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Lashon Hara - literally, evil talk. Gossip, rumor, hearsay, innuendo. Talking behind someone's back. Revealing secrets. Betraying a confidence. However we describe it, lashon hara can be one of the most destructive, harmful things we can do. Not only if the words are true, but especially if the words are true.
The Talmud says that lashon hara kills the teller, the listener and the one spoken about. The listener, it says, is the worst offender, because he or she is the enabler, the one who actually gives it substance.
There's a famous story about a villager who loved to gossip. He knew it was wrong, but he couldn't help himself. It got to the point where people stopped talking to him. Even innocent remarks were turned into something scandalous: "Did you hear what Beryl said about the weather?" - voiced in a conspiratorial tone of shock and disapproval.
Finally, desperate, he approached the rabbi of the town who, reluctantly, listened to him. "Rabbi," the man said, "I know it's wrong, I know it's harmful, but I just can't stop. Please, help me," he begged, tears in his eyes.
The rabbi, who had not been spared from the man's rumor mill, realized only something dramatic would get through, make the necessary impact.
"Tell me," the rabbi said. "Do you have a pillow at home? One stuffed with feathers?"
The man nodded.
"Then I think I can help you," the rabbi said. "Come back tomorrow and bring that pillow with you."
The man left, perplexed. Why did the rabbi want his pillow? Was there some evil spirit in his pillow or some kabalistic secret within it?
He spent the next day in confusion, dread and excitement. At last! Or perhaps not, perhaps the rabbi couldn't help him.
The next morning the man came back to the rabbi's house, trembling with anticipation. Suddenly, the door to the rabbi's house opened and the rabbi walked briskly out of his house holding a large kitchen knife.
The rabbi directed the man to slit open the pillow with the knife. The man obeyed and before he knew it, feathers were flying everywhere, swirling around him, carried in all directions by the wind.
"Now," the rabbi commanded sternly, "bring back the feathers. Restuff the pillow."
The man looked around, mouth open, absent-mindedly brushing a few feathers from himself. When he heard the rabbi's order, saw the severity on the rabbi's face, he started to cry.
"I can't," he sobbed. "There are so many feathers. They have gone so far. Who knows where they are, where they went?"
"Exactly so," said the rabbi gently. "Exactly so. Gossip, slander, rumor - even if true, especially if true, lashon hara scatters to the wind going we know not where, touching we know not who. How much easier to keep our own knife - our tongue - sheathed and not have to restuff the pillow."
In these three weeks of introspection over the destruction of the Holy Temples and yearning for the Third Holy Temple, it is appropriate to add on in acts of goodness and kindness, including making sure that what we say and how we say it, is filled with love.
This week, we read two portions from the Torah, Matot and Masei. In the opening verses of Matot, we encounter the laws of making and annulling a vow. Whereas a person cannot release himself from his pledges, in certain cases, others can do it for him.
Masei begins with an account of the 42 journeys by which the Israelites left Egypt and came to the borders of the Chosen Land. The opening verse, however, suggests that all 42 of the journeys were an exodus from Egypt; whereas in fact only the first journey was, when the Jews literally left the land. To understand this seeming contradiction, we must recognize that Egypt is not only a place but also a state of mind. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for "Egypt," also means "confinement"; which is an obvious contrast with the land of Israel, which is called the "good and spacious land."
In fact, the entire time that the Israelites were not in their Land, they were in confinement; each journey was, in reality, leaving the "confinement" of Egypt. Yesterday's freedom can be confining today. A servant who is allowed to start work at 5:00 a.m. rather than 4:00 a.m. feels a sense of freedom. Tomorrow, however, or the next day, when he becomes used to the later hour, he will consider 5:00 a.m. to be early.
The Torah portions of Matot and Masei are always read during the period of the three weeks between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av. They are set in this time of bitter confinement, between the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem (the 17th of Tamuz) and the Temple's destruction (the 9th of Av, 70 CE).
The significance of this timing, especially that of Masei, is that these portions convey to us, at a time when we most need reminding of it, the concept of "destroying in order to rebuild." Destruction may be for the sake of replacing a building with a better and stronger one. The Baal Shem Tov taught that salvation is not something which simply follows trouble: it is an implicit component of it. Just as the portion of Masei combines two conflicting concepts; here, too, we find the fusion of two opposites - destroying and rebuilding, affliction and salvation - which comes only when we leave the confinements of human reasoning and journey towards the all-encompassing expanses of faith. At this level, everything is drawn into our faith.
Seen from the eyes of a son, punishment is an evil. In the eyes of his father, it is for his son's own good. Our goal is to see history through the eyes of G-d. And by so doing we are able to turn G-d's hidden mercy into open kindness, and change the darkness of exile into the light of the Time to Come.
From Torah Studies by Jonathan Sacks, adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
New Heights for High-Realism
By Yehudis Danzinger
From a small studio in his modest Toronto home, Barry Oretsky creates breathtaking and stirring paintings, notable for their emotional punch. Beyond the beauty of the subject that he captures with his superior technical skills, the true power of Barry's art is in the imprint of his soul that he transfers to the canvas.
When he discusses painting and the creative process, Barry's eyes dance and his face shines. His words describe the fascinating evolution of a painting, and in his voice is the passion of a person in absolute harmony with his life's work.
Against his family's wishes, he made the difficult decision to leave school and study art full time. Oretsky was just 14 years old. To justify his choice, Barry felt impelled to stand first in his class. And he did. Every year he placed first in his class at Central Technical School, ultimately landing a scholarship to study in England.
Enjoying unusually swift success in the art world, Barry launched himself into his chosen field, and his total commitment to art has never wavered. Over the years, while teaching art at Haifa University, serving in the Israeli army, teaching at Thornhill Secondary School, living in France and traveling through Europe exhibits of Barry's art appeared in well-known galleries in New York, Canada, and Israel.
Gradually, Barry settled into the genre of high-realism painting. He invested enormous time and energy into his development as a realist, at one point devoting six years to the study of colour.
As a husband and father with financial responsibilities, he continued to teach art for a living. Eventually, at the behest of his wife who urged him to devote all his time to his craft, he resigned from his job and began to paint full-time. With absolute faith in his talent, his wife undertook to promote his work.
Oretsky follows a specific artistic process. He works from his own photography, shooting rolls of film wherever he finds appealing imagery. He later reviews his photographs, and from each roll of film selects only two or three images to paint.
Then the magic begins. Meticulously, Barry copies the scene in perfect detail. Although he captures every nuance, the painting seems as remote from the original photograph as a blueprint is from a completed building. The painting radiates an emotional urgency that was not present in the photograph, despite their near-identical appearance. That indefinable extra quality in Oretsky's work is what makes his paintings speak.
Three years ago Oretsky accepted a commission of Cheder Chabad in Toronto, Canada to do a portrait of the Rebbe. Oretsky admits, "It was the most intimidating piece I ever worked on." An entire community of Jews who revere the Rebbe and expected a dignified and respectful portrayal would scrutinize this painting. He would also have to work from someone else's photography - making it an interpretation of an interpretation.
Though inundated with materials on the Rebbe; videos, books and pictures, none of the images satisfied Barry's technical needs. With enormous frustration Barry planned to decline the commission.
"I felt that with the materials at hand, the painting would not do honour either to the Rebbe or to myself," Barry explains. "Returning from a trip to Boston, I planned to call Rabbi Shur immediately, and inform him of my decision."
As Barry entered his home that day, the phone rang. To his surprise, he heard the voice of a Chabad Rabbi with whom he was not acquainted. Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, the Director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, was calling to request permission to reprint in his magazine an article Barry had written on being a Jewish artist. Barry agreed to the reprint, and mentioned in passing that he had just decided to reject an offer to do a portrait of the Rebbe.
"Rabbi Cunin said that if I don't cancel the commission, he would guarantee to provide me with whatever photographic material I need," Barry says. "That made the painting possible."
From dozens of photographs Oretsky chose this particular pose because it made the Rebbe more emotionally accessible. Other choices reflected the 'official' Rebbe, or felt like they were eavesdropping on the Rebbe, but Barry wanted to create a portrait that meets the Rebbe face-to-face, allowing the observer to feel a comfortable intimacy.
The portrait is actually a blend of materials from a few pictures. Although the essential visual elements remained true to the original photograph, Barry made some changes. In the original picture, a severe-looking older chasid stood in the background. Barry replaced him with a young chasid, choosing to portray the Rebbe's rare ability to bridge the generations.
"I was given the opportunity to do this translation and transition from photo to painting, and create something that supercedes the photo in every respect," Barry says. "The eyes of the Rebbe in the painting are not the same as those in the photo. They are a heightened experience."
Barry heard descriptions of people who had traveled to the Rebbe, and who had felt electrified by his gaze. But he wanted something else from his portrait. Instead of a split second of exhilaration, Barry wanted to create a subdued, highly intimate contemplative moment with the Rebbe.
He wanted people to be able to return home from work, settle onto the sofa and forget their daily toil; to relax and spend some private time with the Rebbe.
This his painting offers, and in a way that pictures and videos simply cannot. The more he worked on the painting, the more he sensed the extraordinary dimension of the portrait.
As soon as the painting was complete, a queue of people from across the city arrived at Barry's house, where his studio is located, to view the portrait, including rabbis, all struck speechless by the impact of the painting. One rabbi - not a Lubavitcher - lowered himself into a chair, and sat for ten minutes, mesmerized by the Rebbe's face.
"This portrait allowed me to show the world of Lubavitch through the majesty and mysticism that is the world of painting."
New Chabad Centers
Although for some, the summer is a time of rest and relaxation, for directors of Chabad-Lubavitch Centers it's the perfect time to intensify and enhance their work by setting up new centers and bringing in new staff. In the last few weeks alone, shluchim (emissaries) of the Rebbe in various locations have announced the opening of the following new centers: Rabbi Shalom Ber and Chana Hazan - Chabad of Rome-Monteverde in Italy; Rabbi Zalmy and Miriam Heber - Pierce County in Tacoma, Washington; Rabbi Aron and Rochel Pink - Plantation, Florida; Rabbi and Mrs. Mendy Jacobs - Hampstead Gardens, London; Rabbi Meir and Dassi Geisinsky - Columbus, Ohio.
18th of Tammuz, 5714 
Sholom U'Brocho [Peace and Blessing]:
I have received your letter of June 13th, in which, after a brief biographical outline of yourself, you present your problem, namely that you recently became aware of a feeling of apathy and indifference to the religious rites and practices, due to a perplexing doubt as to the authenticity of the Jewish Tradition, by which you undoubtedly mean the Torah and Mitzvos [commandments], and you wonder how their authenticity may logically be proved.
I hope this is indeed the only difficulty which has weakened your observance of the practical precepts in daily life; in most cases the true reason is the desire to make it easy for oneself and avoid a "burden"; one later seeks to justify this attitude on philosophical grounds. If this is the case the problem is more complicated. In the hope that you belong to the minority, I will briefly state here the logical basis of the Truth that the Torah and Mitzvos were given to us Jews by Divine Revelation.
This is not very difficult to prove, since the proof is the same as all other evidence that we have of historic events in past generations, only much more forcefully and convincingly.
By way of illustration: if you are asked, how do you know that there existed such a person as Maimonides, whom you mention in your letter, you would surely reply that you are certain about his existence from the books he has written. Although Rambam (Maimonides) lived some 800 years ago, his works now in print have been reprinted from earlier editions, and those from earlier ones still, uninterruptedly, going back to the very manuscript which Rambam wrote in his own hand. This is considered sufficient proof even in the face of discrepancies or contradictions from one book of Rambam to another. Such contradictions do not demolish the above proof; rather efforts are made to reconcile them, in the certainty that both have been written by the same author.
The same kind of proof substantiates any historic past, which we ourselves have not witnessed, and all normal people accept them without question, except those who for some reason are interested in falsification.
In many cases the authenticity of an historic event is based on the evidence of a limited group of people, where there is room to suspect that the witnesses were, perhaps, not quite disinterested. Nonetheless, because there is nothing to compel us to be suspicious, and especially if we can check the evidence and counter-check it, it is accepted as a fact.
From the above point of view, any doubts you may have about the authenticity of the Jewish Tradition should be quickly dispelled.
Millions of Jews have always known and still know that G-d is the author of the Torah Shebiksav (written Torah) and the Torah Shebe'al Peh, (oral tradition) which He gave to His people Israel not only to study but to observe in practice in daily life. The Al-mighty made it a condition of the existence and welfare of our people as a whole, and of the true happiness of every individual member of our nation.
How do these millions of individuals know, and how did they know in the past, that the Torah is true? Simply because they have it on the evidence of their fathers, millions of Jews that preceded them, and these in turn from their fathers, and so on, uninterruptedly back to the millions of Jews (if we include women and children, and those above and below the age range of the 600,000 male adults) who witnessed the Divine Revelation at Sinai. Throughout all these generations, the very same content has been traditionally handed down, not by a single group, but by a people of many millions, of different mentalities, walks of life, interests, under the most varying circumstances, places and times, etc. etc. Such evidence cannot be disputed.
It is difficult, in the course of a letter, to elaborate, but I am sure that even the brief above analysis should dispel any of your doubts (if indeed you had any serious doubts) as to the authenticity of our Tradition. I trust you will from now on not permit anything to weaken your observance of the Mitzvos, whose very observance of itself illumines the mind and soul more than any philosophic book can ever do. I shall be glad to hear good news from you, and I wish you success.
1 Av, 5763 - July 30, 2003
Prohibition 265: It is forbidden to buy someone else's possessions because of jealousy or envy
This mitzva is based on the verse (Ex. 20:14) "You shall not covet your neighbor's house"
We should not be envious of someone else's possessions. This prohibition prohibits us from thinking of ways to obtain things which belong to another person.
2 Av, 5763 - July 31, 2003
Prohibition 266: It is forbidden to envy other people's possessions
This mitzva is based on the verse (Deut. 5:18) "You shall not desire your neighbor's house"
We are commanded not to be jealous or envious of other people's belongings. The word "house" includes all that which belongs to another person.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Wednesday, July 30, is the first day of the month of Av. With the beginning of Av, the three week mourning period over the destruction of the Temple intensifies.
The first of Av was also the day on which Aaron, the High Priest and brother of Moses, passed away.
Concerning his passing, the Torah tells us that "All of the house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days." But only the men wept for Moses and not the women. Why was this? Because Aaron had made peace between a man and his wife, and between a person and his friend, so all of the Jewish people mourned him.
Certainly it is Divine Providence that Aaron, who was known as a "pursuer of peace," passed away just on the day when, hundreds of years later, we would be intensifying our mourning over the destruction of the Temple? His life's work, evident even at his passing and how he was mourned, teaches us how to remedy the reason for which the Temple was destroyed.
Our Sages tell us that the first Temple was destroyed because the Jews indulged in idolatry, adultery and murder. The second Temple was destroyed through the sin of causeless hatred. We see, then, that hatred and divisiveness among Jews is equal to idolatry, adultery and murder.
We have much to learn from Aaron and his passing. But, most importantly, we must learn to emulate the wonderful example he showed us, that of doing everything in our power to bring peace and harmony amongst our fellow Jews. When this happens, we will no longer mourn the passing of Aaron, nor the destruction of the Holy Temples, for we will all be united, together as one, in the Third and Everlasting Holy Temple, NOW!
Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes... 'when a man utters an oath' (Num. 30:2-3)
The word used here for tribes is "matot," which is a derivative of the word for "staff," denoting strength and firmness. In order to fulfill an oath, which means separating oneself and refraining from things which the Torah otherwise permits, we need the strength of a staff.
He shall not profane his words; everything that leaves his mouth he shall do (Num. 30:3).
Whoever is careful never to profane his words, and is particular to fulfill his commitments, to him is the verse applied, "Everything which leaves his mouth he shall do." That is, "He"- G-d will fulfill his every blessing and utterance. "The righteous decree and the Alm-ghty fulfills."
Avenge the vengeance of the children of Israel against the Midianites, after which you will be gathered to your people. (Num. 31:2)
Moses was told by G-d to lead the children of Israel in their war of vengeance against the Midianites. Yet, when Moses told the Israelites about the war, he told them it was because of G-d's vengeance that they were fighting. Why? If the Israelites would have thought they were fighting for their own vengeance, after which Moses would be gathered to his people, i.e. die, they would have told Moses they could forgive the Midianites, thus lengthening Moses' life. But, when Moses told them they were fighting for G-d's vengeance, they had no choice but to go to war.
These are the travels of the Israelites (Num. 33:1)
All of the 42 travels of the Jewish people can be found, in each and every detail, in a person's life starting with the day he is born until the day he dies.
(The Baal Shem Tov)
To execute the vengeance of G-d on Midian (Num. 31:3)
The name Midian comes from the root "madon," meaning quarrel and strife. Midian symbolizes contention and unwarranted hatred. Therefore, the war against Midian is truly "the vengeance of G-d." For, there is nothing as opposed to G-d as dissention and needless hatred.
Long before the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Roman oppressors, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had foreseen the city's tragic fate. He was detached from all political entanglements, yet, when he saw the futility of the struggle against Rome and realized the inevitability of the fall of Jerusalem, he determined to establish a place of refuge for Judaism.
One day, Rabbi Yochanan called to his nephew, Abba Sikra. Abba Sikra was the head of the zealots-a faction of Jews adamantly against any type of dialogue with the Romans. "How long are you going to le your people die of hunger in the streets?" Rabbi Yochanan asked Abba Sikra.
"These matters are no longer in my hands," was Abba Sikra's sorry reply.
"Will you help me, then, to get out of the city and try to speak with the Roman general Vespacian?" Rabbi Yochanan appealed.
Sikra agreed to help. He suggested that Rabbi Yochanan pretend to be ill. He would "die" and could then be taken out of the city to be buried. From there he could stealthily make his way to the Roman general.
And so it was. But when Rabbi Yochanan's students carried his coffin near the gates of the city, the zealots stopped the procession.
"Let us stab the coffin with our swords to make sure the rabbi is truly dead," they said.
Abba Sikra intervened. "Surely it is not befitting a great and holy sage like Rabbi Yochanan be Zakkai to behave in such a manner."
The Zealots hesitated and finally agreed to let them go. Rabbi Yochanan was able to enter the Roman camp.
"Peace unto you, King," Rabbi Yochanan greeted Vespacian.
"You are guilty of treason for calling me king," replied the general.
"Ah, but I know through prophecy that Jerusalem will only fall by the hands of a king. You, certainly, will soon become the Caesar."
While they were yet speaking, a messenger came, informing Vespacian that the Caesar had died and he had been chosen the new ruler of the Roman Empire.
It is said that Vespacian received this news when he had one boot on, and one off. When he tried to remove his boot, he couldn't. And when he attempted to put on the other boot, he couldn't do that either. Rabbi Yochanan explained that "good tidings makes one's bones fat" (Proverbs 18:5), and that if he were to look at someone he didn't like, his feet would return to normal.
Vespacian was so impressed by Rabbi Yochanan's wisdom that he offered, "Ask of me anything that your heart desires and I will fulfill your wishes."
Rabbi Yochanan's first request was that the city of Yavneh become a place of refuge and an academy be established there. Second, to spare the life of the descendants of Rabbi Gamliel, so that the royal House of David shouldn't be destroyed (the Roman custom was to liquidate the entire ruling family). Finally, Rabbi Yochanan requested the services of a physician to cure Rabbi Zaddock-a great Sage who fasted for 40 years to try and save Jerusalem from destruction.
Vespacian readily granted these seemingly modest requests, not realizing their far-reaching implications for the survival of the Jewish people. The establishment of the new Torah center in Yavneh set the foundations for the spiritual rebirth of the Jewish nation even after its national independence was lost to the mighty Roman Empire-an empire which has since been wiped off the map.
G-d told the prophet Yechezkel, "Tell the people of Israel of the House[the Third Holy Temple]... and measure its design." Yechezkel replied: "G-d! Why are You telling me to tell Israel of the form of the House?... They are now in exile in the land of our enemies. Is there anything they can do? Let them be until they return from exile. Then I will go and inform them." G-d answered: "Should the construction of My House be ignored because My children are in exile?... The study of the Torah's description of the Holy Temple is deemed equal to its actual construction. Go, tell them to study the form of the Temple. And, as a reward for their study..., I will consider it as if they had actually built the Temple!"