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We know instinctively what psychology tells us: once our basic needs are met, once we have food and water, shelter, clothing, what we seek most is significance. The despair and depression of the modern world can be attributed, in large part, to a growing sense of insignificance, a conviction that what we do doesn't matter and who we are has no meaning.
This pervasive feeling of uselessness probably has many causes. The very conveniences of life contribute to it. The more our things do for us, the less we have to do for ourselves. No one in his right mind would give up refrigerators, dishwashers, even computers. But by making the task of living easy, the machines have sometimes made the act of living difficult.
The speed of our world surely factors in. Faster, faster, faster - eventually crashes. Each new stimulation, thrill - the newest new thing - becomes boring. Slow journeys allow for reflection. Pre-fab planning is an oxymoron. If we're busy running - or driving - from one meeting, activity, event to another, when do we have time to look deep? If we're scheduled to the second and constantly checking calendars and palm pilots to see where we need to be, when do we appreciate where we've been and where we are?
There's too much information. Everyone else is doing something and whatever we're doing, someone else is making news doing it better, faster and sooner. The sensational becomes commonplace, and we who live ordinary lives - do we become less than commonplace?
As we learn more and more about less and less - the vastness of the universe, with quadrillions of galaxies, each with quadrillions of stars, each composed of quadrillions of molecules, etc. - as the world seems to shrink and the little niches of meaning get swallowed up, merged into conglomerates of sameness - one's insignificance can be crushing. The sense of being too small to matter, of being no more than a replaceable cog, rises like a noxious mist from the minutiae and trivia of life. It hovers beneath and between the moments of doing, when we don't think of who we really are.
Against this insignificance, G-d says, you matter. That the living G-d created you means you must be significant. And that significance is inherent. Of course our actions count - mitzvot (commandments) reveal G-dliness. But beyond that, the soul, a veritable part of G-d above, remains attached and important to its Source. And beyond that, the body that houses the soul, G-d cares about that, too. Because we belong to Him.
That's what ultimately gives us a sense of significance, of being important. When we know someone cares, that our being here matters, that we belong to - and with - our spouse, children, parents, community - then we feel we have a place, a role to play.
And when we realize that G-d cares, when we recognize that G-d relies on us, when we know that G-d depends on us to do our part - our "little" mitzva - and that until it's done the entire universe hangs in the balance, immobile, because no matter how "small," in fact G-d created all of creation only for this moment when we, with our thought, our words or our actions, turn slightly - when we feel the truth of Maimonides's words that the world is suspended and our next move will tip the scales - then we can see what our Sages tell us, that we must approach each task, each relationship, each moment with the sense that, "the whole world was created for my sake."
What can be more significant than that?
In this week's Torah portion, Shemot, we read of Pharaoh's decree that every male child should be thrown into the Nile River. This decree resulted from Pharaoh's realization that the Jews were multiplying rapidly despite his attempts to decrease their numbers. Pharaoh and his advisers were concerned that the Jewish people would form an alliance in the future with enemies of Egypt, thereby bringing about Egypt's ruin. He hoped that by throwing the male babies into the Nile river, he would avert a probable rebellion.
Amram, father of Aaron and Miriam, was the leader of the Jewish people during this time. Amram declared that it was useless to continue bearing children, and therefore separated from his wife, Yocheved. All the Jews followed his example and separated from their wives.
Then Miriam spoke up. Only five years old at the time, and well aware that her father was a righteous man and the leader of the nation, she courageously voiced her conviction: "Your decree is worse than Pharaoh's! Pharaoh only decreed that the boys should die, but you decree against the boys and the girls. Pharaoh is attempting to kill their physical body, but their souls will live on in the World to Come. Your decree prohibits souls from even being brought into this world! Pharaoh is an evil man, so his decree may or may not be effective. But you are a righteous person and your decree will be effective."
Amram recognized the truth and sincerity of his little daughter's words. He immediately reunited with Yocheved, and all Israel, inspired by his example, followed suit.
What was the result of Miriam's actions? Moses was born and as soon as his mother placed him in the river, Pharaoh's astrologers declared, "Their deliverer has already been thrown into the water." The decree to drown all male children was thus revoked. The undaunted courage of a five-year old girl to remain firm in her beliefs and stand up for those beliefs, even to the leader of the generation, effected the annulment of the evil decree while still in the exile of Egypt. Her honesty and sincerity eventually brought deliverance, through Moses, for herself, her parents and all Israel.
Miriam's conduct can be a shining example for us. She teaches us that our Jewish youth can accomplish much more than we might ordinarily imagine. It behooves us to educate our youngsters in such a way that they are imbued with tangible, authentic beliefs so they can speak and live with conviction about those beliefs.
Adapted by Rabbi I.M. Kagen from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Illuminating the World
With over 4,000 emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe world-wide, this Chanuka saw millions of Jews and hundreds of government officials participating in public Chanuka menora lighting ceremonies sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch. Clockwise from the top left: Rabbis Biston, Oirechman and Korf present Florida Governor Jeb Bush with a menora in the state capital; Rabbi B. Oberlander, the Rebbe's emissary to Budapest, Hungary, together with Rabbi Yona Metzger, Chief Rabbi of Israel, in the Hungarian Parliment with members of parliment; Rabbi M. Wilansky with Governor John Baldacci of Maine; U.S. Senator Norm Coleman lights the menora in the Minnesota state capital; A Chanuka Sled-mobile in the French Alps; At the Menora Lighting outside of the White House in Washington D.C.; President of Lithuania, Rolandas Paksas with Rabbi S.B. Krinsky; Rabbi Cunin with Governor Schwartznegger in California; Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar at an official Chanuka visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin; center - Mayor
Bloomberg and Israeli Ambassador Gil Ledderman joined Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman in lighting the World's Largest Menora located in New York City spon-sored by the Lubavitch Youth Organization.
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21st of Teves, 5720 
To all Participants in the Annual Dinner of the United Lubavitcher Yeshivoth "Tomchei-Tmimim"
G-d bless you all,
Greeting and Blessing:
This year's Annual Dinner of the United Lubavitcher Yeshivoth "Tomchei-Tmimim" takes place on the auspicious day of the 24th of Teves, the yahrzeit [anniversary of the passing] of the Old Rebbe, author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch, founder of Chassidus-Chabad. [Rabbi Shneur Zalman is referred to as the Alter Rebbe, Yiddish for the Elder or Old Rebbe].
Yahrzeit is the annual remembrance of the last day of life on this earth of a Jewish neshama (soul), and of its return to its Creator. This day marks the summation of the whole span of life, the conclusion of the soul's mission on earth.
Like all remembrances in Jewish life to which the Torah calls attention, yahrzeit is not just a reminder which is to remain in the realm of memory.
It recalls and demands practical deeds in the spirit of the soul's mission of the person whose yahrzeit is commemorated, and by means of such practical deeds in that spirit one becomes part and parcel of the creativity and eternity of that yahrzeit-person.
According to the explanation of my venerated father-in-law and of his father, of saintly memory, the inner aspect of the soul's mission and of the life and work of the Old Rebbe - as reflected also in his name - Schneur, "two lights" (shnei-or) united (in one word) - was to fuse together the two Divine Lights: the revealed light of the Torah (Nigleh she'b'Torah) and the hidden inner light of the Torah (Nistar she'b'Torah), in such a way that the innermost should permeate, irradiate and shine forth through the outer (revealed) light, resulting in a whole and complete Torah - Torah Tmimah.
And, as explained in the Zohar, this is also the means whereby, in the same way, the innermost aspect of the soul is merged with its outer aspect - the revealed part of the Jewish soul with its inner Nekudas HaYahadus (Divine spark).
Such is also the inner purpose of the Yeshivoth "Tomchei-Tmimim" Lubavitch, namely, that the students should become Tmimim (whole and complete), in the spirit of Torah Tmimah, as defined and expounded by the Old Rebbe, whose Yahrzeit is commemorated today.
All those who adequately participate in the Annual Dinner of the United Yeshivoth Tomchei-Tmimim on this auspicious day of the 24th of Teves, including those who were unable to participate in person but take an adequate share in the supporting, strengthening and expanding of the Lubavitcher Yeshivoth, thereby contribute to, and become an integral part of, the creative deeds and accomplishments of the Baal-hayahrzeit [one whose yahrzeit we are observing].
May G-d grant that such participation be in a growing measure, with a steadily rising vitality and devotion.
And the zechus [merit] of the Baal-hayahrzeit, the Old Rebbe, will surely stand you all in good stead, men and women, who take an active share in the support and expansion of the Yeshivoth Tomchei-Tmimim which are conducted in his spirit and in his system, and it will bring you the Divine blessings in all your needs, both material and spiritual, which go hand in hand together.
With esteem and blessing,
27 Tevet, 5764 - January 21, 2004
This daily study enumerates five forbidden marriages. They are prohibitions 335-339, and are based on Lev. 18:10 and 18:17. They are: the prohibition against marrying one's daughter's daughter; against marrying one's daughter; against marrying both a woman and her daughter; against marrying a woman and her paternal grandmother; against marrying a woman and her maternal grandmother.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This coming Sunday (January 18) is the 24th of Tevet, the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chasidic philosophy.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman opened a new path which allowed the teaching of the previously hidden aspects of the Torah - Pnimiyut HaTorah - to be comprehended through the intellect and thus reveal additional G-dliness within the world.
But Rabbi Shneur Zalman was not only a master in the area of the more esoteric aspects of the Torah. Even as a child he was considered a great scholar of the revealed parts of the Torah - nigle d'Torah, as well.
This quality of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's is alluded to in his name, Shneur (seethe Rebbe's letter on the left). He illuminated the world with his greatness in the two lights of the Torah.
In Rabbi Shneur Zalman's magnum opus, Tanya, he writes: "The Messianic Era... is the fulfillment and culmination of the creation of the world, for which purpose it was originally created. This means that our spiritual service will reach its full completion only with the arrival of Moshiach.
Thus, the fulfillment and culmination of the entire creation will take place when Moshiach is revealed.
The entire purpose, in fact, of the revelation of Chasidic philosophy was to hasten and prepare the world for the Messianic Era.
Thus, when each one of us studies Chasidut, whether the more sublime aspects or the most esoteric concepts, we prepare ourselves and the world around us for Moshiach.
These are the names of Israel's sons who are coming to Egypt..." (Ex. 1:1)
The children of Israel had already arrived in Egypt many years before. Why, then, is the present tense used, as if they had just arrived? As long as Joseph was still alive the Jews did not have the oppressive Egyptian yoke thrust upon them. Once Joseph died, however, they became slaves. For this reason, now that Joseph had passed away, the verse speaks as if they had arrived that very day in Egypt.
(Shemot Rabba and Midrash Tanchuma)
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. (Ex. 1:8)
There is a difference of opinion between two great sages, Rav and Shmuel, as to what these words mean. One says this was actually a new king. The other says that only his decrees were new. Either way, however, it was impossible that the "new" king should not at least have known of Joseph and all of the help and prosperity he had brought to Egypt.
And the angel of the L-rd appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire, but the bush was not consumed. (Ex. 3:2)
"A person is like a tree of the field," the Torah states. Torah scholars are likened to fruit-bearing trees, simple Jews are likened to trees that do not bear fruit. The flame of fire appeared in a bush, likened to a simple Jew. This teaches us that though the simple Jew may not understand the meaning behind performing the commandments or the words he says in prayer, he still has the fire of holiness burning in his heart. And that the bush is not consumed - this is the fire within each Jew which can never be extinguished.
(The Baal Shem Tov)
In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, and the route of the invasion led through White Russia. Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidim and leader of the Chasidic movement in White Russia, who had twice been accused of high treason, turned out to be a most loyal patriot. Although the French conqueror was hailed in some religious Jewish quarters as the harbinger of a new era of political and economic freedom, the Rebbe saw in Napoleon a threat to basic religious principles and spiritual values.
The Rebbe had nothing but contempt for the man whose arrogance and lust for power knew no bounds, and who represented to the Chabad leader the antithesis of humility and holiness. The Rebbe urged his numerous followers to help the Russian war effort against the invaders in every possible way. With the aid of his followers behind the enemy lines, some of whom were employed by the French Military Command, the Rebbe was also able to render valuable intelligence service to the Russian generals at the front.
When the French armies approached Liadi, the Russian generals advised the Rebbe to flee. In August, the Rebbe hastily left Liadi, leaving everything behind, and fled with his family towards Smolensk. For some five months the Rebbe and his family suffered the hardships and perils of the road and of an unusually inclement winter, until they reached a village in the district of Kursk. Here the Rebbe succumbed to a severe illness in the final stages of the harrowing journey, and passed on at the age of sixty-eight.
Traditions and records preserved in the family of the Rebbe provide interesting details in connection with the Rebbe's last and fateful journey. From an account by Rabbi Nachum, grandson of the Rebbe, relating his personal experiences, we learn the following details:
It was on Friday, the 29th of Menachem Av that the Rebbe fled from Liadi on the advice of the generals commanding the Russian armies in that area. Sixty wagons were put at his disposal, but they were not enough, and many had to walk on foot. A number of armed troops were assigned to accompany and protect the caravan. In view of the rapid advance of the French army, the generals suggested that the best route for the flight of the Rebbe would be through the town of Bayev. But the Rebbe decided to head for Krasna, urging the caravan to make the utmost haste, in order to cross the river Dnieper at the earliest possible time.
After covering a short distance, the Rebbe suddenly requested the accompanying troops to let him go back to Liozna. Arriving at his house, he ordered his men to search the house carefully to make sure that nothing whatever, however trivial, had been overlooked. The only things found were a pair of worn-out slippers, a rolling pin and a sieve, which had been left in the attic. He ordered these to be taken along, and to set the house on fire before the enemy arrived, first removing the sacred Torah scrolls from the adjacent synagogue. Then he blessed those of the townspeople who remained in the town, and speedily departed again.
No sooner had he left the town on the road leading to the Dnieper than the avant-coureur of Napoleon's army reached the town from the opposite end. Presently, Napoleon himself with his entourage entered the town on their galloping steeds. Napoleon inquired after the house of the Rebbe, but when he reached it, he found it ablaze, the fire burning beyond control. Napoleon wished to have something which belonged to the Rebbe and offered a rich reward to anyone who could bring him anything. But nothing was there. [It seems that Napoleon practiced some sort of sorcery for which such an object was required.]
During the long and arduous journey the Rebbe kept in touch with the situation of Russian Jewry caught in the gigantic Franco-Russian war. The retreating Russian armies, using the scorched earth policy in order to deprive the enemy of vitally needed supplies, exacted a tremendous sacrifice from its own people. At the same time the invading armies plundered everything. Starvation and ruination were the order of the day, and the Rebbe's heart went out to his suffering brethren, who were the most hard-hit victims of the invasion.
The Rebbe had foreseen Napoleon's invasion of Moscow as well as his defeat there. He also predicted that Napoleon's final defeat would be at the hands of his own compatriots. At the same time he knew that the retreating French armies, starving and desperate, would plunder the Jewish communities which lay in their path. Arriving in Piena, the Rebbe embarked upon a relief campaign to aid the Jewish victims of the war, including resettlement plans, fund raising, and relief distribution. For ten days after his arrival in Piena the Rebbe worked feverishly on his plans and projects to alleviate the plight of his brethren. Then, he fell ill, his condition worsening day to day. At the conclusion of Shabbat he composed a letter full of mystical allusions, and a few minutes later, on the 24th of the Hebrew month of Tevet, he returned his soul to his Maker.
From Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Kehot Publication Society
The time of exile has been likened to a dream. For so it is written, "When G-d will return the exiles of Zion, we will have been like dreamers." A dream can fuse two opposites. In the present time of exile likewise, a person can be a paradox. While he is at prayer he is aroused to a love of G-d; when his prayers are over, this love has vanished: he is preoccupied all day with his business affairs, and gives priority to his bodily needs.