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Certain moments signal transitions in our lives. Some, of course, are so momentous that we celebrate them as moments of change: a birth, a wedding, a graduation. And although these events mark the end of a period or stage in our lives, what we focus on is the new beginning, the commencement of the new stage.
Often in such cases, though, the end and beginning really don't have much to do with each other, aside from the sequence in time. In other words, one event does not cause another. In other cases, the beginning is a consequence of the ending. For example, getting a new job results from being fired or resigning from an old job. (Or completing one's education causes one to go on the job market and results in employment.) In such a case, the ending "spills over" into the beginning. Part 2 exists because Part 1 ends.
In literature, this is known as the "and they lived happily ever after" syndrome. The story ends. The goal is reached. And then, "they live happily ever after." The end of the story implies a new beginning.
Such endings, and consequently such beginnings, are ambivalent. Even though we can clearly delineate the end of period 1 and know when period 2 begins, still period 1 flows into, influences and continues on (in period 2) even after it ends. Paradoxically, it finishes, but does not end.
There are examples of this in the Torah, as well. For instance, the Torah states, "It came to pass at the end of 40 days that Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made."Opening the window, and sending forth first the raven and then the dove, was the first step in Noah's (and his family's) new life in the post-Flood world. What caused or instigated that new life? The end of the 40 days since the tops of the mountains became visible.
This ambivalence is more than a semantic game or literary paradox or psychological enigma. And obviously this ambivalence only exists at the boundaries of the two periods. At some point we know we are in period 2 and not period 1. And afterwards, when we are "somewhere else," we can identify and separate each - except, again at their borders.
There is a very practical application of this ambiguity, of the ambivalence of contact and transition between the end and the beginning.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe has declared that ours is "the last generation of exile and the first generation of Redemption." We can ask, which is it? A generation of exile has one set of characteristics. A generation of Redemption has another set of characteristics. (Both are set out in the book of Exodus that we are currently reading in the Torah.
But now, as then, one generation serves as the transition generation, paradoxically containing within itself both sets of characteristics.
And therein lies the lesson. For while ambiguity exists, we cannot balance ourselves on ambivalence. As human beings, we have to see the world one way or the other. We have to act from a single perspective. In order to choose, to do, we must - while acknowledging the ambiguity - put one part of it aside and act from within either a generation of exile framework or a generation of Redemption framework. We may be both, but how we view the world, we can choose.
And in order to choose we must study: attend a class at your local Chabad-Lubavitch Center; learn on-line at www.mashiach.org, www.moshiach.com, www.LchaimWeekly.org, www.meaningfullife.com; www.inner.org; find a study partner through www.jnet.org (718-467-4400).
This week's Torah portion, Va'eira, begins with G-d's reply to Moses' question, posed at the end of last week's reading. "Why have You allowed so much evil to befall this people?" Moses asked. "Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done more evil... You have not delivered Your People."
"I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob," G-d counters.
What kind of answer is this to Moses' seemingly legitimate complaint? Our Sages interpret this verse as a mild rebuke. "Your forefathers," G-d says, "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were repeatedly tested, yet none of them ever questioned My motives."
This exchange seems odd in light of the fact that, in general, the Torah goes out of its way to use only positive terms, even when referring to the lowliest beast. Every word in the Torah contains countless practical lessons to enhance our relationships with our fellow man and to apply in our service of G-d. We must therefore conclude that G-d's response to Moses must be of practical significance in our daily lives as well.
Moses, the greatest prophet who ever lived, certainly knew of the greatness of the Patriarchs and their unquestioning devotion to G-d. In fact, because Moses stood on an even higher spiritual level than the Patriarchs, his faith in G-d and trust in Him were likewise also greater. Yet if so, how could he have complained to G-d, "Why have You allowed so much evil to befall this people?"
Chasidic philosophy explains that Moses was on the spiritual level of chachma, intellect, whereas the Patriarchs were the embodiment of midot, the emotions. Intellect always strives to understand; the nature of emotion includes the willingness to accept authority. The Patriarchs were therefore unquestioning in their submission to G-d, whereas Moses argued and questioned in his desire to comprehend.
The practical lesson we may derive from this is twofold: On the one hand, we must always endeavor to emulate our forefathers, who, even in times of adversity, had complete faith in G-d and never questioned His actions. Likewise, in our own era, now is not the time for questions as we stand on the threshold of the complete and Final Redemption. Yet at the same time, Moses' demand of G-d is equally valid for us today.
Nowadays, as we find ourselves at the very end of our exile, an exile so bitter and confusing that the very boundaries between light and dark and between good and evil appear to be blurred, we must bear these two things in mind: A Jew must have utmost faith that all of G-d's actions are good, that the darkness itself is leading us toward Redemption, and, at the same time, he must beg and implore G-d with all his might to fulfill His promise and bring Moshiach.
Our cry, "How long, O G-d?" is not in contradiction to our faith; rather, our G-d-given intellect dictates that we demand, "Why have you done more evil to this people?" Both intellect and emotions must work in tandem, combining the faith of our forefathers with the cry of "We want Moshiach NOW!"
From Likutei Sichos Vol. 3, and a discourse given on Shabbat Va'eira, 5743
by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein
For most of my life, I lived a Clark Kent existence: that of a Jew residing in Manchester, England, intent on blending into the modern, secular world. I kept my Hebrew name a closely guarded secret; my desire to assimilate required no less. A degree in film history led to a job scouting movie locations. My work was exciting, even a bit glamorous, but something was missing.
Seeking to fulfill needs that were not met by MTV and materialism, I set out to learn about my Jewish heritage. Trips to Israel followed, where I enrolled in the life-changing Mayanot Institute, a Chabad yeshiva in Jerusalem. I eventually reverted to my Hebrew name (from Simon to Simcha). My transformation was complete.
Yet I never entirely lost my love of pop culture. When marriage brought me to New York, I began thinking about all the Jewish writers, artists and editors who'd lived and worked there too - and who'd created a whole new art form: the comic book. As the rabbi of the esteemed Pratt Institute - the very school many comics pioneers once attended - I began to wonder why comic books had been invented in that particular time and place, by those particular men.
Every Friday night, my wife and I cram a crowd of Jewish Pratt students into our tiny, over-priced Brooklyn Heights apartment. While our two sons, ages three and one, play around under the table, we grown-ups discuss the meaning of life, over copious bowls of steaming chicken soup, until the wee hours.
Interacting with these gifted art students challenged me, as a rabbi, to look at those early comic book pioneers from a new, theological perspective. I re-read the classic superhero comics, this time, through the lens of Jewish tradition and spiritual belief.
The Sages expound that all human knowledge and wisdom is contained within the Bible. The great Chasidic master Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (founder of Chabad Chasidism) taught that Jews should relate the weekly Torah portion to events in their own lives, right then and there. He called this way of reading "living with the times."
As Eastern European Jewish immigrants poured into New York's Lower East Side in the early 1900s, they viewed the stories of the Bible through the prism of their struggles in a sometimes baffling new land, and passed them on to their children. And some of those children in turn retold those Jewish tales using dots of colored ink on pulp paper, beginning in the 1930s.
Clearly, the world needed heroes. So even before their own country went to war with Hitler, young Jewish American artists and writers began creating powerful characters who were dedicated to protecting the innocent and conquering evil.
Their names include Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; Batman creators Bob Kane (Kahn) and Bill Finger; publisher Julius Schwartz, the "father of science-fiction comics" and the man behind the Justice League of America; Martin Nodell, the man behind the Green Lantern; Jack Kirby (Kurtzberg) and Joe Simon, of Captain America; Max Gaines, the true father of comic books, his son William, publisher of MAD magazine, and William's partner, Harvey Kurtzman; Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber), who created Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men - and his boss, Martin Goodman of Marvel Comics.
Each generation of Jewish comic book creators and graphic novelists explored the ambiguities of assimilation, the pain of discrimination, and the particularly Jewish theme of the misunderstood outcast, the rootless wanderer. Again and again, the triumph of good over evil remained a central theme.
Jack Kirby once said, "Good always triumphed over evil. Underneath all the sophistication of modern comics, all the twists and psychological drama, good triumphs over evil. Those are things I learned from my parents and from the Bible. It's part of my Jewish heritage."
With the creation of Superman came the notion of "double identity" which allowed for almost endless storyline twists and thematic depth. From then on, double identities became a recurring theme throughout comic book culture and mythology, with Spider-Man and Batman employing this character device to great effect.
According to the Sages, we all have a double identity, just like the most enduring of the superheroes. Man is the fusion of matter and spirit, a body and soul. The body cleaves to this physical world, while the soul longs for the spiritual. Likewise, many comic book characters are reluctant heroes who often want nothing more than to give up their incredible powers.
"With great power comes great responsibility," as Spider-Man says, usually in a rueful, resigned tone of voice that hints he'd much rather be an ordinary mortal. And who wouldn't want to walk away from our daunting duties and mundane cares, at least once in a while?
But in reality, G-d created the world to "have a dwelling in the lower realms." The likes of Superman or Spider-Man have a tough, thankless job to do in those "lower realms," fighting for what's right, without getting much credit.
Look closely: we're all surrounded by superheroes. At the Pratt Institute, I see aspiring Jewish artists openly grappling with and embracing their faith within their work. I also see my own efforts mirrored by the brave Chabad-On-Campus rabbis and Super-rebbetzins who make sure that every Jewish student is aware of his or her heritage, teaching the Jewish leaders of tomorrow not to grow-up to be like the bumbling Clark Kent but rather to become Jewperheroes.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe serving the campuses in downtown Brooklyn (NY). He is the author of the award winning book Up, Up and Oy Vey. Reprinted with permission from www.rabbisimcha.com
New Mikva for Sumy
The Jewish community of Sumy, Ukraine, laid the foundation stone for a new mikva this past month. It is 80 years since the last mikva in Sumy was closed down by the Soviet authorities in 1927. Three years ago, Rabbi Yechiel and Rochi Levitansky arrived in Sumy as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Federation of Jewish Communities representative to that city. Today there is a synagogue with a daily minyan as well as classes, holiday programs and Jewish and humanitarian services.
Continued from the previous issue from a letter in which the Rebbe explains why he established the Jewish children's organization "Tzivos HaShem".
As with every health problem, physical, mental or spiritual, the cure lies not in treating the symptoms, but in attacking the cause, although the former may sometimes be necessary for relief in acute cases.
Since, as I mentioned, the root of the problem is the lack of Kabolas Ol [accepting the yoke (of Heaven)], I thought long and hard about finding a way of inducing an American boy to get used to the idea of subordination to a higher authority, despite all the influence to the contrary - in the school, in the street, and even at home, where parents - not wishing to be bothered by their children - have all too often abdicated their authority, and left it to others to deal with truancy, juvenile delinquency, etc.
I came to the conclusion that there was no other way than trying to effect a basic change in the boy's nature, through a system of discipline and obedience to rules which he can be induced to get accustomed to. Moreover, for this method to be effective, it would be necessary that it should be freely and readily accepted, without coercion.
The idea itself is, of course, not a novel one. It has already been emphasized by the Rambam [Maimonides] in the introduction to his Commentary on Mishnayos, where he points out that although ideally good things should be done for their own sake (Lishmoh), it is necessary to use inducements with young children until they are old enough to know better.
Thus, a "Pilot" Tzivos HaShem was instituted. It immediately proved a great success in getting the children to do good things in keeping with the motto V'Ohavto L'Reacho Komocho [love your neighbor as yourself], coupled with love and obedience to the "Commander-in-chief" of Tzivos HaShem, namely HaShem Eloikei Tzivo'os [G-d, the L-rd of Hosts].
The Tzivos HaShem Campaign has a further reward, though not widely applicable to Jewish children attending Hebrew schools. This, too, has already been alluded to by our Sages, in their customary succinct way, by saying that a person born with a violent nature should become a (blood-letting) physician, or a Shochet, or a Mohel, in order to give a positive outlet to their strong natural propensity (T. B. Shabbos 156a). Thus, children that might be inclined to aggressiveness, and hence easy candidates for street gangs, and the like, would have a positive outlet by diverting their energy in the right direction.
This brings us to the point that although the ideal of peace is so prominent in the Torah, as mentioned, the fact is that G-d designed and created the world in a way that leaves man subject to an almost constant inner strife, having to wage relentless battle with the Yetzer Hora [evil inclination]. Indeed, the Zohar points out that the Hebrew term for bread - lechem - is derived from the same root that denotes "war," symbolizing the concept of the continuous struggle between the base and sublime nature of man, whether he eats his bread as a glutton, in a way an animal eats its food, or on a higher level - to keep the body healthy in order to be able to do what is good and right in accordance with the Will of the Creator.
This is the only kind of "battle" the Tzivos HaShem are called upon to wage. By the same token, the only "secret weapon" they are encouraged to use is strict Shabbos observance and other Mitzvoth [commandments] which have been the secrets of Jewish strength throughout the ages.
Our experience with Tzivos HaShem - wherever the idea has been im- plemented, in the U.S.A. and Canada, Eretz Yisroel [the Land of Israel], and in many parts of the world - has completely convinced us of its most successful positive results, with no negative side-effects whatever. I can only hope that it would be adopted in other sectors, outside of Lubavitch, in growing numbers.
I trust that the above lines will not only put to rest all your apprehensions concerning Tzivos HaShem, but will also place you in the company of the many prominent educators and spiritual leaders who have enthusiastically acclaimed the Tzivos HaShem operation as uniquely successful in attaining its desirable goal.
With esteem and blessing,
What is "Rosh Chodesh" and what are some of its special customs?
Rosh Chodesh literally means "head of the month." It is the first day of the new month. When the previous month has 30 days, the last day of that month is also Rosh Chodesh. On Rosh Chodesh special prayers are added and the Torah is read. We are not permitted to have haircuts or cut our fingernails. It is a "mini-holiday" for women as a reward for their not having participated in the sin of the Golden Calf.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
The second day of the month of Shevat (this year Sunday, January 21) is the yahrzeit of Reb Zusya of Anipoli, a disciple of Reb Dov Ber of Mezritch (The Mezritcher Maggid), and colleague of Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad Rebbe.
The fact that illness and utter poverty were Reb Zusya's lot did not in the least effect his piety, humility, and love of G-d for which he was renowned.
A story is told of Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg, who approached Reb Dov Ber of Mezritch and asked him how it was possible to follow the injunction of our Sages to "make a blessing upon hearing bad news just as one would make a blessing upon hearing good news." Reb Dov Ber told Reb Shmelke to go to Reb Zusya, and he would answer his question .
Reb Shmelke went to Reb Zusya, upon whom poverty and illness had left their physical marks. When Reb Shmelke posed his question to him, Reb Zusya was surprised. He replied, "This question should have been brought to someone who has actually experienced unfortunate events, G-d forbid. Thank G-d, I have only had good things happen to me for my whole life."
The answer to Reb Shmelke's question was that someone should rejoice in his lot to the point that he is not even aware of harsh events. This was the hallmark of Reb Zusya's life.
Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi held Reb Zusya in such high esteem that before printing his magnum opus, the Tanya, he sent a copy of it with a special messenger to Reb Zusya for his approbation.
I will take you out from under the burdens - sivlot - of Egypt. (Ex. 6:6)
G-d said to the Children of Israel, "I will take you out from the 'savlanut' - the patience - that you have toward the Egyptians and toward your enslavement: I will make your exile and toil among them so repugnant to you that you will not be able to stand it any longer. Then you will cry out to Me that you want your redemption to come immediately." As long as the Jews could yet endure their exile, without shaking Heaven and earth with their demands, the redemption could not come.
It is far easier to physically take the Jews out of galut (exile) than it is to remove the inner galut from within every Jew.
(Rabbi Yaakov Shimshon of Shpitovka)
These are Aaron and Moses...These are Moses and Aaron (Ex. 6:26, 27)
Aaron, the first kohen (priest), embodied the proper worship of G-d, and by extension, symbolizes prayer in general. The job of the kohanim was to offer the sacrifices in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem; in our time, when we have no Temple, prayer must take the place of these sacrifices. Moses, on the other hand, epitomized and symbolized Torah learning. The juxtaposition of the two names and their repetition in the reverse order teaches us that there are times in our daily lives when one aspect takes precedence over the other. Sometimes we stress prayer, as a preparation for performing mitzvot and learning Torah, and sometimes we learn first in order to pray more effectively.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
You shall speak all that I command you... (Ex. 7:2)
Here, G-d tells Moses that he is the one who must speak to Pharaoh. The humiliation of Pharaoh had to come about at the hand of Moses specifically, for Pharaoh was the epitome of haughtiness and pride, and it was fitting that he be humbled by one who was the embodiment of modesty and humility - "And the man, Moses was the most humble of any man on the face of the earth."
The Baal Shem Tov (known also as the Besht) sat under warm, fur blankets in his carriage as it sped down the dirt road toward the town of Satnov. As the carriage neared the town the strange light emanating from there became brighter and brighter. It was not the light of a fire, nor any natural phenomenon, but a spiritual light discernable to the tzadik (righteous man) alone.
When the Besht entered the suburbs of Satnov he was greeted by a crowd of people who pushed to see the famous tzadik. After a short while he addressed himself to the crowd: "Do you know that a great tzadeket lives among you - a truly righteous woman, whose light I was able to perceive even from afar."
"Of course, we know her. You are talking about the tzadeket, Rivka. She is known all around these parts for her piety and good deeds."
The Besht was very interested in hearing more about this special woman. Explained one of the townspeople with a smile, "She'll be here soon enough to see you. Rivka will come to ask you for a donation for the upkeep of needy families. She won't miss this opportunity."
The man was right, for not an hour had passed before Rivka appeared before the Baal Shem Tov, asking for a donation. "Would the esteemed rabbi be good enough to contribute something for poor families?" she asked.
"Of course," replied the Besht as he handed her a small coin.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, but I can't accept such a small amount," she said, peering down at the copper coin. "You must have misunderstood me. You see, I am collecting for people who are poverty stricken and ill. They need expensive medicines and nourishing food. I need much more than that."
The Baal Shem Tov responded by giving her a few more small coins. She looked at him sternly and said in a severe voice, "No, this is still not enough. I can't accept anything less than 40 rubles."
The Baal Shem Tov was very impressed with Rivka, but he pretended to be annoyed. "What chutzpa! Who are you to demand such a huge sum? Do you imagine that you are the treasurer of the whole town? Why, I wouldn't be surprised if you pocketed three-quarters of the money!"
Rivka was not intimidated and stood as before with her hand out in expectation of receiving the money. The Besht didn't disappoint her. With 40 rubles in her hand, the woman finally went on her way.
That night Rivka again appeared before the Besht with a request. But this time it was not money that she wanted. Instead, she asked for the tzadik's prayers. "Please, Rebbe, pray for the town doctor who is very ill."
"For that no-good sinner! Why the world would be a better place without the likes of him," replied the Besht.
"Oh, no," countered Rivka. "First of all, no one has seen him in the act of sinning, and secondly, he is completely ignorant of the severity of his sins. I'm sure that if he understood what he was doing, he would stop immediately."
The Besht was satisfied with that answer, for he knew that the man's death had been demanded by the Celestial Court, and the good defense Rivka had just given was necessary to stay the decree. Not long after, the doctor recovered.
The townspeople told many stories about Rivka. Once, her two grown sons decided they should interrupt their Torah studies to come to visit their mother for a Shabbat. But Rivka's greatest pleasure was in the knowledge that her sons were devoting themselves to the study of Torah, and she didn't wish them to be interrupted from their holy pursuit.
On the day before Shabbat she called her beloved sons to her. "I'm going to ask you to do something for me, and I want you to promise to do as I say."
They looked at her in surprise and answered, "Mother, why do you imagine we wouldn't? We will certainly do whatever you wish."
"In that case, I want you to go back to your yeshiva now, before Shabbat. I know it may sound strange, but you will do me more honor by spending your precious time in Torah study. My sons, try to understand: Seeing you gives me great pleasure, but I'm willing to wait for my reward in the World of Truth. Go back and continue your learning, so as not to waste a single precious moment. I have already prepared a carriage for you, packed with the special foods you love for the holy Shabbat. Go safely and prepare for me the eternal pleasure which awaits me in the World of Truth." With that, Rivka blessed her beloved sons and sent them on their way.
The name of the eleventh month, Shevat, is connected with the Messianic redemption. Shevat has the same letters as the word, "Shevet," which is interpreted as a reference to the Moshiach as our Sages commented on the verse, "A shevet will arise in Israel," (Num. 24:17) "This refers to the Messianic king."
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rosh Chodesh Shevat, 5750)