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Perhaps we really appreciate precision only when something goes right - or something goes wrong. After all, when do we really need to be precise, anyway? Only at the micro level, when dealing with small units, small margins.
Let's look at the world of sports. Perhaps you have heard about the gritty performance of Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open, how he came from behind to force a playoff, then came from behind to win. But he could have avoided all the drama if some of his putts had been more precise - for at least twice they stopped mere inches from the cup.
Baseball provides many examples - the difference between a strike and a ball, between a home run and a foul - just inches.
But more critical endeavors also require precision. For a car to work, the timing (injection of gas, mixing air, ignition spark) must be precise. In construction, architects and contractors have to make sure everything lines up; a three inch valve overflows a two inch pipe and causes a mess.
Of course, when we move into science and medicine, we expect, even demand, precision. Why do we admire a surgeon, if not for his or her ability to operate - precisely, to repair our veins or nerves or organs on the micro-level, where health is measured in millimeters. How much of science - space exploration, physics, chemistry, etc. - depends on not just precise measurements - without which results can't be judged accurately - but precise calibration, calculation and preparation. Experiments must be precise.
Since so much of our lives, physically, depend on attention to detail and precision (and the more precise the operation has to be, the more we appreciate it), doesn't it make sense that our spiritual lives require the same concentration on and degree of precision?
The spiritual needs a vehicle in the physical world to express itself, to be revealed and experienced. That vehicle is the mitzvot (commandments). And as in sports, in construction, in science and medicine, so too in spirituality: the little details matter, often matter most, and they must be precise.
So, yes, tefilin must be placed on the head in a specific place and on the forearm in a precise spot. And there are many details involved in making the tefilin. And if they are not done - precisely - then the G-dliness that should flow into the world through the mitzva will be a bit off. That will undermine the foundation, prevent a smooth, open flow of the Divine light.
And yes, candles lit in honor of Shabbat must be lit before sundown, not at sundown and not a minute after. That's the difference between a spiritual home run and a spiritual foul ball.
There are hundreds of details - laws - precise calculations involved in preparing an object for a mitzva or performing the mitzva itself.
Some of the details, the preci-sions, of the Torah and the Code of Jewish Law may seem, at first glance, unnecessary or trivial. But if we remember that filling the world with G dliness is spiritually as demanding as micro-surgery, then we won't resent or be surprised or amused by the details. We will welcome them, study them, focus on them.
We will with our Torah and mitzvot be ever more precise.
This week's Torah portion, Balak, contains the famous prophecy of Bilaam, the gentile prophet who was hired to curse the Jews, but who ended up blessing them instead.
"For from the top of rocks I see him, and from hills I behold him," Bilaam began.
Bilaam's entire prophecy is couched in symbolism. Rashi, the great Torah commentator, explained the meaning of Bilaam's words: "I have looked back to their beginning and to the origins of their roots: I see they are as stable and secure as these rocks and hills, because of their Patriarchs and Matriarchs."
The Torah itself tells us that Bilaam's prophecy is allegorical, prefacing his words with the verse, "And he took up his parable, and said."
Bilaam, therefore, was not only describing the physical location where he stood, but was expressing a deeper concept, one pertaining to a vital attribute of the Jewish people.
But why was it necessary for Bilaam to resort to allusions?
Why couldn't he have said exactly what he meant?
In general, allegorical terms are necessary only when the subject matter does not lend itself to "regular" terminology.
Deep and profound concepts are sometimes difficult to express in simple language. In such cases, an allegory is best suited for expressing these ideas.
Bilaam, with his gift of prophecy, was able to discern the eternal strength and power of the Jewish people.
"Rocks" and "hills" were the closest he could come to expressing this in human terms.
An allegory was necessary because the unique strength of the Jewish people, the inheritance of their forefathers, is unlike any other force in the world - for it is a strength of the spirit and of the Jewish soul.
When speaking of physical matter, the larger and more substantial an object is, the stronger and mightier it is perceived to be.
But the strength of the Jewish people lies not in their physical might, but is directly proportional to the depth of their submission to G-d.
The true strength of a Jew lies in his capacity for self- sacrifice, his willingness to forfeit his very life for G-d if need be.
Every Jew, when put to the ultimate test, is unwilling to be severed from his Source for even a minute.
This spiritual power is what distinguishes the Jewish nation from all others, at it states, "For it is a people that dwells alone, and is not considered among the nations."
This spiritual strength is the inheritance of every Jew, passed down from our Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
Unlike physical characteristics that fluctuate from generation to generation, this inheritance remains just as strong today as it was thousands of years ago, for it comes from a holiness that is eternal and not subject to change.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot of the Rebbe, Vol. 28
Engraved In Stone
An elder chasid remembers:
In the 1940s, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn, sent emissaries to visit various Jewish communities. Their purpose was not to collect funds for the Rebbe's sacred institutions; in fact, these emissaries would refuse even unsolicited donations. The emissaries had a purely spiritual assignment: to bring Chasidic warmth, inspir-ation and vitality, to the communities they visited.
I was privileged to join in the hearty welcome of the distinguished emissary whom the Previous Rebbe had sent to Chicago. In the midst of his packed schedule, the emissary inquired after a certain individual, a Mr. L. He told us that the Previous Rebbe had instructed him to pay a visit to this Mr. L., who happened to come from a long line of distinguished Lubavitcher Chasidim.
However, having arrived in this country when he was a young boy, he gradually became "Americanized" and drifted somewhat from Judaism. The Previous Rebbe, therefore, sent his emissary to give him a spiritual "booster shot." It turned out that Mr. L. was a prominent businessman, with whom some of us had a passing acquaintance. This information seemed encouraging to the Previous Rebbe's emissary. We put a call through to Mr. L.'s office and an appointment was arranged. Several local rabbis, including the rabbi of the Lubavitcher Shul where Mr. L. was a dues-paying member, accompanied the emissary to Mr. L.'s house. I was also one of the visiting party.
Mr. L. received us with warmth. An intimate and animated conversation followed, in the course of which the emissary reminisced about his acquaintance with Mr. L.'s grandfather. Mr. L. warmed up, and he too, spoke nostalgically about his parents' and grandparents' homes, where the Chasidic customs were a daily experience, and where Shabbat and Yom Tov (holidays) were truly joyous occasions of lasting inspiration.
The mission accomplished, the emissary rose to take leave, whereupon Mr. L. brought out his checkbook, and asked to whom he should make out his check. "My friend," the emissary told him, "I did not come to solicit financial contributions, and I trust you will not be offended if I absolutely decline to take any money from you."
This obviously puzzled Mr. L. "Surely you did not come all the way from New York in order to pay me a social visit," Mr. L. said.
"Let me explain it to you," the emissary replied. "You know that a Torah scroll is written in a special way, by a scribe, with a quill and special black ink on special parchment.
"It sometimes happens, especially when the Torah scroll is not used for a length of time, that a letter fades, and according to Jewish law, if a letter is missing in the Torah it is no longer 'kosher.' It therefore must be repaired by a scribe.
"The Rebbe has taught us that every Jew is a Torah scroll. There are letters and words, which the Jew spells out in his daily conduct - Shabbat, keeping kosher, Jewish Marriage Laws, raising children to a life of Torah and mitzvot (commandments) - all these are the 'letters' which make up the living Torah, namely, the Jew.
"Sometimes it happens that one of these letters becomes faded. So the Rebbe sends us, the 'scribes,' from time to time, to freshen up some of the faded letters, and make each one of us a perfect Torah scroll."
Moved and grateful, Mr. L. bade us farewell, and we left him to digest the food for thought which was so aptly provided for him.
When the emissary returned to New York, he reported to the Previous Rebbe on his activities and included a detailed description of what had transpired at Mr. L.'s home.
The Previous Rebbe said, "It was indeed a very interesting explanation that was given to Mr. L., but the analogy was not accurate in all respects. It is true that a Jew is a Torah scroll, but with a slight difference."
The Previous Rebbe went on to explain: "There are two ways of making an inscription. One can write with a quill or pen and ink, or one can engrave like the Ten Commandments which were engraved in stone.
"What is the difference between these two methods? Writing with a pen, or quill, means applying ink to paper or parchment. The ink and the parchment are separate entities, but they are skillfully joined by the writers. But because they are separate entities, it is possible for the ink to fade, or be erased.
"On the other hand, engraving means forming letters and words within the very stone itself; nothing is superimposed upon the material ñ the material and the letter are one. Such letters cannot be erased, nor can they fade.
"So long as the material exists, the letters are there. However, while no actual fading or erasure is possible in this case, there is a possibility of dust and grime gathering and covering up the engraved letters. If this happens, one must only clear away the dust and grime, and the letters will again be revealed in their original freshness."
The Previous Rebbe concluded: "A Jew is a Torah, but not a written one. He is rather like the Ten Commandments - engraved. The Torah and mitzvot are an integral part of the Jewish soul; they are engraved in the mind and heart. You do not have to 'rewrite' a Jew; all you have to do is help him brush away the dust of environmental influences which have temporarily covered up his true self - the 'Jewish spark.' This is why a Jewish heart is always awake and responsive."
Mayim Chayim or "Living Waters," is the first book on the laws of family purity written in Russian. Written by Rabbi Michael and Sima Koritz and published jointly Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (F.R.E.E.) Publishing House, headquartered in Brooklyn and the Lechaim Publishing House, a division of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS.
A Go to a Wedding is the sixth in the "toddler experience" series from HaChai Publishing. Rhymes and gentle water-color illustrations beautifully executed by Rikki Benefeld.
5 Tammuz, 5743 (1983)
I have just received your letter of 3rd of Tammuz.
To begin with a blessing, may G-d grant that henceforth you and all your family should have only goodness and benevolence - in the kind of good that is revealed and evident.
At the same time, you must make every effort to regain the proper state of mind, despite the pain.
You should remember the teaching and instruction of the Torah, which is called Toras Chayim, the Guide in Life, and Toras Emes, the Torah of Truth, meaning that what it teaches is not just to ease the mind, but the actual truth.
Thus, the Torah, taking into account human nature/feelings, in a case of bereavement, and the need to provide an outlet for the natural feelings of sorrow and grief, prescribes a set of regulations and periods of mourning.
At the same time, the Torah sets limits in terms of the duration of the periods of mourning and appropriate expression, such as shiva [the first seven days], shloshim [thirty days], etc.
If one extends the intensity of mourning which is appropriate for shiva into shloshim, it is not proper, for although shloshim is part of the overall mourning period, it is so in a lesser degree.
And since the Torah says that it is not proper to overdo it, it does no good for the neshama [soul] of the dear departed. On the contrary, it is painful for the neshama to see that it is the cause for the conduct that is not in keeping with the instructions of the Torah.
A second point to bear in mind is that a human being cannot possibly understand the ways of G-d. By way of a simple illustration:
An infant cannot possibly understand the thinking and ways of a great scholar or scientist - even though both are human beings, and the difference between them is only relative, in terms of age, education and maturity.
Moreover, it is quite possible that the infant may some day surpass the scientist, who also started life as an infant. But the difference between a created human being and his Creator is absolute.
Therefore, our Sages declare that human beings must accept everything that happens, both those that are obviously good and those that are incomprehensible, with the same positive attitude that "all that G-d does is for the good," even though it is beyond human understanding.
Nevertheless, G-d has made it possible for human beings to grasp some aspects and insights about life and afterlife. One of these revealed truths is that the neshama is a part of G-dliness and is immortal. When the time comes for it to return to Heaven, it leaves the body and continues its eternal life in the spiritual World of Truth.
It is also a matter of common sense that whatever the direct cause of the separation of the soul from the body (whether a fatal accident, or a fatal illness, etc.) it could affect only any of the vital organs of the physical body, but could in no way affect the spiritual soul.
A further point, which is also understandable, is that during the soul's lifetime on earth in partnership with the body, the soul is necessarily "handicapped" - in certain respects - by the requirements of the body (such as eating and drinking, etc.).
Even a tzadik (righteous person) whose entire life is consecrated to Hashem [G-d] cannot escape the restraints of life in a material and physical environment.
Consequently, when the time comes for the soul to return "home," it is essentially a release for it as it makes its ascent to a higher world, no longer restrained by a physical body and physical environment.
Henceforth, the soul is free to enjoy the spiritual bliss of being near to Hashem in the fullest measure. That is surely a comforting thought.
continued in next issue
Does Jewish custom allow for "housewarming" parties?
It certainly is a Jewish custom to hold a "Chanukat HaBayit" - house dedication - when moving into a new home. At such an occasion one would serve a festive meal, rejoice with friends and discuss relevant Jewish topics. This is beneficial both materially and spiritually.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This coming Tuesday (coinciding with July 15), the 12th of Tammuz, marks 81 years since the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, was released from Soviet prison. Originally sentenced to death for heading a secret network of Talmud Torahs, mikvaot and synagogues throughout Russia, the Rebbe's victory over the Communist ideology was a triumph for Jews everywhere that resonates and continues till the present day.
With the clarity of vision that comes with hindsight, we can now see how the 12th of Tammuz was the first substantial blow delivered against the "Evil Empire" that eventually led to its downfall. In the struggle between Communism and Judaism, the faith of Israel would emerge triumphant. In the battle of decadence and corruption against justice and righteousness, truth and virtue would prevail.
Back in 1927 it seemed as if the Jewish religion was ready to be tossed onto the ash heap of history as a relic of the past. Communism, with its promise of social justice and equality for all mankind, was the wave of the future. Eighty-one years later, when most of the world regards it as a failed experiment, it is hard to imagine how massive a threat Communism once was. Yet the present reemergence of Torah-true Judaism throughout the former Soviet Union is nothing short of a miracle when viewed objectively. Indeed, this is what the Rebbe fought for all along.
The 12th of Tammuz is a celebration of our faith in G-d, a holiday for everyone who believes in the Torah and its commandments. L'chaim, Jews, and may we merit to celebrate the ultimate victory of good over evil with the coming of Moshiach, immediately and at once.
And G-d opened the mouth of the donkey (Num. 22:28)
"Don't think too highly of yourself for being a prophet," G-d was rebuking Bilaam. "Look, even a donkey can speak if I so decree. Like the donkey, the only reason you have been granted prophecy is that it will ultimately bring benefit to the Jewish people."
You shall see but the utmost part of them, and shall not see them all (Num. 23:13)
It is only if one looks at a "part" of a Jew, a small detail of his make-up, that one might notice any flaws; if he is considered as a whole, no defects will be visible.
According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel what G-d has done (Num. 23:23)
It is from this verse that Maimonides derived that prophecy would return to the Jewish people. Bilaam's prophecy was uttered in the year 2488 after the creation of the world; accordingly, the ability to prophesize would be restored to the Jews 2488 years later. This corresponds to the year 4976 (785 years ago or 1216), the era of Rabbi Shmuel the Prophet, followed by Rabbi Eleazar Baal HaRokeach, Nachmanides, the Ravad, Rabbi Ezra the Prophet, Rabbi Yehuda the Chasid and others; indeed, prophecy flourished in the generation of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. In our generation, the Rebbe has prophesied that the time of our Redemption has arrived.
He couches down, he lies down as a lion (Num. 24:9)
Even when the Jew is "asleep" in exile he is considered "as a lion," for his heart is always "awake" to G-d, to Torah and to mitzvot.
It was market day in the small town of Lubavitch in White Russia. The streets were filled with farmers and wagons. Eleven-year-old Yosef Yitzchak was walking home. Along the way he met Reb David, the butcher, hurrying to the market with a calf swung over his shoulder, a young lamb in his arms, and a basket of chickens hanging in front of him.
Reb David's face lit up when he saw Yosef Yitzchak, the only son of his Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dov-Ber of Lubavitch. "I hope with G-d's help to earn well at the market today," Reb David said to Yosef Yitzchak. Hardly had the words left his mouth when a policeman came running over and struck Reb David in the face.
Yosef Yitzchak was enraged at the unprovoked attack. "Filthy drunk!" he yelled at the policeman, pushing him away from Reb David with all of his strength.
But, Yosef Yitzchak was hardly a match for a grown man. The policeman ordered one of his assistants to arrest the young boy. He was roughly pushed and pulled through the busy market crowds until they reached the police station. There, his "crime" was reported; he had supposedly torn the policeman's medal off of his uniform and prevented him from fulfilling his duty.
The station officer looked at the boy with contempt. He slapped the boy in the face, then led him by the ear to a dark cell.
Yosef Yitzchak was beside himself with fright. Then, suddenly, he thought, "I am sitting in jail just like my famous and holy grandfathers who were imprisoned for defending Jews and Judaism! I should occupy myself with Torah-study as they did." In the gloom of the cell he started repeating chapters of Torah by heart.
Suddenly he heard a long, drawn-out groan coming from the corner. He forced himself to concentrate on the words of Torah and moved away from the corner.
Again there came the frightening groaning, accompanied by the noise of desperate struggling. Terror seized Yosef Yitzchak, until he remembered that he had a box of matches with him! He struck a match, and saw lying in the corner of the cell a calf, with its legs tied and a muzzle over its mouth. Yosef Yitzchak's fears were quieted.
In a little while Yosef Yitzchak heard footsteps. His cell door opened. The officer who had thrown him into the cell pleaded, "Forgive me, I didn't know who you were. Have pity on me. Don't tell the chief that I hit you and mistreated you."
In the police chief's office, Yosef Yitzchak saw Reb David, the butcher and a policeman. Two witnesses from the Jewish community were there on Reb David's behalf. The policeman was claiming that the calf Reb David had taken to market was stolen from another butcher. The witnesses testified that Reb David had bought the calf himself.
As the case proceeded, Mr. Silverbrod, a representative of Yosef Yitzchak's family, arrived with a note for the police chief. The chief read the note and said that the boy should be released.
Yosef Yitzchak told Mr. Silverbrod about the calf he had seen in the jail cell. Mr. Silverbrod immediately realized that this was the calf which had been stolen.
The police chief was informed and, upon investigation, found out that the calf had indeed been stolen and hidden by the policeman who had attacked Reb David and accused him of stealing it.
Yosef Yitzchak's father was very proud of him. "You did well to defend an upright and honest Jew," he said, "even if you suffered for several hours. And now you have found out how good it is to know parts of Torah by heart. Indeed, without it, how would you have been any different than the calf which was in the jail with you?"
Young Yosef Yitzchak, who became the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, later wrote in his diary: "Father's words became engraved in my mind and in my heart: To love and hold dear every Jew, to defend the honor of a Jew even when dangerous to do so; and to store away a "provision" of Torah.
The teachings of the Baal Shem Tov - the revelation of the Divine Intellect which the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples and their disciples bequeathed us - are very closely connected with the coming of Moshiach. ... Moshiach is quintessential light itself, and the teachings of Chasidism are the vessel for this great light.
(Likutei Diburim, by Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn)