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Devarim Deutronomy

July 20, 2001 - 29 Tamuz, 5761

678: Matos-Masei

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  677: Pinchas679: Devarim  

Thanks for the Mitzva  |  Living with the Rebbe  |  A Slice of Life  |  What's New
The Rebbe Writes  |  Rambam this week  |  A Word from the Director  |  Thoughts that Count
It Once Happened  |  Moshiach Matters

Thanks for the Mitzva

by Yehudis Cohen

"Thank you for getting me involved," the person said before hanging up the telephone.

"You're welcome," I replied with a smile, placing the receiver in its cradle.

A momentary flush of pride. I was trying to help someone out of a sticky situation and I had found a person with expertise who was willing to take on the problem. "Job well done," I patted myself on the back.

And then reality hit. "Huh? He's thanking me for involving him in something that will take away many hours of his already limited free time? A job that, even if accomplished successfully, will undoubtedly be thankless. An activity that will not include remuneration for his efforts.

Thoughts ran through my head as I tried to understand this person's selfless behavior. "He'll be rewarded," I reminded myself, thinking of the Jewish teaching, "G-d never remains in debt."

"Know before whom you toil, who your Employer is, and who will pay you the reward for your labor," Rabbi Elazar teaches in chapter two of the Mishna Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). Although there are many intermediaries by which G-d dispenses the reward for performing a mitzva, a person should realize that the source for the reward is G-d. Ahh, now I felt a little better. Surely G-d would reward this person.

In that same chapter of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon teaches, "The day is short, the work is much, the workmen are lazy, the reward is great, the Master is pressing." It's true, most of us don't have enough or even much leisure time.

It's hard to squeeze into our few free moments a kind act for another person, to extend a helping hand to one in need. The day is so short. There is so much work to do. Often the people with whom we work aren't as industrious as we would hope, some seem downright lazy! But the reward for a small act of kindness, a good deed, a smile or courteous word, is great. And G-d, the Master, considers these interpersonal mitzvot vital.

Rabbi Tarfon clarifies the above teaching by continuing, "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, yet you are not free to desist from it; If you have studied much Torah, much reward will be given to you, and your employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward for your labor. But know that the giving of the reward to the righteous will be in the World to Come." The realization of the immensity of our responsibility toward our fellowman and toward G-d should not lead us to despair. Because a person is never required to do more than he can. G-d only gives a person that which he can fulfill without having to face challenges that he is unable to overcome.

Now I was certain that the person would be justly rewarded. But I still wondered how he did it so naturally, so pleasantly, as if I had done him the biggest favor in the world, to the point where he was thanking me!

Perhaps he had in mind a teaching of Rabbi Gamliel (son of Rabbi Judah the Prince), also from chapter two: "All who occupy themselves with the affairs of the community should be engaged with them for the sake of heaven." I was thinking of the reward he would get. It made me feel less guilty! But perhaps, probably, he saw this act of kindness, and the previous one, and the next one, as part of his responsibility to the community where he lived. And he was doing it solely for the sake of heaven.

Ah, so I was helping him! I was enabling him to fulfill his obligation to the community. That's why he thanked me. Now I understood.

Once again, I patted myself on the back for a job well done. Why, I had just helped two people!

But just between you and me, all "rewards" and "obligations" and "sake of heavens" aside, don't you think that person is something special?

Living with the Rebbe

This week we read two Torah portions, Matot and Masei. As we read in Matot, when the Jewish people returned from the war with Midian with their spoils, Moses commanded them to purify themselves from their ritual uncleanliness (caused by contact with the dead) by being sprinkled with water containing ashes of the red heifer. Afterwards, Eleazar the kohen (priest) enumerated the various laws of how to render the Midianites' non-kosher vessels kosher.

Why was it Eleazar who taught these laws rather than Moses? As Rashi explains, "Since Moses came under the influence of anger, he came under the influence of mistaken judgment, and the laws of cleansing vessels which had belonged to heathens were concealed from him." As related a few verses previously, Moses had become angry when he saw the Midianite women the Jews brought back with them.

Technically, Moses did not render "mistaken judgment," which would imply that he had stated the laws incorrectly. However, his failure to teach these laws stemmed from a different kind of "mistake":

Moses had assumed that the ashes of the red heifer could render the non-kosher vessels kosher. If a few drops of the "water of sprinkling" could remove the greatest impurity of them all, contact with the dead, surely it had the power to kasher utensils.

That is why Eleazar prefaced his words with the declaration, "This is the statute of the Torah." The fact that the ashes of the red heifer can remove ritual impurity is a statute, a super-rational law that only applies to that specific type of uncleanliness, and cannot render impure vessels pure. For even after a vessel's impurity has been removed by the "water of sprinkling," the forbidden foods that were absorbed into it must be purged.

Removing uncleanliness and making something kosher are two separate things: To remove spiritual uncleanliness, a few drops of water are sufficient. But to render a vessel kosher, a more fundamental type of purging is necessary, according to the particular manner in which the utensil was used.

Symbolically, purity is an "encompassing" G-dly influence that surrounds a person from without. For that reason, is it relatively simple to purify oneself: immersion in a mikva, or being sprinkled with the "water of sprinkling." By contrast, the process of making something kosher implies an inner and essential cleansing to remove embedded evil.

Moses, who viewed the Jewish people from "on high," believed that external purification would automatically purify the "inside" as well. Eleazar, by contrast, whose function as a kohen was to elevate the Jewish people from below, held that externals weren't enough. For it is through "kashering" the various powers of the soul, each one individually, that a Jew achieves true purification and becomes a proper "vessel" for holiness.

Adapted from Vol. 8 of Likutei Sichot

A Slice of Life

A Very Special Teacher
by Gershon Beck

Rabbi Wichnin The 26th of Tamuz (July 17th) is the yartzeit (anniversary of the passing) of Rabbi Chaim Dovid Nota Wichnin. Rabbi Wichnin headed the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey, for baalei teshuva or late starters to the world of Jewish learning. He was a very, very special teacher.

Rabbi Wichnin lived in Monsey, New York, where he served the local community, and commuted every day to Morristown to teach. His students, from all walks of life, number in the thousands, and continue to share their love of Torah and mitzvot with their fellow Jews, just as he would want. His genuine caring for people, love of the Land of Israel, and deep desire to understand and teach Torah were just some of his truly exceptional qualities. The following anecdotes illustrate how he exemplified these character traits.

A relative of Rabbi Wichnin, Rabbi M., was once in Los Angeles for a family celebration. While out and about shopping for Shabbat, he went into one of the local butcher shops. Waiting patiently in line, he heard a customer asking specifically for meat with Lubavitch supervision. The customer didn't appear to be a Lubavitcher Chasid. Rabbi M. was a bit curious, so he asked the man why he wanted to buy Lubavitch meat. "My father is not too well and is in a hospital just outside of Monsey, New York. If not for a certain Lubavitcher Rabbi, Rabbi Wichnin, I don't know who would visit my father. He visits him faithfully every week before Shabbat." For many years Rabbi Wichnin had his own "route" on Fridays, visiting people in the hospital.

Years ago, a friend of mine who is a maintenance worker in the yeshiva told me that Rabbi Wichnin once asked him to change a light bulb in his office. My friend went there and began his work. In the few minutes he was there he heard several messages asking Rabbi Wichnin to please call them back. These messages were from people all over the world with whom Rabbi Wichnin had a special bond. My friend remarked, "If the phone rang that many times in the few minutes I was there, you can imagine how many people are actually calling him for guidance and direction."

Rabbi Wichnin's deep connection with the Land of Israel could be seen in the fact that he had a separate checkbook for charity for Israel.

Whenever he spoke about Israel in class, you could sense the special affection. He showed special gratitude to Jews who had served in the Israeli army and spent time with them to bring them closer to Torah. During the Persian Gulf War, he would remind us daily about saying extra Tehillim (Psalms) for Israel. He was absolutely elated when the war ended (on the holiday of Purim) and Israel emerged unscathed.

Anyone who had the privilege to be in yeshiva on Sunday afternoons could never forget Rabbi Wichnin's "Chumash [the five Books of Moses] questions." Rabbi Wichnin would make up his own questions on the Torah portion of the week and hand them out to his students on Sunday. Their written answers were expected the following Sunday. The basic expectation was that we know Chumash with Rashi's commentary. Rabbi Wichnin was very down to earth and expected straight answers. I remember that Rabbi Wichnin once asked a question and a student began to respond with a very deep, convoluted explanation. Rabbi Wichnin interrupted him and said, "Hold on a minute, I need the simple meaning first. You don't eat the dessert before the meat and potatoes. It's like a person going on a job interview in a fancy Cadillac, but wearing a torn suit. When the boss sees him, he needs to look nice. The boss knows nothing about his fancy car. The person has to come up with the basics first." That was Rabbi Wichnin: he always gave you a concrete example to help understand the point. A friend of mine once remarked, "He made studying Torah enjoyable, and that's how it should be."

Rabbi Wichnin was an "inward" person. Chasidic philosophy calls this being a "penimi." Rabbi Wichnin truly internalized the Rebbe's teachings about living with Moshiach. So many of the ideas he expressed in class were tied in with the coming of Moshiach. One thing in particular he taught was how a person can be involved with his daily routine and at the same time expect Moshiach to come at any moment.

Rather than being contradictory, the two go hand in hand.

Rabbi Wichnin's family, students and friends miss him so much. He loved to sing a song written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidim, called "Keili Atah." At many gatherings we would sing this together. On Simchat Torah he would lead the singing of "Mi'pi Keil." Those times were like a foretaste of Moshiach. Dear G-d, it's time to bring him back to us, and end the exile! May the entire Jewish people soon merit to sing together on the great day of Moshiach's arrival.

What's New

In the Mountains

Women of all ages can treat themselves to a few days, a week or a month of Jewish enrichment while experiencing the splendor and tranquility of the Catskill Mountains. Machon Chana in the Mountains is housed on a seven acre facility in the picturesque, quaint village of Tannersville, approximately two and a half hours from New York City. The facility includes swimming, hiking, tennis courts, basketball courts, mini-golf, and three delicious kosher catered meals. In addition to the esteemed faculty who teach a variety of daily classes, there are special Shabbat getaways for the whole family throughout the summer. Programs for husbands and children run parallel to the women's classes. For more information about the programs visit For rates call (518) 589-7700.

Jewish Mysticism by the Sea

A Journey into Jewish Mysticism is a weekly event during the summer months at Manhattan's South Street Seaport. The free lecture series includes light refreshments and a lot of food for thought each Wednesday evening through August 29 at Pier 17. Sponsored by Be'er Miriam, for more information call (718) 467-5519. Rain or shine.

The Rebbe Writes

This letter, dated 22 Av, 5739 [1979], is continued from the previous issue. It was addressed to someone who asked the Rebbe's views on "the care and education of Jewish retarded children."

6. There is surely no need to emphasize at length that, as in all cases involving Jews, their specific Jewish needs must be taken into account. This is particularly true in the case of retarded Jewish children, yet all too often disregarded. There is unfortunately a prevalent misconception that since you are dealing with retarded children, having more limited capabilities, they should not be "burdened" with Jewish education on top of their general education, so as not to overtax them. In my opinion this is a fallacious and detrimental attitude, especially in light of what has been said above about the need to avoid impressing the child with his handicap.

Be it remembered that a child coming from a Jewish home probably has brothers and sisters, or cousins and friends, who receive a Jewish education and are exposed to Jewish observances. Even in the American society, where observant Jews are not in the majority, there is always some measure of Jewish experience, or Jewish angle, in the child's background. Now therefore, if the retarded child sees or feels that he has been singled out and removed from that experience, or when he will eventually find out that he Jewish, yet deprived of his Jewish identity and heritage - it is very likely to cause irreparable damage to him.

On the other hand, if the child is involved in Jewish education and activities - and not in some general and peripheral way, but in a regular and tangible way, such as in the actual performance of Mitzvos, customs and traditions, it would give him a sense of belonging and attachment, and a firm anchorage to hold on to, whether consciously or subconsciously. Eventually even a subconscious feeling of inner security would pass into the conscious state, especially if the teacher will endeavor to cultivate and fortify this feeling.

I am, of course, aware of the arguments that may be put forth in regard to this idea, namely, that it would require additional funding, qualified personnel, etc., not readily available at present. To be sure, these are arguments that have a basis in fact as things now stand.

However, the real problem is not so much the lack of resources as the prevailing attitude that considers the Jewish angle as of secondary importance, or less; consequently the effort to remedy the situation is commensurate, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth of the matter is that if the importance of it would be seen in its true light - that it is an essential factor in the development of the retarded Jewish child, in addition to our elementary obligation to all Jewish children without exception, the results would be quite different.

Perhaps all the aforesaid is not what you had in mind in soliciting views on "group homes." Nevertheless, I was impelled to dwell on the subject at some length, not only because it had to be said, but also because it may serve as a basis for solving the controversy surrounding the creation of "group homes" for those children who are presently placed in an environment often quite distant from the individual's home and community, to paraphrase your statement.

Finally, a concluding remark relating to your laudatory reference to the Lubavitch movement, "with its deep concern for every Jewish individual's welfare." etc.

Needless to say, such appreciation is very gratifying, but I must confess and emphasize that this is not an original Lubavitch idea, for it is basic to Torah Judaism. Thus, our Sages of old declared that "Ve'ohavta Lereacha Kamocha" ("Love your fellow as yourself") is the Great Principle of our Torah, with the accent on "as yourself," since every person surely has a very special, personal approach to himself. To the credit of the Lubavitch emissaries it may be said, however, that they are doing all they can to implement and live by this Golden Rule of the Torah, and doing it untiringly and enthusiastically.

May the Zechus Horabim - the merit of the many who benefit from your sincere efforts to help them in their need, especially in your capacity as Regional Chairman of the Council For Mental Retardation - stand you in good stead to succeed in the fullest measure and stimulate your dedication for even greater achievements.

With esteem and blessing,

Rambam this week

1 Av 5761

Positive mitzva 68: offering of a Court that has erred

By this injunction we are commanded that the Great Sanhedrin (of 71 members, which occupied the Chamber of Hewn Stone on the Temple Mount) is to offer a sacrifice if it gives a wrong decision. It is contained in the Torah's words (Lev. 4:13): "If the whole congregation of Israel shall err, the thing being hid from the eyes of the assembly, etc."

A Word from the Director

Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman

One of the special haftorahs of the "Three Weeks" is an excerpt from the Book of Jeremiah in which the prophet relates how G-d instructed him to foretell of the destruction of the Holy Temple.

Jeremiah lived in a time when many Jews were attracted to paganism; his function as a prophet was to arouse them to repentance. Fearful of undertaking such a responsibility, G-d encouraged Jeremiah with the following words: "Before I formed you in the belly I knew you; and before you came out of the womb I sanctified you, and I ordained you a prophet to the nations." When Jeremiah countered that he was only a "child," G-d replied, "Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to save you."

In essence, Jeremiah's mission is the mission of every Jewish soul, which is forced to abandon its G-dly Source and descend into the physical world. The soul becomes frightened at the prospect; how can it possibly contend with all the difficulties it will encounter?

G-d immediately reassures the Jew and tells him not to be afraid: "Before I formed you in the belly I knew you." Every Jew has a Divine soul, "a veritable part of G-d Above" that transcends the physical world and the difficulties of the exile. Moreover, "before you came out of the womb I sanctified you": every Jew is prepared ahead of time by having been taught the entire Torah before he was born, as related in the Talmud.

This, however, is not enough to assuage the soul's fears. "But I am only a child!" it counters. "From where will I get the strength to be a prophet to the nations?" i.e., to refine and elevate the physical plane of reality?

"Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to save you," G-d promises. In addition to the innate powers you acquired in the womb, I will give you special strengths and abilities to be able to fulfill your mission successfully.

May we immediately merit to attain the ultimate goal of all of our Divine service, the coming of Moshiach and the Final Redemption.

Thoughts that Count

He shall not break ("yachel") his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds from his mouth (Num. 30:3)

The Hebrew word "yachel" is related to the word "chulin," meaning secular or worldly (the opposite of sanctified). From this we learn that a person should not only live up to and fulfill his official vows but abide by every promise and utterance he makes.

(The Magid of Koznitz)

You shall be guiltless before the L-rd, and before Israel (Num. 32:22)

A person who is innocent before G-d and at peace with his conscience will ultimately be found guiltless by his fellow man; if he does experience occasional difficulties, they will only be temporary. By contrast, a person who strives to be innocent only in the eyes of man will eventually end up being a hypocrite.

(Bina La'itim)

These are their journeys according to their goings forth (Num. 33:2)

The Midrash relates that when Moshiach comes and ushers in the Final Redemption, G-d will cause the Jewish people to retrace the same 42 journeys they made through the desert after leaving Egypt. This is alluded in the above verse: "And these are the journeys" - these very same journeys - will be undertaken and repeated, when the future progeny of the Children of Israel will "go forth" - from their final exile.


And he shall live there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil (Num. 35:25)

The passing of a high priest is such a shocking event that it brings the entire Jewish people to repent. One may therefore assume that the "blood avenger" has also scrutinized his soul and conquered his desire for revenge, enabling the slayer to leave the city of refuge and return home safely.


It Once Happened

In the White Russian province of Mohilev lived a humble Jew, a Chasid of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the first Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. The Chasid had a son who was an exceptional child from the day he was born. It was almost eerie the way the boy absorbed information; seeing or hearing something only once was enough to imprint it in his memory forever.

The first time his father showed him the alef-beit it was already mastered. But the most amazing thing was how the toddler was able to put them together and read. The most complex philosophical concepts were comprehended at once. The boy was a phenomenal genius.

His parents, fearful of an "evil eye," were afraid to send him to cheder. A private tutor was hired, but he was rapidly outpaced. By the age of Bar Mitzva the boy was an experienced swimmer in the sea of Talmudic wisdom, and he steadily climbed the ladder of knowledge.

One day the father walked into his son's room and saw him reading a small pamphlet. His blood ran cold as he realized it was a treatise designed to lure unsuspecting yeshiva boys into the net of the Enlightenment.

"Why do you need to search in foreign pastures?" he scolded him. "The entire Torah is yours, the true source of G-dly wisdom. There is nothing to be gained by looking elsewhere."

"You are right, Father," the boy apologized. "I found it lying in the street, and at first it didn't interest me. The only reason I was glancing through it now was to see for myself how groundless are their arguments."

The father wasn't entirely convinced, but preferred to delude himself.

Over the next few weeks and months the boy was caught several more times. He was silent when confronted, and would not deny that the Enlightenment had captured his heart. Eventually he left home, after calling his father "an idiot" for his religious convictions. His destination was Berlin, the seat of the Enlightenment.

In Berlin, the Academy of Sciences received him with open arms. In no time at all he distinguished himself with his phenomenal intellectual abilities. His rise through the ranks of academia was steady and swift. After several years in Germany he went on to study in Paris.

The young man was particularly interested in mathematics and medicine, and he decided to write a book on each of them. The mathematical treatise dealt with an original theorem he had formulated, the other book was on the subject of anatomy. Soon he was the darling of the international scientific community.

Inexplicably, however, he began to feel guilty over how he had treated his parents. He took a leave of absence and set out for home.

The long journey gave him time to think. "What good will it do to show my father my books?" he mused. "He has no understanding of such matters. Better I should first go to my father's Rebbe and get his approval. They say that as a young man, Rabbi Shneur Zalman studied geometry and astronomy. If he pronounces them worthy, my father will respect his opinion."

Rabbi Shneur Zalman agreed to see him at once. The Rebbe's door was closed for a long time. When the young man finally emerged he was extremely agitated. It was obvious he was in the midst of an inner battle.

Suddenly, without warning, he grabbed one of his books and threw it into the furnace. A minute later the second one followed. Both were quickly consumed by the flames. Only then did he calm down.

What had happened? Rabbi Shneur Zalman had scrutinized only five pages of the first book when he drew a line through several paragraphs. After leafing through the rest, he pronounced the reasoning sound. "But unfortunately, the book is based on an error in calculation at the very beginning. As the foundation is faulty, the rest of the edifice is also flawed."

The same happened with the next book. The Rebbe pointed out a sentence that contradicted what the Torah says about a certain juncture of veins. "As our Sages are undoubtedly right, the entire treatise is based on an untruth."

The young man was in a mental turmoil, but eventually had to admit that the mistakes were his. He felt he had no choice but to destroy the books.

The young man began to study with Rabbi Shneur Zalman. Seven weeks later he fell ill, and a short time after that passed away.

Rabbi Shneur Zalmn later revealed that the young man was a reincarnation of Rabbi Eliezer ben Durdia. His soul had already descended into the world several times, each time following the same progression: As a young man it would faithfully observe Torah and mitzvot, but as time passed it invariably left the straight and narrow. "This time, when he came to me, I decided that enough was enough. I refused to let him leave until his soul had accomplished its final tikun (correction)."

(Incidentally, Rabbi Shneur Zalman gave his son, the Mitteler Rebbe, the manuscripts of everything he had learned with the young man. It was based on these writings that he authored his work, Derech Chaim.)

Moshiach Matters

Moshiach will only determine their tribal lineage, that is, he will inform that "this one is of such-and-such a tribe." He will not pronounce on those presumed to be of legitimate ancestry that "this one is illegitimate and that one is a "slave"; for the law stipulates that once a family is intermixed [with the Jewish community at large] it remains intermixed.

(Maimonides' Mishna Torah Ch. 12)

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