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The theme of the current Jewish month of Elul is to heighten and intensify our love relationship with G-d. It is a time to review our Divine service and through teshuva, sincere repentance, to correct any faults that might exist.
But that is only the surface dimension of the spiritual dynamic of Elul. Inside - within our hearts and within G-d's heart, as it were, a different motif is operating: an attempt to seek G-d and have G-d seek us in a very deep manner.
There are those who might focus on the mechanics of the month - what sins they must repent for and what degree of regret they must have. Others penetrate to the spiritual core of the month and focus on developing intimacy with G-d.
A person should never remain content with merely performing deeds. Judaism is not a grown-up version of grade-school where you get checks and x's and you have to make up for bad conduct. There is a deeper dimension to our relationship with G-d.
Conversely, it is not sufficient to focus on our inner dimension of G-d to the exclusion of performing the deeds He commanded us and refraining from the activities which He forbade. Could you imagine a husband or a wife protesting "I love you," and the spouse responding, "Then why do you always ignore the simple requests I make of you," and "Why do you always do things that you know upset me."
Which of the two would you believe? If you love someone, you do things for them. And you don't do what upsets them.
These two movements need not present a conflict. It's like the body and the soul; the two should function in harmony. Similarly, the inner dimension of our love relationship with G-d should breath energy and vitality into the day to day norms of our Torah observance and conversely, those daily norms should be mediums for the expression of our inner love.
By doing this, we prepare ourselves for a good and sweet year, a year when G-d will grant us both material and spiritual blessings, including the ultimate blessing - the coming of Moshiach.
Indeed, there is an intrinsic connection between the above concepts and the era of Moshiach. Firstly, it is in that era that the love relationship between G-d and the Jewish people will reach its peak.
But more particularly, it is in the era of Moshiach that the integration of the physical and spiritual will be complete. At present, our every day existence appears to run contrary to the spiritual truth that lies at the core of all existence. A commitment to the spiritual is looked on as strange by some. And it requires effort and energy to develop; it is not our natural framework of reference. In the Era of the Redemption, this will change. Just as today, we are naturally aware of material reality, then we will be conscious of the spiritual. It will be the ordinary way of looking at the world.
Our world and all the positive dimensions of material reality will continue to exist. They will, however, be imbued and permeated with spiritual light.
From Highlights by Rabbi Eli Touger
The Torah portion of Ki Tavo begins by saying: "When you come to the land that G-d your L-rd is giving you as a heritage, occupying and settling it, you shall take of the first fruits...and go to the site that G-d will choose as the place for the indwelling of His name." Rashi comments: "This teaches us that [the Jewish people] were not obligated to bring the first fruits until they conquered and divided the land."
Offering the first fruits served for the Jewish people as a gesture of thanks to G-d for leading them into the Land of Israel and allowing them to enjoy its bounty. It thus indicated that they were not ingrates.
The above is also related to Chai Elul, (the eighteenth day of Elul), which occurs this coming week on Monday. For it is the birthday of two great luminaries - the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic Movement, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch segment within that movement. Among the fundamental principles they taught are the obligation to love one's fellow Jew and the concept of the intrinsic unity of the Jewish people which are alluded to at the beginning of this week's Torah portion, the week in which Chai Elul occurs.
How are love and unity among Jews best achieved? When two or more people unite, then no matter how strong their bond may be it is not absolute unity, since they are intrinsically disparate entities; their union is but an extension to their essential being. We thus understand that the unity of the Jewish people, which is an absolutely true and essential unity stems from the fact that all Jews, by virtue of the common Source of their souls, are truly one.
Nevertheless, the true unity of the Jewish people finds expression specifically when Jews, existing as distinct and separate individuals, are even then, truly united as one. Indeed, if the unity of the Jewish people were not to find expression among Jews who exist as distinct individuals, this would prove that their`unity does not stem fro- the essence of their being, for an individual's essence must be found in all his particular and detailed aspects.
This, then, was the deeper reason as to why the Jewish people were not obligated to bring their offerings of the first fruits until they had conquered and divided the land - for it served as an indication of the true and absolute love and unity that existed among them, to the extent that no individual could be truly joyful so long as tHere existed one fellow Jew who did not yet have a portion in Israel.
And as to ourselves, by truly loving our fellow Jews, we can once again merit to "come to the land" of Israel--through our Righteous Moshiach, speedily in our days.
From The Chasidic Dimension, adapted by Rabbi S. B. Wineberg from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
What's So Good About Being Jewish?
by Zalman Velvel (Stu Silver) www.ZalmanVelvel.com
I joined Chabad six years ago, and since then, I have been trying to get my children to join me on my educational journey with Chabad. When we get serious, they say, "Dad, we have a close family that we love. We have good friends that we enjoy. And when we close our eyes at night, we sleep peacefully knowing we've done okay with our lives."
Then they ask, "Why, suddenly now, Dad, because you joined Chabad, when we turn on a bathroom light on Friday night, we're doing something wrong? And are you implying if we stop eating cheeseburgers, it's going to save the world as we know it? Well, Dad?"
They think they have me. They're surprised when I answer, "No I don't believe any of those acts, by themselves, affect much outward change. It's the thoughts and feelings that you put into those special rituals, and others, that will enhance your life."
Then I ask "What are you doing to enhance your life? At a Reggae Club on Friday night, does a Tequila Sunrise awaken you to G-d? Or on Saturday, when you go shopping at the Edison Mall, do you have a religious experience in Burdines?..."
They counter with, "Yeah, well what's so good about being Jewish?" Finally, the core issue.
"Good about Jewish? Kids, look around you! It's everywhere. For the last 3,000 years, the world has copied the best, and the easiest, of what we hold precious - one God, ten commandments, a holy Sabbath."
They counter with, "That was then, Dad, this is now. What is Judaism going to do for us now?"
And this is where the going gets tough. How do I define being Jewish, in America, in the 21st century ... while standing on one leg? I remember when I was in my early 20's - I was ultra- materialistic.
I want better than that for my children. I want my children to have values that will strengthen them when I am no longer around - the same values that strengthened the Jewish people for thousands of years. I hear Rabbi Itchie's voice in my head, saying, "The goal of Judaism is to elevate your life."
It sounds good, so I expand upon it, "Kids. the goal of Judaism is to elevate every part of your life, to make each day meaningful and fulfilling."
At this point, I expect a standing ovation. Instead, my children listen politely, look at their watches, and then excuse themselves. I'm not getting through to them. It is so difficult to get through when you start as late as I did.
But I want to get through. I want them to know the most important reason to learn about our heritage, a reason I didn't comprehend until a short time ago. And like so many important things in life, it happened by accident.
Itamar Simchon, my Hebrew teacher and friend, had seen a picture of me on my office wall, one taken before I had this beard and yarmulke. He turned to me and asked, "What happened? What did Rabbi Itchie do to you ?"
I gave a quick answer: "I had never seen a Jew with so much faith in God, and it affected me."
But Itamar's question haunted me an entire week. My answer to Itamar was true, but it wasn't the primary truth. I thought back to my first meeting with Itchie, when he came into my office and asked for my help in finding a good deal on a shul. And I thought about the many discussions, and arguments, we have had over the last six years, and how Rabbi Itchie always seem to sense when my spirit, and faith, were lacking. His prescription was always the same: "Let's study."
And I remembered how studying our Torah shocked me, when I discovered how our religion had been copied by the world around us, sometimes by the very people who have tormented us.
And then after studying our history, I came to believe it was no accident that our people have made some of the most important contributions in science, medicine, law, art, literature, philosophy, economics, agriculture, family values, etc., way out of proportion to our numbers. Because of our religion's emphasis on elevating our lives, we have helped elevate life for others - even if we rarely get thanked for it.
And while I was once embarrassed to be different, something new and profound happened: I found myself proud to think like a Jew, act like a Jew, and look like a Jew.
And this new Jewish pride compelled me to share our heritage with children, even if I couldn't do it with my own ... yet. (I say "yet", because I'm still plugging away every Shabbos.)
There were others at Chabad who shared this pride, and it led to the creation of the Chabad afterschool program, Beit Eliyahu. After last year's Chabad Founders' Dinner, Beit Eliyahu was funded with books and computers, a pool, a basketball court, and a playground.
Then the Rabbi and Nechamie went out into the community and invited families to send their children to Beit Eliyahu. How did our community look at this addition?
Some the parents said, "Great! It's about time."
And some of them said, "Sorry Rabbi, my son has soccer practice after school." "Sorry, Nechamie, my daughter has gymnastics after school." "Sorry, our kids want to watch television."
The Rabbi and Nechamie persisted. And because of that persistence, there are almost 40 children who come to Chabad, after their regular school day is over, to learn about our proud heritage.
I'm excited about this program because it will ignite the sparks inside a lot of little Jewish souls, and awaken them to the blessing I missed, and my children missed, when we were their age.
It wasn't easy for me to stand here tonight and discuss publicly my trials as a Jewish father. We must pay careful attention to our children's Jewish education, so it will become a source of pride, and strength for the years to come. Otherwise, we may find ourselves sitting alone on our end of the family tree, the last Jew on the branch.
From a talk at the Chabad of Southwest Florida annual Dinner
Chabad News from the CIS
A "family summer camp" was held under the auspices of the Jewish community in Lugansk, Ukraine. The unique program offered a variety of sports activities, entertainment and Jewish educational programs, each specially suited to the age group that attended. The camp was so successful that it has already been decided to operate it for 2 sessions next summer. The Synagogue on Karu Street in Tallinn, Estonia, will be dedicated this coming fall. The new synagogue, which will be 1,000 sq. meter, is urgently needed as Estonia is the only European country without a synagogue. The first Bar Mitzva to take place in Uzhgorod, Ukraine, in many decades was held this past month. Over 100 community members were in attendance. Many of the older members of the community cried openly when the young man was called up to the Torah.
Freely translated and adapted from a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
The month of Elul, as is well known, is the month of honest self-assessment of the outgoing year, and, at the same time, the month of preparation for the new year - which is, clearly, also the purpose of the honest stock-taking; i.e. not only to try to make good one's deficiencies, but also to know, and to resolve with proper determination, the right path of future daily conduct henceforth. And this will make the coming year a good and sweet one spiritually, hence also a good and sweet year materially.
In the month of Elul itself, the 18th (Chai) Elul comes as a special reminder, with encouragement and exhortation, in the said two aspects of self-assessment and preparation. Its message is: With this day begins the last 12 days of the year; hence the self-searching must now be more intensive and embrace all the months of the year - each day corresponding to a month, the start being Chai Elul. Moreover, according to our Rebbes, the day of Chai Elul must infuse vitality (chai - life) into all details of the Divine service of the entire month of Elul and in its two general aspects of assessment and preparation.
One may wonder what has "vitality" to do with such a thing as an honest self-assessment which deals with "hard" facts. The connection is as follows: There is the well-known instruction that just as one must not forget one's shortcomings in order to rectify them fully, so must one not forget one's good qualities, in order to utilize them to the fullest degree.
In order that this should be accomplished in the proper way - and to the greatest possible degree - the assessment must be done with real vitality.
Whereas an honest assessment of one's shortcomings might sometimes induce discouragement, or worse, despair, an honest evaluation of ones achievements might lead to complacency and to the conclusion that one has already attained a state of perfection.
However, the sign and effectiveness of vitality is in growth, and not the growth of a vegetable, which remains in the same place (and situation), but of a living creature - moving from one place to a better place. Growth is indicated not only by changing location, but also by growing through personal change, a change in one's nature, habits and entire being from good to better and better still.
This is the true vitality of Jew who has been commanded to refine and change his character attributes.
The capacity to attain all the above has been given to every Jew, or, using the quotation above, to "all of you," from "the heads of your tribes" to "the hewer of your wood and the drawer of your water."
For the vitality of every Jew derives from, and is bound up with, the Source of Life, as is written, "And you who are attached to G-d, your G-d, are all of you living this day - by virtue of your attachment to G-dliness, the Source of life and vitality, through the Torah, the Torah of Life, and the mitzvoth (commandments) whereby Jews live.
Moreover, it is a matter of common experience that everything done with vivacity can be achieved with greater success and more completeness. And - what is no less important - such activity makes the proper impact on others inspiring them with the same spirit, for the best influence is a living example.
May G-d grant, that everyone, man and woman, take full advantage of the great opportunity of the last days of the year and those following, all the days of the coming year - to act with true vitality in fullest measure, as above.
And in the merit of it everyone, in the midst of all our Jewish people, should be inscribed for a good and sweet year, for good life and for peace,
Unto the coming of our Righteous Moshiach, and the fulfillment of the divine prophecy: "The strength and glory of the Righteous shall be uplifted," very soon indeed.
Why are there different types of shofar blasts?
The word used in the Torah to describe the sound of the shofar also denotes the sound of someone crying. There are two categories of crying sounds. The first is like the moaning and crying of a person in pain, which is slightly drawn out. Another type of crying is tightly spaced short sobs. And sometimes, the first turns into the second; longer sounds followed by the shorter sounds. The first category of sounds are called shevarim; the second, teru'ot; and the combination, shevarim-teru'ot. Each type of crying must have a single long sound, called a tekiah, preceding and following.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
During the month of Elul we blow the shofar in preparation for the High Holidays. The Baal Shem Tov, whose birthday we celebrate this week on Monday, the 18th of Elul, told the following parable about the Jewish people and the shofar:
A mighty king had an only child, a beloved son. Though the prince grew to be a well-educated young man, he and the king decided that by traveling to other countries he would further enhance his knowledge.
The prince set out, laden with wealth and accompanied by nobles and servants. The prince travelled for years and years, studying the people and countries he encountered and acquiring a great taste for luxuries. At first slowly, and then more quickly, the prince spent his money until he was finally left penniless, without servants or friends, far from his father's palace and comfortable life.
Slowly, the prince made his way back to his homeland. He arrived at his father's palace, bedraggled and exhausted. He had been away so long, though, that he had even forgotten his mother-tongue. Through signs and gestures, he tried to convince the palace guards that he was the prince, but the guards just laughed and beat him.
Finally, the prince cried out in anguish and grief, a wordless cry full of desperation and agony. And his father, the king, heard and recognized the prince's cry and ran out to greet his son.
The king is, of course, G-d, the King of Kings. The Jewish people are the prince. G-d caused the soul to descend into and wander in the body to perform mitzvot and do good deeds. However, the person often gets distracted and wanders far away. Eventually, however, when he notices the poverty of his life, he returns to his "Father's palace" though he no longer even knows the language or how to communicate with G-d, the King. So, he utters an incoherent cry, but a cry from his very depths--the cry of the shofar. And the cry of the shofar is recognized by the King, who lovingly accepts him and all His returning children.
May we all merit to truly hear and experience the cry of the shofar.
Parshat Ki Tavo
Rabbi Shneur Zalman was the regular Torah reader. Once he was away on the Shabbat of the Torah portion, Ki Tavo. His son, Dov Ber (not yet bar mitzva), heard another person read the Torah that week. His anguish at the curses in the section of admonition caused him so much distress, that on Yom Kippur (three weeks later) Rabbi Shneur Zalman doubted whether his son would be able to fast. When they asked Reb Dov Ber, "Don't you hear this portion every year?" he replied, "When father reads, one hears no curses."
G-d has forsworn you this day...to keep all His commandments (Deut. 26:18)
Is it not already stated in the previous verse, "and to keep His laws and commandments"? Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev explained that the verse "and to keep all His commandments" here refers to G-d Himself, Who is also obligated to keep His commandments to us, especially the mitzva of "you shall not delay in paying your hired laborer," and He must give us all life and sustenance.
And you shall take from the first of all fruit of the earth. (Deut. 26:2)
One should offer to G-d the "first" and the best of all his worldly possessions, and dedicate them to holiness, as it states, "all of the best part (literally, fat) is for G-d." In this instance, the commandment to bring the fruit as an offering was not to place it upon the altar, consumed by fire from Above, and nullified by G-dliness. Rather, it was carried out by giving the fruits to the Priests, to be eaten, and in this way were they sanctified. This teaches us that the aim is not to nullify the material world, but rather to introduce holiness into it. And this is why it states "from the first" and not "all of the first." The purpose is not that a person shouldn't have anything remaining of his possessions; on the contrary, he should have fruit, and also "first fruits" - the very best. We should only make sure that we are mindful of their inherent holiness, for from them were brought offerings to the Holy Temple.
All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you (Deut. 28:2)
G-d promises that when a Jew follows the Torah, he will be rewarded with many blessings that will "overtake" him. Why is it necessary that they "overtake" him? Why would anyone run away from something good? Sometimes we don't have the capacity to understand what true blessing is, and we attempt to run in the opposite direction. But G-d, in His infinite wisdom, directs us to the true good and blessing, even if we do not comprehend, with our limited intelligence, where we are heading. The Torah tells us not to worry; G-d will bless us even against our will.
(Degel Machane Efraim)
Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidism (author of the Tanya and the Shulchan Aruch), had many thousands of followers. When any one of them had a serious problem, they would come to Liozna, the small town in White Russia where the Rebbe lived, to ask his advice and blessing.
So it was that one of his followers, who lived in a nearby village, came to the Alter Rebbe one day with tears in his eyes, and poured out his troubled heart to him. He told the Rebbe that he had a teenage boy, whom he tried to bring up in the way of the Torah and mitzvos. He was a fine boy, devoted to his studies, and observant of the mitzvos. But suddenly, something got into him, and he began to turn away from Torah and mitzvos. The heartbroken father feared that his son might go completely astray, and he begged the Rebbe to tell him what to do to bring him back to the right path.
"Do you think you could persuade your son to come and see me?" the Alter Rebbe asked.
"I'm afraid that in his present state of mind he may not be willing to come to the Rebbe," the villager answered sadly.
"Then try to find some excuse to get him to come here. Perhaps you can send him into town on some errand?" the Rebbe suggested. "Once he is in town, a way will be found to get him to see me."
Somewhat encouraged by the Alter Rebbe's optimism, the Chassid returned home with a lighter heart.
Thinking about a way of carrying out the Rebbe's suggestion, he suddenly had an idea. His son was very fond of horseback riding. Now, it was not considered nice for observant young Jews to ride into town on horseback, but his son did not worry about what people might say, and whenever the opportunity presented itself he would ride right into town on horseback like any non-Jewish country yokel.
So the Chasid thought up an errand and asked his son to go into town.
"If I can ride into town. . . ." the son said. His father nodded.
The young man went galloping into town. Little did he know that the errand was really a pretext for his father's friends to get him to the Rebbe's house.
Shortly he found himself facing the Rebbe, who greeted him warmly.
"But why did you choose to ride into town on horseback, instead of in a buggy?" the Rebbe asked.
"Well, I just love horseback riding. My horse is a fine animal; why not take advantage of such a fine horse?" the boy replied.
"And what are the advantages of such an animal?" asked the Alter Rebbe.
"A good horse runs fast. You gallop away and you reach your destination so much quicker," said the young man enthusiastically.
"That is all very well-if you are on the right road," countered the Rebbe, "but if you are on the wrong road, you can only travel quickly in the wrong direction!"
"Even so," insisted the young man, "the horse could help you quickly get back to the right road, if you catch yourself and see that you are on the wrong road. . . ."
"If you catch yourself and see that you are on the wrong road," the Alter Rebbe repeated slowly and emphatically. "Yes, my son, if you catch yourself before it is too late, and realize that you have strayed from the right path; then you can quickly return. . . ."
The words of the Alter Rebbe, uttered deliberately and pointedly, struck the young man like a bombshell, and the Rebbe's penetrating eyes seemed to pierce right through him. The boy fell down in a faint.
He was quickly revived, and in a subdued voice he asked the Rebbe's permission to remain in Liozna, so that he could renew his Torah studies and come back to his family as a Torah-observant Jew.
In the days of Moshiach the Divine light will be utterly revealed in the heart of every individual, and in every heart there will be a constant and visible fear of G-d; as it is written, (Isaiah) "They shall go into the caves of the rocks and into the tunnels of the earth, for fear of G-d...." The body too will change. It will be like the body of Adam before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, clean of any evil. As the Midrash states, "His heel threw a shadow on the orb of the sun." That is to say, his body was nullified to the Divine Will even more than was the inanimate sun.
(Derech Chayim, p. 25)