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The next time you're in a heated discussion, listen for the cliches. That will tell you the beliefs, the basic position. For example, if you're at a meeting discussing upcoming budget items and someone says, "Well, you know, a penny saved is a penny earned," or something similar, you know that person's more worried about what the project will cost than what it will achieve. On the other hand, if someone else says something like, "nothing ventured, nothing gained" or "let's seize the moment," such a person doesn't concern himself with cost as much as the result. If there's a possibility of success, he'll risk the loss.
These are called "common-places" in rhetoric, and they express who we are - not just our individual beliefs, but our group identity. The state of New Hampshire's motto is "Live Free or Die" and California's is "Eureka!" These mottoes express the mood and political situation of the state when it was founded.
We find commonplaces everywhere: in politics, in entertainment, in relationships. We find them on bumper stickers and the internet. And while not every cliché is a commonplace, at some point every commonplace becomes, or is expressed as, a cliché.
Commonplaces belong to "demonstrative rhetoric" because they demonstrate our values, define the group (or groups) to which we belong and serve as a signal to others that we're "in." They embody a general truth, a general truth that we agree with, that verbalizes the way we see the world.
Of course, Judaism has its own "commonplaces," statements or declarations that express and demonstrate a core belief and our religious identity.
For instance: Modeh Ani L'fanecha - I give thanks to you, the Living and Enduring G-d - the prayer we say on awakening.
A number of years ago the Lubavitcher Rebbe urged Jewish children (and consequently adults) to memorize 12 passages from the Torah and our Sages. These 12 verses and sayings express the commonplaces of Judaism, basic concepts that form the core beliefs and express the identity and purpose of the Jewish people.
Here they are, the "Jewish commonplaces," in abbreviated form:
- The Torah commanded to us through Moses, is the heritage of the Jewish people.
- Hear O Israel, G-d is our L-rd, G-d is One.
- In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had gone out of Egypt.
- All Israel have a share in the World To Come, as it is stated (Isaiah 60:21): "And Your people are righteous."
- It is within your close reach to follow the Torah in speech, feeling and deed.
- G-d stands over the individual ... and searches his mind and heart (to see) if he is serving Him as is fitting.
- In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.
- And you shall teach the Torah to your children, and you should speak about it when you are home and when you travel, before you lie down to sleep and when you wake up.
- If someone says, "I have worked hard, and I have been successful," believe him!!!
- Rabbi Akiva says that, "To love your fellow as yourself," is a great basic principle of the Torah.
- The purpose of the creation of every Jew and of all the worlds is to make a dwelling place for G-d in this world.
- The Jews should rejoice in their Maker. Every Jew should share in G-d's joy, Who rejoices and is happy in His dwelling place in this world.
This week's Torah portion, Va'eira, narrates the encounter between Moses and Aaron, and Pharaoh, King of Egypt.
Giving Moses certain instructions, G-d stipulated that if Pharaoh were to ask him to demonstrate a "wonder," Aaron was to throw down his staff, and it would be miraculously transformed into a serpent.
And so it came to pass. Yet, after Aaron performed this feat, Pharaoh called for his wise men and magicians and asked them to do the same. "And they cast down every man his staff, and they became serpents; but Aaron's staff swallowed their staffs."
Although the entire incident demands further study, one question stands out. Why was this "extra" miracle necessary - the swallowing up of all the other staffs - and what is its special significance, considering that G-d didn't mention it to Moses beforehand?
It must be understood that all of the miracles and plagues that were visited on Egypt were not merely for the purpose of punishment, but to break through the Egyptians' opposition to G-d.
Fundamental to the Egyptians' belief system was the notion that G-d has no practical influence and involvement in the world.
After creating the physical universe, G-d "stepped back" and gave the job of managing it over to the forces of nature, the Egyptians maintained.
Each one of the ten plagues was designed to refute a particular aspect of this mistaken belief.
The miracle of Aaron's staff swallowing up the staffs of the magicians expressed this central theme and served to prepare the Egyptian people for what was coming.
In his encounter with Pharaoh, Aaron stood for the forces of sanctity; his staff was symbolic of the G-dly power that is inherent in holiness. The serpent is symbolic of Egypt, as it states, "Egypt is a great serpent lying within its rivers."
When Aaron's staff was transformed into the serpent, he thereby demonstrated to Pharaoh that the very existence of the serpent itself - i.e., Egypt - was dependent upon G-d.
What was Pharaoh's answer? He immediately called for his magicians to duplicate the feat, "proving" to Aaron that Egypt had powers of its own and had no need for the G-d of the Jews.
When Aaron's staff swallowed up the others, it demonstrated for all to see that the might and power of Egypt was only an illusion, without independent existence.
With this miracle, G-d showed Pharaoh and his wise men that His sovereignty over creation extended even to them, forming the first chink in the Egyptian ideological armor. The ten plagues that followed corresponded to the ten levels of impurity that were invalidated one by one.
Furthermore, an important lesson in our service of G-d may be derived from this story, most notably the importance of emulating Aaron, who "loved peace and pursued peace, loved mankind and drew them closer to Torah."
Even when necessity dictates that we deal in a strict manner with others, we must always make sure that we employ "the staff of Aaron" - and are guided solely by the highest principles of love for our fellow Jew.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot of the Rebbe, Vol. XXVI
The Last Jew on the Island
by Dr. Ruven Weiss
As an academic physician-scientist it is almost impossible to completely avoid going to out-of-town conferences, even more so when one is the chief of a department. Keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, and praying with a minyan are the major reasons I think twice before accepting an invitation to participate in a conference or give a lecture away from home. Normally if the trip is totally unavoidable, I write a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a blessing and go armed with cans of sardines and crackers and the telephone number of the Rebbe's emissary in the city I am traveling to. Thank G-d, it usually works out fine, sometimes even with an unexpected pleasure.
About a year ago I started to go into panic mode as a very important meeting in my field (for which I was on the Organizing Committee) was to take place in the town of Ponta Delgado on the island of San Miguel in the Azores. The Azores is an archipelago of nine islands under the rule of Portugal. They are located in the Atlantic Ocean midway between North America and Europe. Not only is there no emissary of the Rebbe in the Azores, there isn't any emissary in all of Portugal. I knew this was going to be a challenge.
(Not to sidetrack from the point of the story but one may be curious why of all places a medical conference was taking place there. That is another story, but it has to do with a certain genetic disease I study that is found in the island population.) There is one direct flight from and one direct flight to the United States each week - Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon. The only other option is to make 3 connections in Europe. So nothing about this trip was going to be easy.
And now, for a little Jewish history of the island. A wealthy Moroccan merchant, Moses Ben Saude, founded the island about 200 years ago. Ben Saude's descendants intermarried with the island population to the point that there was only one Jew remaining on the island. His name is Jorge Delmar. The local Azorean physician who helped set up the conference knew me and asked if I would like to meet the "the Last Jew on the Island" and see the island's synagogue. Of course, I agreed.
Mr. Delmar met my wife and I at our hotel. Mr. Delmar is a man in his 60s who was born on the island. He is married to a non-Jewish woman and works as a salesman of beauty supplies. Upon meeting, Mr. Delmar explained that due to the prosperity of the Azores in the 1800s, North African Jews, among them Jorge Delmar's great-grandfather, immigrated from Tangiers and worked in the Ben Saude tobacco factory. After a short discussion, Mr. Delmar drove us to the synagogue; he is the only one with the key.
On a small street in the downtown area there was an unmarked door that blended in with the others. With difficulty the rusty lock opened and in we went. We entered the synagogue which appeared to have suffered a bombing. The floor was caved in at one point and the ceiling was also caved in with the minimal amount to protect rain from coming in. The synagogue was last used 48 years ago and has been vacant since. There was a beautiful mahogany holy ark that was empty as the Torah scrolls had been removed by the Lisbon Jewish community many years earlier. There were also wooden and leather chairs in a circle around the bima. Atop the ark was a gold-like replica of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. A large brass chandelier hung from the ceiling and there was an upstairs women's section in a balcony that wasn't accessible, as the stairs had caved in. On the bima was a Rosh Hashana machzor and a few Gemaras that were dated with the Jewish year 5602 (1841). Destruction of any community is tragic and even more so to see the effects of intermarriage. My wife and I felt heartsick to imagine that what was once a synagogue is now so desolate.
Jorge asked if we were interested in seeing the Jewish cemetery, which was five minutes away. And since he had the only key this would be our only opportunity and a way to confirm if our guide was Jewish. The cemetery was a plot of land about 500 x 500 feet surrounded by a 15-foot concrete wall located behind a fish packing plant. There were about 40 graves. Mr. Delmar showed us the grave of his mother and grandmother confirming that indeed Mr. Delmar was the "last Jew on the Island." Other names seen were common Sephardic families such as Seabag, Delmar and of course Ben Saude.
We thanked Mr. Delmar for his time and I asked him to do me one last favor. I asked him to come up to my hotel room for a moment. I explained it wouldn't take long. He happily agreed. Back in my room, I asked if he would put on tefilin. He agreed and confided that he had never seen them before. He recited the blessing on the tefilin after me and the words were obviously very foreign to him. But when saying the "Shema," the words flowed very easily. His eyes started filling up with tears and he thanked me profusely. I had packed a mezuza in my bag before leaving home and I asked Mr. Delmar if he would like to put the mezuza up on his front door. He gladly agreed, saying that he remembers as a child that his mother had one on her door. I gave him instructions about how to affix the mezuza and we said goodbye: I to the "Last Jew" and he to the "First Chabad emissary" on the island.
We left the Azores and took the only direct flight to Lisbon where we spent Shabbat. Throughout the holy day, my wife and I thought about what we had seen; the dramatic destruction caused by intermarriage.
This past month I sent Mr. Delmar a menora for Chanuka in the hope that a little light can dispel much darkness.
Dr. Weiss, MD, PhD, is the Chief of Adult and Pediatric Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism Departments of Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
Joining the ever-growing family of emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe are Rabbi Kivi and Zeesy Greenbaum, who have opened a Chabad House on campus in Ewing, New Jersey, at the College of New Jersey. Rabbi Avi and Michal Korer recently moved to Putnam County, New York, where have opened a new Chabad Center serving the Jewish communities of Putnam County. Rabbi Zalman and Raizy Mendelsohn will be moving shortly to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where they will open a new Chabad-Lubavitch Center to serve Jews throughout the state. Stay tuned for the names of the emissaries who will be opening new centers in Anatolia, Turkey; the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; the Dominican Republic; and Iasi, Romania.
28th of Teves 5721 
I received your recent letter and the previous one. Needless to say, I was somewhat taken aback by the tone of your letter. It is a good illustration of how it is possible for a person to read and to learn and to receive instruction from books and teachers, and yet when it comes to actual experience all this instruction goes by the wayside.
I refer to the things which you have surely learned in the books of mussar [ethics] and especially Chassidus about the tactics of the Yetzer Hora (evil inclination) to instill a spirit of depression, discouragement and despondency in order to prevent the Jewish person from fulfilling his Divine mission. This is the most effective approach. If the Yetzer Hora would attempt to dissuade a person directly from fulfilling his mission, he would not be easily misled. However, instead, the Yetzer tries to discourage the person in all sorts of ways, using "pious" arguments which unfortunately often prove effective at least in some degree.
This is exactly what has happened in your case and I am surprised that you do not realize it. The proof is that from the information I have received I can see that you have accomplished a great deal more than you imagine...
Let me also add another important and essential consideration. You surely know of the saying of the Baal Shem Tov that a soul comes down to live on this earth for a period of 70 to 80 years for the sole purpose to do another Jew a single favor, materially or spiritually. In other words, it is worthwhile for a Jewish soul to make that tremendous journey and descent from heaven to earth in order to do something once for a fellow Jew. In your case the journey was only from the U.S.A. to..., and can in no way be compared to the journey of the soul from heaven to earth; and however pessimistic you may feel, even the Yetzer Hora would have to agree that you have done not only a single favor but numerous good deeds, and even only your work with the children of the Gan [kindergarten] would have justified it.
Considering further that every beginning is difficult especially where there is a change of place and environment, language, etc., and yet the beginning has proved so successful, so one is surely justified in expecting that as time goes on and the initial difficulties are minimized and overcome, there will be a more than corresponding improvement in the good accomplishments.
As for your mentioning the fact that no one seems interested in your work, etc., surely you will admit that G-d, whose knowledge and providence extends to everyone individually, knows and is interested in what you are doing, especially as you are working in the field of education of Jewish children, boys and girls, which is so much emphasized in the Torah. After all, to teach children to make a beracha [blessing] and to say the prayers, etc., this is living Yiddishkeit [Judaism]. (I need hardly add too that I am interested in your work). If it seems to you that it has been left to you to "carry the ball" yourself, it is surely only because there is confidence in you and that since you have been sent to . . . you undoubtedly have the ability, qualifications, and initiative to do your job without outside prompting, etc.
Since one is only human, it is not unusual to relapse occasionally into a mood of discouragement. But as has been explained in the [book of] Tanya and in other sources, such a relapse should only serve as a challenge to bring forth additional inner reserves and energy to overcome the tactics of the Yetzer Hora and to do ever better than before.
I trust that since you wrote your letter, your mood and outlook have considerably improved and that this letter will find you in a completely different frame of mind. Nevertheless, I am sending you this letter since one is only human and subject to changes of mind as mentioned above.
Finally I want to say that the above should not be understood to mean that if you do find yourself in such a frame of mind you should try to conceal it and not write about it, for our Sages say that "when someone has an anxiety he should relate it to others" for getting something off one's chest is a relief in itself. One should also bear in mind, as the Old Rebbe has stated most emphatically in the laws of learning and teaching Torah, that a person who is engaged in teaching children should especially take care of his health since it directly affects the success of his work. I trust therefore that you are looking after yourself in matters of diet and rest, etc., and that you will always be in a state of cheerfulness and gladness.
Are there customs to be observed during pregnancy?
There are numerous prayers for various stages of pregnancy and labor/delivery, some of which are said by the husband and others by the wife. Among other things, the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged pregnant women to give charity every weekday, and on the eve of Shabbat to give charity specifically to a Rabbi Meir Baal Haness charity fund, as well as to have one's mezuzot checked at some point during the pegnancy. Some customs to ensure an easy delivery are: to pray for an easy delivery; to eat the special meal Saturday night in honor of the departure of Shabbat (Melave Malka); and to bake challa for Shabbat. More customs and ways to conduct oneself during this special time can be found at in "Kovetz Minhagim" at www.sichosinenglish.org/books/kovetz-minhagim/
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Shabbat we bless the month of Shevat. The first day of Shevat is on Tuesday, coinciding with January 8 this year.
Shevat is the eleventh month of the Jewish year, counting from the month of Nisan (the first month for numbering the months). The number eleven is a very special number. For, while the number ten represents fulfillment and completion, eleven transcends all levels. It is even higher than completion.
Jewish mysticism explains that the number eleven refers to Keter - the Divine crown. Ten is connected with intellect and emotions. Just as a crown is placed on top of the king's head, the crown symbolizes the will and pleasure of G-d which transcends all limitations.
On the first day of Shevat, Moses began speaking to the Jewish people the words which are contained in the book of Deuteronomy, known as the repetition of the Torah. Moses spoke to the Jewish people for 37 days, admonishing them for their past behavior, inspiring them for the future, blessing. At the conclusion of these 37 days, on the seventh of Adar, Moses, the faithful shepherd of the Jewish people, passed away.
Other special days in the month of Shevat are: the tenth of Shevat, which is the anniversary of the passing of the Previous Rebbe and the ascent to leadership of the Rebbe; Tu B'Shevat or the 15th of Shevat which is the New Year for Trees; the 22nd of Shevat which is the anniversary of the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson.
May we very soon see the actualization of the lofty concept of Shevat, eleven - completion, with the complete Redemption, NOW.
But when Pharaoh saw that there was a relief, he hardened his heart (Ex. 8:11)
Such is the behavior of the wicked: In the midst of their punishment they cry out that they are vanquished, yet as soon as the agony has passed they return to their evil ways.
I will put a distinction between My people and your people (Ex. 8:19)
The Hebrew word "pedut" ("distinction") appears three times in our Scripture. Twice it is spelled pei, dalet, vav, tav, but in this instance the vav is omitted. This signifies that the redemption in Egypt was less than perfect; the full and ultimate Redemption will only take place when Moshiach comes.
But they did not hearken to Moses for anguish of spirit and for cruel bondage... And G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron, and gave them a charge unto the Children of Israel (Ex. 6:9-13)
The nature of G-d's message is such that even when a Jew finds it difficult to accept, due to the hardships of the exile, one must nevertheless continue to repeat it. For in the end, G-d's words of truth will have their desired effect, if not immediately, then certainly later. Words of Torah are never uttered in vain; their holiness always enters the heart of those who hear them. This is why G-d commanded Moses and Aaron to continue their mission, even though the Jews "did not hearken for anguish of spirit."
The following story happened about four hundred years ago in the town of Cracow, which, at that time, had one of the most important Jewish communities.
The Jews were mourning the loss of their spiritual leader, and decided that for a community like theirs no ordinary rabbi would suffice. Two delegates were chosen to tour the country and find a suitable replacement to serve as their rabbi.
After visiting many big towns and large Jewish communities, they at last heard of a young man who was said to be the "star of the age," a veritable genius. They lost no time in contacting this exceptional young man and found him to be an eighteen-year-old rabbi by the name of Rabbi Moshe.
Despite his tender years, they were immediately impressed with his brilliant scholarship, his gentle bearing and his humility. They were convinced that he was the man they were looking for and they finally got him to agree to become the spiritual guide and leader of their Jewish community to make the necessary arrangement for his reception.
At that time in Cracow it was the custom, a sort of courtesy gesture, for the Jews to call on the bishop of the town and tell him of the rabbi they had chosen for their community.
Thus it was that a suitable delegation called upon the Bishop of Cracow and, in the most glowing terms, described the rabbi they had been fortunate enough to find to become the spiritual leader of the Jews of Cracow. The bishop was visibly impressed with their description of Rabbi Moshe.
The delegates lost no time in making all the necessary arrangements for Rabbi Moshe's coming. And when the date was set, they notified the bishop as they had promised him.
Being rather fond of pomp and ceremony, the bishop had commanded that a band go on foot in front of the carriages, so that the entry of Rabbi Moshe should be announced by the beating of drums and the blowing of trumpets.
At long last, the carriage of Rabbi Moshe appeared. The bishop already had a picture in his mind of a sage and a patriarch. He was shocked when out of the carriage stepped a lad, with hardly a suggestion of a beard, thin, small, and not particularly impressive.
Nevertheless, the bishop made his speech of welcome with as good a grace as he could muster, but inwardly he was seething with rage! He would show the Jews that they could not lightly play jokes on him, the Bishop of Cracow!
As soon as the bishop returned to his castle, he immediately sent a letter to the heads of the Jewish community saying he must see them at once. When they reached his home he told them that he was angry with them for having put him in so humiliating a position.
"Now I shall put a proposition before you which will decide the issue. If your rabbi is the great and wise person you would have me believe, he will have to prove it conclusively. I am going to invite all the sages and philosophers in the country to meet your rabbi. They shall ask him any question on any subject they please, and it will be up to him to give satisfactory answers. If, however, he fails in this public forum, not only will your rabbi suffer the consequences, but the whole Jewish community of Cracow will be driven out!"
The Jewish leaders were miserable. Of course Rabbi Moshe was a great genius, but who could foresee what trouble lay ahead? They hurriedly told Rabbi Moshe, who said, "Do not worry, this is not the first time nor will it be the last, that such situations have arisen for us Jews. The Almighty will surely grant me the necessary wisdom to answer all questions put to me, so that our Jewish name not be put to shame."
The momentous day came. The hall was packed. Jew and non-Jew alike had the same interest. The greatest thinkers and scholars had come at the bishop's invitation: bishops, priests, scientists, all were there that day!
Rabbi Moshe looked pale but calm. His gentle eyes glowed with a light of determination. With G-d's help, all would be well.
Rabbi Moshe faced his examiners and the questions began to pour forth. But he was not flustered. His answers came unhesitatingly, clearly and concisely. There was not a sound among the vast audience. As the hours passed and Rabbi Moshe emerged the victor, the bishop announced that the forum would be adjourned. The bishop apparently concluded that his own honor had been upheld, and that they had indeed a remarkable genius before them in the person of the youthful Moshe.
The bishop again made a public speech, this time with obvious pleasure. He said that the city of Cracow, and indeed the whole country, could regard it as an honor to have so distinguished a scholar among them. He would regard it as a privilege to call upon Rabbi Moshe from time to time. The bishop concluded with the hope that Cracow would always be blessed with such great spiritual leaders and that the citizens of Cracow would live together in peace.
Rabbi Moshe was none other than the great Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known as the Rama.
In the famous Biblical story of Aaron and Moses appearing before Pharoah in a "contest" with Pharoah's magicians, Aaron's lifeless staff "swallowed up their staffs" (Exodus 7:12). From Aaron's staff we learn about the resurrection of the dead that will take place in Messianic times: If a lifeless staff, a dry piece of wood, can be transformed into a living entity, how much more so can a human being, consisting of a physical body and soul, be restored to life!