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Who doesn't love a wedding? The music, the flowers, the food, the beautiful bride, the father blessing his daughter, the chupa (marriage canopy), breaking the glass and shouting "Mazal Tov!"
For the bride, the groom and the immediate family, there is a constant build-up of excitement, anticipation and preparation. The bride and groom, in particular, are living with the wedding and the wedding plans: eating, breathing, and even sleeping, every detail of the awesome event. For others, the level of involvement is far less intense.
An acquaintance need only be aware of the approaching date of the wedding. A quick check of the calendar ensures that there are no conflicting plans. A few days before the wedding you'll go out and buy a present, and a few hours before you'll get ready to go. But until you actually arrive at the wedding, the myraid details have little reality for you. You have to see them to get truly excited.
A close relative or friend gets more involved in the preparations, perhaps even talking about it to colleagues who don't know the bride or groom. The excitement is more concrete. Weeks in advance you think about what you'll wear. You'll go back and forth in your mind over what would be just the right gift, and maybe you'll be involved in planning pre- or post-wedding celebrations. The wedding, with all of its details, is much more real to you than to the acquaintance who shows up at the right time.
And what if you were the bride or groom, or parents of the couple? Even months before the wedding it would be very real to you because you would be busily immersed in every detail of the big event. The excitement, anticipation and longing for that day would be tangible.
It's not hard to realize that the more one is involved in the actual, wedding plans, whether you're family, friends, or hired professionals, the more of a reality the wedding is to you.
This scenario is similar to the revelation of Moshiach and the Final Redemption. For, certainly, the Redemption has been likened to a wedding, specifically the consummation of the wedding between G-d and the Jewish people that took place at Mount Sinai.
The more we are involved in this ultimate wedding-the more we participate in practical deeds and suitable activities relating to the Redemption-the more excited we will automatically become and the more of a reality it will be in our own lives.
The Rebbe teaches that we should study more about Moshiach and the Redemption as a preparation for the once-in-a-lifetime event. In addition, we should engage in practical deeds and suitable activities which will further prepare us for this ultimate wedding, mitzvot that will help hasten the Redemption and accustom us to what it will be like living in the Messianic Era.
It can be as simple as another good deed, another kind act, to prepare us for a world where G-d's goodness and kindness will be clearly evident and where people's innate positive qualities will shine brightly to create a peaceful, healthy and benevolent world.
This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, opens with the commandment of bikurim - first fruits. "You shall put it in a basket... and the priest will take the basket out of your hand."
Closer study of the Torah's laws of bikurim reveals that the presentation of the basket (usually made out of wicker) to the kohen (priest) was an integral part of the commandment itself.
Interestingly, while the fruits that were brought were only the choicest, and only selected from the seven varieties with which the land of Israel is praised, the basket that was used for them was made of a common material.
This seeming contradiction in the commandment of bikurim contains an allusion to the descent of the soul from the higher spheres and its incarnation in a physical body down below.
The fruits of the bikurim are symbolic of the soul; the basket is the corporeal body. Handing the basket to the priest represents the purpose for which the soul made this drastic descent.
In general, the first fruits are symbolic of the Jewish people; more specifically, of the G-dly soul as it exists Above, completely transcendent of the physical world.
G-d's plan, however, is for this rarefied soul to become enclothed in a body, a coarse and lowly "vessel" which contains it, as it were.
This vessel makes it difficult for the soul to express its connection with G-d, even to the point of obscuring its true mission in the world. Again, just as in the commandment of bikurim, the holy and superior "fruit" is contained and even constrained within the confines of a simple and unpretentious "basket."
Chasidut provides the reason for this, explaining that the descent of the soul into a physical body is a "descent for the purpose of ascent": It is precisely through its sojourn on the physical plane, having to confront the difficulties of this world and overcome them, that the essence of the soul is revealed and a higher level of spirituality attained - much higher than could ever be reached without experiencing this descent in the first place.
In principle, "fruits" alone are not enough; the objective of the soul's descent is "fruits within a basket."
The soul's growth is accomplished through the performance of practical commandments, which can only be done with the help of the "vessel" - the physical body. For in truth, the soul was already filled with love and awe of G-d before it came down into the material world; the only change it experiences upon finding itself in a body is that it can now do physical commandments, something that was previously impossible. Thus the soul is rendered capable of elevating the physical world and turning it into holiness - the intent of all of creation.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot of the Rebbe, Volume 29
We Are Our Brothers' Keepers
By Yehudis Cohen
"When we got married we incorporated certain aspects of Jewish observance into our lives," remembers Neil Thalheim, co-founder and co-director with his wife Susan (whose Jewish name is Natalia), of the Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund. "We celebrated Friday night Shabbat dinner, though on Saturday we ran errands. We picked mitzvot (commandments) that felt comfortable or made sense," says Neil with a smile, "but it never really felt right."
In an attempt to make it feel right, the Thalheims attended an outreach seminar and began going to classes in Jewish basics like Shabbat, kosher, and Jewish holidays. Natalia found especially compelling a class in Chasidic philosophy. Acquaintances in their predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Great Neck, Long Island (New York) began inviting them to their homes for Shabbat meals. Says Neil, "The kind of commitment we were seeing in others was what we wanted for ourselves, for our lives, for our family."
The Thalheims fell in love again, this time with Judaism, with G-d and with Torah. "We had been sending our children to an Orthodox day school. We came to realize that it was important that what our children see in the home be consistent with what they were learning in school," Neil notes.
The more involved Neil and Natalia got in Torah study, the more they wanted to share it with others. "We created a forum to offer classes in our home and invite guests for Shabbat and holiday meals. We wanted to give to others what we had gained."
Neil visited Israel for two weeks to explore Judaism. "I like the buffet approach, piling up your plate with a wide range of stuff, tasting different courses. Before I left Great Neck I asked our local Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Yossi Geisinsky, if there was anyone he recommended I meet while in Jerusalem. He said I should connect with Meir Abehsera. The Abehseras' big thing is the Saturday night 'Melava Malka' escorting the Sabbath queen." Neil went to the Abehseras' Jerusalem home on Saturday night and was excited by the music, the ambiance and the Torah that Meir was teaching.
In addition to classes and Shabbat meals, the Thalheims started hosting occasional Melave Malkas on Saturday nights. In the fall of 2000, the Thalheims decided to make a Melave Malka concert featuring Benzion Solomon who lives in Israel. "On October 30 we got an email from Benzion saying that that day had been most intense for his family. They had danced for hours at their son's Bar Mitzva at the Kotel (Western Wall). At the end of the celebration they had received the tragic news that a young friend, Ish Kadosh Gilmore, had been murdered by Arab terrorists. 'We were so high and then we were so low,' Benzion wrote to us.
"We couldn't just make a plain Melave Malka anymore. We decided the concert was going to be in Ish Kadosh Gilmore's memory and in memory of the other nine Jews who had been murdered by Arab terrorists. We hoped that the concert would raise money to help support the families of Arab terrorism," explains Neil.
A mere six weeks later, by the time of the concert, 30 more Jews had been murdered. The evening included music and speakers. "At the end of the evening, Natalia and I felt that we just had to go to Israel. A few days later we were on a plane to Israel. We traveled non-stop for four days and met with 20 families whose loved ones had been murdered by Arab terrorists. We gave the families the money that had been raised at the concert and we made connections. We felt so strongly that we needed to support the families emotionally and financially, to let them know that we are one people."
At that time the Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund was established. "It's about connecting, having a sense of responsibility," says Neil. "What we learned from our Torah classes inspired us to want to help others connect to their Jewish roots and to understand the Torah concept of communal responsibility."
The Fund's first activity was organizing local walk-a-thons in cities across North America. Families, children and adults marched together holding pictures of the victims of Arab terrorism. About $1,500,000 has been raised just through walkathons to date.
Another project is the now-famous poster displaying the faces of Jews murdered by Arab terrorists. "Once a name is associated with a face it is much more powerful," says Neil. One hundred thousand copies of the poster are currently displayed in homes, synagogues, businesses and schools.
"We started a 'Mitzva for Israel' campaign encouraging children to do good deeds for their brethren in Israel. We are not a religious organization per se but we try to inspire people to learn more about Judaism. Many of our projects are connected with various holidays. We have also asked synagogues to offer emotional and financial support to families. Today, 125 congregations participate in the Adopt-a-Family project.
"Esther Abehsera, Meir's wife, got us going on the writing of a Torah scroll in memory of the victims of terror. Once completed, the Torah will be used at the Kotel. People can sponsor letters in the Torah by contributing one dollar per letter," explains Neil.
The I.E.S.F. staff in Israel meets with families of victims, assesses their needs, and lobbies for them in the government. They also help people who have witnessed terrorism. "Tens of thousands of people have been witnesses and are traumatized. A person is unable to function at full capacity when constantly reliving watching someone's head rolling down the block.
Neil, formerly a stock trader, says "It's become a full-time volunteer job for my wife and myself. We are consumed with it from morning to night."
The Thalheim children, Benjamin, Shira, Rena, Eliana, Rafael, and Akiva, "help in their own way. They came up with the idea of bringing young people from Israel to speak in the United States," adds Neil proudly.
"Becoming familiar with the work of the Rebbe's emissaries around the world helped me in creating the vision and having the belief that we could accomplish great things," Natalia relates.
"Today," says Neil painfully, "593 Jews have been murdered. Almost 4,300 Jews have been injured. Our goal," concludes Neil, "is to go out of business and to never have to help another family."
Achievements in Jewish Education
The Max Fisher Prize for Excellence in Jewish Education was awarded this year to Rabbi Shmuel and Chani Kaminetzki, directors of Chabad-Lubavitch in the Dnepropetrovsk region of Ukraine. At a ceremony in Jerusalem, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Pinkus Foundation recognized the incredible work of Lubavitch in Ukraine. The prize noted the education infrastructure in the city built up over the last 12 years by the Kaminetzkis and 18 other Chabad couples working with them. Chabad's education system in Dnepropetrovsk includes the Levi Yitzchok Kindergarten, Or Avner Jewish Day School with over 700 children, a boy's high school and a girls high school. The Beit Chana teachers seminary is recognized by both the Ukranian and Israeli Ministry of Education. Chabad-Lubavitch of Ukraine is a member of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the C.I.S.
25th of Elul, 5724 
Greeting and Blessing:
I received your letter of the 16th of Elul.
I believe I have already written to you before that both in regard to efforts to influence others, and also to help oneself, it is good to consult with G-d fearing friends, especially such as have had experience in such matters.
With regard to your question about free will, the Rambam explains it at length in the laws of Teshuva [Repentance], Chapter 5 and 6. The meaning of free will is simply that a person is quite free to act, speak and think, and always has free choice to do so either to the good, or otherwise.
Thus, it is also emphasized in the Torah, "Behold I have given you etc., - choose life." There is no contradiction between human free choice and Divine Knowledge, for the opposite of free choice is not knowledge but compulsion. In other words, Divine Knowledge in no way affects human freedom, and does not compel.
One of the illustrations which will make it easier to understand this subject is that of a person who is clairvoyant, and could foretell events in the future, or a psychologist who knows a friend very well, and could foretell his reactions, although limited to a short period of time. Clearly, such foreknowledge does not affect the event and actions that come to pass. But G-d is unlimited in time and knowledge, and His Knowledge extends to all times and places, but never effects freedom of man's actions.
Enclosed is a copy of my General message of Rosh Hashanah of this year. In it you will find answers also to some of your questions.
Wishing you a Kesivo veChasimo Toiva [may you be written and sealed for good]
28th of Elul, 5730 
After not hearing from you for a long time, I was pleased to receive your letter, though in the meantime I had regards from you through your father when he was here. I was pleased to be brought up to date on your activities, especially in the area of Chinuch [Jewish education].
(As has often been mentioned before, every activity in Chinuch should be carried out with particular enthusiasm, inasmuch as it is like planting a seed, or taking care of a seedling, where every additional effort, however small, will eventually be translated into extraordinary benefits when the said seed or seedling becomes a mature fruit-bearing tree. The same is true of the care taken to shield the seed or seedling from harmful effects.
By the same token, it will be realized that, although Mitzvos [commandments] and good deeds should be done without thought for reward, nevertheless the reward for every activity in Chinuch is greater than the reward for any other Mitzvah, inasmuch as the effects are lasting and cumulative and reproduced from generation to generation.) There is surely no need to elaborate to you on the above.
I will only add that, inasmuch as this is the time of the year to make good resolutions for the whole of the new year coming, especially the Ten Days of Teshuvah, of which our Sages say that this was the period meant in the familiar words of the Prophet, "Search G-d when He may be found, call upon Him when He is near" (Isaiah 55:6) - you will make appropriate resolutions to go from strength to strength in all matters of goodness and holiness, and in all the matters about which you write.
Wishing you a Kesivo VeChasimo Tovah,
20 Elul, 5762
Positive Mitzva 204: Returning a Lost Article. This mitzva is derived from Exodus 23:4: "You shall surely bring it back to him." The Torah commands us to try to find the owner of a lost article and return it to him.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This coming Monday is Chai Elul, the 18th of Elul. Chai Elul was the date of birth of two great luminaries-the Baal Shem Tov, founder of general Chasidut and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chasidut.
The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, described Chai Elul by saying that it introduces chayot -- life energy -- into the service of the month of Elul.
The service of Elul includes Torah study, prayer and mitzvot (commandments) as well as teshuva (repentance) and redemption.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that at each moment, creation is renewed.
When G-d created the world from total nothingness, the first moment of existence that He created included within it every moment that would follow.
Similarly, at every moment, as G-d totally recreates the world anew, every moment includes all previous and all subsequent moments, just as the first moment of creation included all time.
This concept helps us understand teshuva - return and repentance. It is explained that in one moment of true repentance a person can compensate for inadequacies in his behavior over many years.
Indeed, with one turn of sincere teshuva, one can compensate for all the past transgression, even those committed in previous incarnations.
How is that possible?
Because each moment contains within it the totality of time and can thus alter the nature of the events that occurred previously.
This concept, although true at all times, receives greater emphasis during the month of Elul. And Chai Elul contributes the dimension of chayot - life energy - to all of this.
On this basis, we can understand the uniqueness of Chai Elul.
Blessed will you be in the city, and blessed will you be in the field (Deut. 28:3)
A city has certain advantages over rural life, among them the pleasure of others' company and the availability of places of Torah and learning. Rural life also has its advantages, such as a more relaxed life-style, fresher air, and warmer relationships between neighbors. G-d's blessing is that we should be equally blessed in both locales.
And you shall go to the place which the L-rd your G-d will choose to place His name there (Deut. 26:2)
A Jew does not travel the face of the earth of his own volition; Divine Providence leads him from place to place for the sole purpose of "placing His name there" - sanctifying the name of G-d in that particular place.
Because you did not serve the L-rd your G-d with joy and with gladness of heart... you will serve your enemies (Deut. 29:47)
Joy is such an important part of the Jew's service of G-d that the harsh consequence of "you will serve your enemies" does not result from a deficiency in the service, but from worshipping G-d without joy. When a Jew is happy, G-d is happy, as it were, and even the harshest decrees are annulled - analogous to an earthly king granting amnesty to his prisoners when he is in a cheerful mood.
Early one Thursday morning, the Baal Shem Tov (Besht) and one of his pupils set off for the city of Leipzig where they would be spending the Sabbath. As they boarded the wagon, the Besht turned to his driver Alexi, and told him that after they left the city he could let the reigns drop and go to sleep. The wagon moved swiftly but after fifteen hours of travel they still had not reached their destination. They hitched the wagon to a tree by the road and the chasid fell asleep. He awoke the next morning when the wagon began moving.
After several hours a house appeared in the distance. As they got closer, the chasid was overjoyed to see a mezuza on the door. At least they would have a Jewish home in which to celebrate the Sabbath.
The wagon stopped before the house, the door opened and an old man with a radiant face warmly embraced the Besht before escorting him into the house.
"Just wait in the wagon, I'll return shortly," the Besht said to his pupil. Fifteen minutes later he returned and they were on their way. When the hut was out of sight, the Besht told the driver to let the reigns drop. In no time the horses strayed into a field, then into a forest and stopped. The Besht got out, took a silver cup from his bag, motioned to his bewildered pupil to follow and after several minutes suddenly stopped and said, "Look, water!"
Sure enough from within a thicket he heard a bubbling brook. The Besht dipped his cup into the water and made a blessing. It seemed as though the entire forest reverberated with each word he uttered. The Besht finished drinking, made an after-blessing with the same deliberate intensity and then motioned for his pupil to return to the wagon.
The chasid wondered where they were and where they would spend the Sabbath. He looked up and was surprised to see that they were in Leipzig! Suddenly he heard the Besht say to the driver, "Turn down this street!"
The pupil blurted out, "This is Shillergass, the street where all the university taverns are. If we turn here it will be our end!"
The Besht paid no attention. After a few moments he told the driver to stop. "Here is where we are staying! But hurry! It's almost Shabbat."
The Besht knocked at a door and it opened, revealing an elderly Jew dressed for the Sabbath and several young men standing behind him.
"Come in," he whispered fearfully. "Who are you? Come in quickly!"
As the old man closed the door he said, "You are really lucky no one was in the street. They are nothing but bloodthirsty animals. I am a shoemaker. If they didn't need me here they would kill me too. Who are you?"
The Besht promised he would explain but because it was very late he wanted to begin the afternoon prayers. The shoemaker had seven sons and together with the Besht and his pupil they made a minyan (quorum). The Besht began to pray aloud at the top of his voice.
The old shoemaker was astounded; he suddenly felt as though his heart was exploding with love for G-d. He had never heard such prayer before.
When the prayers finished the sound of bottles crashing brought them back to reality. The Besht walked to the door, opened it and stepped outside to the bloodthirsty crowd. "Kill the Jew!" Someone yelled and threw a rock.
One student ran toward the Besht with an iron bar. Suddenly he froze, hand paralyzed in midair, screaming with pain. Then another student drew a large knife, with the same results. The two of them stood screaming until the crowd dropped their rocks and begged the Besht to take away the spell. The Besht said something, the paralyzed students fell to the ground and everyone ran away.
The Besht went inside and began the Sabbath prayers. Shortly, a tall man entered the house. He looked around the room then stared at the Besht. After the prayers they sat down to eat the Shabbat meal amidst song and wondrous words of Torah. The entire time the stranger stood and stared and the Besht paid him no attention. Only when they finished the meal did the man approach the shoemaker and ask him if when they would be praying in the morning. Then he left.
"That man," said the shoemaker to the chasid, "is Professor Shlanger, one of the most anti-Semitic intellects in Germany."
The next morning, the professor returned and repeated the same performance and then left after the meal not to return again.
Shabbat ended and the Besht and his pupil bade farewell, boarded their wagon and in less than five hours were back at home. The chasid was burning with curiosity. "Who was the old man whose house we stopped at? Why did you drink a cup of water in the forest and what did we accomplish by spending Shabbat at the shoemaker's house?" he asked.
The Besht answered, "The old man is one of the hidden Tzadikim upon whom the world stands. He will be the first to know when Moshiach arrives and that is what we spoke about. We went into the forest because I saw that since the beginning of creation no one had ever made a blessing on the water in that brook. What we accomplished in the shoemaker's house you will know one day."
Twenty years later the chasid was in Minsk when a Jew stopped him. He asked if he was a pupil of the Besht and if he had ever visited Leipzig.
When the chasid answered affirmatively, the Jew said, "I was the professor who visited that Sabbath. At the time I was at a turning point in life and when I heard of how your teacher paralyzed those students I knew I had to see him.
"He made such a profound effect on me that after a few months I disappeared from the university, moved to another country and converted to Judaism. I don't know how your master could possibly have known that a Jew-hater like me had the potential to become a Rabbi, but he did."
In a private audience in the winter of 1970 with Rabbi Shmuel Chefer of Israel, the Lubavitcher Rebbe said: "The Mitteler Rebbe [Rabbi Dov Ber, the second Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch who was born in 1773) says that we have already endured the birth pangs of Moshiach. Moshiach can come already."