a friend who'd just had a baby. Drop by drop Mann collected donations. By evening she'd filled her first flask, enough for two feedings. With relief that she'd fulfilled her promise she delivered it to the grateful mother.
"Whether the milk was responsible or whether its effect was psychological, I'll never know." Mann says. "I don't really care. What's important to me is that the baby thrived."
A few weeks later a doctor phoned and wondered if he could get breast milk from her; he'd heard a rumor that she was running a private milk bank. Mann learned there were indeed babies who would die without the milk.
"I'd stumbled onto an unanswered need," she says. "But I knew I couldn't go house to house. We needed to get organized."
Mann had some practical experience in administration, overseeing a food collection project in memory of a friend who had died. So when she realized the need for organization, she remembered her earlier project. "I still had my old lists from the food collection," she recalls. "I wondered if the same women would help out. That way we could collect milk all over the city."
Harvesting mother's milk turned out to be complicated. Mann consulted doctors and realized she needed pumps, sterile containers, freezers, ice chests and drivers. Many of the world's milk banks, she learned, had closed down because of the problem of passing along infections like AIDS and hepatitis B. But Mann came up with a solution: although she'd give milk to any baby who needed it, she would collect it only from women who were Sabbath observant, went to the mikva (ritual bath), and covered their hair. The instance of sexually transmitted or drug-related diseases was so low among these women that testing the milk wasn't necessary. Eligible donors would mostly be mothers with four, eight, even 12 children. Still, there were many eager volunteers.
Requests for milk began to multiply. When Mann came up with the idea of visiting a postnatal convalescent home, so many volunteers were recruited that a commercial machine was installed.
Some babies are so allergic that donors had to stick to special diets: no soy, wheat, chocolate or milk. Yet women volunteered to take on the additional inconvenience. "You hear these women joking that they can't keep a weight-loss diet, but if they're motivated by saving a life, that's easy," she says. "One young woman expressed milk for months after her own baby was lost at birth. She told me that she found relief in giving another baby a chance at life."
Mann, who keeps an album of photographs from grateful parents stacked next to albums of her own children and grandchildren, waves away the notion of being too busy to do chesed, acts of kindness. "You always have time for what you want," she says. "If a woman really wants to work out or have her hair done she finds time, right? You need to make time for doing good deeds, too.
"Women have been made to feel embarrassed today if they indulge their impulse to give. But I say, never underestimate the surge of joy giving can bring."
Barbara Sofer is the author of the novel The Thirteenth Hour, (Signet), and the family guide book Kids Love Israel, Israel Loves Kids. (Karben)
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Rosh Chodesh Teves, 5734 
This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter of December 24th.
It surprises me that, apparently, you are misinformed about the present state of affairs in the matter about which you write.
In the natural order of things, it is now well-nigh impossible to do anything to reverse the tide, inasmuch as those who determine the policy have brought it to a situation where it is impossible to retract all that has been promised in regard to the returning of territories, etc. This is not the place to dwell at length on such a painful and appalling matter.
Perhaps you know that there is a judicial formula, which originates in the Torah (Talmud), to the effect: t'chiloso b'rotson usofo b'onus ("He began voluntarily and ended up under compulsion"). The present situation has reached the stage of "compulsion." The time to have averted it was when I began to storm (naturally not through the press) immediately after the Six Day War, when those policy-makers hastily dispatched emissaries to Washington with assurances that they were prepared to return such and such territories, and that most of them were negotiable, etc. This was the "voluntary beginning" which has resulted in the present situation.
What will happen in the future-no one can say. But we are a people who depend on miracles, and, indeed, our whole existence is a miracle. And so when the offer of territorial concessions was made immediately after and since the Six Day War, there was the miracle that the other party, the Arabs, rejected the offer. And during the Yom Kippur War there was even a greater miracle when the Egyptians, after crossing the Suez Canal with a huge army, known to be at least 100,000 strong, and most likely much stronger, yet for no reason stopped in their tracks only a number of kilometers east of the Canal facing no military resistance, and with the road ahead of them wide open. Unfortunately, extraordinary opportunities on both fronts which the miracles had provided, were missed, and, again, I do not wish to dwell on matters which do not reflect favorably on our fellow Jews.
As for the practical thing which Jews everywhere can do to help the present situation-something which is most regrettably ignored, in line with playing down the obvious Divine intervention in the most critical days of the war-is that every Jew must strengthen his bonds with the Torah from Sinai, when G-d made us the "chosen people." This is also something of which we need not be ashamed, for contrary to those who misunderstand or misrepresent this in terms of privilege which smacks of chauvinism, this cho-seness is primarily a matter of duty and obligation to be a model people for the whole world to emulate, a people where form takes precedence over matter, the spiritual over the material, and the soul over the body, a people which was destined to be "a light unto the nations" (Isa. 42:6, etc.). It is this kind of life and conduct which the Torah describes that also stimulates right thinking and the proper outlook on life. It is this kind of life that also strengthens the self confidence of every Jew wherever he may be, and enables him to shed any inferiority complex and the readiness to be impressed by a goy [non-Jew], or by an idea which comes from a goy, or actually non-Jewish ideology. It is sad indeed when, instead of being a model for a living example for non-Jews to emulate, some Jews fall over themselves to emulate non-Jews, rejecting the "spring of living waters," the Jewish Torah and Jewish traditions, etc.
continued in next issue
Rambam for 28 Marcheshvan 5759
Positive mitzva 108: Law of the water of sprinkling
By this injunction (Num. 19:9-21) we are commanded to observe the regulations relating to the water of sprinkling [containing ashes of the red heifer], which under certain conditions causes an unclean person to become clean, and under other conditions causes a clean person to become unclean. (Our Sages consider this mitzva a prime example of the group of laws known as chukim, statutes, the reason for which is unknown or incomprehensible to us.)
This Shabbat we bless the month of Kislev, the third month of the year when counting from Rosh Hashana. The Torah, by contrast, starts counting from Nisan, the month in which the Jewish people left Egypt. >From this perspective, the third month of the year is Sivan. However, both "third months" share an intrinsic connection:
Kislev and Sivan are months in which the Torah was given. In Sivan, on Shavuot, G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. In Kislev, on the 19th of the month (Yud Tet), the inner part of Torah (Penimiyut HaTorah) was more fully revealed when Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidism, was released from prison. From that point on Chasidic teachings began to be disseminated publicly.
In truth, all of Torah, including the Torah of Moshiach, its highest and most esoteric level, was revealed at Sinai. But it was given to mankind in a concealed form, and only a select few in any generation had access to it. It would not be until several thousand years later that the wellsprings of Chasidut began to flow outward in preparation for the ultimate revelation of Moshiach.
The connection between Kislev and redemption is also seen in the fact that the holidays of the month of Kislev are associated with oil. On Chanukah, the oil in the Temple's menora burned miraculously for eight days. And Penimiyut HaTorah, which was revealed on Yud Tet Kislev, is described by the metaphor of oil, as the awareness of G-d it brings prepares us for the outpouring of G-dly knowledge that will accompany the ultimate Redemption.
May it happen immediately.
And the years of Sara were one hundred and twenty-seven years (Gen. 23:1)
Sara is the only woman in the Torah whose lifetime is explicitly recorded. This is because she is considered to be the mother of the entire Jewish people, as it states (Isaiah 51:2), "And to Sara who gave birth to you." (Zohar)
As Rashi comments, "All of her years were equal in goodness." Unlike some, Sara had no youthful mistakes or faults to correct by the time she approached old age. Each and every day of her life was utilized correctly and appropriately. (Sefat Emet)
And it shall be that the maiden to whom I will say, "Let down your pitcher, I pray you, that I may drink," and she will say, "Drink, and I will also give drink to your camels" (Gen. 24:14)
This "test" of a potential bride for Isaac was not chosen arbitrarily, for it involves the very nature of holiness: The main distinction between holiness and its opposite is that holiness is directed outward; it overflows, influences its surroundings and infuses them with life. The nature of unholiness, by contrast, is to take and acquire for itself. When Eliezer saw that Rebecca not only gave him to drink but provided water for his camels, he took it as a sign that she "belonged" to the side of holiness, and was worthy of marrying the son of Abraham. (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi)
If you wish to deal kindly and truly with my master (Gen. 24:49)
Why did Eliezer have to "beg" Betuel and Laban to agree if Abraham was such a wealthy man? Wasn't it obvious that Rebecca would be well taken care of if she married Isaac? Rather, the prophecy concerning Abraham's descendents - "And they will afflict them for four hundred years" - was already well known, and Betuel and Laban hesitated before subjecting Rebecca's unborn children to the Egyptian exile. However, when they realized that it was ordained by G-d, they gave their consent and declared, "We cannot speak to you bad or good." (Yalkut David)
If you ever visit Jerusalem and happen to pass by the large square which is called Batei Orenstein, you would be interested to know about the worthy deeds performed by a Jew named Berel Orenstein who built the original houses which stand in that place.
Reb Berel and his wife had already eaten their dinner and the kitchen was cleared away. Reb Berel had settled down to study Torah and his wife was relaxing with some needlework when there was a knock at the door. Reb Berel opened the door a crack, but the visitor pushed it so forcefully that Reb Berel was thrown backward. Several young hoodlums quickly followed into the house and ordered the terrified couple to lie on the floor. Although they offered no resistance, the couple was beaten unconscious and then bound with strong ropes.
As this violence occurred inside the placid exterior of the home, a group of yeshiva students arrived at this same house. "It's completely dark. Do you think we really should knock?" one of the students asked the others.
"Reb Moshe specifically told us to make sure to bring Reb Berel to the wedding. He's waiting there until we come," another replied.
"We have to wake them up," a third offered. And so they walked up to door and knocked. Repeated knocking, however, brought no response.
"Maybe we should force the door; maybe something has happened to them and they can't open the door." But forcing was not necessary, for the door easily pushed open.
When the young men entered they saw a dark form on the floor which turned out to be Reb Berel. They untied him and his wife who, by now, had regained consciousness, and explained that they had been sent by Reb Moshe to bring them to his daughter's wedding.
"Thank G-d you came when you did. The robbers would have ransacked the entire house and who knows what else they might have done to my family. This is truly a miracle that resulted from my mitzva of dowering a bride (hachnasat kalla)!"
"Please tell us what happened," the students insisted.
Reb Berel, who was just recovering his composure, explained, "One day I was walking down the street, when I ran into Reb Moshe. He looked worried and so I asked him, 'How is everything?'
"He answered me, saying that he had to marry off his daughter very soon, and he didn't have the money. I asked him how much he needed, and he replied, 'Two hundred gold coins,' which was quite a sizable sum. Thank G-d, I have more than enough, and so I just took out my wallet and gave him the money plus some extra. Then I added, 'Just don't forget to invite me to the wedding!'
"I knew the wedding invitations had gone out, and I was surprised that he had forgotten to invite me. Now, I understand the Divine Providence behind that apparent oversight. If you hadn't come along when you had I might have lost a great deal of my fortune and, who knows, we might have even lost our very lives!"
"Do you feel well enough to come to the wedding?" they asked Reb Berel. "For certainly, Reb Moshe is still waiting for you!"
"I wouldn't miss it for anything," Reb Berel exclaimed. "Thanks to the money I gave Reb Moshe, my life, the lives of my family and my fortune were saved."
Most of the wedding guests had already left, but Reb Moshe was there waiting for the "guest of honor," the benefactor he had forgotten to invite. Reb Moshe was about to apologize, when Reb Berel hugged him and began recounting the tale of his rescue.
Then Reb Berel said he had an announcement to make. "For many years I have thought of moving to the Holy Land. Tonight I have decided that I will, in fact, move there as soon as I close up my business here. There, I will build houses for the poor and for Torah scholars in Jerusalem. In this way I hope to repay G-d for all the good He has done for me, and I pray that through this deed, I will bring the arrival of Moshiach a bit closer."
This announcement brought cheers from the remaining guests, "Amen, Amen," they cried joyfully. And so, the section of Batei Orenstein arose in the holy city of Jerusalem to be a blessing to the needy who were furnished with housing due to the generosity of Reb Berel.
The Torah hints at the great controversy of ikvesa dimeshicha (the time immediately preceding the coming of Moshiach), when all will say that they do not, Heaven forbid, doubt the possibility of Redemption; rather, they question its timing.
(Chizuk HaEmunah, Chofetz Chaim Al HaTorah)