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With a grunt and a moan, you brace yourself for the heat of the steam room. You lower yourself into the steaming water, letting yourself relax, allowing all of the tension and stress to slowly seep away. You sit and sit and shvitz. The ahhh comes later, with the cool, refreshing water libation, eagerly sprinkled over the entire body. Who could ever imagine that such a deluge could be so enjoyable? Only those who have experienced the shvitz first hand.
The modern day version of the "shvitz bath" is the summer months in 80 degrees plus weather (high humidity makes the analogy even closer). Going from your air conditioned office or shopping center to the asphalt paved parking lot where, upon spotting your car, you first open the windows to begin getting the car temperature to drop from 100 degrees to 90. In such weather even those silvery, reflective window shields don't help much. But when you've driven a little, and the air conditioner is working at full power, ahhh.
Or perhaps you've been working out in the back, doing some gardening. You get so hot that you retreat to the shade of a tree, twirling the slice of lemon and ice cubes in your iced red zinger. Ahh, that feels good. You can feel the cool liquid coursing through your veins. You feel like every sip entering your body is a fountain. You can't imagine that you would be more wet if you were in the swimming pool.
We only fully appreciate the air conditioning or the cool drink when we have first experienced the intense heat.
The shvitz bath, the intense heat, humidity, discomfort, are the challenges G-d gives us. The refreshing water, the cool air or chilled drink is the growth and the heightened perspective that we have once we have come through the challenge. Even if we didn't overcome the obstacle as successfully as we would have wanted, we have new-found insights and knowledge, we have stretched and grown because of them.
We subject ourselves to the "shvitz" because we know its purifying effects and the intense pleasure we derive from coming out of it.
Of course, no one wants to be challenged by G-d. In fact, we beseech G-d not to challenge us, as King David, the Sweet Singer of Israel cried out, "Do not bring tests upon me." True, running a marathon or attaining a certain level of knowledge are challenges we accept willingly, but those are self-imposed, when we feel we can "handle" them.
No one wants challenges from without. But when those challenges present themselves, they have a purpose. Jewish teachings explain that when misfortune befalls a person he should examine his deeds and see where he can make a "tikun" - an improvement. Much like the shvitz, they are not a punishment but an opportunity for growth and refinement. An opportunity at the end of the day to say, "Ahhh."
This week's Torah reading, Shoftim, contains the commandment: "By the mouth of two witnesses or three witnesses shall he who deserves death be put to death." Our Sages learned from this that a minimum of two witnesses is required to impose capital punishment or flogging. Even if a person admits his crime, it is considered insufficient evidence for these forms of punishment.
Maimonides explains: "It is a textual decree that the Jewish court cannot put a person to death or flog him as a result of his confession. Two witnesses are necessary to do so." This law applies only to capital punishment and flogging; when it comes to financial matters, a person's word is decisive, and "admission is worth a hundred witnesses."
Maimonides characterized this law as "a textual decree," but other commentators have added a possible explanation: A human being, they maintain, may be master over his wealth and property, but he can never be the ultimate master over his body. Because money is subject to his control, his word carries weight; because the body does not really belong to him, he does not have the right to inflict harm.
A person's body and soul are not really his; they are only lent to him by G-d as collateral. In fact, we are obligated to take care of our bodies throughout our entire lives. Jewish law states that "An individual is not permitted to hurt his body." For the body he inhabits isn't really his; it belongs to G-d. And what right does one have to damage something that doesn't belong to him?
Of course, it is also true that everything in the whole world belongs to G-d, as it states in the Torah, "The earth and everything within it is the L-rd's." Even a person's money isn't ultimately his, as it states elsewhere, "The silver is Mine, and the gold is Mine."
But if everything is really G-d's, what is the difference between a person's money and his body?
The answer lies in the degree of control G-d allows us. Yes, everything belongs to Him, but He permits us to decide what to do with our money. By contrast, the body is purely collateral, and we cannot do whatever we want with it. It is simply not in our power to self-impose capital punishment.
At the same time G-d allows us a certain autonomy over money, we must also recognize that He alone controls reality. The story is told about a chasid who wrote at the end of his balance book: "There is nothing but Him."
In fact, "there is nothing but Him" expresses the true reality, which everyone will come to perceive in the Messianic era, may it commence at once.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Vol. 34
Excerpted from Subbota: My Twenty Years in Soviet Prisons by Avraham Netzach (Eliezer Nanas)
One Wednesday, the doctor sent for me and in strict confidence told me news that stunned me.
In our camp there were a great many German war criminals who were sentenced in 1945-1946 for what they had done in the occupied territories. A special commission had examined the records of the Germans and compiled a list of over 1,000 men who would be sent to a very severe labor camp.
"Imagine how I felt when I looked over the list of names and found yours among them! How could they send you with these Nazi killers that murdered your people? The oper slipped your folder in with the Germans. The only one who can help is the Director of the camp. He can explain to the commission that a Jew does not belong among these anti-Semites! You must work fast."
My only thought was how to escape this fate. I told the Jewish artist, a fellow prisoner, about my deadly situation. He had access to the homes of the officials. His work had become a real camp industry that enriched the officials considerably. He happened to be painting a portrait in the home of the camp director, a Jew. He offered to ask the wife to interceed with her husband on my behalf.
One evening several days later, a juvenile prisoner, an errand boy, told me breathlessly that I was to meet someone at the office of the doll factory director. As I opened the door, an elegantly dressed young girl, 18 or 19 years old, greeted me.
"I know all about you, even that your name is on the list of the transport with the Germans. I want to help you. Rabbi, give me your blessing for success. I am determined to do everything to save you even at the highest cost. But swear to me that no one will learn that I was here."
I blessed her and promised secrecy. It made no sense to ask who she was, not in this situation. Even here there were people who wanted to help!
Exactly eight days later I was summoned again. I hardly recognized the girl. Her face had lost its freshness, and her cheeks were sunken and pale, but her smile was triumphant. "Congratulations! You won't go with those Nazis.
"Let me introduce myself. I am the daughter of the camp director. The Jewish painter was at our home, creating a magnificent fresco on our wall. My mother spoke with him in Yiddish, and I could not follow their conversation. Both of them wept.
"Later my mother had a long argument with Father, and he kept answering, 'No. No. I cannot.'
"I was intrigued and rather upset. I understood that the argument was a continuation of the conversation with the painter. The following day when Mother was out, I asked the painter whether he was in a financial predicament, and offered to lend him my savings.
"The painter explained that it was not a money problem. At first he refused to tell me anything, but finally he told me about you. He said that you had spent over twelve years in the camps and were guilty only of being a religious Jew. Now you were being sent to a camp for Nazi war-criminals.
"Weeping, he told me, 'If you are a Jewish daughter with a Jewish heart, you must persuade your father to save this Jew, because sending him to that camp is a death sentence. Only your father can countermand the order.'
"That evening, I told Father, 'You are a Jew too, even if not religious. Withdraw your signature and let him stay in this camp or you will lose your only daughter. I shall declare a hunger strike. I shall not taste food until you cancel the order.'
"My father explained that he might risk his own life if he started up with the oper. I told him, 'What right do you have to secure your life at the cost of this innocent Jew? Besides, if the oper is that kind of anti-Semite and bandit, he won't spare you anyway. The sooner you defy him the more respect he will have for you. In any case, you have not convinced me. Today I'm starting to fast and I will continue until you arrange for that man to stay here in camp. I don't care if I die trying.'
"On the first day of my hunger-strike, Mother cried all day and tried to dissuade me. By the third day I couldn't get out of bed. My head seemed to swing in circles. On the fourth day of my fast my father's doctor examined me and tried to persuade me at least to drink some milk, or I might die. I was too weak to answer, but I motioned 'No'.
"I had never before seen my father cry. He begged me to taste some milk at least, and he promised that he would talk to the oper that very day and he might succeed in cancelling the order.
"I was alert enough to realize that victory was at hand. Father tried to force some milk into my mouth but I clenched my teeth.
"That night Father walked into my room. 'Daughter, you've won! Now you can quit this crazy business. I struck that Jew's name from the list. In his place we assigned a German engineer.'"
I did not realize that all this time tears were pouring down my cheeks. Now that she finished I could not utter a word. How was it possible that such a child, raised in a home devoid of Judaism, could have the capacity for such self-sacrifice to save a Jew, especially one she had never seen. For me this was truly a miracle.
I expressed my hope that G-d would reward her for her deed and always keep her from harm.
"I have a question to ask. What is Gan Eden? When my parents were arguing abut you, Mother repeated this word, several times. I understand that it is Yiddish but I don't know what it means."
I described the obligation of every Jew to keep the Torah and that Gan Eden awaited those who performed good deeds.
"Oh, Rabbi, I am sure that Gan Eden awaits you, because you have the power to keep the Commandments here in camp like not working on Shabbat, not eating non-kosher food. I'm probably going to have Gehinnom."
Here I interrupted her. "Our holy Torah teaches that whoever saves the life of a Jew is like saving a world. My child, you have performed the greatest mitzva; one I have not been privileged to perform. Your Gan Eden is infinitely greater than mine."
CHILDREN'S TORAH SCROLL
A special Torah scroll in honor of all Jewish children is being written in Israel. Every Jewish child under the age of Bar or Bat Mitzva is invited to join in this unique project by "purchasing" a letter in the Torah scroll. Simply send the child's name (preferably his/her Hebrew name and the mother's Hebrew name) along with mailing address and $1 to: Children's Torah Scroll, P.O.B. 8, Kfar Chabad, Israel, 72915. Every child receives a beautiful, full-color, personalized certificate stating the Torah portion in which his/her letter is found.
In the Month of Elul
Chodesh Horachamim, 5733
[Month of Mercy, 1973]
To the Boys
and to the Girls
Participants in the Tzedoko [charity] Campaign
G-d bless you
Greeting and Blessing:
I was pleased to be informed that you fulfilled my request to act as my agents in the Mitzvah of Tzedoko connecting it with a word of Torah, and adding to it your own Tzedoko.
Needless to say, in every case of doing a Mitzvah there is no place for a "Thank you" from a human being, since doing the Mitzvah in fulfillment of G-d's will is itself the greatest reward and truest happiness, and as our Sages of blessed memory declared: "The Reward of a Mitzvah is the Mitzvah itself."
However, it is in order to express thanks for acting as my agents in this joint effort and for this I say: Thank you very much to each and every one of you.
I also take this opportunity, as we have entered the month of Elul, to remind you of the special significance of the month, the Month of Divine Grace in preparation for Rosh Hashonoh and for the entire coming year, may it be a good one for all of us.
The Alter Rebbe [Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidut] explains the special significance of this month by means of the well-known parable of a "King in the field;"
"When a King approaches the city of his royal residence the people of the city go out to welcome the king in the field. Then everyone who wishes is permitted to come and greet the king and he receives everybody graciously and with a smiling face. But after he enters his Royal Palace special permission is required to see the king and this also is the privilege of a chosen few."
This, then, is the significance of the whole month of Elul, when the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He, makes known that He is "in the field" and everyone - man, woman, boy and girl can come to Him without difficulties, or special introductions.
But - one may ask - what is the meaning of approaching the King in the field, since G-d has no likeness of a body, nor a body and as the Torah warns; "You have not seen any image (of G-d)?"
Therefore the Alter Rebbe goes on to explain that this approach has to do with prayer, for prayer in general and in the days of Elul in particular is an occasion concerning which is written, "May G-d cause His face to shine upon thee" - face to face - the person praying standing directly in the presence of the King, as in the parable above.
And the Alter Rebbe adds, that in order that such closeness be truly meaningful in a lasting and tangible way, it must be followed by actual study of Torah, by Tzedoko and Good Deeds.
May G-d grant that each and every one of you should go from strength to strength in all matters of Goodness and Holiness, Torah and Mitzvos, and be a source of pride and true Nachas [pleasure] to your parents and teachers, and may you make fullest use of the auspicious days of this month and be inscribed for a good and sweet year materially and spiritually.
With the blessing of kesivo vechasima tovah [written and sealed for good],
Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5742 
I am in receipt of your letter of the 22nd of Av, with enclosure. As requested, I will remember you in prayer for the fulfillment of your heart's desires for good with regard to yourself and all the members of your family.
There is surely no need to remind you - except in the sense of "encourage the energetic" - that there is always room for advancement in all matters of Yiddishkeit, Torah and Mitzvos, especially as you have the great Zechus [merit] of living in the Holy Land, "The Land on which G-d's Eyes are continuously, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year."
Receipt is enclosed for your Tzedoko, and may the Zechus of it additionally stand you all in good stead. It would be advisable to have the Tefillin and Mezuzos checked to make sure they are Kosher, if this has not been done within the past twelve months.
Wishing you and all yours a Kesivo veChasimo Tovo, for a good and sweet year.
In memory of Yosef Yitzchak ben Shlomo Shneur Zalman, yblc't
4 Elul 5759
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 Torah's words (Deut. 12:14): "There you shall offer your burnt-offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you." The prohibition to bring sacrifices outside the Temple is found in Deut. 12:13: "Take heed that you do not offer your burnt-offerings in every place that you see."
Today is the first day of Elul. Our Sages have noted that the word "Elul" is an acronym for a number of verses in the Tanach (Bible). One such verse is "Ina leyado vesamti lecha - it chanced to happen and I set aside a place for you." This verse refers to the cities of refuge the Jews were commanded to establish.
Who fled to the cities of refuge? A person who had killed someone unintentionally. There he was protected from the relatives of the victim, who could not exact retribution. An accidental killer had to uproot himself and leave his home and family. His exile atoned for the great sin he had committed.
An intentional murderer was also offered temporary sanctuary in the city of refuge. No one was allowed to touch him until his sentence was determined by the court.
A person who commits a sin damages his G-dly soul, extracts its vitality and "spills its blood." Symbolically, a sinner is a "murderer."
What does a murderer do? He flees to the cities of refuge.
The month of Elul is the year's "city of refuge." In Elul we assess our conduct, identify misdeeds and get rid of bad habits. Returning to G-d in teshuva atones for our sins in the same way exile in a city of refuge atoned for murder.
When a person does teshuva he is protected from the "blood avenger" - the Evil Inclination. It simply becomes stripped of its power to entice.
Even a person who sinned intentionally can find refuge in the month of Elul. Just as the city of refuge protected an intentional killer until his trial, so too does Elul provide sanctuary to an intentional sinner until Rosh Hashana. Of course, if he repents before then, he is forgiven.
Let us therefore take advantage of this special month to correct our undesirable behavior, for our actions have the power to make amends. And surely we will all be inscribed in the Book of the Righteous for a good and sweet year to come.
Judges and officers shall you place for yourselves at all your gates (Deut. 16:18)
The Midrash clarifies: "Judges and officers who are [good] for yourselves...and not for the nations of the world." In the olden days, when a Jewish community appointed a judge or rabbi, the most important criterion was his piety: fear of G-d, Torah scholarship, moral character, etc. Nowadays, it seems that the only qualification is that he look good to the gentiles: he must be "cultured," polished, a good speaker, etc. The Midrash reminds us that our judges and rabbis must be "good for us," and it is irrelevant how they appear to the outside world. (Rabbi Naftali Sofer)
On the wall of Rabbi Shmelke of Nicholsburg's beit din (Jewish court) hung a knapsack and staff as a hint to litigants: this Rabbi is beholden to no one. Should I lose this position I will pack my bag, take up my staff and move elsewhere, rather than compromise my impartiality.
For a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise (chachamim) (Deut. 16:19)
The Torah offers a slightly different version in Ex. 23:8: "For a bribe blinds the wise (pikchim)." The difference is in the two types of wisdom under discussion, chochma and pikchut. Chochma is the Torah, G-d's Divine wisdom, whereas pikchut refers to worldly knowledge. Bribery causes a person to forfeit both kinds of enlightenment. (The Gra)
But as for you, the L-rd your G-d has not allowed you (lo chein) to do so (Deut. 18:14)
The literal meaning of "lo chein" is "it is not so," for the tzadik, the righteous person, has the ability to alter G-d's decree. "The tzadik decrees, and G-d fulfills it." The tzadik has been given the power to say yes or no, and G-d will obey him. (Heichal HaBracha)
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya was one of the greatest Sages of his time. But it was not only amongst his fellow Jews that Rabbi Yehoshua's wisdom and judgement were appreciated. The Roman emperor, too, sought Rabbi Yehoshua's advice and conferred with him.
Despite this relationship with Rabbi Yehoshua, the Emperor still retained his attachment to Roman beliefs, including the notion that the Emperor was the most powerful ruler of the time, more powerful even than G-d, Himself.
Once, the Emperor had the idea that he would show the world, and especially the Jews, that he was all-powerful. He invited Rabbi Yehoshua to his palace, eager to confer with the Sage as to how he could implement a particular plan. The Emperor told Rabbi Yehoshua that he wished to prepare a feast to honor the Jewish G-d and all His heavenly servants.
The Emperor was certain that Rabbi Yehoshua would be pleased with his desire to show this great honor to G-d.
"You cannot do that, your Majesty," Rabbi Yehoshua responded calmly.
"And why not?" asked the Emperor angrily. "Perhaps you think that the Emperor of Rome is not wealthy enough to prepare a feast befitting your G-d?"
"It is simply impossible for the Emperor to entertain the G-d of Israel and all His servants," replied Rabbi Yehoshua. "G-d's armies and hosts are too many and too powerful even for the Roman Emperor."
But the Emperor had decided that he would honor the G-d of Israel and nothing would stop him. "Just tell me where I can hold a banquet befitting your G-d," he asked the Sage impatiently.
Realizing that the Emperor could not be dissuaded, and perhaps what was more, that he needed to be taught a lesson, Rabbi Yehoshua responded: "If you insist, I suggest that the feast be held on the shores of the great sea, so that there will be enough room for all of G-d's heavenly servants."
The Emperor took Rabbi Yehoshua's advice and immediately dispatched a servant to the sea shore to find a suitable place for the celebration. The royal palace was in a tizzy for six months as the bakers and chefs prepared the most extraordinary delicacies fit for a king and his hosts. Servants brought couches, tapestries, tables and decorations to the sea shore for the event.
By the end of the summer, almost everything was ready for the great feast. And then, one day, a pleasant breeze began to blow. The breeze grew stronger and stronger until it was a huge storm which swept away everything in its path. All of the Emperor's work of the past six months was swept into the sea.
The Emperor was devastated. But he would not let this minor setback stop him. He was determined to show how powerful he was. And so, as soon as the storm subsided he ordered his bakers, chefs and servants to begin working once again.
Six months passed. Fall turned into winter and the preparations were almost completed for the Divine feast. Then, one day, it began to drizzle. The refreshing rain soon turned into a torrential downpour. The waters began to flood the area until mighty rivers washed over the roads and carried all of the Emperor's party plans with them.
The Emperor called for Rabbi Yehoshua. "First my 6 months of hard work blew away in the winds. Now, after another six months of hard work, everything has been washed away!"
"Oh honorable Emperor," explained Rabbi Yehoshua, "the wind and the water are merely two of G-d servants. They came to sweep and wash everything before the guests arrive. While they were here they took their portion of the feast. If G-d's servants are so powerful, what would happen if G-d Himself arrived!"
The Emperor finally understood that no mortal can consider himself G-d's equal. "I must give up," he said. "I cannot compete with the Alm-ghty G-d."
Where do we see a hint of the Redemption in the name of the month of Elul? The head letters of the verse (Exodus 15:1), "Vayomru Laimor Ashira L'HaShem - We will sing to G-d in the following way" when rearranged spell out Elul. This verse, which comes from the famous "Song at the Sea" is written in the future tense. Our Sages explain that this is so because it hints to us of the Resurrection of the Dead in the ultimate Redemption, may it take place imminently.