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Tu B'Shevat (the fifteenth of the Jewish month of Shevat) is just around the corner. As kids, many of us saved our pennies and bought trees to be planted in Israel in honor of Tu B'Shevat. We knew that it was the "New Year for Trees," whatever that meant, but that was about it.
Or perhaps you celebrated Tu B'Shevat, by eating one or more of the special fruits, according to the Torah, for which the Land of Israel is renown: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.
But why should people celebrate the New Year for Trees? Because, according to the Torah itself, a person is similar to a tree. "For man is like a tree in the field," we read in Deuteronomy. This likeness is particularly noticeable in a spiritual sense.
A tree has roots, a trunk and branches, and fruit or seeds.
The roots are the means of obtaining the nourishing substances from the earth necessary to the tree's life. It also provides a firm entrenchment for the plant against the wind. It is by far the most important life-giving agent of the plant, though the leaves also contribute toward the nourishment of the tree.
The trunk and branches provide the main body of the tree, and clearly mark the growth and development of the tree.
But the tree reaches perfection only upon producing a nut, or seed, or seed-bearing fruit, for in it lies the potential for the procreation of its kind, generation after generation.
How are these three components similar to a person's spiritual life?
The roots are his faith that link a Jew with his origin, and that constantly obtain for him his spiritual nourishment.
The trunk and branches are the Torah and mitzvot (command-ments). These must grow and expand even as the age of a tree increases from year to year.
And what of the fruit? The fruit more than anything else justifies the existence of the tree. The fruits are the good deeds of the person, those mitzvot that benefit others as well as self, and that have within them the seeds that produce similar good deeds.
The roots of the Jew and his very link with the origin of this life lie in his true faith in G-d and in all the fundamental principles of Judaism. Unless the roots are firm, and firmly embedded in the soil, the tree - despite its trunk and branches and leaves - will not withstand the strong wind.
The development and advancement - and, in fact, the entire stature - of the Jew can be seen through his good deeds, in the practice of the Torah and the performance of mitzvot. Finally, his perfection comes through the fruit, by benefitting others, and helping to perpetuate our great heritage.
Based on a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
The Torah portion, Beshalach is highlighted by the dramatic account of the splitting of the Red Sea. At this momentous moment in Jewish history, two songs receive mention - the Song of Moses with the men, and the song of Miriam with the women.
The Haftora is the special weekly reading from the Prophets and Writings, and was selected to reflect a main theme of the weekly Torah-reading. There are two portions which would have been suitable for this week's Haftora reading, following the reading of Moses' song and Miriam's song. One is the Song of David, a man, and the other is the Song of Devora (Deborah the Judge and Prophetess), a woman. It is the Song of Devora (recorded in the book of Judges) that was chosen to be read as the Haftora.
The choice of this Haftora underlines the fact that there are certain areas in Jewish life in which the Jewish woman has a particularly crucial role and responsibility. One such area is to lead and ensure that the home is a Jewish home, in the very fullest sense, a home permeated with the light and warmth of Judaism.
When we examine the historical background of the songs of Moses, Miriam and Devora, an interesting and important distinction comes to light. The Torah portion we read this week, in which Moses' and Miriam's songs appear, is describing a period in which the Jews were in the desert on their way to conquer the land of Israel, to gain a home for themselves. In such a time, the men led; it is the Song of Moses that receives the most prominent and detailed mention.
The Haftora however, describes events taking place when the Jews were already in Israel. It was necessary to defend our homeland - and maintain the "Jewish home." It is Devora's song that is most significant here. And it is Devora, a Prophetess and Judge, who leads the Jewish army into battle to fight for the Jewish home. Barak, the general of her army, is secondary and insignificant to her!
And so it is in all generations. In maintaining, supporting and defending the basic fundamentals of the Jewish home, the woman - "The foundation of the home" - leads the way.
From "A Thought for the Week" Detroit. Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Rabbi Y. M. Kagan o.b.m.
Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
Helping People Without a Home
by Boruch Jacobson
You sit on the subway, a young woman enters. She might be 30 years old but she sounds like she is 90. She says: "Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Debra... I have no home, I am hungry, trying to get something to eat. Please help me!..."
Some passengers drop quarters and dollars into her worn-out cup. She smiles and thanks them and quickly disappears into the next train car.
You might ask, why do I bother to write about this episode? Hundreds of beggars roam the streets of New York in a struggle to survive. Some of them collect cans and bottles, others look for food in garbage cans so as not to starve. Unfortunately it is as common to see peddlers and hungry people, as it is to see taxi drivers and mail-deliverers.
What should I do about my naivete? As many times as I see street ridden people, I still can't believe that within our luxurious society there are hundreds and thousands of miserable people living in the gutters and in the cold.
My curiosity about these shadowy people began when I was a young child. I recall driving through the Bowery with my dad and watching old men approach our car, offering to wash the windshield. My father would always roll down the window and give them a nickel or a dime.
"Who are these people?" I asked. (Those who knew my father, Reb Gershon Jacobson, the editor and publisher of the Algemeiner Journal, will appreciate his answer.)
"They're bums," my father answered.
"So why are you giving them money?" I asked.
"Because this is how they make a living!" he answered.
When I was a rabbinical student, one freezing Saturday night I was returning from New York to my studies at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey. My friends and I stopped for pizza and then drove down Canal Street to the Holland Tunnel. As we stopped for a red light, I noticed a beggar standing at the corner holding out his hat.
There was one hot slice of pizza left in the box. I rolled down the window, said good evening to the man and handed him the box with the slice of kosher pizza. We all watched to see what he would do. He walked over to the other paupers who were sleeping in cardboard boxes. He woke them up and mumbled "hot pizza." There were four of them, three men and a woman. They divided the slice of pizza among themselves equally. The light changed and we drove off feeling sorry yet amazed.
I recall another story. When I was studying in Los Angeles, I went with my friend Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Brafman to do laundry. In the laundromat there were always derelicts and bag-ladies. On this particular night, a man about 35 years of age, was going through the garbage. I noticed that he found an empty container of milk and tried squeezing a drop of milk into his mouth. I approached the man and said: "Excuse me sir, but would you mind if I asked you a question?" He said: "Go ahead." I asked him: "When was the last time you had a real cup of milk?" he shrugged his shoulders, grinned and responded: "When I was five years old."
I gave him some money and told him to go next door and buy a container of milk and a piece of cake. He returned a few moments later and asked if he could take a container of chocolate milk.
"Absolutely," I said.
This act of charity cost me a dollar and change.
When I returned to the laundromat, my friend said to me: "You know, Boruch, I just found a dollar." I said: "Wow, Chaim, you are a rich man! But that dollar really belongs to me; I just spent a buck helping a poor man, so heaven returned it to me."
Some people are scared to give charity because their funds might be depleted. Nonsense, I say. The more you give the more you get.
Others argue that we must be cautious when distributing charity, to make sure the funds are allocated properly. But sometimes it is a life or death situation. One of the reasons we don't make a blessing on the mitzva (commandment) of giving charity, like on all other mitzvot, is because if we pause even for a minute, the beggar might be gone.
Most importantly, charity is accomplished not only by distributing money, but in many other ways - by giving advice, educating a fellow human being, visiting the sick, having guests for a meal, returning lost property. Sometimes even a simple smile can be a great act of giving.
There is a story about Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch (1834-1882) and his wife, Rebbetzin Rivkah. Rabbi Shmuel would travel often, sometimes his wife would travel with him, and on several occasions his wife stayed home. Before departing, Rabbi Shmuel would give Rebbetzin Rivkah money for all the necessary living expenses, including large sums for distributing to charity. Being that Rebbetzin Rivkah was very generous, the charity allowance would run out quickly, and she would pawn off her personal belongings to earn extra charity funds for the poor.
On his return, Rabbi Shmuel would immediately ask his wife where she sold her belongings and gladly redeem every last item.
We might not all be able to emulate this type of generosity. But surely we can afford a dollar a day, or a loaf of bread, or at least a smile and a word of encouragement, to our friends, our neighbors or a stranger in the dark.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggested something beautiful and powerful: Every kitchen should have a charity box, to remind us before each meal that there are needy people who don't enjoy three meals a day, or even a kitchen. We ought to help them any way we can.
Rabbi Boruch Jacobson is the Program director of Chabad of Hunter College. He can be contacted at Chabad of the Upper East Side (212) 717-4613 x 12 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit chabadofhunter.com to find out about current events on campus. This article first appeared in the Alegemeiner Journal.
Six couples have joined the ever-growing family of emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi Mendel and Henya Matusof are moving to Madison, Wisconsin to start a Center at the University of Wisconsin. Rabbi Shmuly and Raizy Metzger are moving to Manhattan to start a Center serving Sutton Place, Beekman and Clinton. Rabbi Mendel and Chana Silberstein are moving to Westchester County, New York to start a Center serving Larchmont and Mamaroneck. Rabbi Yossi and Estee Butman are also moving to Westchester County to start a Center serving Armonk, Chappaqua and Pleasantville. Rabbi Yisroel and Rochel Freeman have moved to Sudbury, Massachusetts to start a Center serving Sudbury, Marlborough and Hudson. Rabbi Zalman and Chana Teldon are moving to Long Island, NY to enhance programming throughout Long Island.
Translated from a letter of the Rebbe to the participants in the 2nd European Convention of Lubavitch Women's and Girls' groups
15th of Teves 5739 (1979)
Blessing and Greeting:
...The theme of the Convention ["Roots"] is meaningful in many ways, reflecting the vital functions of roots in the world of plants by way of instructive analogy for our Jewish roots, which - as our Sages declare - are our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the founders of our people. To mention some of the most basic functions of roots:
The roots are, of course, the source of vitality of the plant, from the moment of its birth when the seed takes root, and thereafter, bringing it to fruition and constantly nourishing it throughout its life with the vital elements of water and minerals, etc., from the soil.
While the roots must work also for their own existence, growth, development and strength, their main function is to nourish the plant and ensure its full development, as well as its regenerative powers through the production of fruits and the fruits of fruits. At the same time the roots provide a firm base and anchorage for the plant, so as not to be swept away by strong winds and other elements.
It is in the sense of these basic functions of physical roots that we understand our spiritual roots.
The "primary roots" of our Jewish people are, as mentioned above, our Patriarchs, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, as our Sages declare: "Only three are called Ovos (Fathers)." On the maternal side, our primary roots are our Mothers, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah. Each of these founders and builders of the House of Israel contributed a distinctive quality, which, blended together, produced the unique character of our Jewish people.
Most typical - and original (in the sense of parentage) - is Avrohom Ovinu, of whom it is written, "One was Avrohom," for he was one and only in his generation who recognized the oneness of G-d and, with complete self-sacrifice, proclaimed the Unity of G-d (pure monotheism) to a world steeped in polytheism and idolatry.
His progeny, the Jewish people, is still unique in carrying on his work - a small minority in a world which has many gods. He is from whom we inherited, and derive strength from, the quality of Mesiras Nefesh [self-sacrifice], as well as the supreme obligation to pass on our heritage to our children; for it was his greatest merit in his devotion and total dedication to G-d that "he bequeathed to his children and household after him to keep the way of G-d."
By referring to our Ovos as "roots", our Sages indicate a further essential aspect of roots that goes beyond the role of parents. To be sure, parents give birth to children and transmit to them some of their own physical, mental and spiritual qualities. But children are not directly dependent on their parents for survival; they can move away from their parents and from their parental home, and continue to thrive also after their parents are gone. But this is not so in the case of a plant and its roots. The roots are absolutely indispensable to the plant's existence and their vitalizing influence must flow continuously to keep the plant alive and thriving. In the same way our Fathers and Mothers must always vitalize and animate our own lives.
Every Jew should realize that he or she is an integral part of the great "root system" that began with our Patriarchs and Matriarchs and continued to thrive through the ages, nourishing and sustaining our people, whom G-d calls "a branch of My planting, the work of My hands, to take pride in them."
Yet, sad to say, there are some Jews who, for one reason or another, are not aware of their roots, and some whose roots have become so atrophied as to be in danger of becoming completely withered, G-d forbid. It is therefore up to the healthy plants and roots to work all the harder to revive and strengthen the others, and help them rediscover their identity and place within the root system of our unique people....
With prayerful wishes to each and all of you to go from strength to strength in all above, and With blessing,
16 Shevat, 5766 - February 14, 2006
Positive Mitzva 29: The perpetual fire on the Altar
This mitzva is based on the verse (Lev. 6:6) "There shall always be fire burning on the altar" Among the miracles that took place in the Holy Temple was that a heavenly fire came down on the altar and burned the sacrifices. This showed G-d's acceptance of the service. Even though a divine fire appeared, the priests are commanded to light a man-made fire, as G-d does not want us to rely on miracles. Rather, we must do our part and perform the natural actions. The "Ner Tamid" (which means "everlasting light") of today's synagogues, is a reminder of the fire on the altar.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Shabbat is known as "Shabbat Shira" because in this week's Torah portion, B'Shalach, we read of the special song of praise that the Jewish people sang after their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea.
The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Lowe (known to many as the creator of the legendary Golem of Prague) had a special custom for Shabbat Shira. He asked all of the teachers and parents to bring their children to the synagogue courtyard to retell the story of the Splitting of the Red Sea.
The teachers would relate how the birds sang and danced with Moses and the Jews during the "Song of the Sea," and how the little children plucked fruits from the trees that grew in the sea-bed and gave them to the birds.
After this, the Maharal instructed the children to give groats to the birds in the courtyard in remembrance of the fruits that the children gave the birds at the sea. At the end of the gathering, the Maharal blessed the children, and wished the parents success in meriting to raise their children "to Torah, to Marriage and to good deeds."
To this very day, it is customary to put outside groats ("kasha") for the birds on the eve of Shabbat so that the birds will be able to enjoy them on Shabbat.
May this Shabbat be a true Shabbat of song, when we will sing the most beautiful song of all, that of the long-awaited Redemption with the revelation of Moshiach, NOW!
Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang (yashir) this song... (Ex. 15:1)
Although this verse is most commonly translated as above, the literal translation of the word yashir is "will sing." According to the Midrash, "From here - the use of the future tense yashir - there is an allusion in the Torah to the resurrection of the dead at the time of the Redemption.
Rabbi Eliezer says, "Anyone who recites the song of Moses now before the redemption, will merit to recite it in the future, in the Messianic Age."
Our Sages tell us that the Jewish people will sing a total of ten songs of praise to G-d. Nine songs have already been sung throughout Jewish history; the tenth song will be sung when Moshiach comes. For each of the first nine songs, the Torah uses the feminine form of the word "song" which is "shira." The song of redemption is referred to in the masculine, "shir." Why the difference? All previous redemptions were followed by exile once again they were not permanent. This is like a woman who gives birth. After experiencing the pain of birth, she finally is rewarded with a child. With her next pregnancy, she once again labors and is again "rewarded" with a child. So too with each redemption; the Jewish people suffer and then are redeemed. The final redemption, however, will be permanent, never to be followed by another exile. At that time we will sing the tenth song (shir), the song of redemption.
(Discover Moshiach: Mechilta, Shmot Raba 23:11)
And the Children of Israel ate the manna for forty years (Ex. 16:36)
When Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk was a boy studying about the manna that the Jews ate, he asked his teacher: "If each and every person received his sustenance in abundance through the manna, how did the Jews perform the mitzva (commandment) of charity?" Before his teacher could give a reply, the young student offered his own answer: "It would seem that they fulfilled the mitzva of charity with words of wisdom and knowledge; one who had greater Torah knowledge "gave charity" by teaching someone who had less knowledge.
In a village near Liozna lived a widow with her son and two daughters. The children helped their mother manage the family inn. By and by, the eldest daughter married a young man, Velvel, who was very learned in Torah, but also very conceited.
One of the frequent callers at the inn was the parish priest. He spent many hours in religious debate with Velvel. The young scholar always won, which only served to feed his haughtiness. Even when the priest brought along two of his colleagues to verbally spar with him, Velvel held his own.
After one of their debates, the priest mentioned that the bishop of Vitebsk wanted to meet the young scholar. Velvel was persuaded to go to Vitebsk.
The honor accorded Velvel in the Vitebsk was beyond his wildest dreams. He met with the bishop and out-argued him point by point. One of the senior clerics convinced Velvel to remain for a few days in Vitebsk and help other members of the clergy sharpen their debating skills. Velvel never dreamed that he could be shown so much honor. The innumerable compliments fed his ego even further.
Velvel returned to the inn, with no one the wiser of how he had spent the past few days. Some weeks later, a group of prominent Torah scholars stopped at the inn. They became involved in a learned discussion and the over-confident Velvel gave his opinions, though never once asked. An elderly scholar smiled at Velvel and said, "A young man should learn to listen to what his elders have to say, and to regard Torah scholars with respect."
Velvel took great offense at these words. He thought, "Who are these men who are not showing me due honor? I have even bettered the bishop in religious debate!"
Several weeks later, Velvel disappeared. His family received a letter from him saying that he was living in Vitebsk where honors were being heaped upon him by the bishop of the city. The bishop had assured him that he would become a great dignitary if he would join them.
The family was thrown into turmoil. They set out immediately to Rabbi Shneur Zalman (founder of Chabad Chasidism) in Liozna. They burst into the synagogue and cried out, "Rebbe, help us! Velvel wants to apostatize!"
The Rebbe simply said, "I cannot help you. But I will tell you a story that took place while I was in Mezritch.
"In the winter of 1769, a young man was overcome with the desire to be baptized. He went to the local priest who began arranging everything. The young man's father ran to my Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch and cried: 'Rebbe, rescue my son from baptism!'
"The Maggid listened to the story that the broken-hearted father told and then, after a few minutes, began to expound on the verse, 'If a person should sin and commit a trespass against G-d'" And then, Reb Shneur Zalman repeated the discourse as he had heard it from the Maggid.
Then, Rabbi Shneur Zalman continued to recount the incident: "When the Maggid was finished, he told ten of his Chasidim to stay awake all night, reciting Psalms until dawn. I was one of the ten. At noon, the young man wandered into our synagogue. No one asked him what had happened. He stayed with us for a few days, spoke privately with the Rebbe, then went home." Reb Shneur Zalman completed the story and went back into his study.
The Rebbe's Chasidim immediately chose a quorum of ten men and spent the whole night awake, saying Psalms. The widow and her daughter returned home and soon after that a young man appeared in the synagogue. He sat down with the others, and with tears, recited Psalms. The Chasidim knew who the young man was, but no one breathed a word.
The young man spent the entire week in Liozna, and the following week, after speaking privately with the Rebbe, he returned home. A few weeks later, he and his family moved to another town. He remained close with Rabbi Shneur Zalman and became one of his worthy Chasidim.
Through developing a spiritual service that relates to the special qualities of the seven fruits by which the land of Israel was blessed, and by spreading these concepts with others so they can do the same, we will merit to proceed to the Land of Israel, to Jerusalem, and to the Holy Temple. May this take place in the immediate future.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe, the evening following Tu B'Shevat, 1992)