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The story is told of a man who hears about a faraway land where diamonds litter the streets and the man decides to travel to this distant spot. Upon his arrival, the man sees diamonds scattered everywhere. He begins loading his suitcases until, after hours of work, they are full.
The newly rich gentleman drags his suitcases to a hotel and asks for a luxury suite. He then goes to the dining room and orders an expensive meal.
When the bill arrives, the diamond magnate takes out a huge diamond and tells the waiter, "Keep the change."
"What is this stone doing here?" the waiter asks with a sour face.
"This is payment for my most delicious meal," smiles the newcomer.
"These pebbles have no value here," snaps the waiter. "Here we value chicken fat! And if you haven't enough chicken fat to pay for your meal, you will have to wash dishes."
The man thinks this is a joke. But, as he is dragged to the kitchen, he realizes that this faraway land is one place where diamonds are useless.
The man works off his meal. But then he has other expenses to pay for. Weeks pass. He rises in the hotel ranks and is able to actually save a little cold fat. Time passes and the man has quite a collection of chicken fat. He has become what some might consider wealthy. It is now time to return home.
As his yacht nears the dock, he sees his family waiting. But, why are they covering their noses? His wife forces a smile and inquires about the horrible odor. Sniffing, she asks, "Is that chicken fat I smell?"
"Yes," her husband says excitedly. "The yacht is filled with chicken fat. We are rich!"
"Where are the diamonds that you were to bring after all these years away?" asks the wife in confusion.
"What value are diamonds?" asks the husband. "They are like pebbles. Chicken fat has value."
Shocked, his wife tries to explain that chicken fat is worthless, but diamonds have value. She tells him, "You forgot the real purpose of your trip. You were supposed to collect diamonds, not chicken fat. Do you have even one diamond with you? One little souvenir of all your hard work in that strange land?"
Maybe in one of his suitcases he can find a diamond that he forgot to discard. Halfheartedly he rummages through his bags. Indeed, he finds one diamond.
With that one small diamond, he manages to pay the debts his family has incurred during his absence and to start all over again.
This story is a parable for the descent of the soul into the body. When the soul comes into this world it is told, "Be righteous and do not be wicked"-follow G-d's commandments, for they are as precious as diamonds. Collect them, cherish them. Garner as many as you can during your short sojourn.
But often, the soul gets confused. It forgets its mission and its promise. The soul begins to collect "chicken fat," to get involved in all the material and egotistical pursuits of this world, all the while thinking that this is what has true and lasting value.
Ultimately, the day comes when the soul returns from its journey. Joyously the soul begins showing off its "chicken fat," oblivious to the fact that it has forgotten the reason for its descent into this world.
Gently, in the Heavenly Court, it is asked, "Have you not a few precious diamonds, some mitzvot to show for your years on earth?"
Ashamedly, the soul searches here and there until it finds a few things: a kind word; a prayer offered for someone's speedy recovery; charity to support a yeshiva; a blessing recited on challa; a Jewish class attended; a Shabbat candle lit; tefilin put on. And oh, how the soul wishes that it would have remembered its purpose and the reason for its descent.
This week's Torah reading, Mishpatim, contains the following verses: "If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years shall he serve, and in the seventh he shall go free... And if the servant should say, 'I love my master...I will not go free,'...his master shall bore his ear through with an awl."
Why the ear and not another limb? Explains Rashi, the foremost Torah commentator: "Any ear that heard 'For the Children of Israel are servants to Me' at Mount Sinai, yet went and acquired for itself a [human] master, is deserving that it be bored through."
* * *
People who are extremely preoccupied with their jobs during the six days of the workweek are termed "servants of servants," that is, they are slaves to their own desires. Accordingly, they are likened to the Hebrew servant, a Jew who willingly sells himself to another and acquires a human master. A person so engrossed in the pursuit of a livelihood is enslaved to his appetite for material things and his lust for bodily pleasures. Thus he is equated with the Hebrew servant, who indentures himself for a period of six years.
The Hebrew servant is emancipated at the beginning of the seventh year, which is analogous to the seventh day, the holy Shabbat. On Shabbat every Jew is liberated, freed from the yoke of his weekday concerns and obligated to rest.
It sometimes happens, however, that a person will be so involved in his work that when Shabbat comes he is unwilling to let go. Uninterested in liberation, he prefers to continue his existence as a slave: "I love my master...I will not go free."
The antidote to such an attitude is "The Children of Israel are servants to Me." The Jew's true reason for existence is to worship G-d, to learn Torah and perform mitzvot; indeed, it is the sole purpose for which his soul descended into the physical world and mission in life. Jews are "servants of G-d" and not "servants of servants." A Jew must never willingly indenture himself to his job. On the contrary, his business dealings must be utilized as just another means of bringing holiness into the world and serving G-d. When Shabbat arrives, the Jew is completely elevated above and beyond the mundane. Surrounded by an atmosphere of holiness, his entire being is devoted solely to the worship of G-d.
By commanding the Jewish people, "For the Children of Israel are servants to Me," G-d endows us with the strength and capability to fulfill our Divine mission. A Jew who remembers that he is a "servant to G-d" will be freed from his personal exile and elevated above the constraints of the physical world. At the same time, in the larger sense, he will hasten the departure of the entire Jewish people from exile, may it happen immediately.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Volume 11
AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER
Rabbis Eliezer Avtzon and Asher Steinmetz with some of the Bar Mitzva boys
by Joy Alter Hubel
Eliezer Khaimov couldn't believe his eyes as he looked around the huge ballroom festooned with blue and white balloons and beautifully appointed tables. After all, Jewish celebrations in his native Uzbekistan were as scarce as Viennese tables and caviar canapes.
But on a recent Sunday, one Long Island family's misfortune turned into the fete of a lifetime for Eliezer and 12 other Brooklyn Bar Mitzva boys from the former Soviet Union.
In a soup-to-nuts affair, the boys, attired in their Sabbath best, gathered at Temple Israel in Great Neck with family and friends to revel in the promise of adulthood. For four hours, 130 people danced to klezmer music provided by the well-known Neshama Orchestra, were photographed by Jerry Meyers Photography (both of which provided their services at cost) dined on steaks and rejoiced in their good fortune.
"Everyone felt uplifted and grateful," said Rabbi Eliezer Avtzon, executive direction of the Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Network in Manhattan, which helped put together the event.
The story, however, begins in tragedy. The host and benefactor, who wish to remain anonymous, was a couple who had intended the event as a celebration of their own son's Bar Mitzva. But several weeks before the simcha, the boy's uncle and grandmother died unexpectedly.
Rather than cancel the affair, the family transformed it into a life-affirming gala for the boys, whose parents otherwise would not have been able to afford their own party, an aunt of the Bar Mitzva boy said.
"My brother, who was very involved with teaching Torah, and my mother-in-law, who was a very generous woman, would have wanted this," she said. "We felt that if we couldn't have a party, at least we could provide one for those who could.
"It's a way to help these immigrant families know that we care, that we welcome them and want them to be a part of our Jewish community. We also hope to encourage other families to include less fortunate immigrant children in their own celebrations."
To organize the collective Bar Mitzva, and to help identify some of the needier children, the family reached out to their close friend, Rabbi Avtzon. His organization, which the rabbi founded in 1992, provides food, clothing, medical supplies and other necessities to beleaguered Jewish communities here and abroad, with an emphasis on the former Soviet Union.
"I saw that it's easy to raise inventory," said Rabbi Avtzon, whose relief efforts take place through an international distribution network of volunteer agencies.
GJARN, which is funded by private and federal dollars, recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 1 million kilograms of food, which will be distributed throughout Ukraine. In April, GJARN will open Ukraine's first Jewish medical center.
The tough times Russian Jews are now enduring are reflected as well among recent emigres, many of whom arrive in this country with minimal resources. Several organizations, including GJARN, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe and L'Man Achai help new Russian arrivals minimize their relocation pains.
In some cases the organization, particularly L'Man Achai, work with New York yeshivot and day schools to extend scholarships to refugee children in greatest need. Many of last week's Bar Mitzva celebrants were scholarship students at various Brooklyn schools, including Ratzad, Be'er Hagola, Sherith Israel, Ohel Moshe and United Lubavitcher Yeshivot.
Some boys, particularly the recent U.S. arrivals, are first experiencing an opportunity to learn about Judaism and connect to their heritage, having lived in regions where religious opportunities were nonexistent.
"We came to this country so that we could have more freedom," said Naida Khaimov, Eliezer's mother, who emigrated four years ago with her two sons and husband. "Children could not go to yeshiva, we couldn't keep kosher because there were no kosher foods."
Rabbi Avtzon reports that the Bar Mitzva has spurred some families to feel even stronger about their Yiddishkeit. "One parent called about a pair of tefilin, another wanted to arrange a brit mila," he said.
After the speeches of congratulations and advice, the boys were invited to the podium where they received a kiddush cup, one of several Bar Mitzva gifts. The sponsoring family provided each with a Chumash.
The boys thanked their parents, teachers, friends and the sponsoring family for making the celebration possible. Most were a little shy and spoke in Russian, some were bewildered by the lavishness of the day.
The music was stopped for a short while so that the host family could participate. As the family exited the hall, music and dancing resumed with new spirit as 25 students from Yeshiva Samson Rafael Hirsch (Breuers) arrived to join in the simcha in memory of their teacher, the uncle of the sponsoring Bar Mitzva boy. The Bar Mitzva boys were picked up on the shoulders of the older boys, the better to see how much joy and promise the future holds for them.
AN EVENING WITH THE BAAL SHEM TOV
Chabad Lubavitch of Midtown presents "An Evening with the Baal Shem Tov" on Wednesday, Feb. 24 at 6:00 p.m. A panal of scholars on Chasidism and the Baal Shem Tov's contribution to Judaism will be headed by the dynamic Rabbi Alter Bentzion Metzger. The seminar will take place in the Chabad Midtown Center at 509 Fifth Avenue in New York City. The cost of the seminar is $10. For more info about this or other programs call 212-CHABAD-1.
CONTEMPLATION & HEALING
Contemplation and Healing Through Prayer is the theme of the Discover Shabbat weekend Feb. 19 - 21. Speakers for the Shabbaton, hosted by the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Crown Heights and sponsored by the Lubavitch Youth Organization, are Dr. Naftali Lowenthal, Chasidic scholar Shimona Tzukernik, Sara Karmeli and Dr. Yisroel Susskind. The weekend, which will bring together Jews from across the nation and all levels of observance, is open to singles, couples and families. For reservations and more info call 718-953-1000 or 718-493-8449.
Rosh Chodesh Sivan, 5734 
Elmendorf Air Force Base
Due to a very crowded schedule, this is my first opportunity of congratulating you on your extraordinary Zechus [merit] of initiating the project of the first Mikveh in Anchorage for the Alaskan Jewish community, which you accomplished, with G-d's help, as I am informed by our mutual friends, the Rabbonim who flew in to participate in this great event.
As for the importance of this matter, I need hardly emphasize it to you, since your own initiative is best proof of being fully aware of it.
However, on the basis of the dictum of our Sages, "Encourage the energetic," I wish to express my confident hope that you are doing all you can to make the Mikveh a busy place, frequented regularly not only by the women who directly benefit from your good influence but also by their friends and acquaintances who will be induced by them to follow their example. And while this kind of religious inspiration is a "must" wherever Jews live, it is even more so in the city and state where the Mikveh has just been established for the first time. It is well to bear in mind that a "Jewish heart is always awake" and responsive to Torah and Mitzvos.
It is significant in this case that the one who merited the great Zechus of establishing the Mikveh is a person in military service. For, military service, by definition and practice, very aptly illustrates the basic principle of commitment to Torah and Mitzvos, namely, na'ase ("we will do," and then) v'nishma ("we will understand").
Moreover, the soldier's duty to carry out the orders of a commanding officer and carry them out promptly and to the best of his ability, is in no way inhibited by the fact that in civilian life the soldier may be vastly superior to his commanding officer in many respects. Nor does such a circumstance diminish in the least the soldier's self-esteem in obeying the order. On the contrary, by not allowing any personal views to interfere with his military duties, he demonstrates his strength of character and integrity.
The same is true in the area of Torah and Mitzvos. One may be a very rich man - in the ordinary sense, or rich in know-ledge of the sciences, or in other achievements in public life. Yet, when it comes to Halachah, the Law of Torah conduct, he accepts it with complete obedience and dedication, on the authority of a fellow-Jew who had consecrated all his life to Torah study and Torah living and is eminently qualified to transmit the "Word of G-d - the Halachah."
A further point which characterizes military discipline also has a bearing on the subject of Torah and Mitzvos. In the military, no soldier can claim that his conduct is his personal affair; nor can he take the attitude that there are many other soldiers to carry out military assignments, but he will do as he pleases. For it has often been demonstrated in military history how one action of a single soldier could have far-reaching consequences for an entire army and country.
Every Jew is a soldier in the "Army of G-d," as is often emphasized in this week's Sidra [Torah portion] - kol yotzei tzovo, "everyone going forth as a soldier." And he is bound by the same two basic rules: To carry out G-d's commandments promptly and fully, without question (na'ase before v'nishma), and to recognize his responsibility to his people ("All Jews are responsible for one another"), hence the consequences of one good deed. To quote the Rambam: "Every person should always consider himself and the whole world as equi-balanced. Hence, when he does one Mitzvah, he tips the scale in favor of himself and of the whole world" (see it at length in Hil. Teshuvah 3, hal. 4).
May you go from strength to strength in all that has been said above, in all aspects of Yiddishkeit, which includes also influence to promote among non-Jews the observance of the basic Seven Mitzvos, with all their numerous ramifications, which are incumbent upon all mankind and the foundation of human society.
At this time before Shovuos, I wish you and all our brethren at the base as well as the community, a happy and inspiring Festival of Receiving Our Torah, with the traditional Chasidic blessing - to receive the Torah with joy and inwardness.
With esteem and blessing,
In memory of Yosef Yitzchak ben Shlomo Shneur Zalman (yblc't)
26 Shevat 5759
Negative mitzva 176: a judge deciding in favor of a poor man because of pity
By this prohibition a judge is forbidden to have pity on a poor man and render judgment in his favor out of compassion. He must treat rich and poor alike, and compel the party against whom judgment is given to make whatever payment is imposed. It is derived from the words (Ex. 23:3) "Neither shall you favor a poor man in his cause."
This Shabbat, the last before the month of Adar, is called Shabbat Parshat Shekalim, or simply Shabbat Shekalim. On this Shabbat we read about the mitzva of the half-shekel, which G-d commanded every Jew to give as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf.
The sin of the Golden Calf was idolatry, which caused the Jewish people to be distanced and alienated from each other. Accordingly, the antidote was to unite the Jewish people and G-d in true unity, which was accomplished through the mitzva of the half-shekel.
In essence, the Jewish people and G-d are one entity. Without G-d, the Jews are incomplete. They are only half of a single whole.
To demonstrate this fact, the Jewish people were commanded to give a half-shekel. The other "half" is G-d, and together they comprise a single unit.
Significantly, both rich and poor Jews were required to give the same amount. For every Jew, regardless of social standing or other factors, is only "half." Only by uniting with G-d do we become complete.
This is also the inner connection between Shabbat Shekalim and the month of Adar, in which the miracle of Purim took place. The Talmud relates that the spiritual reason for Haman's decree was the Jews having bowed down to an idol. The spiritual reason the decree was nullified was their merit of the half-shekel.
When the Jews bowed down to the idol it gave the appearance that they were disconnected from G-d. Their miraculous salvation, which came about in the merit of the half-shekel, demonstrated openly that Jews can never be separated from G-d.
The merit of the half-shekel inspired the Jews to observe Torah and mitzvot with even greater dedication and self-sacrifice, despite Haman's harsh decree. May we be similarly inspired by reading of their example, and merit the ultimate salvation of Moshiach's coming.
If you buy a Hebrew servant (Ex. 21:2)
If the act of buying is what renders this individual a "servant," how can he be referred to as one before the transaction? Rather, the Torah's words are directed toward the potential master: The Jew whose services you are purchasing is not truly "yours." He is already a servant, to the Master of the Universe, and you must therefore treat him with respect. (Alshich)
He who strikes a man, so that he dies (Ex. 21:11)
The numerical value of the Hebrew letters of the words "he who strikes a man" and "a man who strikes" (Lev. 24:17) is the same as the letters of the name "Esau." Violence and murder are the attributes of Esau, and not Jacob. (Nachalat Chamisha)
If you lend money to My people, to the poor with you, you shall not be demanding (Ex. 22:24)
A group of Chasidim once came to the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek and heard him explain how great a mitzva it is to lend money to another Jew. The Chasidim, who were not very educated but were extremely pious, decided to lend money to each other just to fulfill the mitzva, even though none of them was particularly needy. On their next visit to Lubavitch the Rebbe remarked that he could hardly recognize them, as their faces were illuminated by a great light. The "mystery" was solved when they related what they had done...
Keep far from a false matter (Ex. 23:7)
Reb Mendele of Kotzk used to say: The Torah states, "Truth shall sprout from the earth." However, nothing can grow in this world unless a seed has first been planted. The seed of truth is falsehood: Only after a lie has been buried in the ground can the truth germinate and begin to flourish.
Reb Shlomo was a very wealthy man and a very respectable scholar as well. In fact, he limited his business involvement to enable himself to devote a large portion of his day to the study of Torah.
Reb Shlomo's love and fear of G-d was passed down to his son, Reb Hirschel, who lived as an ascetic and devoted himself exclusively to the performance of mitzvot and the study of Torah, avoiding all worldly occupation completely. He spent all his days in the study hall and returned home only for Shabbat.
Reb Hirschel had two sons, Chanoch Hendel and Yosef, and each week they would go together to study Torah with their grandfather. To their grandfather's surprise, one week they failed to show up. Reb Shlomo soon found out that his grandsons had decided to pursue the study of Chasidut.
In those early days of Chasidut, there were strong partisans in favor and also opposed to this new manner of divine service which the Baal Shem Tov had introduced into the world. In the entire town where this family lived, there was not even one adherent of Chasidut, and Reb Hirschel's family was violently opposed to the new teachings.
One day the townspeople noticed that the stranger who had arrived there seemed to be one of the Chasidim. Actually, it was his unusually lengthy preparation for the morning prayers which first betrayed him. Then, his actual prayers - why, he was a sight to behold! The cries, the sighs and tears, and ecstatic jumping and swaying... no one had ever seen anything like it.
Chanoch Hendel and his brother were intensely curious to find out the meaning of these strange practices, and they approached the stranger with their questions. They were particularly anxious to know why the man spent so much time on the section of prayer which begins with the Psalm, "Min Hameitzar" (From out of distress...) and describes a Jew crying out to G-d. "How much is there to think about, after all, in this prayer?" they asked him.
The Chasid proceeded to give them an explanation according to the teachings of Chasidut, telling the young men how every Jew is constrained by his own limitation and his own mundane cravings which hinder his attempts to serve the Creator properly. His "animal soul" is forever trying to lure him into the trap of pride and haughtiness, and even when a Jew tries to pray and study, these "adversaries" may cause him to move ever further away from his true goals.
"And so," concluded the Chasid, "when I said the words of 'Min Hameitzer,' I was begging G-d to deliver me from my own limitations, so that I might come closer to Him and a knowledge of G-dliness." The brothers, who were serious and intense seekers, were deeply impressed with this explanation and inquired where they, too, could learn such lofty concepts. "In Lubavitch," he replied, and that answer was enough for the brothers.
When they failed to appear for their next study session with their grandfather, he assumed that something had come up and paid little attention to it. It was only the following week, when they again didn't come that he decided to discover the reason for their absence. When he was told that they had been seen speaking with the Chasidic stranger, their grandfather understood immediately what had occurred.
Reb Shlomo dispatched a messenger to bring the young men home, but it was too late. They had already arrived in Lubavitch, and were so immersed in the wonders they had discovered there, that no inducement could convince them to return home. They had chosen their true path.
Once, during that first year, the Tzemach Tzedek (Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe) delivered a Chasidic discourse which affected the young Hendel so deeply that he fell faint to the floor. Thereafter the Rebbe instructed that he be brought outside during these talks so that he not endanger himself by his soul ascending to such lofty heights.
Many years later, the Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom Ber, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe) sent Reb Hendel to a newly opened branch of the Lubavitcher yeshiva in Zembin to observe its progress and report back to him. Upon his return, he was called to the Rebbe's study and asked what he thought of the new yeshiva. He expressed his concern that since "They go on and on so much about Chasidut, they might forget about the 'Giver of the Torah.'" For Reb Hendel, there was nothing other than G-d, and undue intellectualizing could cause a student to fall.
The many stories told about Reb Hendel illustrate his utter truth and constant striving. When the young students would stand before the Rebbe Rashab's office waiting for their individual moments with the Rebbe, Reb Hendel would say to each of them, with tears streaming down his face, "Children, don't tell the Rebbe what you want to say. Tell the Rebbe what you don't want to mention! The Rebbe will give you a proper tikkun [spiritual correction] and pull you up out of the mud."
If the Jewish people begin now to rejoice already in the Redemption, out of absolute trust that G-d will speedily send us Moshiach, this joy in itself will (as it were) compel our Father in heaven to redeem them from exile. (Likutei Sichos, vol. 20 p. 384)