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How many college students can fit into a tiny car or phone booth? How many absolute essentials can a woman place in her evening bag? How many items can a man stuff into his suit pocket and still have the jacket lay properly? How many grapes can a youngster pack into his mouth before they come tumbling out?
Sand patted down by a child in a pail, and patted down yet again to make room for more; a suitcase so full that you have to sit on it to close it; just one more bite, we promise ourselves as we dig once again into the double chocolate fudge brownies, though we're already stuffed to the gills.
People seem to be obsessed with cramming as many things as possible into a minimal amount of space. From closet organizers to PDAs, we want to make full use of space, both tangible and cyber.
There are times in the Jewish calendar when we are given a specific amount of "spiritual space" and encouraged to fill it up.
The month of Elul that we are blessing this Shabbat is just such a time. Elul is the round-up time for the previous year. It is the "inventory" season, "year-end accounting" time and the moment when each person writes and reads to himself his own "State of the Union" address.
In addition to Elul being a once-over concerning the past, it is a chance to focus on the future, an opportunity to plan ahead armed with the wisdom gained from experience. Elul gives us the chance to concentrate on how we will do things differently in the upcoming year.
But there is a third aspect to Elul, as well. While we're remembering the past and considering the future, we are still living in the present. And in this present, Jewish teachings invite us to use the entire month of Elul to fill up our spiritual space with as many mitzvot (commandments) as we can. We are encouraged to add more mitzvot to our repertoire of mitzvot and to enhance the manner in which we already perform various mitzvot.
In Elul, we are urged specifically to give extra charity; to spend more time connecting with G-d through prayer; to have our mezuzot and tefilin checked by an expert scribe (and to put mezuzot on those doorways which might yet need them); to observe the laws of kashrut more carefully; to bless our friends, neighbors and relatives with a good, sweet year.
Using the spiritual space we're given during Elul to its fullest capacity can only be to our benefit for the coming year.
This week's Torah portion, Re'ei, is always read at a time associated with the month of Elul, either on the Shabbat on which the month of Elul as in the present year, or on Rosh Chodesh Elul.
Re'ei begins with the verse, "Behold, I am giving before you today the blessing..." This verse refers to the fact that the blessing, and the revelation of G-dliness that accompanies it, is coming from Above. Indeed, each of the words of this verse emphasizes that approach:
Behold: Seeing implies the establishment of a deep and powerful connection. Thus our Sages state, "hearing does not resemble seeing," and they forbid an eyewitness from acting as a judge. Once someone has seen a misdeed committed, he will never be able to conceive of a redeeming virtue for a defendant. In contrast, when a person is told about an event, he is allowed to serve as a judge and indeed, all trials depend on listening to such testimony.
What is the reason for such a difference? When hearing, one approaches a concept step by step, gathering all the particulars. This resembles an ascent upward. In contrast, when seeing, one is brought into direct contact with an event as a totality all at once. Only afterwards, does one focus attention on the particulars. This reflects the approach of revelation from Above.
I-"Anochi": This refers to G-d's essence in a most uplifted and magnified manner. In our verse, the Hebrew word "anochi" is used rather than the more common "ani." "Anochi" communicates a greater sense of pride and magnitude than "ani."
Am giving: The fact that G-d is giving clearly implies a gift from Above.
Before you: "lifneichem" in Hebrew relates to the word "p'nimiyut"-inner dimension. This emphasizes the approach of revelation from Above. For we begin by focusing on our own personal inner dimension, our inner being, and then proceed to the external dimensions. In contrast, proceeding from the externals to the internal is more a process of elevating what is here below to Above.
Today: This reflects the concepts of light and revelation, for the day is the time of light. It also is associated with a dimension of eternality, as our Sages state, "Whenever the word 'today' is used, [the influence] is eternal." And this is possible because it involves a revelation from Above which does not take into consideration the nature of the recipient.
Blessing: Blessing obviously refers to an influence from Above.
The occupation of the month of Elul, however, is a totally different type of work. For in Elul, our spiritual workout focuses on elevating ourselves through our own initiative and not through a "gift from Above."
Where, then, is the connection between our Torah portion and the fact that we read it at a time connected to the month of Elul?
The truth is that since in Elul we take stock of the entire year that has passed, we must correct any deficiencies in either of these two areas. We must put tremendous effort into elevating ourselves and our surroundings through our own initiative as well as making ourselves a worthy receptacle for G-d's inspiration and blessings from Above.
Adapted from a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Saved by a Song
By Yehudis Cohen
"It's a wild story," begins Rabbi Pinny Young, when recounting an incident that took place in 1994. "My friend and fellow rabbinical student, Mendel Lipsker and I, had been sent as emissaries of the Rebbe to Ukraine. We based ourselves in the city of Krivoyrog and from there we reached out to Jews throughout Ukraine."
A few months after Rabbis Young and Lipsker arrived in Krivoyrog, the Israeli government sent a group of young people to Ukraine to encourage people to make aliya (move to Israel). By that time, the student rabbis were already well known in the Jewish community. And so, it was natural that they would help the Israelis who wanted to organize a two-week winter retreat for 250 Jewish college students from throughout Ukraine. In addition to helping organize the retreat, the young rabbincal students were looked upon as the "spiritual advisors" of the retreat.
"Everyone took trains from all over Ukraine," reminisces Pinny. "We met in one town and then together traveled to a hotel on a ski slope in the Carpathian Mountains. We decided to go into town to check out the 'Jewish sites' to incorporate into our schedule. Of course there was a Jewish cemetery, but there was also a synagogue! The synagogue, however, wasn't really in use, but we did take them there on Shabbat.
"Throughout the entire two weeks of the retreat, we engaged many of the participants and Israeli staff members in philosophical discussions about Judaism, Torah, and mitzvot (commandments)," he adds.
The Former Soviet Union in 1994, and particularly Ukraine, was not what it is today, says Pinny. "One time when I ordered a taxi, I wound up with a horse and cart. And the cart itself was just a battered piece of wood," he says, rolling his eyes.
"Another time we ordered a taxi, this time a real one, and asked the driver if he could show us any points of Jewish interest in the area. My Russian (language) was pretty good by then. So I was shocked when he said to me, 'Talk to me in Ukrainian.' I smiled and told him that I didn't know Ukrainian. What happened next was totally bizarre.
"The muscular Ukrainian taxi driver took out a long, sharp knife and threatened me with it. 'Speak Ukrainian,' he said evilly. My mind raced. Did I know any words in Ukrainian?
"The taxi driver slid the knife on his own arm, cutting himself and drawing blood. 'Speak Ukrainian or I will do this to your throat," he said even more malevolently.
"He was serious," says Pinny, his eyes showing the fear years later that he had on that day. "I had been in Ukraine long enough to know that things like this happen and this guy was dead serious. I quickly thought of my options. If I tried fighting him, I would lose for sure. If I tried running, I was certain he would overtake me.
"And then it popped into my head. I did know some Ukrainian. I knew a song! The Rebbe had taught a song in Ukrainian at a farbrengen (Chasidic gathering) and I knew the words!" Pinny gestures with his hand like an opera singer and starts singing in his melodious voice "Stav yapitu...." (The song is a Ukrainian drinking song about working hard all week long and drowning oneself and one's sorrows in drink. It is a parable for the soul, that is involved throughout the week in the mundane world but on Shabbat becomes intoxicated on Torah, mitzvot and holiness.)
"This guy, this big burly guy thinks it's hysterical. He starts laughing. He thinks it's so funny. I sang the song for him again and we were like the best of buddies. He told us everything we wanted to know and then insisted, now that we were the best of friends, on having a drink with us. He poured us a large glass of vodka that we pretended to drink but actually spilled out."
When they returned to the group, they were still more than a little shaky. Of course, Pinny told everyone what had happened. "We discussed the idea of hashgacha pratit, Divine providence, and how providential it was that the Rebbe had taught a song in Ukrainian and that I knew the words." It was a good story to regale their friends with for years to come, Pinny notes.
"I got married to my wife Sonya, and we moved to Buffalo, New York. One day, about a year ago, I was visiting my in-laws who also live in Buffalo. There was a guest from Israel, Dr. Shimon Reif, a pediatric gastroenterologist. He started telling us a story about a Lubavitcher couple he had met who live in Karnei Shomrom in Israel. He told us that the wife was not originally observant. But, as a young woman she had been sent by the Israeli government to run youth programs in Ukraine.
"Two Lubavitcher rabbinical students helped organize a winter retreat with her group and in the course of the retreat they had had many interesting discussions about Judaism. They had also had some rather scary incidents, including a run-in with a dangerous taxi driver.
"Upon returning to Israel, Dr. Reif continued relating, the girl thought back to those discussions. She had been impressed with the rabbinical students' enthusiasm, how they conducted themselves, their joy in observing mitzvot, their openness, and she decided to start becoming more observant herself.
" 'Do you know her name?' I asked Dr. Reif. 'Yes, her name is Bete Shayovitch,' he told me. 'Do you know the rabbinical students' names?' I asked him. 'No,' he told me.
" 'Well,' I told him, 'one of them was me!' We were all so amazed at the hashgacha protit! Dr. Reif took my address and assured me that he would give it to Bete when he got back to Israel. A short while later we received an envelope from Bete, containing a letter and a photograph of herself, her husband, and their two children."
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14th of Sivan, 5724 
Blessing and Greeting:
I am in receipt of your letter of May 21st, in which you write about your background and some highlights of your life.
In reply, I will address myself at once to the essential point in your letter, namely your attitude towards religious observance, as you describe in your letter, and especially to the particular Mitzvah [commandment] which is most essential for a happy married life, namely Taharas Hamishpocho [the Laws of Family Purity]. You write that you do not understand the importance of this Mitzvah, etc. This is not surprising, as is clear from the analogy of a small child being unable to understand a professor who is advanced in knowledge. Bear in mind that the condition between the small child and the advanced professor is only a difference in degree and not in kind, inasmuch as the child may, in due course, not only attain the same level of the professor, but even surpass him.
It is quite otherwise in the difference between a created being, be he the wisest person on earth, and the Creator Himself. How can we, humans, expect to understand the infinite wisdom of the Creator? It is only because of G-d's great kindness that He has revealed certain reasons with regard to certain Mitzvoth, that we can get some sort of a glimpse or insight into them. It is quite clear that G-d has given us the various commandments for our own sake and not in order to benefit Him. It is therefore clear what the sensible attitude towards the Mitzvoth should be. If this is so with regard to any Mitzvah, how much more so with regard to the said Mitzvah of Taharas Hamishpocho, which has a direct bearing not only on the mutual happiness of the husband and wife, but also on the well-being and happiness of their offspring, their children and children's children.
It is equally clear that parents are always anxious to do everything possible for their children, even if there is only a very small chance that their efforts would materialize, and even if these efforts entail considerable difficulties. How much more so in this case where the benefit to be derived is very great and lasting, while the sacrifice is negligible by comparison. Even where the difficulties are not entirely imaginary, it is certain that they become less and less with actual observance of the Mitzvah, so that they eventually disappear altogether.
Needless to say I am aware of the "argument" that there are many non-observant married couples, yet seemingly happy, etc. The answer is simple. First of all, it is well known that G-d is very merciful and patient, and waits for the erring sinner to return to Him in sincere repentance. Secondly, appearances are deceptive, and one can never know what the true facts are about somebody else's life, especially as certain things relating to children and other personal matters are, for obvious reasons, kept in strict confidence.
As a matter of fact, in regard to the observance of Taharas Hamishpocho, even the plain statistics of reports and tables by specialists, doctors and sociologists etc., who cannot be considered partial towards the religious Jew, clearly show the benefits which accrued to those Jewish circles which observed Taharas Hamishpocho. These statistics have also been published in various publications, but it is not my intention to dwell on this at length in this letter.
My intention in writing all the above is, of course, not to admonish or preach, but in the hope that upon receipt of my letter you will consider the matter more deeply, and will at once begin to observe the Mitzvah of Taharas Hamishpocho, within the framework of the general Jewish way of life which our Creator has clearly given to us in His Torah, which is called Toras Chaim, the Law of Life.
Even if it seems to you that you have some difficulties to overcome, you may be certain that you will overcome them and that the difficulties are only in the initial stages.
I understand that in your community there are young couples who are observant and you could discuss this matter with them, and find out all the laws and regulations of Taharas Hamishpocho. If, however, you find it inconvenient to seek the knowledge from friends, there are booklets which have been published, which contain the desired information, also a list of places where a Mikvah is available.
Next I will refer to the various undesirable events which occurred in your family, which left you confused, as you write. In view of what has been said above, it is not entirely unexpected. For, inasmuch as the essence of a Jew is to live in accordance with G-d's command, it is clear that if one disturbs the normal flow of this kind of life by disobeying G-d's command, it is not surprising that one should feel confused, lacking the true faith in G-d, which is the only terra firma for a Jew. Moreover, inasmuch as the Mitzvoth are also the channels through which to receive G-d's blessings, it is not surprising that a lack of observance prevents the fulfillment of G-d's blessings.
I repeat, it is not my intention to admonish with regard to the past, but if you want to follow my advice, I urge you to begin from now on to live the Jewish way of life with a firm resolution and determination, and this will surely bring you the fulfillment of your heart's desires for good....
25 Av 5762
Positive mitzva 108: Law of the water of sprinkling
By this injunction (Num. 19:9-21) we are commanded to observe the regulations relating to the water of sprinkling [containing ashes of the red heifer], which under certain conditions causes an unclean person to become clean, and under other conditions causes a clean person to become unclean. (Our Sages consider this mitzva a prime example of the group of laws known as chukim, statutes, the reason for which is unknown or incomprehensible to us.)
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Shabbat we bless the month of Elul, which begins on Friday, August 9. In Elul we prepare for the upcoming High Holidays by blowing the shofar each morning, having our mezuzot and tefilin checked to make sure they are still fit, being more careful about keeping kosher and saying special selichot (penitential prayers) toward the end of the month.
Why do we do all of this in the month of Elul? Can't it wait until we're closer to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? Most of us "work" better under pressure anyway!
These questions can be explained by a beautiful parable:
Once each year, a very mighty king leaves his palace, his guards, his finery, and goes out into the field to meet with his subjects.
In the field, the people can ask of the king anything they wish. They do not need to wait in long lines, go through security checks, be announced ceremoniously. They can speak with him without hesitation.
However, once the king returns to his palace, his subjects will once again have to go through all kinds of protocol to meet with him. So, of course, his subjects make the most of the opportunity.
During the month of Elul, G-d is "in the field." We don't need to go through all kinds of red tape to reach Him. We need only come out to meet Him, as it were, with a humble heart, and He will listen to us. He will accept our repentance and consider our requests most carefully.
The King will soon be in the field. Make sure not to miss this opportunity.
Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse (Deut. 11:26)
There are two different kinds of "today" - the "today" of blessing and the "today" of curse. Consideration of the present moment as an impetus for action can be either positive or negative: "If not now, when?" spurs a Jew on to do good, whereas "Eat and drink for tomorrow we die" leads him down the path of evil.
(Rabbi Chanoch Henich of Alexander)
You are children of G-d, your G-d" (Deut. 14:1)
The Baal Shem Tov deeply loved simple folk. He would frequently remark that love of the Children of Israel is love of G-d; when one loves the father one loves the children.
You shall not shut your hand from your needy brother (Deut. 15:7)
In Hebrew, the first letters of this verse spell out the word "Tehillim" - Psalms. Reciting Psalms on behalf of a poor person is not enough; one must open his hand and give him material sustenance as well.
(Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin)
From when the sickle begins to cut the upright corn (Deut. 16:9)
Once a group of Chasidim complained to their Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, that their spiritual advisor was being unduly harsh. The Rebbe told the spiritual advisor privately later, "It is sure that one must eradicate ego and pride without mercy, as it says, 'From the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn'-one must put the 'sickle' to the 'standing corn' of egotism. However, this is only in regard to oneself. Concerning others, the Torah clearly states, 'do not swing the sickle on your neighbor's grain.'"
The young man stood in the middle of the teeming thoroughfare contemplating the scene. His life in the city was exciting-how could he ever have lived in the town of Berdichev? Ha! Why now, he was a man of the world-nothing was barred to him. He turned right and continued down the tree-lined street, heading for his favorite cafe. Here, he could be with people of his own intelligence and wit. How good it was not to be living in that little village steeped as it was in ancient Jewish rituals.
As so, his days and nights passed in political discussions and drinking. In the morning he would frequent the usual cafe and peruse the morning newspaper, looking for some articles of interest with which he could regale his companions. By afternoon he would stroll the ever-fascinating streets, and by evening, he would again head for the cafe where he and his friends would meet and compare lofty, intellectual concepts.
The mitzvot (commandments) so carefully taught him by his parents never surfaced in his mind, so enthralled was he with the sights and sounds of the big city. Many, if not most of his new acquaintances were also Jewish, and had also managed to "escape" the narrow confines of towns and villages like Berdichev. They had also forsaken the teachings of their parents, grandparents and countless generations of ancestors who had clung against all odds to the same Torah.
One morning, as he lay in bed planning his day's activities, he was startled by his landlady's knock at the door. What could she want? he thought, as he clambered out of bed and into a dressing gown. She looked uneasy as she stood there holding a telegram in her outstretched hand.
"From home," she said. As he took it, the young man felt queasy. His parents would never send a telegram if there was no desperate need. The words confirmed his worst fears. Through the blur of his tears he read again and again the words, "Father has passed away. Come home. Mamma."
He sunk down in his chair. Father is gone. Oh, no.
Within the hour he was on his way home to Berdichev.
The funeral passed and the seven days of shiva were over, yet he lingered on with his widowed mother, enveloped in his own gray bereavement. The month of Elul had arrived and the holiday feeling was almost palpable. He wasn't sure why, but for some reason, he derived comfort from the familiar sights and sounds of his old home town.
The young man walked aimlessly through Berdichev, lost in thought, when suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the Rebbe, Levi Yitzchak, who was known for the great love he had for his fellow Jews.
"You know, young man, I am really very envious of you," remarked the Rebbe, smiling.
The young man was unsure of what was coming next. He waited for the punch line. Reb Levi Yitzchak continued, "During these days of repentance, every Jew has the opportunity, by truly returning to G-d, to turn his sins into merits."
The young man laughed. "Well, if that's the case, you'll be even more jealous next year. For then I'll have a whole new pile of sins to work on!"
"Let me tell you a story," said the Rebbe. "Once a landlord was travelling through his property and a terrible rainstorm came up. He stopped at an inn which he rented out, hoping to find respite from the elements. But, when he brought his horses into the stables the rain cascaded in torrents through the holes in the roof. "Well," he thought, "at least in the inn I'll be able to dry out." But when he entered the inn, the situation was not much better. Puddles like small lakes dotted the floor and a raw dampness pervaded the room.
"The angry landlord approached the innkeeper and said, 'When I rented this inn to you it was in excellent condition. How have you allowed it to deteriorate this way!?'"
"'Your Excellency,' stammered the embarrassed innkeeper, 'I knew you would stop in some time, but I didn't think it would be so soon.'"
With that, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak turned and walked away, but his little story had planted a seed in the young man's mind.
A few days after Rosh Hashana had passed, the young man fell ill. The illness worsened and many specialists were called in, but no cure could be found. Within weeks, it seemed apparent to the young man that his end was quickly approaching. He recalled the rabbi's story and was consumed by regret at how he had wasted his precious life which was ebbing away.
He sent a messenger to Reb Levi Yitzchak begging him to come to his bedside and guide him back to the right path, for his Jewish soul pulled at him and gave him no rest. Reb Levi Yitzchak came at once. He sat at the young man's bedside day after day instructing and encouraging him until he achieved a true and complete repentance.
Do not be ashamed nor confounded; why are you downcast and why are you agitated? The afflicted of my people will find refuge in you; the city will be rebuilt on its former site. Come, my Beloved, to meet the Bride; let us welcome the Shabbat.
(From L'Cha Dodi, a prayer recited in the service to welcome the Sabbath)