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August 22, 2003 - 24 Av, 5763

783: Re'eh

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  782: Eikev784: Shoftim  

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

More Power to You

Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey and Ontario. Tens of millions of Americans were affected by the worst power outage in history, some for a few hours, others for days.

A prime teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, is that everything we see and hear is a lesson for us in how to lead more Jewishly-oriented lives. What lesson, then, can be garnered from the power outage of this past week?

On the Saturday following Thursday's Blackout, in synagogues throughout the world, the Torah portion read was "Eikev." The portion begins "And it will come to pass - eikev - when you listen to these ordinances... G-d will keep His covenant with you."

In explaining these opening words, our Sages comment that the ordinances referred to here are "simple" mitzvot; commandments that a person might trample under his heel ("eikev" in Hebrew). The commentator Rashi further explains, "If you follow commandments of seemingly 'minor importance' - which one tramples with his heels - then G-d will fulfill all of His promises."

On a beautiful summer afternoon in August, utilities that we take for granted - electricity, and for some water - disappeared without warning, albeit temporarily.

Computers, cell-phones, microwaves - electronically powered devices for work and play - were useless. Modes and means of communication, unless one had an old-fashioned telephone-cum-cord, were nearly nil.

We have come to take technology for granted. These "simple" appliances and equipment powered by "simple" electricity, simply did not work.

And so, perhaps the power outage took place in precisely the week of the Torah portion of Eikev to remind us of how truly important even the simplest of mitzva is and not to take it for granted. Putting a coin in a charity box each day (except Shabbat and holidays), looking for the kosher symbol when going grocery shopping, lighting Shabbat candles at the proper time; let's not minimize the importance of any mitzva.

Another point to ponder. Within hours of the power going out, once terrorism and sabotage had been dismissed, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario were all being cited as the possible cause of the catastrophe to the denial of officials in each of those locations. That, as well as claims of "Third World" power grids and an archaic power system, got people even hotter under their already hot (sans air-conditioning) collars. One politician, however, noted that rather than wasting energy on placing or denying blame, the business at hand was to get the power back on.

Here, too, we can learn an important lesson. A well-known Jewish teaching states, "Half the cure is knowing the illness." It goes without saying that the source of the problem needed to be sought out. But the placing of blame, the accusations, the denials - at this time and at any time in life - is truly a power outage, an energy output, with absolutely no point. We'd all be much more comfortable if we remember that the next time we get into an argument!

The most obvious lesson of all that can be gleaned from the recent outage is the realization that being connected is of utmost, vital importance. As soon as power plants lost their connection to the main power source, the situation turned bleak (and eventually black). So too with our connection to our Jewish power source: We are enjoined to be actively involved in our Jewish communities; We are directed to be connected continuously to our source of inspiration and life, the Torah; And we are charged with the awesome responsibility and privilege of having a direct connection with G-d through prayer and mitzva observance.

Let's empower ourselves Jewishly by connecting to these lessons from the Blackout of 2003.

Living with the Rebbe

The Torah portion of Re'ei is always read on the Shabbat preceding the month of Elul, or on the very first day of the month itself. Elul is the month before Rosh Hashana, and is dedicated to repentance and seeking forgiveness for our sins. This portion illustrates the great power that teshuva, or returning to G-d, can have.

It is generally believed that repentance can atone for sins which were committed against G-d, but cannot alone compensate for wrongdoings committed against our fellow man. A human judge can only hold a person accountable for what his eyes can see, whereas G-d knows what we hold in our hearts. This week's portion, however, shows us an exception to the rule, in the section about the "town that was led astray."

In general, the Torah is very stringent when it comes to laws concerning idolatry. Indeed, idol worship is one of the three transgressions, along with incest and murder, for which we are required to give up our very lives rather than commit. And in certain circumstances, the Torah decrees capital punishment for those who worship idols. Re'ei discusses the possibility of an entire town which has been lead astray and is engaging in this transgression, and refuses to repent of its evil. In such a case, the entire village is destroyed and obliterated from the face of the earth.

Maimonides explained that if the inhabitants do teshuva and return to the One True G-d, then of course the town is not destroyed.

There is something very unique about this law. In every other instance of wrongdoing where a beit din (Jewish court) is empowered to mete out punishment, the sinner's repentance has no bearing on and in no way prevents the sentence from being carried out. But in the case of the "town which was led astray," if the people do teshuva the town is allowed to remain in existence.

The explanation for this lies in the special category which is created by the "town which was led astray." When an entire populace is misled to serve false gods, the town attains the status of an idolatrous community. No longer are the inhabitants viewed as individuals who are sinning, but rather the entire community, as a community, is considered as deserving the harsh punishment entailed in the Torah. But if all the people sincerely repent, they revert to their former status as individuals and are no longer in this special category, and their town therefore avoids having to be destroyed.

This underscores the immense power of repentance, which can nullify even the harshest of decrees. We also learn from this chapter, if albeit in a negative fashion, the power inherent in unity. When we stand united and dedicate ourselves to good and positive causes, we can attain great heights. Conversely, when a group of people join together and unite to do evil, it causes the greatest damage and destruction.

The Jewish People draw their solidarity from the fact that all of us, all over the world, comprise one entity. We are likened to one soul which is divided and then put into the several million physical bodies which we inhabit. True repentance therefore reveals a Jew's inherent unity with his fellow Jews and with G-d Himself.

Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

A Slice of Life

Rabbis Come To Meet Wyoming Jews

Ed.'s note: Hundreds of pairs of Lubavitcher rabbincial students spend their summer months visiting individual Jews in small towns and far-flung communities throughout the world to bring them Jewish warmth and enthusiasm, words of Torah and Judaica items. This outreach program was initiated over 50 years ago by the Lubavitcher Rebbe and was dubbed the "Jewish Peace Corps." The following article appeared in the Wyoming Star-Tribune when Avraham Varnai and Mendel Sirota visited Casper, Wyoming, last month.
by Matthew Van Dusen

It's impossible, no matter how many years the rabbis come, to start anywhere but at their appearance: the long beards and yarmulkes and the black pants in the summer heat. They are so... not Wyoming.

There is also the fact of their appearance - Avraham Varnai and Mendel Sirota are here in Wyoming, in Casper on Wednesday, and Riverton and Lander Thursday, eyeing every town of 10 on Highway 20-26, wondering if there is a Jew there who has not seen a rabbi in years.

They get lost all the time.

"This happens every day," said Sirota after one wrong turn in Casper. They ascribe it to Divine Providence and say they find Jews whether they take the right exit or not.

Varnai, a 21-year-old from Vancouver, Canada, and 22-year-old Sirota from New Jersey, are members of the Lubavitcher sect and are part of Chabad, an organization of Hasidic Jews committed to spiritual and humanitarian aid.

Hundreds of Chabadnik rabbinical students like Varnai and Sirota every summer go around the world seeking out Jews who live in places without large Jewish communities, such as Wyoming and southern Colorado.

On Wednesday, they sought out Larry Pastor, a community manager at Affordable Residential Communities, a self-described "secular" Jew who wanted to connect with his culture.

When they arrived at his work, Pastor was busy meeting with people. Once he took them into a back room the words came tumbling out of the rabbis' mouths, so much learning and just a few minutes to impart it.

Half explaining and half apologizing, Pastor said he is not religious.

"I'm not either, but I'm learning," Varnai replied, not for the last time that day.

Varnai wrapped Pastor in Tefillin, leather straps attached to a small box containing scrolls of the Torah. Varnai and Pastor then recited Shema, a declaration of faith that commands Jews to bind the words to their head and arms.

It was the first time Pastor had laid Tefillin, though he recalled how his grandfather once did.

Afterward they put a Mezuzah, a scroll bearing the Shema prayer, on Pastor's doorpost. None of this means that Pastor will go to Temple Beth-El in Casper every Friday, nor do the rabbis expect him to.

"You want to do something to give meaning to your life," Pastor said.

Next, the rabbis sought out a Jew from a list of names from the temple. The address was wrong so they asked a passing stranger for help. They are, at times, as much detectives as rabbis.

Knock, knock on the door and McKinnon Wilkes, 22, answered. Actually the rabbis were looking for his mother Shar, but Varnai reasoned, "If your mom is Jewish, then you're Jewish."

Wilkes, however, did not want to lay Tefillin. He said he was not religious.

"It sort of seems sort of absurd," he said of the ritual.

The rabbis explained they do not seek to convert, only to encourage people to grow in their faith. So they began a debate, where McKinnon, who said he does not identify with religion and feels that it is often a divisive force, contended with the rabbis who argued the truth of revelation and G-D's laws.

It was a polite discussion, which probably would never be resolved. The rabbis said they felt invigorated by the talk.

McKinnon later complimented Varnai: "Your beard is so cool, I'd never shave a beard like that."

Varnai smiled. There was still lots of time left in the day to find Jews.

Reprinted with permission from the Star-Tribune, July 31, 2003.

What's New

Camps Large and Small

Small and large summer camps under the auspicies of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS dot the horizon of the Former Soviet Union. The city of Bryansk held a camp that was free for all Jewish children between the ages of 8-14. One of the largest camps in the FSU is being held in the resort city of Sochi on the Black Sea. Hundreds of children from the Jewish communities of the Sverdlovsk region are spending their vacations in the Jewish community camp in Yekaterinburg. Eighty boys from Tatarstan and Verkhnevolzhie arrived at the Gan Israel Summer Camp on a beautiful site in the Gorodetski region of the Nizhny Novgorod district. Volgograd sponsors camps for children of the community; this year the Gan Israel camp is at the Kristall facility on the Akhtuba River. Day and overnight camps in Kostroma, Russia, Donetsk, Ukraine (on the Azov Sea); Baku, Azerbaijan and dozens of other locations kept kids happy and off the streets. In addition, Satlsburg, Austria, was the site for an FJC sponsored camp with children from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The Rebbe Writes

Freely translated

Thursday, 11 Adar II, 5703 [1943]

Greetings and blessings,


  1. A while ago, we wrote you with regard to establishing a Beis Rivkah [school for girls]. It is with great amazement that we see this suggestion has been overlooked without comment. From our friend Reb Shmuel Levitin, we did not hear sufficient reasons why this matter should be postponed for such a long time.

    Every day that passes represents a loss for which no compensation is possible. How many girls and young women could be transformed - with regard to themselves - into observers of the Torah and its mitzvos - and with regard to their influence upon others - into examples and models of the changes in conduct that could be accomplished through the educational system appropriate for Beis Rivkah.

    This is particularly true in the light of the teachings of Chasidus. Were this educational system to inspire even one girl to make an extra blessing beyond those which she would ordinarily make, she would become united in a consummate bond with G-d's will. And in the spiritual realms, this union is eternal and everlasting. Certainly, we have to understand the meaning of these statements. Nevertheless, regardless of our understanding or lack of it, the Alter Rebbe [Rabbi Shneur Zalman] testifies that this is so. Moreover, there is a renowned ruling of the Rambam (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 3:4) which states that a person should always look at himself as equally balanced, and the world as equally balanced, and with one positive act, he could tip the scales toward deliverance and salvation.

    Until when will the matter be postponed? My intent is not to offer rebuke and criticism. It is just that I am amazed why the matter remains unattended. I am writing this to you, since you would reply to this question in the name of all the Lubavitcher yeshiva students.

  2. Would you be so kind to inform us with regard to the resolution of the matter concerning the youth... from Vancouver. In this regard as well, the same comments raised with regard to the first question also apply. Is the organization of food and accommodations for one youth such a difficult matter?...

With the blessing "Immediately to teshuva [repentance], immediately to Redemption,"

Sunday, 13 Nissan, 5703 [1943]

Greetings and blessings,

In response to your letter:

  1. With regard to Beis Rivkah: We know that you are very engrossed in the other worthy communal projects in which you are involved. They are of great importance, and Heaven forbid that you should lessen your efforts in them even slightly.

    And yet, one must pay attention to the fact that establishing schools for girls on a foundation of holiness and purity at this time and in these places is a matter of life itself for these Jewish girls. And the education of Jewish girls also has a great effect on the education of their brothers, on the spirit of the family, and on the purification of the air in the Jewish community at large. When all these factors are taken into account, I don't see how the matter can continue to be postponed.

    And as you certainly know, you are the only ones in your city whom we know we can approach with such a suggestion.

    In the time before you succeed in establishing a school for girls, it is appropriate to, at the very least, organize Shabbos parties for girls. This is a far easier matter. And experience has shown that these parties influence girls who attend to later enroll in Beis Rivkah and to make positive changes in their conduct.

  2. With regard to the youth from Vancouver: I don't know why he was rejected. (I do not see the situation in the same way as one who is local; I, nevertheless, do not agree with the step taken at all. Nonetheless, I always refrain from imposing my opinion on others - and will not do so in this instance either.) Regardless of the course of action taken, it is necessary to send a courteous letter to the Rabbi who proposed the student's application, explaining why his request was not fulfilled, stating reasons that make sense to others. May the honor of your colleague be dear to you....

Tuesday, 20 Iyar, 5703

Greetings and blessings,


  1. We take part in your joy over the purchase of a building for the yeshivah, and we send you our blessings from the depths of our heart;

  2. We were satisfied to read in your letter of the positive activities that are being carried out in your community as a whole, in particular from the fact that more students have enrolled in the yeshiva, the positive impression created by the communal meeting, and the establishment of Shabbos parties for boys and for girls;

  3. It is very pleasing that you have begun deliberating about the establishment of a Beis Rivkah school. Let us hope that this positive intent will, with G-d's help, be transformed from the potential to the actual in the nearest possible future...

From I Will Write It In Their Hearts, translated by Rabbi E. Touger, published by Sichos In English

Rambam this week

24 Av, 5763 - August 22, 2003

Positive Mitzva 245: Conducting Business

This mitzva is based on the verse (Lev. 25:14) "And if you sell something to your neighbor, or buy something from your neighbor" This mitzva establishes guidelines for our business dealings and governs the way we buy, sell, and transfer ownership of property. These guidelines include writing business contracts, paying for goods with money, or exchanging one item for another.

A Word from the Director

Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman

This week's Torah portion, Re'ei opens with a foundation of the Jewish religion - free choice. G-d says to the Jewish people, "Look, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, that you will hearken to G-d's commandments...; and the curse, if you will not hearken to G-d's commandments..." (Deut. 11:26-28).

Why did G-d create the world so as to neces-sitate blessings and curses? Why did G-d create something to stand in the way of good, to make it difficult for us to do what is appropriate and right?

Evil alternatives exist to allow for free choice. If there was only good in this world - no chance for a person to behave in a questionable manner - he couldn't freely choose to do good; he would be forced to do good for lack of alternatives, by default. In order to have options, there have to be at least two different routes.

Then, a person can use the free choice to choose the correct path.

Freedom to choose one path of action over another is a fundamental principle of Judaism. It is at the very core of the advantages of a human over other created beings. Other creatures don't have this option of free choice; their actions are based on natural instincts and environmental training. Only man has such an advantage.

The concept of reward and punishment revolves around choice. If there is no choice, there is no room for reward and punishment. A person can receive a reward for his good deeds because he has free choice.

It is therefore understood that the existence of the opportunity to do "bad" is not to make a person evil, but the opposite. Wrong exists only to allow a person to choose right.

The opportunity to do bad, therefore, wasn't created to prevent a person from accomplishing what he needs to. In fact, it is to push the person toward the correct path, a path to be traveled on in the midst of freedom of choice and desire.

Knowing that "bad" exists only to encourage us toward the good, also gives us the ability and strength not to be intimidated or overwhelmed by the bad.

Thoughts that Count

And you will say, "I wish to eat flesh," because your soul longs to eat flesh (Deut. 12:20)

The desire to eat meat originates in a person's soul. What then, is the connection between the food that one eats to sustain the body and the desires of the spiritual soul? A Jew's G-dly soul "longs" to purify and elevate the spiritual sparks of holiness which are present in physical objects. The Torah states, "Not by [physical] bread alone shall a man live, but by each utterance of G-d [the G-dly spark which is hidden in it], shall a man live." Eating flesh, or eating bread, is just one way in which the concealed sparks in this world are purified by a Jew. The Baal Shem Tov explained that when a person gets a sudden desire to eat or drink a particular food or beverage, the reason is that his soul desires to elevate the spark within that food, as it states in Psalms, "Hungry and thirsty, their soul shall be enveloped in them."

(Lubavitcher Rebbe)

And your eye be evil against your needy brother (Deut. 15:9)

If you look at your poor fellow Jew with an evil eye, searching for defects and sins in him in order to explain your own stinginess and unwillingness to help, then "he shall cry out to G-d against you, and it shall be a sin in you"- G-d will regard you accordingly, searching for your even graver transgressions and defects.

(Rabbi Shmelke of Nicholsberg)

The blessing, if you will listen to the commandments of G-d (Deut. 11:27)

Being able to listen to G-d's commandments is in itself a blessing. You should be able to hear and absorb G-d's words in your very soul.

(Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch)

But be strong not to eat the order that He do good for you, and for your children after you. (Deut. 12:23-25)

The sages learn from this that if G-d specifies a reward for refraining from eating blood, a thing which a person has no desire for because it is disgusting, how much greater a reward is there for refraining from that which one desires but is not permitted.

(Tzena U'rena)

Take tithes, you shall take tithes (Deut. 14:22)

In Hebrew this verse is written, "Aser t'aser." Our Sages explain it can also be read, "Aser sheh-t'ta-asher - give a tenth so that you will become rich." Concerning other commandments, we are told not to perform them in anticipation of the reward. However, for the mitzva of charity (specifically the required amount of one tenth of one's earnings) the Torah itself tells us of the reward we will receive in this world - riches.

(Milei D'Chasiduta on Pirkei Avot)

It Once Happened

Being too poor to afford a ride to his rebbe, the holy Reb Elimelech of Liszensk, the great Reb David of Lilov went by foot. On the way, he met a wealthy chasid traveling to Reb Elimelech in his own carriage. He offered Reb David a ride and assumed that he was a poor beggar trying for better luck in a different town.

Under this assumption, the wealthy chasid began joking with and mocking Reb David. Reb David remained silent as the chasid belittled him for the entire journey.

When they arrived in Liszensk, the wealthy man went to speak with Reb Elimelech immediately. Reb David, however, spent a few hours meditating and preparing himself to meet with his Rebbe.

Reb David finally went in and stayed closeted with Reb Elimelech for over two hours. Upon leaving the Rebbe's room, Reb David explained to the wealthy chasid that he would be remaining in Liszensk for some time and concluded, "Return without me, but you should make sure that on the way back, if you hear a cry of distress, answer the call."

The chasid realized that Reb David was no mere beggar, the chasid assured him that his advice would be heeded.

When the chasid was half-way home, he heard a cry for help. Following the cries, he came upon a carriage stuck in deep mud. The chasid tied a rope from his carriage to the other carriage and carefully pulled the carriage and its owner out of danger. Then, the chasid took the owner, a wealthy government official from Warsaw, home with him. He gave him clean clothing, fed him, and kept him until he had recovered from the traumatic ordeal.

Within a few days, the official returned to the chasid's home, asking, "How can I repay you?"

The chasid said, "It is enough of a reward to know that I have saved the life of another human being."

"At least," begged the official, "let me have your name and address so that I can record it and remember it always."

To this request the chasid conceded.

Months passed and the wheel of fortune turned for the chasid. He became so impoverished that he was forced to become a beggar. From town to town the once wealthy chasid went begging for money.

One day, while begging in his own city of Warsaw, a passenger in a fancy carriage called out to him. The chasid began to run away, but the carriage pursued him. "Stop, I must speak to you," said the passenger.

The chasid stopped running.

"Do you recognize me," asked the man to the chasid.

"No," was the chasid's reply.

"What is your name," the man asked.

Upon hearing the chasid's name, the man, now governor of Warsaw, said, "Ten years ago you saved me when my carriage was stuck in the mud. What has happened to you over these years?"

The chasid retold the turn of events of the past ten years.

The governor exclaimed, "I never did repay you for saving my life. Accept, therefore, this check for 2000 rubles."

The chasid was overjoyed. He started a business and once more became successful. The chasid wished to speak with a tzadik to better understand these turn of events. His rebbe had passed away. So he went to visit Reb David, not knowing this was the Reb David from some ten years before.

Reb David asked the chasid to repeat what had transpired over the past decade. He then said to the chasid, "Know, that because you mocked me the entire way to Liszensk, death was decreed for you on High. I, however, knew of the decree and told Reb Elimelech about it. We spent two hours discussing ways to have the decree lifted or lessened. Through prayer and meditation we were able to have the decree changed to ten years of poverty. Now that you have completed those ten years, the wheel of fortune has once more turned in your favor and you will return to your prior wealth and position."

Moshiach Matters

"The father endows (the person) with life in this world, while the teacher endows him with life in the World to Come."

(Bava Metzia 33a)

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