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Happy birthday! With more than 200,000 people born around the world each day, it's likely that at least a few of our readers are celebrating their birthdays today.
Conventionally, birthdays are for parties! When we're very young (and very old) we mark the day we were born with a celebration. Cake, ice cream, gifts, games, we gather family and friends to celebrate our birthdays.
Ostensibly, birthdays are quite secular affairs. Every person (Jew or gentile) has one once a year. In fact, in the Torah, the only birthday singled out for any mention is that of Pharaoh! Yet, the Talmud teaches that one's birthday is the day on which one's "fortune rises."
Is there a special "Jewish" way to celebrate a birthday? And is there such a thing as a Jewish birthday? And once we find out when our Jewish birthday is, how do we go about celebrating it?
A birthday is a time for reflection, a time to review the year gone by and to think about those aspects of our lives that need improvement and correcting.
We can use the day to study a Jewish thought and share it with others, take (extra) time to pray, as well as making sure to give charity and do some other special mitzvot (commandments).
The birthday party is transformed into a joyous gathering of family and friends and the power of the birthday will guarantee that the good resolutions made in such a setting will be fulfilled in the future.
Ancient Jewish sources teach the value of celebrating a birthday. For example there is a Midrash that relates: Most people cherish the day on which they were born and make a party on that day.
In 1988 (5748), shortly after the passing of his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the Lubavitcher Rebbe chose the anniversary of her birth as a time to launch a new campaign to reinvigorate the custom of celebrating Jewish birthdays.
The Rebbe asked that even the youngest children should be taught the spiritual importance of a birthday and that they should be encouraged to celebrate their birthdays with their friends in a way that they will increase Jewish observance and good resolutions.
For each of us, our birthday is a day to rejoice in the knowledge that on this day our soul descended to this world for a special, unique purpose that is only ours to fulfill.
On the anniversary of our birth, we embark on a new year, a new stage in our development, and a new chapter in the fulfillment of our life's mission.
There is no other you in the world and there is no other person who can accomplish the purpose for which you specifically were born.
Take advantage of this occasion. Be introspective, explore the state of your spiritual life, set your Jewish house even more in order. Start fulfilling some of the good resolutions on the spot and use your birthday as a time to increase goodness and holiness in the world!
- (Back to text) To figure out the date of your Jewish birthday, call (718) 467-7800 or visit www.CandleLightingTimes.org/calendar/birthday.htm
In this week's portion, Ki Tisa, G-d commands Moses to make a washing basin and place it in front of the Tent of Meeting. This basin was for the priests to wash before they performed their service, as it states, "Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and feet from it when they go into the Tent of Meeting."
The act of washing had two objectives. The first was for cleanliness and purity, as the kohen (priest) was required to maintain a higher standard than others. The second was for the purpose of holiness: by washing himself the priest received an extra measure of sanctity. In fact, the very act of washing is called the "sanctification of the hands and feet."
Although the Temple in Jerusalem is no longer standing, the lessons we derive from the services that were performed there are eternal, and apply always. Every Jew is considered a "priest" (the entire Jewish people is called "a nation of priests and a holy people"), and the concept of washing before serving the Creator exists on many different levels.
In his Laws of Prayer, Maimonides writes that one must "wash his face, hands and feet before praying the morning service." Nowadays, when we cannot bring actual sacrifices, our prayers are offered in their stead. Washing before we pray follows the example of the priests, who washed before performing their Temple duties. But why does Maimonides stipulate that the face must be washed - something the priests were not obligated to do? The answer is that the concept of "face" has a special significance during the period of exile, after the destruction of the Holy Temple.
Hands and feet are symbolic of man's physical ability and prowess; the face is symbolic of his higher powers (intellect, sight, hearing, speech, etc.) The more mundane aspects of life are to be carried out by the hands and feet alone, whereas the higher powers are to be reserved for man's higher calling - the service of G-d.
Back when the Holy Temple stood, the overall spiritual level of the Jewish people was higher. It would never have occurred to the "face" to involve itself in lower matters; thus, it didn't need an added measure of protection and holiness. During the exile, however, the Jew is sometimes so demoralized that he forgets himself and invests his higher powers in affairs that are truly unworthy of their attention. His "face," as it were, must therefore be safeguarded.
In practice, many authorities have ruled that the "Modeh Ani" declaration made upon arising, thanking G-d for restoring the soul, is sufficient preparation for prayer, and washing one's face is not strictly necessary. For the Jew's innermost essence is always pure and connected to G-d, and thus always ready to worship the Creator.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot of the Rebbe, Vol. 31
by Leah Sherman
"I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great."
There are things that we do because we have an inherent sense of what is right. Then there are things that we do because of what others have taught us. Only after we have learned them do we know they are right.
The phone started ringing, and upon waking I began to recite the Modeh Ani prayer. Initially, after I had left Minnesota and returned home from my week's learning at Bais Chana, it took some time to make the recitation a habit, so it would be less of an effort to remember. Gradually, with time, it became automatic to wake up with the words issuing from my lips.
The phone's ringing brought me out of sleep, its persistent sound jarring me toward wakefulness. Before even the rooster could crow, my humanity received its daily reminder, its morning wake-up call, through the words of the Modeh Ani prayer. Remember in whose presence this phone rings.
The phone pealed one more time, then shut off. No message. Within minutes, it rang again. I answered it. My father's authoritative voice, measured with care: "You are booked on tonight's flight to London." My mother had passed away.
An ordinary day, transformed like no other. As the impact penetrated my consciousness, I steadied myself with gratitude, in the knowledge that G-d was with me in that moment; not because of my innate sense of Him, nor because it offered something to cling to, but through my lips, and with my voice, I had just acknowledged Him. The words, if we could see them, might still have lingered in the air, "I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great." The only daughter, 5,000 miles from my mother when she passed on, I was carried in those pre-dawn words that acknowledged my life, and with them her death. I thank G-d, He had seen fit for me to live to pray for the soul of my beloved mother as she transitioned to the next world.
In the immediate moments after I replaced the telephone in the handset, I bade my muscles to hold the stillness. My heart throbbed. I examined the sensations. "How am I going to move forward?" I wondered. "Will one foot really step out in front of the other? Will that still happen? How am I going to move out of this space?"
With each inhale of breath, I imagined a rope reaching up to the heavens. It climbed higher and higher as I held on below. In the exhale, I made room for feeling, for a response. To this day, I am still able to recall the outpouring of love that washed over me; it was unfiltered; it was the sweetest love I'd ever known; it was pure.
At the airport, I handed the reservation agent my passport. Meticulously, my father had attended to each minute detail to ensure that I would be in England the next day for my mother's burial. A pre-paid one-way ticket awaited me at the airline counter, alleviating any pressure that I should have to decide when I would return.
For 40-plus years, I was their daughter Lesley. In his thoughtfulness, my father had registered the ticket in my Hebrew name, Leah that I had legally changed just three years earlier. In the most stringent moments of his personal loss, my father had thought of everything, attending to each aspect of the arrangements with great care.
I saw the reservation agent move her eyes from her computer screen to my passport. Dread hovered at the edges of my senses. She couldn't match the reservation to the name Lesley on my passport, which hadn't yet changed.
My eyes implored the agent. Don't make me say it. Let's not acknowledge this just yet; the reason I'm standing here.
"My mother died," I told her.
"I'm so sorry," she said, "but your passport identification must match the name on the ticket."
This was a security gridlock. She couldn't do anything, she said. Briefly, I glanced around the airport. My heart full to breaking point, I took a step closer to the counter; my Modeh Ani prayer continued to root me to the ground with its insistence that a merciful G-d is in every moment.
The flight was full. The supervisor wouldn't let me buy another ticket in the name of Lesley. Please let this be smooth, I beseeched G-d. Maybe there was another airline going out that day?
Calling on the name of my mother, Yocheved, mother of Moses, I proffered a smile. "Leah is my Hebrew name," I said. "I am Jewish, and I must arrive in England tomorrow morning to be at my mother's burial." Another exchange and then a few minutes later I was heading for the gate.
At Bais Chana, I learned to say Modeh Ani to kick-start the day. I learned the words, how to punctuate them, and what they mean. "Your faithfulness is great." Faith in me, that is. G-d has faith enough in me that today I will make my life worth His while, that I will cleave to Him today, that I will do His will, that I will keep His laws, and that I will be where I need to be. G-d has faith enough in me to give me life today. Just as the Divine order in nature causes the sun to rise and set, so does His will give me life. Rabbi Friedman taught it so thoroughly that a day does not begin without this short recitation. It became part of me, or maybe it just returned to me.
G-d's presence was visible to me in every instant, at the most heart-wrenching, devastating time. Modeh Ani brought G-d into the moment in which I woke to the news of my mother's passing; it stayed with me in each part of the journey that landed me on English soil, and in every moment since. Modeh Ani changed the way I live and the way I see life. It is the bridge between living and being alive.
Written in memory of Joyce Foster, Yocheved bas R'Yakov, of blessed memory, who passed away on October 11, 2004, the 26th of Tishrei 5765. My mother leaned out of her bedroom window at 6:00 am on a cold English winter morning in 1984, and waved as I set off for America. She told me what to do, where to go, what to look for.
Rabbi Avraham and Chana Asulin recently moved to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Choma to work specifically with the French-speaking Jewish community (nearly 2,000 families). Rabbi Yitzchok and Chana Gurary will be directing adult education and youth programs at Chabad of Huntington, New York
Chabad of Bedford and Pound Ridge Towns, under the directorship of Rabbi Arik and Sara Wolf, has purchased a new Chabad Center in Bedford Hills, New York. Chabad of Vienna recently opened a $6 million facility catering mainly to Bukharian Jews from Central Asia. The Vienna Jewish community, 10,000 strong, is comprised of approximately 3,000 - 4,000 Jews of Bukharian descent.
... Perhaps this is an opportunity to re-emphasize several basic points:
- Those well-meaning persons who felt impelled to interpret certain passages in the Torah differently from the time-honored traditional interpretation, did so only in the mistaken belief that the Torah view (on the age of the world etc.) was at variance with science; otherwise they would not have sought new interpretations in the Torah.
- The apologetic literature - at least a substantial part of it - that was created as a result of this misconception, relied on the principle that, as in the case of "mutar leshanot mipnei darchei shalom" [it is permissible to change for the sake of peace], there was no harm in making an "innocent" verbal concession to science, if it would be helpful in strengthening commitment to Torah and mitzvoth [commandments] of many.
- At the bottom of this attitude was the mistaken belief that scientific "conclusions" were categorical and absolute.
- Parenthetically, some explanation for this attitude to science may be found in the fact (pointed out in my previous letter), that the Torah accords to science a higher status of credibility than contemporary science lays claim to, as is evidenced from the rule in halacha that the prohibition of chilul [desecrating] Shabbos may be waived on the opinion of a physician in the area of pikuach nefesh [saving a life] and many similar rulings.
- The crucial point, however, is that the latest conclusions of science introduced a radical change into science's own evaluation of itself, clearly defining its own limitations. Accordingly, there is nothing categorical in science; the principle of cause and effect is substituted by "probable sequence of events" etc.
- Furthermore, contemporary science holds that scientific judgments and descriptions do not necessarily "present" things as they really are.
- Science demands empirical verification: "conclusions" are considered "scientific" if they have been investigated experimentally - but certainly not in relation to conditions which have never been known to mankind and can never be duplicated.
- In view of all that has been said above, there is no reason whatever to believe that science (as different from scientists) can state anything definitive on something which occurred in the remote past, in the pre-dawn of history. Consequently, there is no need to seek new reinterpretations in the Torah to "reconcile" them with science, as stated in the beginning of the letter.
- Apropos of your special reference to Shabbos Bereishis, it is astonishing that those who attempted to reinterpret the Six Day Creation account in terms of eons etc. failed to even mention the contradiction of such a view with the text of a get [writ of divorce]. It is well known how punctilious the halacha [Jewish law] is in regard to a get. The text of the get begins with the unequivocal dating of it "according to the creation of the world" (e.g. in the current year it would read: "Shnas Chameshes Alafim Sheva Meios Ushloshim V'Shalosh Libriyas HaOlam" (the year five thousand, seven hundred and thirty-three since the creation of the world).
In the words of the Megillah [Scroll of Esther] which we read this week, "There is one people... and their laws differ from those of any other people".
May G-d grant that just as in those days our people felt justly proud of their uniqueness and difference and made no attempt to reconcile their laws and customs and views with those of the people among whom they were "dispersed and scattered," so may every Jew now also display the same courageous spirit, based on the one and the same Torah, since "this Torah shall not be changed or substituted" - one of the basic Thirteen Principles of our faith, as formulated by our Sages.
With esteem and blessing,
What is the difference between the various prayer books - Ashkenazic, Sefardic, Lurianic, Yemenite, etc.?
The basic form and text of the prayers were formulated by our Sages. In this there is no disparity or divergence between them. The various prayer books vary only in detail, such as the order of some prayers, small differences in the phrasing of texts, and the omission or inclusion of some hymns.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Shabbat we read an additional Torah portion in the synagogue known as "Parshat Para" (the "red heifer"). In the days of the Holy Temple, if a person became spiritually unclean through contact with a dead body, the ashes of the red heifer rendered him clean. As a person had to be in a state of ritual cleanliness in order to bring the Passover offering, these laws were read publicly in the weeks leading up to the holiday.
Although we cannot bring offerings in the literal sense at present, the spiritual lessons they contain are timeless.
Our Sages likened mitzvot to the human body. Just as the body is composed of 248 limbs and 365 sinews, the Torah is composed of 248 positive and 365 negative commandments.
But the Torah is also likened to the soul. Just as the soul animates the physical body and transforms it into a living being, so too does the Torah enliven the practical mitzvot and illuminate them with its light. When a Jew studies Torah and understands the deeper significance of the commandments, his mitzvot are performed with joy and happiness, and with a heartfelt enthusiasm.
This principle sheds light on the Talmudic statement, "He who studies the laws of the burnt-offering is considered as if he has brought one." During the exile, when we cannot bring sacrifices in the literal sense, our study of the law stands in its stead. The mitzva of bringing the sacrifice, however, just like the human body, is limited by the boundaries of time and space; the actual mitzva can only be fulfilled in the proper time and at the proper location (indeed, it is forbidden to offer sacrifices outside the Temple).
But our holy Torah, just like the soul, is spiritual; it is not limited by the restraints of time and place. Our study of the Torah's laws of offerings is therefore relevant and appropriate in any age and in any location.
As we gradually "rev up" for the Passover season, let us remember that every positive action we do draws nearer the day when "The spirit of uncleanliness I will remove from the earth," with the coming of Moshiach and the Final Redemption. May it happen immediately.
Half a shekel, after the shekel of the Sanctuary (Ex. 30:13)
A Jew is only "half" an entity in two senses, attaining completion and wholeness by uniting with G-d, or alternately, with another Jew. Yet these explanations are interrelated, for when a person helps his fellow Jew and unites with him, he simultaneously merits G-d's blessing and draws closer to Him at the same time.
(Likutei Sichot, Vol. 3)
This verse contains an allusion to the commandment of charity for the word "shekel" has the same numerical equivalent as nefesh, soul (430). This teaches that giving charity has the power to effect atonement for the soul.
The Children of Israel shall keep-veshamru-the Shabbat (Ex. 31:16)
Keeping Shabbat means much more than just refraining from certain kinds of work; the Hebrew root shin-mem-reish also implies waiting in anticipation and looking forward to something. The Torah teaches that rather than being considered a burden, Shabbat should be eagerly awaited and longed for each day of the week.
When you will take the sum (lit., the head) of the Children of Israel... then they will give every man a ransom for his soul (Ex. 30:12)
When the time will come for you to appoint a "head" - a leader of the Jewish people - make sure it is one who is willing to give up his very soul on behalf of his brethren; only one such as this is worthy.
Everyone who sought G-d went out to the Tabernacle of Meeting, which was outside the camp (Ex. 30:7)
They were actually looking for Moses, yet the Torah states that they were seeking G-d. We thus learn that receiving the leader of the generation is the same as receiving G-d Himself.
(Jerusalem Talmud, Eruvin)
This shall they give...half a shekel (Ex. 30:13)
The commandment to give a half-shekel was in order "to make an atonement for your souls," to atone for the sins of the Jewish people. The amount was therefore set at precisely half a coin, to show that G-d Himself is responsible for the other half. Had He not created the Evil Impulse to tempt us in the first place, we would never transgress.
(Reb Simcha Bunim)
One year, the Land of Israel was afflicted with a terrible drought. There lived at that time a great man named Choni Hama'agal, and it was to him that the Jews flocked, pleading for his holy prayers. Choni promised that he would pray, and with this assurance, the people returned to their homes to await the rain.
Choni prayed fervently, but with no result. Then, he took a stick and drew a circle around himself in the earth. He cried out, "Master of the Universe. Your children need rain desperately. They have asked me to pray to you, and I swear that I will not step out of this circle until you have answered your children."
Slowly, tiny droplets began to fall from the sky. The excited people ran outside, but when they saw the meager rainfall they asked, "Will a rain like this suffice to help us? It seems to be just enough to release the tzadik (righteous person) from his vow to not leave the circle."
They turned to Choni once more and begged him to pray again, but this time for a strong rain to satisfy the parched fields. Choni prayed once more and in minutes cloudbursts flooded the earth, sending people running for shelter from the sheets of rain. This was a rain never before seen. Each drop held the volume of four kiddush cups! The terrified people ran to Choni. He wrapped himself in his tallit and prayed, crying out, "This is not the kind of rain I requested. Please send your children good rain." Slowly a blessed rain descended, filling wells, drenching the cracked earth, falling and falling without end.
The people left their homes and gathered high on the Temple Mount to escape the flood. Alas, again they came to Choni pleading for him to pray that the rain stop. But this time he refused, saying: "My teachers taught me that it is not permitted to pray to take away a blessing."
The people were baffled by their dilemma. How could they show proper gratitude, to G-d but still ask him to stop the harsh downpour? Finally they came up with an answer. They brought Choni a cow to be used as a korban toda - an offering of thanks. Laying his hands on the cow's head, Choni said the following prayer: "Master of the Universe, Your children are unable to stand too much bad or too much good. Please, G-d, stop this rain and bring peace to the world."
Choni's prayers were accepted. The people returned to their homes and fields, overjoyed that G-d had answered their prayers. The recently barren fields were full of ripe mushrooms and other edible plants which they picked and ate. Then, the people were able to understand that the rains had been a true blessing, and they offered thanks to G-d.
The head of the Sanhedrin sent Choni a letter saying: G-d grants your requests in the same way as a father answers his favorite son. The son asks for a warm bath, then wants a cold one; then he asks for fruits and nuts, which the loving father hurries to provide. So does G-d hurry to fulfill your wishes. Fortunate are the parents who bore you. Our generation was filled with darkness and sorrow, but your prayers have led us to light and joy."
The Midrash explains that the Red Heifer (Para Aduma) offered by Moses in the desert is a constantly present entity. All the ensuing Red Heifers were sanctified from the ashes of that original sacrifice. Likewise, the tenth and final Red Heifer (to be offered by Moshiach) will also be sanctified with the ashes taken from the first Red Heifer brought by Moses in the desert.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe, 10 Tammuz, 1978)