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With the arrival of spring, the thoughts of many turn to gardening. For those who have the talent and the perception, gardening does indeed evoke a time of innocence, a youthful obliviousness to the demands and distractions of an acquisitive and material world. To borrow a pun, gardening provides an opportunity for the most jaded, the most obdurate, the most detached - that is, the driven, go-getters devoted to buying, selling, achieving climbing, moving, shaking, etc - it gives them a chance to get back to their roots.
You can't impose your will on a garden. It just won't work. For one thing, there are too many variables. Soil conditions, weather conditions, insect conditions - even for a small garden too many conditions exist for the weekend warrior to combat. Rather, the successful gardener listens, planting according to subtle aesthetic variables. How much space do the petunias need? Will the violets thrive so close to the house? Will tomatoes attract too many insects?
Of course, one of the most vital gardening tasks is weeding. Weeding involves uprooting the undesirable. To weed properly requires insight, fortitude and discernment. Weeds disguise themselves, masking as grass and even flowers. One must be able to recognize a weed, be able to distinguish between a flower and a fake. And one must not only have the courage to dig deep - for weeds are unfortunately deeply rooted, one must also be willing to examine the garden again and again. A gardener must be as tenacious and persistent as a weed. Though rooted out once, a weed will come back, or try to, year after year. Weeding is not a one-time task, but requires a constant vigilance.
And without weeding, the beauty, the harmony, in a sense the very purpose of a garden - creation of tranquility, meaning and order - will be, if not destroyed, marred.
Each year in the spring of the Jewish people, we do some spiritual weeding as we prepare for the blossoming of our spiritual garden, that is, receiving the Torah. What are our weeds? What are the spiritual impediments to the mitzvot - the Torah's commandments? What acts, words or thoughts dissemble, interfere with our gardening?
Our Sages tell us to use the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot to do some spiritual gardening, to weed out the negative character traits that interfere with our zealous attachment to and zealous fulfillment of the mitzvot. We know that our mitzvot, our Divine service, harmonizes the world, reveals the G-dliness within, prepares the world for the perfection of the days of Moshiach.
Our negative character traits are the weeds and must be uprooted.
The emotional attributes are seven in nature - lovingkindness, discipline, compassion, endurance, humility, bonding and nobility. As each of the seven is further composed of all seven, there are forty-nine fundamental combinations. Each day of the forty-nine days, as we count the Omer, count from Redemption to Torah, we focus on refining and elevating one of the attributes.
It is a yearly task, for the negative aspects of our character are deeply rooted, often resprouting in different forms. Fortunately, though, our Sages gave us a "spade" with which to dig - Pirkei Avot - the Ethics of the Fathers. Reading a chapter a week on Shabbat afternoon, during the six weeks be-tween the end of Passover and Shavuot, is like "weeding the garden."
Counting of the Omer: A Practical Spiritual Guide by Rabbi Simon Jacobson contians an explanation of the emotional attributes, and suggested exercises to refine them. www.meaningfullife.com or 718-774-6448
The Torah portion of Behar contains the Biblical prohibition against usury: "Do not take from him any usury or increase, and you shall fear your G-d, that your brother may live with you." Immediately following this verse we are told: "I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt...to be your G-d." Our Sages learned from the juxtaposition of these two verses that when a person accepts the prohibition against lending money with interest, it is as if he accepts the yoke of Heaven. Conversely one who throws off the restriction against usury, simultaneously throws off the yoke of Heaven as well.
What is so significant about usury that the Rabbis used it to illustrate the concept of subservience to G-d? How does charging interest, or refraining from doing so, express the relationship between man and G-d?
Collecting interest on money means making a profit without exerting oneself, at the expense of another person's labor. Once a person lends money to another, that money becomes the property of the borrower, even though he owes the amount to the one who lent it. A person who charges interest is therefore profiting from money which is not his, and is taking advantage of the fact that it once belonged to him.
By understanding this concept, we understand why avoiding usury is so crucial: G-d's goodness and blessings are only bestowed as a direct result of our labor. Both physical and spiritual rewards are only attainable after much toil and effort. The 613 commandments of the Torah are practical expressions of this principle, each one a specific deed to be performed in order to help us reach a higher spiritual level.
But why is all this work necessary? Couldn't G-d, the source of all good, have bestowed that goodness upon us without the labor? The answer is that it is precisely because of G-d's goodness that He chose this system, for we can only truly appreciate that for which we have worked.
An undeserved gift is called "bread of shame," and provides neither joy nor satisfaction. But when a person works toward a goal and then receives his reward, the value of that gift is appreciated and his happiness is that much greater. That is why we are obligated to expend so much effort in our worship of G-d. Spirituality must be attained through hard work and not conferred as a gift.
The mitzva which best illustrates this principle is the prohibition against usury. When a person refrains from it, according to G-d's will, he confirms G-d's plan for the world, that profit may only be accrued as the result of man's work. A person who charges interest defies, with his behavior, this basic principle which is a foundation of the entire Torah.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
A Seder in Novokuznetsk
by Levi Zalmanov
Ed.'s note: In honor of Pesach Sheini (see "A Word from the Director" for more about this special day) we bring you a report from one of the 200 Lubavitcher rabbinical students who traveled to the Former Soviet Union last month to organize and conduct Passover Seders in cities, towns and villages that do not yet have their own permanent rabbi.
While our families celebrated Passover in a more conventional manner in (warm) New York, my friend Shmuel Wolvovsky and I celebrated the Festival of Freedom twelve hours apart in the frigid Siberian town of Novokuznetsk, Russia.
What, you ask, are two nice Jewish boys from Brooklyn doing in Siberia on Pesach? Well, we were hardly alone. As in years before, the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS sent over 100 pairs of Lubavitcher yeshiva students to Jewish communities throughout the former Soviet Union, including the smallest, most remote and far-flung. The Lubavitcher Rebbe often reminded us of the additional "fifth child" who, unlike the traditional four children of the Passover liturgy, does not even show up at the Seder. It was precisely these "fifth children" whom we were seeking; Jews estranged from their heritage after years of Soviet oppression.
As we boarded the AirSiberia flight that was to take us to our destination, I remarked to Shmuel that being "sent to Siberia" has eerie connotations. A few decades earlier, many Jews were sent to Siberia as punishment for their activities of spreading Judaism. In Siberia they languished for years in the infamous Gulag. Now, we were traveling there to perpetuate those very activities.
When we arrived in Novokuznetsk, we were greeted with typical April weather: a howling snowstorm with temperatures in the single digits. We then met the leader of the Jewish community, Yuri Arievich who, in strong contrast to Mother Nature's cold reception, welcomed us warmly. From the moment we arrived until we left ten days later, the community provided us with a translator whose assistance was invaluable.
Our introduction to the Jewish community began as we joined their Friday night meal and spent Shabbat with them. The Rebbe's birthday was celebrated that Sunday, over a table laden with authentic Russian fish and vodka. We spoke at length about the Rebbe's life and activities, told stories and sang many Jewish songs.
Early Monday morning, we began the tedious task of making a Seder from scratch. We rented a dining hall in the local university and went about hunting for food and products to serve. Matza and grape juice were being shipped in from Moscow, but for the rest of the menu, we were on our own.
Finding kosher food for a full meal is no easy task in Siberia. Especially when those foods include the bitter herbs, charoset and other traditional Passover dishes. Our search yielded quite a comprehensive tour of the town. We bought loads of salmon straight from the distributor, and our quest for vegetables brought us to many huge, bustling markets on both sides of the icy Tom River.
After buying all the necessary products, we had to kosher the kitchen to make it fit for Passover use. As we went about cleaning the countertops, boiling hot water in pots and blowtorching some pans, the Russian cooks were subjected to an unexpected crash-course on the intricate laws of koshering.
The Seder night celebrations were very successful, with over 120 people in attendance. We spent many hours telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We discussed Jewish history and tradition and their implications in today's world.
Jewish youth from the local Hebrew school sang many Jewish songs. We were quite impressed by these youngsters who, notwithstanding their limited Jewish education, were permeated with a strong Jewish identity and pride. One young woman told us that she often appears on local television to promote Jewish awareness, despite constant harassment from anti-Semites.
I did not hide my admiration, and told them they were following an example set by Moses. Ignoring Pharaoh's pleas that the Jews leave at midnight from Egypt, Moses stated "We will not sneak out like thieves in the middle of the night, rather we will leave proudly in the middle of the day."
Our stay concluded with a visit to the Hebrew school where we spoke about Passover and the meaning of true freedom.
As we said our goodbyes to the community, Mr. Arievich asked if we'd like to return next year. I answered that while I'd love to spend another Passover with the community, I'm praying for the ingathering of the exiles, in fulfillment of the Seder's concluding wish "Next year in Jerusalem."
MAKING PEACE WITH WAR
Making Peace with War: A Kabbalistic Look at one of the Most Explosive Issues of Our Times is the topic of the upcoming Shabbat Discovery Weekend. The Torah teaches that everything that occurs in the physical world has a simultaneous parallel on emotional and spiritual planes. If there's a war going on somewhere thousands of miles away, it must reflect unresolved conflict on myriad other levels, some much closer to home: painful battles with our spouses or co-workers, gut-wrenching encounters between parents and children, and the constant struggles within the hearts and minds of each one of us. How do we resolve these conflicts? When do we attack ruthlessly, go AWOL, or conscientiously object in the name of peace? Spend an extraordinary weekend May 23-25 with Rabbi Manis Friedman and Mrs. Rivkah Slonim as they probe these issues. Challenge your intellect while nourishing your body and soul with the kind of soul-food that only a Shabbat hosted by the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, can offer. You'll come away with a deeper understanding of war and the tools for creating peace within yourself, with your loved ones, and in the world at large. It will be a weekend you'll never forget. For more info or to register, visit www.shabbaton.org
13th of Iyar, 5720 
Greeting and Blessing:
This is to acknowledge receipt of your two recent letters, and thank you in anticipation of keeping me posted on developments. May G-d grant that the time come soon when the saying of our Sages which we say every day in our prayers "Talmidei Chachomim [Torah scholars] increase peace in the world" - in the world at large and certainly in and on immediate surroundings and affairs, will be fulfilled. It is not difficult to see the tremendous influence of the Yetzer Hora [evil inclination] "dancing" in areas of communal activity and spreading unfounded animosity and disunity, despite the fact that these factors were responsible for the destruction of the Beth Hamikdosh [Holy Temple], as is well known.
Now that we are in the days of Sefira [counting the Omer] and approaching Lag B'Omer, behind which, as the Gemoro tells us, was the disunity and disrespect among the students of Rabbi Akiva, let us hope that the lesson will not be lost.
Hoping to hear good news from you, with blessing,
8th of Tammuz, 5731 
Greeting and Blessing:
I am in receipt of your letter, and many thanks for the good news it contained of the effect that your affairs are progressing satisfactorily along the lines which we discussed here.
I take this opportunity also to express to you some of the impressions which were left with me after our conversation, when you visited me together with your wife, for the first time. The main impression is that both of you form a good team that could accomplish a great deal for the strengthening and spreading of Yiddishkeit [Judaism] in your environment, both immediate and more distant. I am confident that your wife will be a true helpmate to you in this, and that both of you will carry on these activities with joy and vitality. Surely it is unnecessary to emphasize to you the great zechus [privilege] of being the emissaries of G-d to spread His Torah, Toras Emes [the Torah of Truth] and Toras Chaim [the Torah of Life], in the Anglo-Jewish community. Moreover, the need is very great, and at this same time the manpower is very small, for there are relatively very few who are active in this area and can be truly successful.
Considering further that British Jewry has a considerable impact on European Jewry, and that every act and contribution to further this cause makes one a "partner with G-d" - surely there can be no greater gratification and reward than the realization that one is a partner in this great and eternal destiny.
It is, further, well to bear in mind that together with a task which G-d places on a person the necessary capacities are provided by Him to carry out this task in the best possible way. Thus, the greater the challenge - as in the case of British and European Jewry - the greater are the capacities which G-d provides to meet that challenge. But wishing to give the human being full credit for the accomplishment, G-d does not make it too easy, and there are sometimes difficulties and problems to overcome, which indeed can be overcome, provided there is a will and determination.
May G-d grant you Hatzlocho [success] that you should make your contribution to British Jewry to help restore it to its former glory, since, as you know, there was a time when Jews in England counted in their ranks outstanding Baalei Tosfos. The zechus Horabim [merit of the many] will further stand you in good stead.
14 Iyar, 5763 - May 16, 2003
Prohibition 113: We are forbidden to use any animal for work that has been designated for sacrifice.
This mitzva is based on the verse (Deut. 15:19) "You shall not do any work with the first-born of your ox." At the time of the Exodus from Egypt, G-d claimed that all first-born males and animals are sacred to Him. Just as the Torah forbids us to use first-born animals for our own purposes, so, too, we cannot do work with any other animals set aside for sacrifice.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
When you've missed the boat there's nothing you can do but wave to the passengers. If the train has already left the station, you might as well sit down and wait for the next one to arrive. There are many things in life that depend on being in the right place at the right time; if you're late, you've missed that opportunity forever.
Likewise, the Torah tells us that there are specific times for doing specific mitzvot.
The Torah's narrative about Pesach Sheini - the "Second Passover" (which falls this year on Friday, May 16 - 14 Iyar), thus expresses a very radical concept in Judaism.
Right before their Exodus from Egypt, G-d commanded the Jewish people to offer the Passover sacrifice, on the 14th of Nisan. One of the requirements, however, was that a Jew had to be in a state of ritual purity. As a result, not everyone was permitted to bring an offering, and the Jews who were excluded felt terrible. "Why should we be left out?!" they demanded of Moses. They were so eager to observe the mitzva that G-d relented, granting them another opportunity to bring an offering one month later, on Iyar 14.
This story reveals the unfathomable depths of the Jewish soul and the infinite power of teshuva, repentance. It teaches us that every Jew is so intimately connected to G-d that when he makes a sincere and heartfelt demand, it "forces" G-d, as it were, to open up new channels through which to send us His abundant blessings.
As the Previous Rebbe explained, the lesson of Pesach Sheini is that it is never too late to correct the past and return to G-d. It also emphasizes the power of a Jew's initiative. When a Jew cries out, from the depths of his soul and with a genuine desire to fulfill G-d's will, G-d listens to his plea and grants his request.
Ultimately, Pesach Sheini teaches us that we must never despair or give up on ourselves, on others, and especially in bombarding G-d with our demand that He send us Moshiach immediately.
And you shall not deceive one another (Lev. 25:17)
Can a person really deceive another, especially in spiritual matters? Even if he succeeds in his deception, the victory is only temporary and the deceit is always eventually revealed. The only person, therefore, who has been effectively deceived is the deceiver himself. And is it so difficult to fool a fool?
(Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch)
And you shall return, every man, unto his family (Lev. 25:10)
In the fiftieth, or Jubilee year, the former slave returns to his family, but not, as brought down in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, to his former stature.
Everything can be restored to a slave-his freedom, his inheritance, and his family-but the status and honor afforded him before he sold himself into slavery can never be returned. This was forfeited the moment he indentured himself.
For strangers and sojourners are you with Me (Lev. 25:23)
The more a person considers himself only a sojourner and a temporary resident of this world, the closer he is to G-d. And, unfortunately, the opposite is also true...
(Rabbi Boruch of Mezhibozh)
Once, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was engaged in a discussion with his colleagues, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi. They were discussing the Roman oppressors.
Rabbi Yehudah tried to find something meritorious about them and mentioned how they had brought new commerce to the land of Israel, built cities, bridges and beautiful baths.
Rabbi Yossi heard his words and remained silent. He didn't want to praise the Romans, yet he also didn't want to malign them.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai remembered all the evil and destruction the Romans had done - they burned the Holy Temple, killed many people, and especially delighted in torturing the sages. Fearlessly, he criticized, "Everything that they improved or restored was only for their own pleasure and benefit. All of their actions boded evil for us."
A man who had been sitting nearby heard the words of the sages and repeated them to his friends, who repeated them to their friends, until, eventually, they were heard by Roman officers, and finally, the Caesar himself, who decreed: "Yehuda, who praised us, will be greatly rewarded. He will be elevated to head of the Jews. Yossi, who stayed quiet, will be punished lightly. He will be exiled from his city. But Shimon, is condemned to death."
When Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai heard what the Romans had planned for him, he took his son Elazar, and hid in the study hall. They did not leave their hiding place, and Rabbi Shimon's wife brought them food every day.
But soon, the Romans stepped up their search and warned that anyone who helped them flee or hide would be punished. Out of concern for his wife's life, Rabbi Shimon fled with his son to a far-off cave in a desolate area. Here, Rabbi Shimon and his son were safe from their pursuers.
But, there was no one to bring them food and they were afraid to go out to find any. However, there was a carob tree next to the cave and a spring right inside. They wore their clothing only during prayers in order to preserve them and at times of Torah study they covered their bodies with sand. For twelve years, they remained in the cave, never seeing another human being, speaking only to each other, and learning Torah constantly.
After twelve years, Elijah the prophet came to the entrance of the cave and called out, "Who will tell Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai that the Roman Caesar who pursued him has died and the decree is annulled?"
Immediately, Rabbi Shimon and his son left the cave. But after twelve years they were not able to acclimate themselves to everyday life. They saw a farmer tending his field. "Why is he wasting his precious time preparing for his needs for this world when he ought to spend his valuable time making preparations for the world to come," Rabbi Shimon wondered. He looked at the man with a penetrating stare and before their very eyes the farmer turned into a heap of bones. Immedately aheavenly voice called out, "Do you want to destroy My world? Go back to the cave. The world is unable to exist with your great holiness."
Another year passed, and it was revealed to them that they must re-enter the "mundane" world. Upon leaving the cave they saw an old man running quickly to his home with two bundles of myrtle branches. They asked him, "Why do you have these myrtle branches?"
To which the old man replied, "They are in honor of the Sabbath, for they have a beautiful scent."
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said to his son, "Do you see how beloved and cherished mitzvot (commandments) are to the Jews." They were filled with a new understanding of the purpose of man and were able to rejoin the world.
When people saw Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai return there was great rejoicing. Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair saw that Rabbi Shimon's body was badly scarred from his many years of immersion in the sand. Rabbi Pinchas took Rabbi Shimon to the bath house and began to wash him with the soothing waters. Rabbi Pinchas tears fell upon Rabbi Shimon's body, adding to his pain. Rabbi Pinchas exclaimed, "Woe to me that I see you in such a terrible state." Rabbi Shimon consoled him:" If I had not been in this state, then I certainly would not have been able to achieve the high level of learning that I was able to reach."
Rabbi Shimon wanted to do a good deed in order to celebrate the great miracle of his deliverance and of his elevated level of Torah knowledge. The townspeople told him about a road under which there had been a lost grave. As Kohanim (priests) are not permitted to come in contact with dead bodies, they had to take a long detour when traveling that route. The holy Rabbi Shimon was immediately able to discern the location of the grave and the problem was corrected.
Once, one of Rabbi Shimon's students left the Holy Land in order to engage in commerce. When he returned to Israel, he brought with him great wealth. The other students saw and become envious. When this became known to Rabbi Shimon, he took them out to a valley facing Mount Meron and prayed, "Valley, valley, fill yourself with gold dinars!" The entire valley fill up with gold coins. Rabbi Shimon then said to his students, "Here is gold, go and take it. But you should know that whoever takes now is taking from his portion in the World to Come."
The anniversary of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's passing on Lag B'Omer is, as per Rabbi Shimon's request, a day of rejoicing.
The connection between Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (who passed away on Lag B'Omer) and the Redemption is alluded to in this great rabbi's name. Sometimes "Yochai" is spelled in Hebrew with the letter "alef" and at other times it is not. The alef of Yochai alludes to drawing down and revealing the Alufo Shel Olam - the Master of the world - in the gola (exile). For the Hebrew word "gola," with the addition of an alef, becomes "Geula" - Redemption.
(From a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Lag B'Omer 5751)