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Would you consider turning your yard into a petting zoo complete with a camel, a draft horse, a bull, ponies, two llamas, a yak, a goat, a chicken, a turtle and a boa constrictor? One grandmother did, for the joint first birthday celebration of her two granddaughters. The $1,200 price tag included entertainment, gifts and 102 Dalmations decorations. Or maybe your child would prefer a catered birthday party with a clown, pony rides, a horse and a fountain spewing apple juice?
These are just two examples of birthday parties that, as one psychologist notes, "set up lifelong expectations that might be unrealistic. It is important on birthdays to help a child avoid valuing materialism over family and friends."
In a drive to reinstate good, old-fashioned values and, at the same time, keep expenditures down, many parents are opting to get off the birthday bandwagon while they still can.
So far, so good. But you're probably wondering what birthdays have to do with Judaism. The notion that there's nothing Jewish about birthdays is so prevelant that a prominent and knowledgeable Jewish radio show host and writer recently wrote that there is no inherent meaning in birthdays within Judaism.
Over a decade ago, the Rebbe initiated an innovative campaign to make birthdays meaningful for both children and adults. The Rebbe encouraged people to celebrate their birthdays in the traditional Jewish manner.
Jewish teachings explain that a birthday is a time when mazalo gover-the particular spiritual source of a person's soul shines most powerfully. The Divine energy that was present at the time of your birth is once more present and dynamic on the anniversary of your birth each year.
Therefore, your birthday is a perfect time to enhance the quality of your life in the year to come.
Things you can do on your birthday to get the most out of your soul-power include spending time in self-evaluation, making a positive resolution for the coming year, giving charity, studying Torah, and organizing a birthday party with friends and family. At the gathering make sure to share with friends some of what you learned on your birthday.
After hearing about the Rebbe's suggestions for birthdays, one public school teacher was so taken with this meaningful way to celebrate that she incorporated some of these recommendations into her students' classroom birthday parties. She asked each child to make a positive resolution and to share with the other students something meaningful and valuable they had recently learned.
To find our when your birthday falls on the Jewish calendar, call your local Chabad-Lubavitch Center or the "Tzivos Hashem Superphone" at (718) 467-7800 from a touch-tone phone and key in your civil birthday. You'll be told the corresponding date on the Jewish calendar and when it occurs this year. Celebrate your birthday in a traditional Jewish manner, de-emphasizing the materialism and concentrating instead on family, friends and spiritual growth.
- (Back to text) The Rebbe initiated the campaign in connection with the birthday of his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, This Tuesday, the 25th of Adar - March 20 this year - marks the 100th year since the Rebbetzin's birth.)
The Torah portion of Ki Tisa contains the mitzva of the half-shekel, symbolic of the mitzva of tzedaka (charity).
There are several ways in which an individual can give tzedaka. The first is when a person is kindly and giving by nature, or when he understands intellectually the need to help his fellow man. This is, however, considered to be the lowest level of giving tzedaka.
A higher level is when a person gives tzedaka because G-d has commanded him to. In this instance the incentive is not personal, but stems from the desire to obey G-d's will. A mitzva is an absolute that is not subject to intellectual or emotional considerations. Thus, when a person gives tzedaka out of a sense of obedience, his action is imbued with greater power. Yet even here there can be personal motivations mixed in, such as the fear of punishment or the desire to receive reward (material or spiritual) in this world or the next.
Above these two levels is the giving of tzedaka "without the intent of receiving a reward." In this instance, the mitzva is fulfilled out of pure and simple obedience to G-d, without any thought of recompense whatsoever. The person wants to fulfill G-d's will and enjoys doing so.
The mitzva of the half-shekel, however, represents the very highest category of giving tzedaka. On the verse in this week's portion, "This shall they give...a half-shekel...an offering to G-d" (the commandment for every Jew to give the half-shekel), the Jerusalem Talmud comments: "The Holy One, Blessed be He, removed a coin of fire from under the Throne of Glory and showed it to Moses, saying, 'This shall they give.' " Indeed, the "secret" of the half-shekel is related to the idea of "a coin of fire."
The nature of fire is to always ascend upward; it has no "weight" or fixed, definable form. Similarly, the optimal way to give tzedaka is with a fiery "flame" and enthusiasm, without any personal considerations or motives. In this scenario, the Jew just naturally desires to fulfill G-d's will, and doesn't even look for other reasons or justifications.
Nonetheless, it is significant that G-d showed Moses a "coin of fire," rather than just a flame. When a person gives tzedaka (or does any other mitzva, for that matter), theoretical abstracts are not enough. The point is to bring down that fiery enthusiasm to where it can actually help someone, and express it in the realm of concrete action.
When the mitzva of tzedaka is done in this manner, a Jew will give unconditionally, without waiting for specific times and without waiting to be asked. His inner "fire" will prompt him to seek out those in need, and he will give repeatedly, over and over again.
Adapted from Sefer HaSichot 5749, Vol. 1
Moshe and Luba Weisman
By Esther Altman
They look like a picture-perfect family - Moshe standing next to his wife Luba, who is holding the cutest little baby in her arms. Just looking at them you could never imagine the long and arduous story they carry with them.
Moshe's journey began long before he met his wife, and it took him from the Ural Mountains, near Siberia, to the Krukova labor camp, about 20 miles away from Kishinev. Moshe, who is 45 years old, spent nine years in labor camps before the end of Communism: four years in the Ural Mountains followed by five years in the Krukova labor camp in Moldova.
Moshe would rather not discuss the suffering he endured during those years. Now, he's just full of gratitude to G-d for having survived. The fact that he was a Jew definitely didn't help him, although at the time, he didn't even know what being a Jew meant. In his last year in Krukova, a seemingly chance occurrence changed Moshe's life. A friend in the labor camp told him that he had read in a newspaper an article written by the Chief Rabbi of Moldova. That was all; no more details were available.
To this day, Moshe can't explain it, but something deep inside of him impelled him to sit down and write a long, very emotional letter about his life to this Rabbi, someone whose name and address he didn't even know. The envelope was simply addressed to the "Chief Rabbi of Kishinev and Moldova" - no name or address. But a miracle happened. Rabbi Zalman Abelsky, the Chief Rabbi of Kishinev and Moldova and who, together with his wife, are the Rebbe's emissaries to that region, received the letter. The following day the Rabbi walked into the labor camp to visit Moshe. Even today, tears roll down Moshe's eyes when he remembers how a Rabbi with a long white beard came to visit him and became like a "second father" to him.
Reb Zalman's first action was to explain to the Krukova camp manager that because Moshe was a Jew, he had the right to rest on the Sabbath. In prison Moshe had a lot of free time to search and find out about his Jewish background, to learn about the Jewish holidays, etc. Nine months later Moshe was a free man. Rabbi Abelsky offered him a place to stay (and of course, to study) in the yeshiva for a number of months before he re-entered the "real" world. While Moshe studied at the yeshiva, Mrs. Leah Abelsky introduced him to Luba Zotkin, one of her students. Luba's son, Shmuel, studied at the Jewish school, and like all the other students, he was invited along with his mother to partake of a Sabbath meal at the Abelsky's.
It wasn't long before Moshe and Luba decided to marry and move to Israel. Today, they are the happy parents of a little daughter, Ruty. Moshe works for the well-known organization "Yad L'Achim," helping his brothers and sisters who are coming from the former Soviet Union have an easier beginning in Israel, the land of their dreams. It's been a long haul; no wonder Moshe calls Rabbi Abelsky his second father.
By April Gochberg
I found out one fall morning that I would be traveling to Kishinev, Moldova to visit 11 children's hospitals. I was participating in a program called "Gift of Hope" with a local humanitarian aid organization. I have traveled to Eastern Europe frequently with this organization and I always try to contact the Jewish community so I can celebrate Shabbat at the synagogue. Usually, I discover small dying communities of elderly Jews. I expected to find the same in Kishinev.
I started my search before I left home. On a whim I typed Moldovan Jewry into my Internet search engine and to my utter amazement I learned of a thriving Jewish community in Kishinev. I learned about a Lubavicher Chasid, Rabbi Zalman Abelsky, who had moved from Israel to Kishinev in order to shepherd a dwindling flock. I knew very little about the Lubavich movement other than that at every holiday we receive literature in the mail from the community where my husband went to college; I have always been thankful for the pamphlets. I wanted to visit this community in Kishinev. I e-mailed the address on the Web page and within a day I was speaking on the phone to the Abelskys' son in New York, Rabbi Zushe.
Zushe made introductions for me with the community in Kishinev and they were expecting me. I was welcomed by the assistant Rabbi, Rabbi Sholom Ber Freiman, and was given a tour of the new mikva (which is nicer than the one we have here in Portland, Oregon!) and of the synagogue proper. He wanted to take me to their school which has 300 children, but because of my time constraints and the work I was doing there I was not able to visit the school, much to my regret.
Rabbi Freiman and his wife Dina hosted me and my travelling companions for Shabbat lunch. With many traditional salads and cholent, I felt as if I was back at my husband's grandmother's house in Brooklyn.
I was very pleased that the reality of the Kishinev community greatly exceeded my expectations. I encourage anyone who has a heart for this part of the world to actively support the Jewish community in Kishinev.
Soul Journeys by Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, is a slim volume discussing the journeys of the soul. In the author's words, "Using real life stories, we will try to address why we are here, whether we have been here before, and where we're likely to go next." The main focus of this book is reincarnation, but other types of journeys the soul experiences are also briefly explored. Published by Jewish Enrichment Press.
Freely translated letter of the Rebbe
11th of Nissan, 5733 (1973)
To the Sons and Daughters of Our People Israel, Everywhere - G-d bless you All!
Greeting and Blessing:
Pursuant to the previous letter, and in order to further clarify the point which was brought out in it:
That the true Jewish concept of Divine Providence is - as indicated in the plain sense of the term - that it is continuously active, every day and in every detail, and that supernatural (miraculous) Divine Providence is not limited to revealed miracles, but that also in the ordinary daily life there is miraculous intervention, except that "the one to whom a miracle occurs does not recognize his miracle."
It will be well to add some pertinent points, and to bring out the practical message of the whole thought, in addition to the explanation of the above-mentioned basic Jewish tenet, relating it to actual conduct, since "the essential thing is the deed."
Supernatural (miraculous) direction can take two forms: (a) revealed miracles, such as the miracles which accompanied the Liberation from Egypt, this is to say, miracles which are entirely above and beyond the natural order, and at complete variance with nature; (b) miracles on the order of the miracle of Purim, which was "clothed" in natural "garments."
The miracles of the Exodus from Egypt - beginning with those that took place in Egypt, right up to and including the liberation of an entire people, "young and old, sons and daughters," after centuries of enslavement in a land, from which even a single slave could not escape; an Exodus, moreover, with "upraised arm" (in broad daylight and with honor) and "with great substance"- these were events which everyone clearly saw as revealed miracles.
Different was the Miracle of Purim, for although also in this case there were miracles, to the extent of a complete "reversal" of circumstances, culminating in extraordinary triumph, as expressed in the words, "For the Jews there was light, joy, gladness and honor."
Nevertheless, the miracle of Purim was "clothed" in natural developments: Esther becomes queen; Mordechai gains a place "at the gate of the palace" and saves the king from an assassination plot; Esther intercedes with the king to annul the decree, etc., as all these events are related in the Megillah; although every event individually, and especially the congruence of all the events, "in those days at this season," into a predesigned pattern, was obviously miraculous, as we acknowledge this many times in prayer on Purim, referring to the "miracles, deliverance, mighty deeds, salvations, wonders."
Divine direction within the natural order, likewise, takes two forms: (a) direction that "outwardly" is entirely natural; (b) direction in which Divine Providence is clearly in evidence.
An example of the former is the course of sowing and reaping: To plant, and later to harvest, is entirely natural, so much so that in order to discern Divine Providence also in this natural order, one must ponder deeply about the way in which this Providence, extending to every detail, causes the congruence of a variety of natural phenomena - such as winds, rains and sunshine, etc., each in the right time and the right measure - to produce the desired results.
The second, an easily discernible form of Divine Providence, is what people commonly call "success," "good luck" (Mazel) , "windfall," and the like. These terms do not say what the thing is, but rather what it is not, namely, not personal achievement, i.e., not the result of special intelligence or hard work. However, the Torah, called "Toras Emes," tells us the real truth, that such Mazel is the gift of Divine Providence, the Divine blessing in the three general areas of human needs, namely, "children, life and sustenance," real and extraordinary Nachas (joy) from children, exceptional good health, and extraordinary Hatzlocho (success) in Parnosso.
This, then, is the point that was emphasized in the previous letter, to be learned from the distinction of the month of Nissan as "This month shall be unto you the first of the months."
By ordaining the Jewish people to count all the months of the year from Nissan, the month whose significance is contained in the fact that "in it you came out of Egypt" through the intervention of revealed Divine miracles, the Torah teaches us that such is the essence of the Divine conduct of the Universe throughout all the months of the year, whether it expresses itself in revealed miracles or in miracles which are dressed in "natural" garments, or when Divine Providence is in evidence, or it is totally obscured by the natural order - in each of these forms it behooves the Jew to know and remember that G-d is the Creator of the world and the sole and exclusive Master of the world, and that He directs the whole world in all its details; certainly the "small world" (microcosm), i.e., man, everyone, and in all details of his and her daily life.
In light of the above, it is self-evident, that every detail of a person's life, however "small" it may be, is subject to Divine directive, and must be carried out in accordance with that directive, i.e., the will of the One Whose Providence extends also to that particular detail. Nothing can override it, or change it, for the "counting" has its roots in the month of Nissan, whose essence is the revealed miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim...
21 Adar 5761
Positive mitzva 153: determining the new moon
By this injunction we are commanded to reckon the months and years. This is the mitzva of the "Sanctification of the New Moon," and is contained in the Torah's words (Ex. 12:2): "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months." (This duty is only performed by the Great Court in the Land of Israel.)
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Shabbat we read an additional Torah portion in the synagogue known as "Parshat Para" (the "red heifer"). In the days of the Holy Temple, if a person became spiritually unclean through contact with a dead body, the ashes of the red heifer rendered him clean. As a person had to be in a state of ritual cleanliness in order to bring the Passover offering, these laws were read publicly in the weeks leading up to the holiday.
Although we cannot bring offerings in the literal sense at present, the spiritual lessons they contain are timeless.
Our Sages likened mitzvot to the human body. Just as the body is composed of 248 limbs and 365 sinews, the Torah is composed of 248 positive and 365 negative commandments.
But the Torah is also likened to the soul. Just as the soul animates the physical body and transforms it into a living being, so too does the Torah enliven the practical mitzvot and illuminate them with its light. When a Jew studies Torah and understands the deeper significance of the commandments, his mitzvot are performed with joy and happiness, and with a heartfelt enthusiasm.
This principle sheds light on the Talmudic statement, "He who studies the laws of the burnt-offering is considered as if he has brought one." During the exile, when we cannot bring sacrifices in the literal sense, our study of the law stands in its stead. The mitzva of bringing the sacrifice, however, just like the human body, is limited by the boundaries of time and space; the actual mitzva can only be fulfilled in the proper time and at the proper location (indeed, it is forbidden to offer sacrifices outside the Temple).
But our holy Torah, just like the soul, is spiritual; it is not limited by the restraints of time and place. Our study of the Torah's laws of offerings is therefore relevant and appropriate in any age and in any location.
As we gradually "rev up" for the Passover season, let us remember that every positive action we do draws nearer the day when "The spirit of uncleanliness I will remove from the earth," with the coming of Moshiach and the Final Redemption. May it happen immediately.
This they shall give...half a shekel (machatzit) of the shekel of the Sanctuary (Ex. 30:13)
The Hebrew word "machatzit" is spelled mem-chet-tzadik-yud-tav. The letter tzadik, which also means a righteous person, is exactly in the center. The two letters nearest to the tzadik are chet and yud, which spell "chay," meaning alive. The two letters furthest from the tzadik are mem and tav, which spell "meit," or dead. From this we learn that being close to a tzadik imbues us with life, and that giving tzedaka (charity, symbolized by the half-shekel) saves us from death.
The shekel is an allusion to the soul; the gematria (numerical equivalent) of "shekel" is the same as for "nefesh" (soul). Every Jew is given "half" of his soul from Above; his obligation is to elevate the other "half" under his control to the same level as the first, through serving G-d and performing good deeds.
(Rabbi Chanoch of Alexander)
The Tablets were written on both their sides (Ex. 32:15)
The two sides of the Tablets are an allusion to the two aspects of Torah, the revealed (nigleh) and the hidden (nistar). If a person publicly denies the Divinity of the Torah's mystical teachings, it is a sign that inwardly, he also denies the sanctity of the revealed portion.
(The Chatam Sofer)
Moses stood at the gate of the camp and said, "Whoever is on G-d's side, let him come to me." And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him (Ex. 32:26)
The members of the tribe of Levi were not the only Jews who refused to worship the Golden Calf. This is obvious from the fact that only 3000 people were punished. Nonetheless, when Moses declared, "Whoever is on G-d's side, let him come to me," the Levites were the only ones who responded. Only the Levites were willing to pick up their swords and wage battle against idolatry, while everyone else stood by and refused to become involved in "controversy."
Little Shloimeleh was the youngest of the family's nine children. He had a quick smile and intelligent eyes. Shloimeleh's favorite time was Friday afternoon, when his mother lit the Shabbat candles. He loved to watch them burn in their polished candlesticks.
But one Shabbat eve, when his mother had closed her eyes to recite the blessing, one of the candles fell on Shloimeleh's arm, badly burning him.
Time passed, and the burn eventually healed. But little Shloimeleh was left with an ugly scar on his forearm as a reminder of the incident.
Then the Second World War broke out, and Poland was invaded by the Germans. As part of the "final solution," all the Jews in Shloimeleh's town were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Reb Avraham, Shloimeleh's father, was forcibly separated from the rest of his family. It was the last time he would see his wife and children. Reb Avraham was later interred in a labor camp. Miraculously he survived the Holocaust, and eventually found himself in Russia.
Reb Avraham was now alone in the world. Physically exhausted and consumed with grief, he tried to lessen his pain by learning, praying, and teaching Torah and mitzvot to Jewish children, many of whom had never been exposed to Judaism. Aside from organizing a secret cheder, he also served as a mohel (ritual circumciser). But of all his religious achievements, the tiny synagogue he established was closest to his heart.
Needless to say, Reb Avraham's activities were completely illegal; time and again he was cautioned by the Communist authorities. But Reb Avraham felt he had nothing to lose. After going through everything he had, what else could they do to him? He continued to spread Torah and mitzvot, and spent even more time in his little shul.
The most persistent of Reb Avraham's tormentors was a young Communist named Natishka. Reb Avraham could hardly take a step without being followed by him. Natishka repeatedly warned him that he would end up before a firing squad if he didn't shape up.
Around this time Reb Avraham decided to apply for an exit visa to Israel. He was very surprised when his request was approved. In truth, Reb Avraham had mixed feelings about leaving Russia. On the one hand, he was grateful for the opportunity to spend the rest of his days in the Holy Land. Yet on the other, he worried about the fate of his brethren. Who would keep the embers of Judaism burning after he was gone?
As the date of his departure grew near, Reb Avraham spent most of his time in his beloved synagogue. Emboldened by the prospect of imminent freedom, he abandoned some of his usual precautions.
One evening Reb Avraham entered the shul and lit several memorial candles in remembrance of his family. His eyes filled with tears as he recalled their faces. In a voice choked with emotion he began to recite Psalms, and the sound carried out into the street...
At that moment, Natishka happened to pass by and decided to investigate. When he saw what the Jew was up to he became incensed.
"When will you ever learn?" he screamed at him. "When will you finally give up your obsolete practices?" Once and for all, he would teach the Jew a lesson. He began to roll up his sleeves...
Reb Avraham remained tranquil. Having already been beaten many times, there was nothing new about the prospect of physical violence. "Shema Yisrael!" ("Hear O Israel"), he called out in a clear if somewhat trembling voice. "The L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One!"
It was then that he looked up and noticed Natishka's bare forearm, poised to strike. A long scar, evidence of an old burn, wound its way down his arm in a very familiar pattern...
"Shloimeleh!" Reb Avraham cried out. "Is that you, my son?"
The young Communist's face drained of color as his hand froze in midair. Inexplicably, his eyes were drawn to the candles' flames, as if they reminded him of something long hidden and repressed... A cry erupted from his throat as his eyes filled with tears. He embraced the elderly Jew and began to weep like a small child.
"Tatteh!" he wailed inconsolably. "Tatteh, forgive me!"
Father and son marveled at how Divine Providence had brought them together. Not long afterward they both emigrated to Israel. And each week thereafter, as they gazed into the Shabbat candles, they pondered their indebtedness to them for their reunion.
Every day, we must have faith in Moshiach's coming and wait for him as the Rambam states, "I will wait for him, every day, that he come." This is particularly true in the later generations when "All the appointed times for Moshiach's coming have passed," and especially in our generation when, according to all the omens mentioned by our Sages, this is the last generation of exile and the first generation of Redemption. Hence, surely in the present generation, we must have strong faith in Moshiach's coming and await his coming with genuine yearning.
(The Rebbe, 27 Adar, 5750-1990)