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World Book Day is still months off. But for Jews, who have long been known as the "People of the Book," it's always the right time to consider the importance of reading and owning books.
A fundamental mystical Jewish teaching is that in every thing, even in inanimate material objects, such as stones, earth, water and yes, books, there is a "soul," or a vital spiritual core.
Of course, there are gradations in this spiritual soul. There is, to begin with, a plain material object that simply by the fact of being a created thing, contains a "spark" of the Divine Creative Force that keeps it in existence. On a higher level, there is a material object that has served a good purpose. Higher still is an object that is used in the performance of a mitzva.
Chasidic philosophy explains that when an ordinary material thing is used for a good purpose, especially in the performance of a mitzva, it undergoes a "refine-ment" and "spiritualization," to the extent of becoming literally a holy object, such as a mezuza scroll made from parchment (animal hide).
Now, imagine Jewish books, inspiring and uplifting books; books written by Jews whose whole lives were or are dedicated to Jewish teachings and to the Jewish people. Imagine books that are studied with heart and soul by hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, enriching and illuminating the way they lead their lives. Certainly, these books' "material" and "inanimate" aspects are permeated with light and life. And surely, when we have such Jewish books in our homes their very presence makes an impact.
Jewish books belong in Jewish homes. When they're sitting in warehouses waiting to be shipped out or lining the shelves of bookstores, Judaica stores or synagogue gift shops, they are in "exile" from their natural environment, from their "home." However well treated, they are imprisoned, so to speak. Just as a person who is in captivity can never be fully happy, even if well provided for with material and even spiritual needs, so too can Jewish books never be happy until they are home.
When a Jewish home has Jewish books-on the bookshelves in the den and in the kids' rooms, next to the manuals in the computer room, on the coffee table or the sofa table or the end table-then that Jewish home is full of holiness and light. Jewish books set a tone and create an atmosphere in the home that affects its inhabitants even when they are far from home. That Jewish home is a link in a chain going all the way back to the first Jewish home of our ancestors Abraham and Sara.
Jewish books are always appropriate gifts for young and old alike. (Don't be overly cautious about giving Jewish books even to toddlers for fear of what they might do to the books. A Midrash describes small children playing with holy texts and the delights this brings Above!) Be it a birthday, anniversary, or just to say "thanks," a Jewish book is a gift that comes from the heart and nourishes the soul.
The Torah portion of Mikeitz begins with a description of Pharaoh's dream. In last week's portion we also read about dreams: those of Joseph, and of Pharaoh's butler and baker.
It was these dreams that ultimately led to the Jewish people's exile in Egypt. Indeed, there is an intrinsic connection between dreaming and the concept of exile.
A dream is the product of the imagination. In a dream, logical contradictions make perfect sense. An elephant can pass easily through the eye of a needle.
In the same sense, the entire period of exile is only "imaginary." It may appear to a person that he really loves G-d, but what he really loves best is himself, i.e., his own physical comfort. He may be so deluded by his wants and desires that he actually transgresses the will of G-d.
Nonetheless, every Jew possesses a G-dly soul that is always whole and intact. The good deeds a Jew does are eternal. The Torah he studies and the mitzvot he performs last forever. By contrast, the negative things a Jew does are only temporary. If a Jew gives into temptation and sins, the evil doesn't last. In the end, every Jew will return to G-d.
There are some people who claim that religious observance must follow an orderly sequence, from the "lesser" mitzvot to the more "major" ones. They say that if a person hasn't reached a state of spiritual perfection, he cannot ascend to the next level. But this approach is entirely wrong. We aren't living in an "orderly" and logical world; rather, the Jewish people is in exile, the entire period of which is likened to a dream. In a dream, two opposites can co-exist peacefully. Thus because we are only "dreaming," we must grab every opportunity that comes our way to do a mitzva, no matter how "illogical" or far removed it seems from our present level of spirituality.
In previous generations, very few people studied Chasidut, the inner, esoteric aspects of Torah. A person had to prepare himself for many years before he could even begin to approach it. In our generation, however, "it is a mitzva to reveal this wisdom." Ever since Chasidut was revealed by the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe, the obligation to learn Chasidut falls on each and every Jew, in the same way that every Jew is obligated to study every other part of the Torah.
It is precisely now, at the very end of the exile, that we can "jump" to spiritual levels that in former times would have been beyond our reach. In exile, we are only "dreaming," and anything is possible. Regardless of our individual achievements, it is precisely this approach to Torah and mitzvot that will bring an end to the exile and bring redemption to the world.
Adapted from Vol. 1 of Likutei Sichot
A Rabbi, a Man and a Goat
by Pessy Leah Lester
It was a crisp fall day when Rabbi Yaakov Mendel Zirkind went to the Morris County Correctional Facility in New Jersey for his bi-weekly visit.
Rabbi Zirkind, a scribe, writes Torah scrolls, tefilin and mezuzot; his job as a county chaplain is a volunteer one. During his visits, he acquaints the Jewish inmates with Jewish tradition and he makes sure each one has a prayer book, a Chumash (Five Books of Moses), and kosher meals. He encourages them to don tefilin and at holiday time he directs them in the pertinent mitzvot.
Jonathan, a 35-year-old man incarcerated for shoplifting, arrived on Rosh Hashana. As he waited in the police car, yeshiva students from the nearby Rabbinical College of America stood outside the prison blowing the shofar for the Jewish inmates.
Prison was not new to Jonathan; he had been there for other petty crimes. What was new to him, however, was a Jewish presence. Rabbi Zirkind and Jonathan's first meeting was during the holiday of Sukot. The Rabbi helped him make a blessing on the lulav. The next time the Rabbi came to visit, he helped Jonathan put on tefilin. Jonathan had never put on tefilin before but he eagerly extended his forearm.
Jonathan shared with Rabbi Zirkind his concerns about what would become of him and if he would be successful at fighting his dependency on drugs.
"Whenever I visited," said Rabbi Zirkind, "he always put on tefilin, I told him about the Torah portion and related a Chasidic story. Jonathan seemed to have a special affinity for tefilin and Chasidic stories."
As weeks passed, Jonathan's thoughts turned to the future. He expressed a strong desire to spend a Shabbat with Rabbi Zirkind after his release from jail.
Finally, Jonathan was released. On Monday morning, Rabbi Zirkind got a call from the jail's social worker. "Jonathan died of an overdose last night. His mother is trying to reach you. They want you to take care of Jonathan's funeral."
Rabbi Zirkind called Jonathan's family. "Because Jonathan was so fond of you, we would like you to officiate at his funeral," Jonathan's father said.
Rabbi Zirkind met Jonathan's family at the cemetery and the burial was done in accordance with Jewish law. Rabbi Zirkind eulogized Jonathan: "A person's life is like a book. I only know about the last chapter of Jonathan's life. A good writer usually saves the best for last. Jonathan's last chapter began with hearing the shofar, blessing the lulav, donning tefilin, eating kosher and learning and loving Torah.
"We should all learn from Jonathan and strive to add in our own observance and spirituality. In this way we will perpetuate Jonathan's memory. Jonathan's spiritual life began with the blowing of the shofar and G-d willing, our acts of increased spirituality will lead us to the sounding of the great shofar of Moshiach."
Rabbi Zirkind arranged for someone to say Kaddish and for shiva to take place. It seemed that the final chapter had been written. But for Rabbi Zirkind there was a powerful epilogue to Jonathan's story. "On the Friday afternoon after the week of shiva had ended I was called by a local slaughterhouse." As a scribe who uses the hides of calves and goats for parchment, he often had dealings with slaughterhouses.
"'I have a gift for you,' Carl said. When he says this it usually means he has an animal I can shecht (slaughter according to Jewish law). Friday afternoon was a difficult time for me, so I politely refused. But Carl persisted: 'It's a kid goat and he was born just last night! If you don't take it, it's going to be killed. C'mon rabbi, you're a man of G-d.'
"When he said that, I felt that it would be a chilul Hashem, a disgrace to G-d, if I didn't take the animal."
Rabbi Zirkind keeps goats on a nearby farm to provide milk for his family. Recently one of his goats had twins, so he had special baby goat food on hand. "I brought the kid home and prepared straw in my baby's room." Rabbi Zirkind made sure the goat was comfortable, prepared for Shabbat and left for shul.
When he came home he made sure, as Jewish law dictates, to feed the animal before himself. The kid seemed happy to see him. Then he made Kiddush, the family discussed Torah insights, told stories and sang songs, all within earshot of the unusual Shabbat guest.
That night the baby, who was in the room with the goat, could't sleep. "My wife stayed up with them, telling Jewish stories and singing Jewish songs," Rabbi Zirkind related, adding, "they both seemed to enjoy it."
On Shabbat morning the Rabbi recited some preliminary prayers as well as Psalms at the goat's side. At the second Shabbat meal, Rabbi Zirkind again fed the baby goat first. At the third feeding, the animal cuddled up to the rabbi. That night, after Shabbat ended, Rabbi Zirkind went up to feed the goat. To his dismay, the goat was dead.
"These are the facts," says Rabbi Zirkind. "What do I make of it? I think the goat was a reincarnation of Jonathan's soul. Jonathan had eagerly anticipated spending Shabbat with us upon his release. During shiva the soul is not judged; but after shiva it may be judged. I imagine Jonathan's soul retelling the last few months of his life, the heavenly court looking kindly upon Jonathan's soul, and wiping his record clean.
"But then an accusing angel complains, 'Your life ended before you had Shabbat!' The heavenly court determines that this soul deserves a second chance. 'But how can it experience Shabbat? Is it fair to have the soul born into another body, to loving parents, only to die upon experiencing Shabbat?' asks a heavenly angel. No, they agree. So they decide to send the soul down in the body of a newborn animal." Rabbi Zirkind declares, "all the details fit too perfectly."
"This was the first time Carl had ever called me with such a request; why did it happen just prior to the first Shabbat after shiva? (According to mystical interpretations, judgment would be allowed only after shiva ended.) This particular Shabbat was the first opportunity for this soul to experience Shabbat!"
"Also, the three feedings took place precisely around the three traditional Shabbat meals. And while the goat was in my house he heard Psalms, prayer, stories, and songs. These were all things that were important to Jonathan at the end of his life.
"And finally, the goat was no longer here after Shabbat; the soul had completed its mission!"
While on the way to the county jail he heard a report that a recent study found goats to be quite "spiritual" animals. The Rabbi smiled knowingly.
New Center in Ireland
Rabbi Zalman and Rivkah Lent recently arrived in Dublin, Ireland, at the invitation of that city's Jewish Representative Council. Like other emissaries of the Rebbe throughout the world, the young couple offer adult education classes, Shabbat and holiday programs, youth activities and other creative and innovative programs.
New Home for North Shore
Chabad-Lubavitch of the North Shore, in Swampscott, Massachusettes, moved into a new facility to more adequately accomodate the center's programs, such as its 200-student Hebrew school. The new center has eight classrooms, a multi-purpose room, a magnificent sanctuary, offices and conference rooms.
The following letter is an excerpt of a free rendition of a letter of the Rebbe pertaining to the fast of 10 Tevet which occurs this year next Friday, Jan. 5. At the time, the letter was headed "URGENT"
3rd Day of the week, 5th of Teves, 5736 (1976)
Greeting and Blessing:
In reply to your inquiry and request for instruction in connection with the forthcoming Fast of Asoro b'Teves (10th of Teves), in view of the situation in and around Eretz Yisroel (the Land of Israel), you will surely be instructed by the Rabbi of your congregation....
However, since you have also approached me in this matter - I will set forth, at least, several suggestions - after the following introductory remarks:
Regrettably, there are people who claim that it is necessary to think and act "big," in terms of global dimensions and stupendous undertakings, etc., etc. Surely they mean well; and to the extent that such resolutions are practical and are actually carried out - they are very helpful to improve the situation.
Yet, we must never overlook - indeed, rather greatly emphasize the so-called "small and unsophisticated" things which each modest congregation, or even each individual, can and must do - beginning with the old, yet ever-new, Jewish way, collectively as one people and also as individuals. This is the action of hakol kol Yaakov ("the voice is the voice of Jacob") - Torah and prayer - which G-d Himself has shown us to be the first effective action to nullify the power of yedei Eisov ("the hands of Esau") - in whatever shape or form they are raised against us. Certainly this should find the fullest expression in a day which the Code of Jewish Law declares to be a day of fasting, one to which the prophet Isaiah refers as a "chosen fast . . . a fast and time favored by G-d."
Now, in answer to your inquiry, and since the Fast of Asoro b'Teves is especially connected with Eretz Yisroel and the Holy City of Jerusalem (recalling the siege of Jerusalem), my suggestion - in addition to the regular observances on Fast Days, as set forth at length and in detail in Poskim and in books of Mussar and Chasidus - is as follows:
During this day - expressly for the sake (Zechus) of the security and strengthening of Eretz Yisroel, materially and spiritually, and for the material and spiritual benefit of all Jews wherever they are - in Eretz Yisroel as well as in the Diaspora and particularly for the benefit of our brethren behind the "Iron Curtain," a special effort should be made in the spirit of "Old Israel" - in the areas of Torah [study], Tefilla (prayer) and Tzedoko (charity). Specifically:
After praying (both in the morning and in the afternoon) to learn (and where there already are daily study groups, to add) a subject in Torah, including Halachah pesuka (final ruling),
Immediately following the prayers, even before learning, to say several chapters of Psalms (in addition to the regular portion);
Before and after praying - to give Tzedoko (in addition to the regular donation), including Tzedoko for a sacred cause or institution in Eretz Yisroel, Eretz haChayim ("Land of Living").
Needless to say, one who repeats the above again and again in the course of the day, is to be praised, and each time - the more one does it (in quantity and quality), is to be praised all the more. And, as in all matters of Holiness, it is desirable that all the above be done with a congregation, (with at least a Minyan).
May G-d accept, and He will accept, the prayers and supplications of Jews wherever they are, and soon, in our very own days, may the Promise be fulfilled that "These days will be transformed into days of rejoicing and gladness,"
With the true and complete Geula (Redemption) through our righteous Moshiach.
With esteem and blessing,
3 Tevet 5761
Prohibition 287: receiving testimony from a litigant's relative
By this prohibition a judge is forbidden to receive testimony from relatives of a litigant, whether for or against. It is contained in the Torah's words (Deut. 24:16): "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers."
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Sunday is the Fifth ("Hei") of Tevet, the day on which a significant ideological victory was declared in court 14 years ago. The extensive library of Agudat Chasidei Chabad, established in Russia by the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn, and brought to the United States with great self-sacrifice, was declared the communal property of the Chabad movement, rather than a divisible, personal possession. In spiritual terms it was a triumph for Chasidut, and a sign from Above to disseminate its wellsprings outward even further, as preparation for Moshiach.
As the Rebbe explained at the time, the connection to holy Jewish books was not incidental, but demonstrated that an increase in Torah study (done in a way that leads to the actual performance of mitzvot) will serve to hasten Moshiach's arrival. In 1974 the Rebbe established the Jewish Holy Book Campaign, urging every Jew to have a Chumash (Five Books of Moses), Psalms, Tanya, Siddur (prayer book) and Passover Haggada in the home, at the very minimum. The Rebbe also encouraged keeping a Siddur, Psalms, Tanya and charity box in the car for safe travel, and urged that children have their own holy books with their names on them in their rooms.
Jewish holy books introduce an atmosphere of sanctity into the home. In addition, as the Rebbe explained on Hei Tevet nine years ago, "When a new holy text is obtained, this enhances all the holy texts one had previously...the knowledge that comes from a new text amplifies the knowledge one previously received from other texts, and indeed, causes a further increase when those texts are studied again."
As the Rebbe concluded, "May we merit to proceed 'with our youth and with our elders...with our sons and with our daughters'...together with all the holy texts, those that have been returned and those that have not yet been returned...on the 'clouds of heaven,' to our Holy Land, to Jerusalem, and to the Holy Temple."
And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Tzafnat Panei'ach (Gen. 41:45)
As Rashi explains, Tzafnat means "hidden things," and Panei'ach means "he reveals" - i.e., Joseph was able to explain things that were hidden. Why, then, didn't Pharaoh call Joseph Panei'ach Tzafnat, which would have been more logical? To teach us that the real reason Joseph was able to interpret dreams was as a reward for concealing his righteousness. Because Joseph conducted himself in a humble and unassuming manner, "Tzafnat," he merited the gift of "Panei'ach."
And Joseph went out over all the land of Egypt (Gen. 41:45)
One of the reasons Pharaoh changed Joseph's name was to make sure that it did not sound too Jewish. But despite Pharaoh's attempt to "Egyptize" him, the verse concedes that he continued to be known as Joseph, and the name Tzafnat Panei'ach is never mentioned again...
And the name of the second he called Ephraim: for G-d has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction (Gen. 41:52)
With these words Joseph alluded to the very purpose of the exile - "the advantage of light that arises from the midst of darkness." For it was precisely through the descent into Egypt that the Jewish people attained the greatest advantage - an ascent that would have been impossible if not for their sojourn in the "land of affliction."
And Joseph was the governor of the land, and it was he who sold corn to all the people of the land (Gen. 42:6)
Unlike other rulers who appoint assistants to do their "dirty work," Joseph did not relegate his responsibilities to others. He insisted on dealing with the people directly and distributing food to them.
(Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov)
As she closed the door after the departing guest, the woman found that she could barely stand. Her whole body trembled so much that she needed to lean on the wall. Several minutes passed until she was sure that she would not faint. Eventually she composed herself and sat down again at the table next to her husband, but her eyes were still wet.
"What's the matter?" her husband asked, alarmed at her distress.
"Oh, it's nothing," she replied. "I'm just feeling a bit dizzy."
But the husband could see that there was something wrong. "Tell me, is it that meal you just gave away to that beggar?"
"No! G-d forbid that I would regret such a thing," the wife answered, averting her eyes.
Just minutes before, the husband and wife had sat down to their noonday meal. The husband, a wealthy merchant, closed his business every day at noon and returned home for a sumptuous lunch. Prepared with love and care, his wife always tried to make his lunch break as pleasant as possible before he returned to work.
The couple had not been married long, and in truth, they did not know much about each other's past. The husband hadn't been born into a wealthy home, but he was a modest and kindly man. All the wife knew for sure was that her husband had once been a beggar, but the wheel of fortune had turned and he was now the proprietor of a successful business.
Yet despite his newfound riches the husband had continued to lead a simple life. Generous and giving, the memory of his own misfortune drove him to dispense charity liberally to anyone who asked for help.
The knock on the door that day had been nothing out of the ordinary. Poor people were always coming to ask for a handout, and those collecting money for a good cause knew they would be well received. But this time, the voice on the other side of the door had been especially pitiful.
"Have pity on a poor Jew," the beggar had pleaded desperately. "It's been days since I've had anything to eat. Please give me a crust of bread. I ask for nothing more."
The sound of that tormented voice had immediately reminded the husband of his own past suffering, and his appetite had fled. Without hesitation he told his wife to invite the beggar in and give him his entire plate of food. The beggar had quickly devoured the meal, the whole time thanking and blessing his benefactors.
After the beggar had left, the husband was surprised to see how agitated his wife had become. But why was she so upset? He knew she was a generous soul, so it couldn't be the food that he had given away.
In response to his gentle questioning the wife broke down. "I'm sorry," she apologized, "but I was suddenly reminded of my former life in Cairo, Egypt, before I was married to you. Like you, my first husband was a very rich man, and I also used to cook for him the most delicious meals. He too would close his store and come home for lunch.
"G-d blessed my husband with great wealth, and his business dealings were very successful. Unfortunately, my husband had one bad character trait that ruined his life: he was extremely stingy. He was so unwilling to help the poor that he forbade me to give them food and drink if they came to the door. It bothered me very much, but I wanted to preserve peace in the home and obeyed his wishes.
"Eventually we earned a reputation for being miserly. Beggars would cross the street rather than knock on our door. It pained me greatly, but what could I do? I was trying to please my husband.
"One day at lunchtime there was a knock on the door. I can still see my husband, having just taken his first bite of bread. 'Who's there?' he called out. 'I am a poor Jew,' was the answer. 'Please help me. I haven't eaten in many days, and I am about to expire from hunger.'
"But my husband had only gotten angry. 'Go away!' he shouted at the intruder who dared to interrupt his meal. 'These impudent beggars won't even let a person eat in peace...' He then slammed the door in the poor man's face. I burst into tears.
"From that day on my husband's business began to falter. One loss followed another until all the money was gone. Even the house was lost to creditors, and we were left with nothing. At that point my husband insisted that we divorce, and we each went our separate ways.
"I never saw him again, but it was rumored that he had become a beggar. That is, until today..." the woman said. "Do you know who that poor man was who just left our house? It was my first husband..."
The husband's eyes filled with tears. He too was moved to the depths of his soul. "As a matter of fact, my dear," he replied, "I recognized him. And I myself was the beggar he turned away from the door that fateful day..."
The Era of the Redemption is described as "the Day which is entirely Shabbat, and rest for life everlasting." Similarly, Shabbat is described as "a microcosm of the World to Come." And indeed we see a fusion of material existence and spirituality on the Sabbath. We are commanded to celebrate it with physical pleasure, yet the prevailing mood of the day is spiritual. Our Sages state that a Torah scholar is called "Shabbat." This implies that he extends the fusion of materiality and spirituality experienced on Shabbat into the ordinary weekdays, living his life in constant connection to G-dliness.
(The Rebbe, 7 Tevet, 5752)