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Not only is the red, white and blue of the American flag a fine symbol of patriotism, it also symbolizes the freedom and independence for which the Founding Fathers of the United States fought so tirelessly over two hundred years ago.
If you questioned a cross-section of the population on how they define freedom, you would undoubtedly get a wide range of answers. Freedom to a typical teenager is totally different from the "freedom" of a parent whose children have all left home. And neither of these definitions will have much in common with freedom as defined by someone who emigrated from the former U.S.S.R. when it was still a communist country.
In Ethics of the Fathers Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi discusses how one can become a truly free person: through studying the Torah. He quotes the verse: "The Tablets [with the Ten Commandments] were the word of G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d engraved ('charut') on the Tablets." Says Rabbi Yehoshua, "Do not read 'charut' but 'cheirut' ('freedom'), for there is no free person except one who occupies himself with the study of Torah."
"What?" one might ask incredulously. "How can you call a 'religious' Jew who learns and lives Torah free? Isn't he anything but free? His life is filled with so many do's and don'ts. And," the person adds in a whisper, almost conspiratorially, "aren't rules made to be broken? No," such a person might conclude, shaking his head emphatically, "true freedom means being able to do whatever you want whenever you want."
A cursory look each day at the front page of any newspaper or a glance at a network news program will quickly highlight the fallacy of such statements. For we are living in times when rules are constantly broken, where people do whatever they want, whenever they want. And we are anything but free.
Before we enter our car to return home each night from work, we check the back seat. We buckle up to save ourselves as much from a fluke accident as from drunk or drug-crazed drivers. We reset the car alarm upon arriving home and open the door that has been double- or triple-locked. This is freedom? It's certainly not the freedom envisaged by the Founding Fathers of the United States who came to these shore because they wanted freedom-freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit.
According to the Midrash, if you fill your life with spiritual pursuits, your soul will not be "enslaved" to your body. And even those material needs that the body does have become elevated through one's spiritual service.
In the words of Rabbi Nechunya in Ethics of the Fathers, "Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah-the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly cares are removed from him..."
A person who involves himself in Torah, says the Maharal of Prague, elevates himself above the cares and concerns of this physical world and is freed from the natural order of the universe. Thus, though a person needs a livelihood in order to live, the "yoke" of making a living is removed from him; it is put in G-d's "hands" and comes more easily.
In this week's Torah portion, Chukat, we learn that when the Jewish people sinned by repeatedly complaining about Moses and Aaron, G-d punished them by sending "fiery serpents." Moses, who was the epitome of selflessness, prayed on the Jews' behalf, whereupon G-d instructed him to "Make a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole. And everyone who is bitten, when he sees it shall live." Moses followed G-d's instructions, and fashioned a serpent of copper. "It came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked upon the serpent of copper, he lived."
Our Sages explain that it was not the copper serpent that had the power to revive or kill; rather, "When the Israelites looked upward, and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were healed; if not, they perished." The purpose of the copper serpent was to arouse the Jews to repentance; once they repented, they were healed.
Chasidic teachings provide an even deeper dimension: A person who had been bitten by a "fiery serpent" was already "dead," by virtue of having already been injected with a poisonous substance. In other words, the "serpent of copper" had to effect what was essentially a "resurrection."
However, the power to resurrect the dead could not come from the same level of G-dliness that sustains "regular" life, as the person who was bitten had already lost that particular source of vitality. His "resurrection" had to be derived from an infinitely higher level, described in Chasidic philosophy as "the aspect of abundant mercies of the Divine Essence of Infinite Light, which is higher than the Source of life."
Thus in order for the bitten person to be healed, he had to rise above the "regular" level of G-dliness that sustains life and access G-d Himself, to Whom "life and death are equal." The bitten person's repentance had to be so profound that it could transform death into life.
In fact, the "serpent of copper" expressed this concept of resurrection. The snake itself is symbolic of death, as it was through the serpent that death was introduced into the world in the Garden of Eden. In this instance, however, the "serpent of copper" had the opposite effect, saving people from death rather than killing them.
On the level of the soul, this "resurrection" is the service of turning darkness into light, transforming the Evil Inclination itself into goodness and holiness. By subjugating his heart to G-d, a Jew can turn even deliberate sins into merits, thereby rendering himself a proper vessel for G-d's infinite blessings.
Adapted from Volume 13 of Likutei Sichot
By Baila Olidort
Several months ago I volunteered to spend the night in the hospital with a woman on a respirator, in a palliative care unit awkwardly named "Step Down" for patients who, at least medically, it seemed to me, have nowhere to go but "down." It was a call I received from one of the area's Bikur Cholim groups [volunteer organizations devoted to aiding the ill and their families]. The woman's husband refused to leave his wife alone, they explained, and he has collapsed several times from sheer exhaustion. She's been comatose for four months now, and they were looking for people to relieve him.
I said yes immediately, afraid that if I thought about it first, I would lose the courage. The idea of sharing a whole night with someone straddling two worlds seemed awesome to me, so much so that I barely slept the night before, as I lay awake considering this woman and her soul.
Feeling tremendous compassion for the patient, I came to the hospital naively determined to reach her, and coax her to consciousness, if only for a moment. At her bedside, I read the day's Tanya and recited some Psalms, imagining that the Hebrew letters and the words they form will mysteriously nudge her out of her coma. I brought a charity box and placed it near her bed, and in the early hours of the morning, put in some tzedaka (charity) - a mitzva said to have life-saving potential.
We do not, of course, know with any certainty what transpires in the mind or soul of the human being in the absence of normal consciousness. What appears a pointless last chapter of life, may - if not rushed to premature conclusion - be its most redeeming episode. Because while in a coma, the soul may yet do teshuva (repent) and reach fulfillment - a possibility that is decidedly lost once the soul finally departs the body.
But my direct encounter with this situation forced certain realizations upon me, and I began to wonder about the absolute views of halacha (Jewish Law) on life-extending measures. Is the view that promotes the extension of even one additional moment of life, in its broadest definition, perhaps simplistic, and oblivious to the nuances in cases where all essential life has ebbed?
I was startled to find the patient with her eyes wide open and moving. "Just reflexes," the nurse said to me casually. I peered closely into her vacant eyes wishing to elicit a fleeting sign of the vitality that once animated them. Alas, her spirit or soul, which I had imagined would be more perceptible in the face of a waning physical existence, eluded me entirely.
I wondered at the sustained effort devoted to groom so lifeless a body over so long a stretch of time. Every two hours she is turned to prevent bedsores. She is fed through intravenous tubes and must be suctioned regularly. Her bodily functions are now managed by paid nurses. Once the master of her dignity, she would have recoiled in horror, I thought, to know that when she is no longer here-when all that defined her as a distinct human being is no more, her body would not only be allowed to languish, but be cajoled into languishing in an unnatural condition. And I felt deep sadness, convinced that she would not have wanted her body so exhaustively manipulated to keep her tethered to the netherworld of limbo.
So, for the first time I considered with more regard the argument against excessive measures to prolong life where essentially, it is over. It was no longer inconceivable to me that someone anticipating such an end would stipulate against life-extending intervention. And for the first time I realized that family members rejecting this kind of intervention are not necessarily selfish or callous, but may be sincerely motivated by concern for the patient and the desire to dignify their loved one.
Last week, I received another call from the soft-spoken woman at the Bikur Cholim. I wasn't sure what I'd say if asked to give another night, or even just a few hours. The experience was exhausting and seemed almost pointless.
But the lady from the Bikur Cholim wasn't calling to ask me for anything. At the request of the patient's husband, she was contacting the people who had given time, to thank them again and to let them know that the patient had emerged from her coma.
Reprinted with permission from "Wellsprings," a journal devoted to encouraging the expression of the inner dimension of Torah and the Jewish soul, published by the Student Affairs Office of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. Ms. Olidort is the editor of Wellsprings.
In response to inquiries after the publication of the letter/article about the two boys murdered in Tekoa, Israel (Slice of Life: Dear Grandpa, issue #672) we would like to inform our readers that a fund has been set up to help the families and to establish a memorial for the boys. Tax-deductible donations can be sent to: The Koby and Yossi Fund, Gush Etzion Foundation, PO Box 1030, Manchester, NH 03105, Attn: Gary Wallin. The author of the article, Sara-Rivka Ernstoff, made aliya from Sharon, Massachusetts five years ago. She is a free-lance writer, teaches karate, home schools her children and is the president of N'shei Chabad, Tekoa.
A Children's Torah Scroll
For nearly two decades, Jewish children the world over have united through "purchasing" their very own letter in a Torah scroll being written by a scribe in the holy city of Jerusalem especially for them! To date, three "Children's Torah Scrolls" have been written and a fourth is underway. Children under the age of Bar or Bat Mitzva can obtain a letter and receive a beautiful full-color certificate from Israel stating where in the Torah their letter is located by sending $1 (or its equivalent in local currency) to: Children's Torah Scroll, POB 8, Kfar Chabad 72915 ISRAEL. For more information visit www.kidstorah.org.
Continued from previous issue
Fortunately, one has been able to clearly discern a new trend among our young Jewish men and women, especially academic youth, who come closer to the world of ideas and thought. Being children of The People of the Book, of essentially spiritual and holy people, they are by nature and heredity inclined, subconsciously at least, towards the spiritual. Their disillusionment and dissatisfaction have prompted them to search for a new way of life which would give them a slice of terra firma under their feet, make their life meaningful and put their mind at peace with themselves.
Some of them have been fortunate in making fateful encounters, by design or "accident" (everything is, of course, by Divine Providence) which have put them on the right track. Others, unfortunately, are still groping in the dark. It is the momentous duty and challenge of our day to help these young Jewish men and women to find their way back to the "fountains of living waters" to quench their thirst for life. We of Lubavitch have made it our "business" to do all we can to help them. But this, of course, is the duty and privilege of every Jew, since the commandment "Love thy fellow as thyself" applies to every one of us.
Needless to say, the transition from one mode of living to another, is fraught with trials and tribulations. Therefore, the sooner this critical period is over, the better. It requires determination and fortitude, and where these are not lacking (they are certainly not lacking potentially, and need only be brought to the surface), the difficulties will turn out to be much less insurmountable than they had loomed at first. It may sometimes require an initial leap to break away from the past, but then slowly but surely the going becomes increasingly easier. One must try to shorten the birth pangs of the transition and all the sooner emerge into the new-found world of Torah and Mitzvos, which holds the key to inner harmony and peace, true fulfillment and happiness.
From what has been said above, you will readily understand what my views are on the subject matter of your letter. You write about the clash between your original decision to follow what you know as the right way and your parents' reactions. But even from the parents' viewpoint, surely their first and ultimate desire is to see their children happy. Whatever their ideas of happiness may be, they surely realize that without inner harmony and peace of mind, life is a very dismal thing. Looking at the situation from their viewpoint, if you act under pressure and accept a life of compromise, it is possible that for a time friction will be avoided. But one must think in terms of a lifetime, not of immediate expedience; and, as outlined above, and as clearly indicated in your letter, this is the kind of life with which you will not be able to make peace. Sooner or later your parents will notice, or instinctively feel, that they had defeated their own objective.
The limitations of a letter must curtail the discussion. However, I trust it will suffice in presenting salient points which you could elaborate yourself.
Before concluding, I want to make reference to the person who figured in your encounter, whose life may well serve as an illustration. As you probably know, he was born and brought up, together with the rest of his family under the Communist regime. There seemed no possibility, nor any hope, in the natural order of things, to escape from there. One might have concluded that the only thing to do under the circumstances was to adjust oneself to the prevailing conditions; all the more so, since the religious minority to which he and his family belonged was not only a minority, but one which had been singled out for ruthless persecution by a dictatorial regime, which could not be toppled by democratic processes. Nevertheless, he and his brothers and family remained steadfast and would make no compromise and concession. Now he and his brothers have established their own homes in this free country on the same foundations of the Torah and Mitzvos of their parental home under the Communists, and they need not be ashamed of their past.
They realize that the freedom and opportunity which they enjoy here impose upon them additional obligations towards their fellow-Jews. They also realize that after such a large proportion of our people has been brutally annihilated in the Second World War, the obligation of every surviving Jew is so much the greater.
What has been said in this letter is by way of general analysis and throwing some light on the situation and its solution. As for the method how to bring it about, this must be decided upon in the light of the personalities involved, as well as the circumstances and factors. A friendly and pleasant approach, coupled with adequate firmness, is the method and way of the Torah. It is also the most effective method.
With all good wishes, and with blessing,
8 Tamuz 5761
Prohibition 132: eating "piggul"
By this prohibition we are forbidden to eat "piggul" (literally "an abhorred thing.") "Piggul" is a sacrifice that has been rendered unfit through improper intentions at the time it was slaughtered or offered, the person having had in mind to eat it or burn its parts on the altar after the prescribed time has expired. It is contained in the Torah's words (Ex. 29:33): "He shall not eat thereof, because they are holy."
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Tuesday, Yud Beit (12) Tamuz, marks both the birthday of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and his liberation from Soviet prison and exile. Persecuted for keeping the flame of Judaism alive in the early days of Communist Russia, the Rebbe was eventually totally vindicated.
The redemption was not only the Rebbe's personal salvation, but involved the entire Jewish people. As he later wrote, "The Holy One, blessed be He, did not redeem me alone, but all those who love our holy Torah and observe its mitzvot, and even those Jews whose only virtue is to be called by the name of Israel."
Another special date this month is the Seventeenth of Tamuz, the fast day that begins the three-week period of mourning over the destruction of the Holy Temple.
The theme of Yud Beit Tamuz is redemption, while the theme of the Seventeenth is exile. Yet both events are connected to and express the inner meaning of the month of Tamuz as a whole.
A parable is given to explain: There was once a mighty king whose young son soiled himself. Because of his great love for his only child the king abandoned his other affairs and washed the boy himself, scrubbing him thoroughly with hot water to make sure he was properly cleansed. Although this caused the boy pain, the king's actions were actually an expression of his intense love.
A single occurrence can thus simultaneously incorporate what appears to be a contradiction. Both perspectives are true, but one is only superficial.
The theme of the Three Weeks is exile and punishment, but on a deeper level its purpose is the exact opposite - to remove the Jew from exile! The fast prompts us to repent and increase our performance of good deeds, enabling its ultimate transformation into a joyous day of celebration in the Messianic era.
Similarly, the Previous Rebbe's imprisonment had both an internal and external significance. Externally, the Rebbe suffered greatly, but the whole incident ultimately paved the way for an unprecedented increase in the spread of Judaism around the world.
Thus the Festival of Redemption of 12-13 Tamuz helps us cut through the layers of concealment and understand the true inner significance of the entire month - redemption - giving us renewed strength and encouragement to serve G-d with happiness and joy.
This is the law when a man dies in a tent (ohel) (Num. 19:14)
Symbolically, the tent is the "tent of Torah study"; the "dying" symbolic of the devotion of the Torah scholar, who "kills" himself with the effort. Unfortunately, it often happens that the Torah is only valued when it is still in the ark, and the Torah scholar isn't appreciated until after he is lying in his grave (another meaning of the word "ohel"), as no one paid much attention to him during his lifetime...
When a Jew comes home from work at the end of the day utterly exhausted, burnt from the sun or frozen from the cold, yet he still maintains his regular time for Torah study, the holy Torah itself arouses G-d's mercies on his behalf and on behalf of his family members.
And he shall take hyssop (Num. 19:18)
The lowly hyssop plant is symbolic of humility. In the Torah, the musical cantillation above these two words, indicating how they are to be chanted, is called a "kadma ve'azla." How can a person achieve true humility? By remembering where he came from ("kadma" means "former" or "before") - "a putrid drop" - and where he is going (the literal meaning of "azla") - "to a place of dust, maggots and worms."
Take the staff...and speak to the rock (Num. 20:8)
As brought down in the Midrash, G-d wanted Moses to stand by the rock and "repeat a chapter of Torah aloud." In the merit of his Torah study the rock would give forth water, and the Jews would see that all G-dly abundance and blessing come into the world in the Torah's merit. What happened? Because Moses was still mourning the death of his sister Miriam, and a mourner is not permitted to learn Torah, he deliberately held back and was silent. Said G-d, "My children are dying of thirst while you're sitting and mourning?" (In other words, the needs of the community come first, and you are allowed to learn Torah despite being a mourner.)
When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, one of their main aims was to annihilate religion. One strategy to wean the millions of gentile peasants from their faith was to send out young, freethinking priests all across Russia to introduce their new ideas. Their ultimate goal, of course, was to destroy all religious belief and replace it with Communist ideology.
The Yevsektziya (the Jewish branch of the Party), wanted to apply the same strategy to the Jewish religion as well. To implement this plan, they called for a large rabbinical assembly to be held under the auspices of the government, and invited rabbis from all corners of Russia to attend. Many were gullible enough to fall into the Yevsektziya's net. These rabbis would do the job for them: implanting the seeds of doubt among the faithful, and slowly but surely weakening the practice of Judaism in their respective communities.
Needless to say, the most religious and pious rabbis were not invited. Although some who received invitations were G-d-fearing individuals, many were too naοve to discern the true reason behind the government's sudden desire to sponsor a rabbinical conference.
When the Previous Rebbe (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, whose birthday and festival of liberation are this Tuesday and Wednesday, 12-13 Tamuz) learned what was being planned he penned a long letter, to be disseminated throughout the Jewish community, warning against participation in the assembly, for many people had mistakenly concluded that the Bolsheviks were softening their stance. Excerpts of the letter, written in Leningrad and dated 5 Tevet 5687 (1927), read as follows:
"...As news of the conference has spread, letters expressing grave doubts have reached me from various places across the land. The overwhelming consensus is against participation. My own opinion is a strong and clear directive against participating in any form.
"Until now I have had no reason to publicly declare my opinion on this important matter. However, having read these letters, and in consideration of the fact that the invitation to the conference is being extended in the name of the Leningrad Jewish community...people may have gotten the mistaken impression that I have agreed to participate in the assembly. In fact, I have heard it said, in my name, that I had endorsed this meeting! I was shocked to hear such speculation, which has absolutely no basis in fact.
"It is thus for the sake of our brethren that I am making my position known. This conference poses a dire threat; its aim is not pure. I stand absolutely and unquestionably opposed to the conference, and see only dire consequences resulting from such meetings.
"I therefore call upon each and every person who reads this letter or hears its message to publicize its contents among his friends and relatives, to clarify my position: I have absolutely no connection to or affiliation with the members of the community board of Leningrad who issued the invitation to the conference. I am opposed to any such meetings, and the Leningrad community had no right to assume such a responsibility upon itself...
"...May every Jew professing a love for his people and his faith, and possessing a modicum of sensibility about the ways of the world, understand in which direction the proper path leads.
"May G-d grant strength to His people and bless them with peace. Copious blessings to all of Israel both spiritually and materially."
The letter was prepared before the Rebbe's arrest and detention; in fact, it was one of the reasons cited for his arrest. The authorities had hoped that putting the Rebbe in prison would minimize the damage his letter was sure to cause. Despite their efforts, however, the letter was widely disseminated. It was said that one of the things demanded of the Rebbe during his interrogation and torture in prison was that he promise not to distribute the letter.
How was the letter actually disseminated in an age before modern communications? Hundreds of copies were meticulously made by the Rebbe's Chasidim; groups of yeshiva students would faithfully copy the document word by word. On the top of each letter was written, "I found this document and have no idea who wrote it." Thus it was impossible to trace the letter's origin.
The Rebbe's letter did its work. Most of those who read it understood the evil intent behind the conference and were warned. But there were some whose motives were less pure. Many foolishly disregarded the Rebbe's words. It is also possible to assume that not everyone received a copy of the letter.
In the end, either the Rebbe's letter bore fruit or G-d had mercy on His people Israel. After being postponed several times, the rabbinical conference was never held. G-d had annulled the evil decree.
"...A great shofar will be sounded, and those who are lost in Assyria shall come, as well as those who are cast away in Egypt, and they shall bow down to G-d...." (Isaiah 27:13). "Those... in Assyria" alludes to those who are foundering in worldy pleasures. For Ashur, the Hebrew name for Assyria, is related to the word meaning pleasure. "Those... in Egypt" alludes to those whose heads and hearts are not open to the knowledge of G-d because of the pressures and constraints of exile. For Mitzrayim, Hebrew for "Egypt," is related to meitzarim, meaning "constraints." In future time, people will be raised up out of both of these situations and will come to bow down to G-d.