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One of the most important attributes we look for in people is the ability to say "thank you"; the sensitivity to appreciate that a favor has been done and the forthrightness to express that appreciation openly.
Appreciation stems from involvement; the deeper the relationship between people, the more one appreciates the uniqueness of the other. When a person appreciates a colleague, he is motivated to do whatever he can for that other person.
If this is true with regard to our relationship with our fellow man, it certainly applies with regard to our relationship with G-d. One of the major thrusts in Judaism is hakarat hatov, appreciation of the good that G-d constantly bestows upon us. Here, too, the emphasis is on appreciating not only the material dimension of G-d's kindness, but also the love and care that He showers on every person.
In this vein, we can understand the sequence of the subjects mentioned in this week's Torah reading of Ki Tavo. The reading begins by describing the mitzva (commandment) of bikurim, the first fruits that the Jews would bring to the Temple, and shortly afterwards speaks of a covenant concerning the entire Torah.
What is the connection between these subjects?
The mitzva of bikurim was instituted to show our gratitude for the good G-d has granted us and to display our appreciation to Him for "granting us all the blessings of this world." This appreciation is not expressed merely by words of thanks, but through deed. A person would select his first fruits and make a special journey to bring them to Jerusalem as an offering to show his thanks to G-d. Moreover, the first fruits would thereby become consecrated, indicating that a lasting connection to G-d's holiness had been established within the material world.
Herein lies the connection to the entire Torah, for in a larger sense, every aspect of a person's life can become bikurim. We are always standing "before G-d" and we should express our thanks for His goodness.
To refer back to showing appreciation to a friend: Saying thanks in a meaningful way requires a person to tune into the mindset of the person he wants to thank. If he doesn't, his gesture is superficial, perhaps satisfying his own need, but not giving anything to the other person.
Here, too, a parallel applies in our relationship with G-d. We must say thank you in a way that He would appreciate, i.e., serving Him according to His conception, not our own.
This lesson is uniquely appropriate for the present time of year, the month of Elul, when we take stock of our Divine service of the previous year and prepare for the coming year beginning in a few short weeks. It's a time to think seriously of all the good G-d has given us and say thank you by increasing our observance of the Torah and its mitzvot.
From Keeping In Touch by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, published by Sichos in English.
The Torah portion, Ki Tavo, begins with a detailed account of the mitzva of bikurim, "first fruits." The Jewish farmer was required to bring the select fruits of his crops to the Holy Temple to show his gratitude to G-d for the blessing of the land.
The precept of bikurim had various restrictions. It applied only in the Holy Land and only when the Temple was in existence. It was limited to one who owned a parcel of particularly fertile land. It was also restricted in its time of application, for the declaration of bikurim could only be made from Shavuot (late Spring) to Sukot (Fall).
Yet the precept of the "first fruits," despite its seemingly narrow application, contains a broadly applicable lesson: We are to take from the "first of the fruits of the earth" and bring them to the Kohain - priest. We are to dedicate the best of our material matters to sanctity. As Maimonides writes: "When one gives food to the needy, he should give the best and most delectable of his table; with the best of his wardrobe should he clothe the naked, and when he builds a house of worship he should render it more beautiful than his own dwelling, as it is written "all the best...is to the Alm-ghty."
The first-fruits were not burned on the altar where the physical nature would be annulled, where their materiality would be consumed and transformed into the spirituality of G-dliness. Rather the fruits were given to the Kohain to eat. In this fashion they were elevated and dedicated to a higher purpose. Similarly, our approach in life is not to "nullify" the material but to imbue it with sanctity while still remaining in its lowly material state.
One further point: the farmer is obligated to bring "...from the first of all the fruits of the earth, etc.," not all the fruits. The idea is not that the person should give away all the fruits of his labor to the sanctuary. Most of the fruits were to remain in his possession, including also some exceedingly good fruits, and only a small portion of them - the best - given to the Kohain. The underlying idea was for the first-fruits to be a representative portion of the whole harvest; the sanctity of the bikurim donation was to affect, to permeate and elevate all the fruits remaining, just as a donation of tzedaka - charity, brings an element of consecration or sanctity into all one's wealth.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Are the Jews Happy Here?
From a speech by Zalman Velvel at the annual Chabad of Southwest Florida Founders' Dinner
Good evening. How are you? Did you have a good time?
I am going to end tonight with how last year's Founders' Dinner began for me. I had the good fortune to be sitting next to Rabbi Yossi Jacobson, the keynote speaker. For those of you who are not familiar with him, he is a brilliant, funny, caring young man. While I was right in the middle of buttering a warm roll, he turned to me and asked, "Are the Jews of Fort Myers happy?"
Just like that, right out of the blue. Are the Jews of Fort Myers happy?
I put down the roll and pondered the depths of that question. Finally, I replied. "Yes, we are happy here. The shopping is excellent, and there are at least two or three good sushi restaurants."
I picked the roll back up was about to take a bite ... when he interrupted me again.
"What happens after you have finished shopping and have had enough sushi? Are you happy, then?"
Once again, I put down the roll. "Rabbi Jacobson," I began, "that's a very good question. I spent most of my life wondering what it would be like to have 'enough sushi,' and only just recently, at Bob Schwartz's 60th birthday party, did I hit that milestone, probably because someone else was paying for it.
"I can tell you, without any fear of contradiction, that the feeling of having 'enough sushi' left me very happy. And as for shopping, well, Rabbi, my wife does almost all of it in our family, and as near as I can tell, she has NEVER yet reached the point where she was finished shopping. So I can not comment on how she will feel after she reaches that milestone, if she ever does."
Well, since he started with the questions, and my roll was now cold, I decided to ask a few of my own.
"Rabbi Jacobson," I began, "do you believe the highest goal of a Jew is to just be happy? Is that the standard by which one is supposed to judge a group of our people? If so, tell me, is a Jew at his or her best when we're happy, or when times are tough?"
He didn't answer. He didn't have to. He simply nodded his head.
And then I said, "Rabbi, I believe the starting point for a group of Jews begins with a different question, one of the first questions ever asked by man. Do you know what question I am referring to?"
"I can think of many," he said. "Why don't you tell me which one you are referring to?"
"Am I my brother's keeper?" I said.
He nodded again and started stroking his beard.
"Oh boy!" I thought. "I did it now. When a rabbi starts stroking his beard, everyone knows the really serious, mind-bending questions are about to follow." I buckled my seatbelt and waited.
Finally, he asked: "So are you?
"Am I what, Rabbi?"
"Your brother's keeper?"
"Well, I try to be. I believe that is part of the Jewish way ... to keep watch over each other ... and get involved ... and sometimes maybe we say or do something that really gets under each other's skin, something that makes our kishkes churn, like only a member of the tribe can do to another member of the tribe ... and then maybe we argue ... and maybe sometimes we want to never speak to each other again ... BUT IN THE END, I value my fellow Jew, and will be responsible for him. We are connected, and that connection lasts forever."
Why am I bringing up this conversation with Rabbi Jacobson? Because his question has followed me for the last year, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was really asking a different question, a very basic question, a question more basic than mine.
That question is, "What does a Jew really have in this world, after all the 'things' we occupy ourselves with pursuing?"
If he was here, and I wish he was because he makes me laugh, I would answer, "Rabbi Jacobson, when I look out and see the Jews of Fort Myers sitting here, at this very expensive dinner, so they can help out Chabad, I realize that all we really have, after all the shopping and all the sushi, and the like ... all we really have ... is each other ... and G-d.
And that is enough ... more than enough.
Rabbi Nachman and Elkie Abend have recently moved to North Hollywood, California where they will be involved in building a new, expanded Chabad Center to enhance the activities of Chabad of North Hollywood.
Rabbi Mendel and Chana Kaplan recently arrived in Germantown, Maryland where they will establish a new Chabad House serving the needs of the local Jewish residents.
The Jewish community of Yekaterinburg, Russia, which numbers about 20,000, has just opened a new mikva (ritualarium). The city also boasts a Jewish Community Center, synagogue, day school, youth club, soup kitchen, and other religious, cultural and humanitarian institutions. They are part of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, and are led by the city's Chief Rabbi and Chabad emissary, Rabbi Zelig Ashkenazi.
Freely translated and adapted
25 Elul, 5744 - 1984
To the Sons and Daughters of Our
People Israel, Everywhere,
G-d bless you all!
Greeting and Blessing:
...Rosh Hashana is connected with the day on which man was created, and that immediately upon the creation of the first man (Adam), he, and the whole world with him, achieved perfect fulfillment through total submission to the Will of the Creator, as expressed in general in the declaration: "Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before G-d our Maker." This self-surrender to the Sovereignty of Heaven in the first day of man's creation established a basic general principle that was meant henceforth to permeate, and be implemented in, one's entire life and conduct in every detail, as the way of achieving perfect fulfillment.
The said fundamental principle serves as a model and guide to every Jew, whose essential being is serving G-d: "I was created to serve my Maker." This Divine service begins every day with the declaration of Modeh-ani ("I thank You, Living and Eternal King," etc.) - a personal total acknowledgment of G-d's Sovereignty, as a general fundamental principle that will subsequently inspire every activity and detail of his daily life with utmost dedication and humility. And through his daily activities, which are inevitably connected with all the "worlds" of the created order (inanimate, vegetable, animal, mankind), which support and serve him and thus become "partners" in his activities, he acts upon them in every detail and elevates them to share with him in the achievement of perfect fulfillment, bringing about the realization of the purpose of the entire Creation - "to make an abode for G-d in the lowest world."...
The plain meaning of the Torah portion Nitzavim [that we will read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana] is that as the Jews were about to enter the land (after 40 years in the wilderness), the Torah emphasizes that the preparation for it is to "stand firmly ("Nitzavim") all together today," united by the strongest resolve, though in a general way, on the part of every Jew, man and woman, personally to reaffirm the Covenant and Oath which G-d has made with the Jewish people to the effect that Jews are "His people," and G-d is "Your G-d."
This general reaffirmation of the Divine Covenant on the eve of entering the land, was to be implemented subsequently in actual practice by everyone who was standing there, man, woman, and child, in every detail of all aspects of the everyday life, in the fullest measure, to achieve the highest degree of perfection.
In connection with Rosh Hashana - as already mentioned in the previous letter - "this day" (Hayom) refers to The Day, the well-known day of the Creation of the world, when the whole Creation was completed with the creation of man, the first Rosh Hashana. The central aspect of this day, - every Rosh Hashana, is G-d's request, "Make Me King over you." This means accepting G-d's Sovereignty and, with it, the strong, though general commitment "to do all the 'words' of this Torah," each and every day of the year, with the firm resolve of "standing all together" before G-d, felt especially on Rosh Hashana, coupled with the sense of self-surrender and feeling of joy and inspiration associated with Rosh Hashana, the day of "Coronation" of the King of our people Israel, King of all the earth, and King of the World; then it is certain to be achieved throughout the year, each and every day, in actual deed, in every detail and in the highest degree of actual perfection.
Furthermore: Rosh Hashana is the day when every Jew crowns G-d, so to speak, and attaches himself to G-d, the "King and Redeemer of Israel." Thus, knowing that he is acting under the prerogative of the King, in the capacity of one who enjoys royal status - "a royal servant is also royalty" - then all difficulties and obstacles in carrying out the King's orders fall away, including the trials and tribulations in time of exile, when "darkness covers the earth" -
Also in the plain meaning of the portion Nitzavim, namely, that they were standing ready to enter the Holy Land, etc. As mentioned above, there is an allusion to the spiritual symbol of the Holy Land: Wherever a Jew lives, he has to make a "Holy Land" in and of his personal life, and in the life of his family, in his home and in his surroundings, so that it will be clearly seen that here lives a Jew, and here walks a Jew, and there plays a Jewish child - the kind of life which is permeated with holiness and irradiated with G-dliness, in full accord with G-d's request and promise: "Let them make Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell within them - within each one of them "
May G-d grant that ...it be a year of life and peace and all good, materially and spiritually; Bringing the fulfillment of the promise of the true and complete Redemption of the whole world through our righteous Moshiach,
With esteem and blessing for success in all above, and to be written and sealed for a good and sweet year, both materially and spiritually,
19 Elul, 5765 - September 23, 2005
Positive Mitzva 10: Reciting the "Shema"
This mitzva is based on the verse (Deut. 6:7) "And you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you travel on the road, and when you lie down and when you rise up"
We are commanded us to recite the Shema twice every day, in the morning and the evening.
Positive Mitzvah 5: Worshiping G-d - Prayer
This mitzva is based on the verse (Ex. 23:25) "And you shall serve the L-rd, your G-d" G-d instructs us to serve Him through prayer.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This past Thursday we observed "Chai Elul" - the eighteenth day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Chai Elul is the birthdate (in 1698) of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad branch of Chasidism (in 1745).
A customary Chasidic saying is that Chai Elul gives the Chai'ot - life and spirit - to the month of Elul. In simpler terms, perhaps it means that Chai Elul reminds us not to go through the month of Elul in a habitual manner. Everything we do can and should be infused with new "life" in preparation for the New Year.
Saying our daily prayers, giving charity, being kind to others, all must be permeated with a special energy. In addition, during the month of Elul we sound the shofar every day to remind us that the time to do "tshuva" - return to the proper path - has arrived. Even the unusual activity of sounding the shofar can become rote. So, this too, must be permeated with the added spirit of which Chai Elul reminds us.
This Saturday evening we begin the ancient custom of reciting the Selichot prayers (special prayers asking G-d for forgiveness) in preparation for the upcoming High Holidays.
This coming week also holds a special date, the 25th of Elul, the anniversary of the creation of the world. This day, according to Jewish teachings, was the first day of the six days of creation, culminating with the creation of the first person six days later.
Let us all strive to add an extra measure of chai'ot to our lives this month, in preparing for the High Holidays, and this coming year.
Since you did not serve the L-rd your G-d out of joy and gladness of heart...you shall serve your enemies (Deut. 28:47)
From this verse we learn the importance of joyfulness in serving G-d. The implication of the verse is that the severe punishment of serving one's enemies comes only as a result of joy lacking from our G-dly service. It is as if joy in our service awakens joy in G-d Himself and annuls all harsh judgments.
(Rabbi Shneur Zalman)
I have not transgressed any of your commandments neither have I forgotten (Deut. 26:13)
Why were two such similar statements necessary? To teach us that it is possible to fulfill a commandment and at the same time forget it. This happens when one fulfills it without intent - while the mind is focused on other things.
And it shall be, when you come into the land that the L-rd your G-d is giving you (Deut. 26:1)
The Jews' entrance into the land of Israel is symbolic of the soul's descent into the body and its being forced to live in the physical world. The Midrash teaches that the words "and it shall come to pass" are always used to denote something of great joy. Though the G-dly soul is saddened when it temporarily leaves its place under G-d's throne to dwell in a Jewish body for a certain number of years, it is a joyous occurrence, since the descent is to elevate the corporeal world through doing mitzvot.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And it shall be, when you come into the land...and you shall take of all the fruit of the earth...and put it in a basket... and you shall go to the priest (Deut. 26:1-3)
Fourteen years elapsed after the Jewish people entered the land of Israel until they were able to fulfill the second half of the verse - the bringing of their first fruits to Jerusalem. Seven years were spent in conquering the entire land from its inhabitants; seven more years were spent dividing the land among the 12 tribes. Our generation, which will very soon enter the promised land with the coming of Moshiach, will not need to wait any period of time before we are able to bring our first fruits to the Holy Temple. Not only will there be no need to conquer and distribute the land, but the fruits themselves will grow with such rapidity that their harvesting will take place simultaneously with their planting.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbat Parshat Ve'etchanan, 5751-1991)
Rabbi Shmuel ben Sosarte, a great scholar of the third century, lived in the land of Israel. During one of his journeys to Rome, Rabbi Shmuel found a string of beautiful pearls lying on the road. He picked the necklace up and admired its rare beauty.
"I wonder who lost such a rare treasure," he thought. "Surely it belonged to a lady of great wealth and prominence," he concluded.
He continued walking and soon came upon an excited crowd. He stopped to see what the gathering was all about.
In the center of the crowd stood a royal herald, reading a proclamation:
"To all citizens of Rome. Be it known that her Imperial Majesty this day lost a pearl necklace of rare beauty in the streets of Rome. Whosoever finds it is hereby ordered to return it to Her Majesty within thirty days, and he shall be richly rewarded. Should the finder return it on the thirty-first day, or after, he shall be beheaded!"
The proclamation was repeated several times, while the growing crowd spoke excitedly of the lucky man who found it and the reward he would get.
Rabbi Shmuel listened to the proclamation in silence. He felt the pearl necklace in his pocket, and he knew it was the Queen's. He also knew that a rich reward awaited him at the palace should he return the necklace in good time. But he was in no hurry to return it.
A day passed, and another, and many more. Every day he heard the proclamation again and again, promising wither reward to the finder or cruel death, should it not be returned within thirty days. The whole populace of Rome was seething with excitement. Still Rabbi Shmuel held on to the necklace.
Finally the thirtieth day came. It was the last day to return the necklace to the Queen. Rabbi Shmuel took it out, looked at it, and put it away again.
On the thirty-first day, immediately after prayers, Rabbi Shmuel went to the Queen.
"Inform the lady-in-waiting that an old Jew wishes to see the Queen to tell her where her lost necklace is," he said to the guard.
The guard disappeared at once, and hastily returned, bidding Rabbi Shmuel to appear before the Queen.
"I am indeed privileged to return this necklace to Your Majesty," Rabbi Shmuel said, giving the Queen the necklace.
The queen, who had already given up hope of ever seeing her beautiful necklace again, gasped with excitement as she beheld her most cherished treasure. For a moment her eyes were full of gratitude to the aged Rabbi. Then she realized that it was the thirty-first day since she had lost it.
"When did you find it?" she asked.
"Thirty-one days ago," replied Rabbi Shmuel.
"Then why did you risk your life, instead of collecting your reward?" inquired the Queen.
"Your Majesty," Rabbi Shmuel explained, "had I brought the necklace within thirty days, it would have appeared that I returned it either for the sake of your reward, or for fear of your punishment. But neither is the true reason. I am returning it simply because our Torah commands us to return lost property to its owner. We are happy to fulfill the commandments of our Torah without any reward. Moreover, we are ready to die for the observance of our precepts..."
"Blessed is the G-d of the Jews!" exclaimed the Queen.
Not merely was Rabbi Shmuel's life spared, but he was highly honored. For many years the story of Rabbi Shmuel's pure and sincere honesty was the talk of all the people of Rome.
Reprinted from Talks and Tales.
When we reach the month of Elul, the moth of stock-taking, we must take stock of our lives and ask: Is it possible that eleven months of this year have passed and Moshiach has not come! The sum total of the stocktaking is "Ad Masei - Until when must we remain in exile."
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1st Day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5751-1991)