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Here's a brain game. Tie two strings from the ceiling of an empty room. Tie the strings so far apart that if you hold one end, you can't reach the other. Now, tie the two ends together using just a pair of scissors. Did you figure it out? (Trying to swing like a monkey on jungle vines won't work.) Give up?
Here's another. You and a friend stand on a sheet of newspaper in such a way that you can't touch each other. Not that you don't, but that you can't. Was that easier?
And now, for the answers please: In the first example, tie the scissors to one end of a string, and set it swinging like a pendulum. Pull the end of the other string as close as possible and catch the scissors when they swing toward you. You then have the two strings in reach and can tie them.
In the second, put the sheet of newspaper under an open door. Stand on one side, close the door and have a friend stand on the other. The door prevents you from touching.
To solve these problems, you had to think "outside the box," to think of using a familiar device in an unaccustomed or unusual way. Thinking "in the box," according to psychologists, is called "functional fixedness," i.e., when we assume that if something is designed for a particular task, that's the only task it can do. Progress - scientific, personal and spiritual - occurs when we become "functionally flexible" - when we think outside the box.
The laws of Shabbat made use of the concept of "functional flexibility," long before logicians and psychologists came up with puzzles and terminology. On Shabbat, certain objects are designated as muktza. Muktza means limited, set aside, not available for use. Basically, if the object has no Shabbat function, you can't use it or even move it. Money, for instance, is muktza as we are not permitted to buy or sell on Shabbat. Can't use it or touch it. Leave it alone.
What are some examples of "functional flexibility" in the laws of muktza? A hammer, for instance, would normally be muktza. We don't build on Shabbat, so there's no need for a hammer. But if we need the hammer for something else, for a Shabbat purpose, like cracking nuts to put in a salad, then we can use the hammer.
The needs of Shabbat determine if an object is "functionally fixed" or "functionally flexible."
When it comes to doing everything we can to bring about the long-awaited Redemption, a time of peace, prosperity, health and divine knowledge, we can respond in a "functionally flexible" manner.
We can "open our eyes," as the Lubavitcher Rebbe says, to the events around us, to see them as part of the process of Redemption. Even more, we can act, as the Rebbe teaches, in a way that makes it real; our conversations can reveal a "functionally flexible" perspective, a sense of the reality of Moshiach. And in our interactions, too, we can "think outside the box," finding innovative ways to increase the small acts of goodness and kindness that will make the prophetic vision of Redemption an obvious reality.
This week's Torah portion, Vayeira, hints at a spiritual yet mundane aspect of Abraham and Sara's relationship.
Our Sages of the Talmud teach: "How does a woman help a man?...If a man brings wheat, does he chew the wheat? If he brings flax, does he wear the flax? It follows, then, that she brings light to his eyes and puts him on his feet!"
A person's mission in life is to elevate and refine the material aspects of the world, imbuing them with spiritual content. But man brings only wheat and flax, he is concerned with raw materials, with generalities. He is somewhat removed from the down-to-earth realities, the details. It is woman who transforms the wheat into food and the flax into clothing, who tangibly implements our lifetime mission.
Abraham and Sara. Man and woman. When Abraham found out that his wife, Sarah, was to bear a child, he prayed. From the lofty, detached viewpoint of his great saintliness he asked, "Would that Ishmael might live before You!" He hoped that Ishmael would continue to live in fear of and worship G-d. Abraham saw in Ishmael, future father of the Arab nations, the potential for living a G-d-fearing life.
But Sara saw reality. She saw Ishmael's devastating influence in the home, particularly over her son Isaac. She demanded that Abraham remove the harmful influence of Ishmael from the home.
Abraham could not find peace with the idea of sending his oldest son away. Although G-d had already informed Abraham that He would fulfill His covenant specifically and exclusively through Isaac, from Abraham's perspective it seemed that Ishmael should stay in the house. Only in his own home could Abraham hope to influence Ishmael in a positive manner.
But G-d declared to Abraham, "In all that Sara says to you, listen to her voice, for in Isaac shall descendants be called to you." The commentator Rashi explains that this statement indicates that Sara's power of prophecy was superior to Abraham's. It was Sara, the down-to-earth woman, the foundation of the home, who recognized the harmful influence.
From "A Thought for the Week," Detroit. Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
A Spur of the Moment Visit
by Marc Wilson
I make no apologies for my devotion to Chasidism, particularly to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, with its tireless outreach and nonjudgmental welcome to Jews of all callings and backgrounds. Moreover, it asks nothing in return.
Do I agree with every point of the movement's theology and lifestyle? No, but enough to make me an adherent. In fact, we often joke about how a rabbi so seemingly atypical, in a decidedly un-Chabad town like Greenville, is so devoted to the work of Chabad. Hence my title, "Closet Lubavitcher"!
Their most recent Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, is understood by all Lubavitchers as irreplaceable. Do they consider him a miracle-worker? Perhaps, or at least a great cosmic influence. Is he the Messiah? This is the subject of tremendous controversy, even condemnation, in the secular media and other Jewish movements. Let's simply say that many Lubavitchers openly declare him the Messiah, while for others the idea hovers as a distinct possibility.
Two years before his passing, the Rebbe became my "savior." In a scant 30 seconds, he stroked my arm and offered me guidance at the most dismal time of my life. Those few words, I now realize, marked the beginning of my emotional and spiritual restoration and intervened in my imminent suicide.
That was then. Now, let me tell you about my recent transcendent experience - or spooky experience, depending how you look at it - with the Rebbe: A few months ago, I spent a week in New York working on a project. By serendipity, my driver to the airport was a young Lubavitcher. At the sight of my yarmulke, he asked whether I had ever visited the Ohel (Rebbe's tomb). I told him I had not, but if we had time, I would certainly like to pay my respects. Knowing that people flock to the Ohel to ask for the Rebbe's intercession, and remembering his life-saving advice for me 13 years earlier, it was the least I could do.
Arriving at the Ohel, my driver recommended that I write a "pan," an acronym for pidyon nefesh, a "redemption of the soul," to place on the Rebbe's tomb. What could it hurt, I thought. So, I prayed for universal peace and for the safety of my family.
Then, I asked for something out of the ordinary: Three years earlier, I had departed my congregation in Greenville under acrimonious circumstances. Many congregants were left angry and estranged. Little by little, some had forgiven me, and our relationships had slowly resumed. For others, the anger still burned.
But, the Goldbergs (name changed), with whom we were particularly close and whose friendship we cherished, stopped talking to us and refused all pleas of forgiveness - would not even answer calls, notes, e-mails, coming to the door or responding to mediators.
So, I prayed in my pan that there would be reconciliation with congregants who were still estranged and particularly for forgiveness from the Goldbergs. I dropped the shredded pan, as is the custom, on the Rebbe's tomb and noted that it was 6:00, time to leave for the airport. Shortly thereafter, I called Linda to tell her that the plane was departing on time.
"You'll never guess who called," my wife Linda announced. "The Goldbergs."
Astonished, I asked her if there had been any particular reason.
"No. An incredible surprise. They just wanted to say hello."
"And do you remember about what time they called?"
"It must have been around 6:05."
Please understand my purpose. My personal feelings aside, relating this wonder-story is not to convince anyone to believe in miracles, nor to believe that the Rebbe is the Messiah, nor that I was at all worthy of Divine intercession.
I have only one purpose: It is to tell people smug or doubting that we never know. We expect, and we never know. We are so often thwarted. Life wearies us, and we never know. The sun may yet shine from the abyss.
A serendipitous ride to the Ohel? I think not.
Marc Wilson is a rabbi, syndicated columnist and organizational design consultant in Greenville, SC. A collection of his essays may be found at www.MarcMusing.com, and he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column first appeared in the Charlotte (NC) Observer.
A new Chabad Center is opening in Vientiane, capital of the southeast Asian country of Laos. Many Jews visit Laos either as tourists or for business purposes. The Chabad Center will include a kosher restaurant and is under the auspices of Chabad of Thailand.
Chabad of California recently purchased a breathtaking property in Running Springs on the edge of the S. Bernardino National Forest. The site currently has 18 buildings including classrooms, dormitories and offices as well as an Olympic-sized pool and outdoor sports facilities. The property offers opportunities for a wide range of programs and eventually will host an overnight Gan Israel summer camp, a variety of children's activities, retreats, regional Chabad conferences, and seminars.
Rabbi Yitzchok and Dena Dubov will be arriving soon in Houston, Texas, to join the existing cadre of emissaries of the Rebbe there. The holiday programs, Jewish educational outreach, youth activities, and other projects of Chabad of Houston will be enhanced by the Dubovs' presence.
Rabbi Mendel and Rochel Edelman arrived in Luxembourg to establish a Chabad-Lubavitch Center there. Luxembourg was, until recently, the only country in Europe without a Chabad-Lubavitch representative.
6th of Shevat 5731
Blessing and Greeting:
I received your letter with some delay. In it you write about the uncertainty you feel regarding commitment to Yiddishkeit [Judaism], inasmuch as you think that life in accordance with the Torah and Mitzvos [commandments] is restrictive, and limits the individual in personal creativeness, particularly in the area of thinking and choosing for himself, etc., so that it is hard to reconcile such commitment with the idea of personal freedom.
Frankly, this attitude is somewhat surprising, coming from a thinking person. I suppose the difficulty here is due to the superficial understanding of the meaning of the "acceptance of the yoke of the Torah and Mitzvos," because the word "yoke" suggest restrictiveness.
In truth, however, there are many things in the daily life which a person accepts and follows without question, even if it be a highly gifted intellectual, with a searching bent of mind. Since you attend college, and have no doubt studied science, etc., you surely know that one does not go about starting everything in physics and technology from the beginning, by verifying everything through personal research and experimentation. For example, a person will board a plane without first having researched into aerodynamics, etc., to verify that it is safe to fly in it, and that it will bring one to one's destination at approximately the scheduled time.
Or take an example from the area of physical health. There are well-established things which are useful or harmful to one's health. A person will not go about trying to verify the utility or harmfulness of a particular drug though personal experimentation. Even if a person has a very strong inclination to do some research and experimentation, he will surely choose such areas which have not previously been researched.
This generally accepted attitude is quite understandable and logical. For inasmuch as experts have amply researched into these areas and have determined what is good and what is harmful for physical health, or have established the methods as to further technological advancement - it would be at best a waste of time to try to go over all those experiments from the beginning. On the other hand, there is no assurance that he may not make some error, and arrive at wrong conclusions, with disastrous effects, as experience has shown in some cases.
What has been said above in regard to physical health is also true in regard to spiritual health, and how the Neshomo [soul] can attain perfection and fulfillment. All the more so since spiritual health is generally related to physical health, particularly insofar as a Jew is concerned.
Now the Creator of man, Who is also the Creator and Master of the whole world, surely has the best qualifications that might be expected of any authority, to know what is good for man and for the world in which he lives. In His goodness, G-d has already provided us with complete and final results, having put us on notice that if a person will conduct his daily life in a certain way, then he will have a healthy Neshomo in a healthy body, and it will be good for him in this world as well as in the world to come. He has also left some areas where a person can carry on his own experimentation's in other matters which do not interfere with the rules laid down by Him.
In other words, it is quite certain that if a human being would live long enough, and would have the necessary capacities to make all sorts of experimentation's, without distraction and interference and without error, he would undoubtedly arrive at the very same conclusions which we already find in the Torah which G-d has given us, namely the need to observe Shabbos, eat Kosher, etc., etc. But, as mentioned above, G-d in His infinite goodness - and it is in the nature of the Good to do good - wished to spare us all the trouble, as well as the possibility of error, and has already given us the results beforehand, for the benefit of both the person who has the inclination and capacity to search, as well as for those who do not.
Continued in next issue
21 Cheshvan, 5766 - November 23, 2005
Positive Mitzva 216: "Yibum"
This mitzva is based on the verse (Deut. 25:5) "Her husband's brother shall marry her" If a man dies childless, one of his brothers is obligated to marry his wife..
22 Cheshvan, 5766 - November 24, 2005
Positive Mitzva 217: Allowing a Childless Widow to Remarry
This mitzva is based on the verse (Deut. 25:9) "And she shall remove his shoe off his foot" If a person does not wish to marry his late brother's childless widow, he must follow a special procedure in court to allow her to remarry. This procedure is called chalitza and includes removing the man's shoe.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
The twentieth of Cheshvan (this year November 22) is the birthday of Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber (1860 - 1920) known as the Rebbe Rashab.
There is a beautiful story concerning the Rebbe Rashab illustrating the high esteem in which he held every Jew.
One of the Rebbe Rashab's followers, Reb Monye Monissohn, was a wealthy gem dealer. Once, when they were sitting together, the Rebbe spoke very highly about some simple, unlearned Jews.
"Why do you make such a fuss about them?" Reb Monye asked the Rebbe.
"Each one of them has many special and noble qualities," explained the Rebbe.
"I can't see any of these qualities," said Reb Monye.
The Rebbe remained quiet. A while later, he asked Reb Monye if he had brought his package of diamonds with him. Indeed, Reb Monye had brought the diamonds but asked the Rebbe if he could display them later, when they could be seen to their best advantage.
Later, Reb Monye took the Rebbe into a different room and arranged the diamonds for him to see. Reb Monye pointed to one gem in particular, extolling its beautiful color and quality.
"I can't see anything special in it," the Rebbe said.
"That is because you have to be a "maven" to know how to look at diamonds!" explained Reb Monye.
"Every Jew, too, is something beautiful and extra-ordinary," the Rebbe said. "But you have to be a maven to know how to look at him."
G-d appeared to him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre (Gen. 18:1)
When Rabbi Sholom Ber, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, was a young boy of four or five he went to his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Rebbe at that time. He began to cry as he asked, "Why did G-d show Himself to our father Abraham, but He does not show Himself to us?" Reb Menachem Mendel answered him: "When a tzadik (righteous person) decides at the age of ninety-nine years that he should be circumcised, he deserves that G-d appear to him.
And the two angels came to Sodom (Gen. 19:1)
When Abraham was paid a visit by angels, they appeared as human beings. Why, when they presented themselves to Lot, did they appear in their form as angels? Abraham, known as he was for his hospitality, treated everyone he came into contact with in the same equal manner; simple people were honored as much as those more "important." Had Lot, however, seen mere humans at his door, he would have never allowed them to cross the threshold of his home.
(Rabbi Leib Sarah's)
Let a little water, I pray, be fetched. (Gen. 18:4)
At the wedding reception of his daughter, Rabbi Dov Ber, the second Chabad Rebbe, delivered a very lengthy Chasidic discourse explaining many deep issues of Chasidic philosophy. When he finished speaking, the father of the groom said, "Does it not state in the Torah, 'Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched' " He emphasized "a little water," meaning that one should not reveal at length so much Chasidut. One guest present at the wedding, a renowned scholar and chasid, answered him, saying: "Those words were said when the angels came to Abraham in the guise of pagans. To them, one gives only a little water, but to Jewish souls, one must give a lot of water!"
In all that Sara may say to you - hearken unto her voice (Gen. 21:12)
The Talmud states: Three tzadikim were given a taste of the World to Come in this world - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the World to Come, the prophecy "the female will surround and encompass the male," and "a woman of valor is the crown of her husband" (Proverbs) will be fulfilled. Abraham was given a glimpse of this when G-d told him to heed the words of Sara, who was an even greater prophet than he.
But his wife looked back ...and she became a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:26)
Lot's wife sinned through salt and was therefore punished through salt. When Lot asked her to bring salt for guests she replied, "Do you wish to institute this evil custom of hospitality, also, in our city?"
One winter, Reb Shalom Dov Ber (known as the Rebbe Rashab), the fifth Chabad Rebbe, spent several months in Vienna for medical treatment. With him was his son, Reb Yosef Yitzchak (later to become the sixth Rebbe).
Every once in a while, Reb Shalom Ber and his son would go out for a walk and visit one of the small shuls (known as "shtib'lach") in the area. There, they would sit quietly, listening to the gems of wisdom or bones from these Polish chasidim.
On one such evening, they went to a little shtible and found a group of old chasidim trading bones about Reb Meir of Premishlan. One old chasid related that the mikva for ritual immersion was located on the top of a steep hill on the outskirts of Premishlan. When the road up the hill was slippery from rain or snow, people had to take the long way around; to walk directly up the hill was dangerous.
One winter day, when snow and cold temperatures had made the icy paths extremely dangerous, Reb Meir walked straight uphill to the mikva as was his usual custom.
The local inhabitants were not surprised in the least. They had witnessed this "mini miracle" many times. However, there were two guests staying nearby, sons of rich men under the influence of the "Enlightenment" movement. These young men, of course, did not believe in miracles or supernatural acts. So, when they saw Reb Meir walking up the steep hill with sure steps, they were certain that it was, in fact, perfectly safe. They convinced themselves, and wished to convince others, that the path was not in the least bit dangerous.
After Reb Meir had entered the building which housed the mikva, the two young men started their climb. Without going more than a few steps, both young men fell on the slippery path and needed medical attention for their bruises.
One of the young men was the son of one of Reb Meir's closest chasidim. After he was all healed, he mustered up his courage and approached Reb Meir.
"Why is it, Rebbe," he asked with utmost respect, "that no one can negotiate that slippery path, yet the Rebbe walks with such sure steps?"
Answered Reb Meir, "If a man is tied on 'high, he doesn't fall down below. Meir is tied on "high" and for this reason he can walk up even a slippery hill."
Sometime later, on one of his daily "constitutional" walks ordered by his doctors, Reb Shalom Ber and his son were walking through the municipal gardens.
While they walked side by side, the Rebbe became deeply engrossed in his thoughts. Without realizing it, he drew the attention of many passers-by. He continued walking thus for a long time and his son became more and more uncomfortable. Every minute seemed to take an hour. Finally, he could contain himself no longer, and he sighed.
Reb Shalom Ber paused in his walk, distressed to think that something had caused his son to become morose or depressed. He said, "Why do you sigh? If a man is tied up on high, he doesn't fall down below!"
The future Redemption will follow in the wake of our service of G-d through the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvos. This service refines the world and transforms it into a vessel for Divinity. For, as is explained in Chasidic philosophy, the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai heralded a new world order, whereby the loftiest of spiritual revelations, even those of the future Redemption, are intimately integrated into this world.
(Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, p. 235)