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A fundamental mystical Jewish teaching is that in every thing, even in inanimate material objects, such as stones, earth, water and yes, books, there is a "soul," or a vital spiritual core.
Of course, there are gradations in this spiritual soul. There is, to begin with, a plain material object that simply by the fact of being a created thing, contains a "spark" of the Divine Creative Force that keeps it in existence. On a higher level, there is a material object that has served a good purpose. Higher still is an object that is used in the performance of a mitzva.
Chasidic philosophy explains that when an ordinary material thing is used for a good purpose, especially in the performance of a mitzva, it undergoes a "refinement" and "spiritualization," to the extent of becoming literally a holy object, such as a mezuza scroll made from parchment (animal hide).
Now, imagine Jewish books, inspiring and uplifting books; books written by Jews whose whole lives were or are dedicated to Jewish teachings and to the Jewish people. Imagine books that are studied with heart and soul by hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, enriching and illuminating the way they lead their lives. Certainly, these books' "material" and "inanimate" aspects are permeated with light and life.
And surely, when we have such Jewish books in our homes their very presence makes an impact.
Jewish books belong in Jewish homes. When they're sitting in warehouses waiting to be shipped out or lining the shelves of bookstores, Judaica stores or synagogue gift shops, they are in "exile" from their natural environment, from their "home." However well treated, they are imprisoned, so to speak. Just as a person who is in captivity can never be fully happy, even if well provided for with material and even spiritual needs, so too can Jewish books never be happy until they are home.
When a Jewish home has Jewish books-on the bookshelves in the den and in the kids' rooms, next to the manuals in the computer room, on the coffee table or the sofa table or the end table-then that Jewish home is full of holiness and light. Jewish books set a tone and create an atmosphere in the home that affects its inhabitants even when they are far from home. That Jewish home is a link in a chain going all the way back to the first Jewish home of our ancestors Abraham and Sara.
Jewish books are always appropriate gifts for young and old alike. (Don't be overly cautious about giving Jewish books even to toddlers for fear of what they might do to the books. A Midrash describes small children playing with holy texts and the delights this brings Above!) Be it a birthday, anniversary, or just to say "thanks," a Jewish book is a gift that comes from the heart and nourishes the soul.
In connection with Hei Tevet (Friday, December 14 this year) the anniversary in 1987, of a US Federal Court ruling placing the ownership of the great library and collection of Torah-books and manuscripts of the Chabad Rebbes in the library of Lubavitch.
Nothing in the Torah is arbitrary, be it a word, a letter, a pause between sections or the lack of one.
Similarly, the name of each Torah portion reflects the contents and theme of the entire portion, and is not just a convenient way to distinguish between chapters.
(This helps to explain why certain portions are known by their initial word, whereas others receive their name from the second, third and subsequent words of the first verse.)
This principle is clearly demonstrated by the name of this week's Torah portion, Vayigash.
Our portion relates Judah's impassioned plea for the release of Benjamin, the reunion of Joseph with his brothers, the descent of Jacob and his sons to Egypt, and other occurrences.
A close look reveals that the common thread running through all these events is the theme of unity, summed up by the Hebrew word "Vayigash" - "And he drew near."
"Vayigash" implies an actual physical meeting, one person approaching another to the point where they become one. According to the mystical Zohar, when Judah "drew near" to Joseph, it symbolized "the approach of one world to the other; the uniting of one with the other, till one entity was attained."
The theme of unity is also expressed in this week's haftora (which generally echoes the same theme as the Torah portion itself), which speaks of the unification of the divided Jewish people - the "kingdom of Judah" and the "kingdom of Joseph" - that will take place in the Messianic Era. "And I will make them one nation in the land" the haftora reads, "And one king shall be king over them all."
"Vayigash" stands for the creation of unity in a place of discord and disharmony. Judah's offer to sacrifice himself on behalf of Benjamin demonstrated the unity and brotherhood that finally reigned between the sons of Jacob.
Joseph's revelation of his true identity likewise symbolized the unification of all twelve tribes - forever granting their descendents the power to achieve true unity when Moshiach comes, speedily in our day.
The rest of Vayigash also expresses this theme, as the whole purpose of Jacob's descent into Egypt and his children's settlement there for hundreds of years was solely for the purpose of demonstrating G-d's unity in one of the lowliest places on earth. It was in Egypt, "the most corrupt among the nations," according to our Sages, that the Jewish people became a holy and unified nation.
Vayigash teaches us that unity is the essential foundation upon which Jewish life is built. But not only is unity the beginning, it is the objective of all our service as well, a goal that will be fully realized with the revelation of Moshiach.
Adapted from a talk of the Rebbe, 5750
Lioness of G-d
by Aaron Goldsmith
It was a few weeks before Chanuka, 2003. Our synagogue in Postville, Iowa, was viewing a video of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. A clip was shown where a man had told the Rebbe that his name was Robert and that he had never received a Jewish name. The Rebbe told him that since the name "Robert" begins with the letter "R," which has the same sound as the Hebrew letter "Raish," Robert should take the name Reuven. I found this interesting but did not think much about it afterwards. and did not think much else about it.
I was at the end of my last term as City Councilman. Postville had become a center for media attention, the subject of multiple documentaries, countless articles and even a book. Hadassah Magazine had come to do its own feature about our community.
Postville offered a most striking story about how a group of Lubavitcher Chasidim had developed a substantial presence in a quaint, all-white and all-Christian Iowa farm town. The pursuit of a reliable kosher meat source became a success story about diversity.
Postville's Rabbi Aron Schimel put together a fantastic Chanuka program and invited all of the Jewish Community and the non-Jewish neighbors as well. Booths offered potato latkes, kosher pizza and the chance for children to make their own menora.
Moshe Yess, an entertainer and singer, made everyone laugh and sing. He told his classic joke about his return to Torah Judaism and that he has once been a "Hippie" but was a "Chippie" (a cross between a chasid and a Hippie).
The highlight of the evening came when we lit the menora, with the participation of Postville's Mayor. I noticed that there was a photographer at the event and I found out that she had been sent by Hadassah Magazine.
The following day I walked into the kosher store and saw the photographer looking a little out of place. I introduced myself and asked her if she was enjoying her visit. She responded that she was having a nice time. I asked her if she learned anything new. She replied,"Yes, I learned the difference between a Hippie and a Chippie!"
I was surprised at her answer, not because she remembered one of Moshe Yess' lines from the night before but because she did not "look Jewish" and yet she was able to pronounce the guttural "ch" of "Chippie."
I asked the young woman, "Are you Jewish?" and she answered, "Yes!" I then asked her what her name was and she said, "Arwin."
"Arwin?" I said in surprise. I had never heard that name before. "What kind of name is it?"
"My parents were involved with eastern philosophies and the name came from that," she told me. I asked Arwin if she also had a Jewish name but she shook her head "no."
We spoke for a few moments about how one can acquire a Jewish name and I offered to help her. She was very happy at the idea. I remembered the video clip of the Rebbe that I had seen a few weeks earlier and my mind went straight to a name that begins with the Hebrew letter "alef," similar to the "A" that begins the name "Arwin." I thought that "Ariella" would be a good fit but before I told this to Arwin, I told her that I would return with a suggestion in half an hour.
I went to my office and searched in a list of Hebrew female names. "Ariella" just seemed to fit. I went back to Arwin and suggested the name Ariella. She smiled and said, "That sounds so beautiful, what does it mean?" I told her that it is the feminine form of "a lion of G-d."
She became very serious and said "you are not going to believe this, but 'Arwin' means lioness of G-d!"
We talked briefly about the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Robert, Divine Providence, and the gift of prophecy that G-d gives to Jewish parents in choosing their children's names. Arwin-Ariella was moved by her own little Chanuka miracle. And perhaps the Hadassah photographer who came to capture images of Postville's Jews ended up capturing a new image of herself!
Winter Learning to Warm the Soul
YeshiVacation - Inward Bound
YeshivaCation is a journey inward, to the essence of your being, your Jewish soul. The ten-day program in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, provides a short "vacation" from day-to-day life, and the opportunity for total immersion in a yeshiva environment. Classes, textual study, one-on-one learning, workshops, lectures and tours, YeshivaCation is crucial in today's busy world. YeshiVacation runs from December 20 - 30. For more info about the men's program visit www.hadarhatorah.org or call (718) 735-0250. For the women's program visit www.machonchana.org or call (718) 735-0030.
Uncover Your Jewish Soul
Beis Chana presents "Extraordinary Jewish Learning" for women and couples with Rabbi Manis Friedman at the Alexander Oceanfront Resort, Miami Beach, Florida. The Women's Retreat runs from January 6 - 10. The theme for the women's retreat is "The Feminine Side of Torah: Exploring Torah, Mitzvot and the Human Condition from the Soul Out." Study with Rabbi Manis Friedman, Rivkah Slonim, Shimona Tzukernik and Freidy Yanover. A Couple's Retreat runs from January 10 - 13 and features Rabbi Manis Friedman and Malka Touger. For more info visit www.baischana.org or call (718) 604-0088.
Your Break with Tradition
We can all use a break. Sometimes the most radical break is the one that reconnects us to the things that matter most. A Shabbaton hosted by the community in Brooklyn, for singles and couples Dec. 28 - 30 The program highlights include lectures by Rabbi Manis Friedman, Shabbat hospitality, terrific food, song and dance, music and entertainment. To register visit www.shabbaton.org or call (718) 774-6187.
The following letter is an excerpt of a freely translated letter of the Rebbe pertaining to the fast of 10 Tevet which occurs this year on Wednesday, Dec. 19. At the time, the letter was headed "URGENT"
3rd Day of the week, 5th of Teves, 5736 (1976)
Greeting and Blessing:
In reply to your inquiry and request for instruction in connection with the forthcoming Fast of Asoro b'Teves (10th of Teves), in view of the situation in and around Eretz Yisroel (the Land of Israel), you will surely be instructed by the Rabbi of your congregation....
However, since you have also approached me in this matter - I will set forth, at least, several suggestions - after the following introductory remarks:
Regrettably, there are people who claim that it is necessary to think and act "big," in terms of global dimensions and stupendous undertakings, etc., etc. Surely they mean well; and to the extent that such resolutions are practical and are actually carried out - they are very helpful to improve the situation.
Yet, we must never overlook - indeed, rather greatly emphasize the so-called "small and unsophisticated" things which each modest congregation, or even each individual, can and must do - beginning with the old, yet ever-new, Jewish way, collectively as one people and also as individuals. This is the action of hakol kol Yaakov ("the voice is the voice of Jacob") - Torah and prayer - which G-d Himself has shown us to be the first effective action to nullify the power of yedei Eisov ("the hands of Esau") - in whatever shape or form they are raised against us. Certainly this should find the fullest expression in a day which the Code of Jewish Law declares to be a day of fasting, one to which the prophet Isaiah refers as a "chosen fast . . . a fast and time favored by G-d."
Now, in answer to your inquiry, and since the Fast of Asoro b'Teves is especially connected with Eretz Yisroel and the Holy City of Jerusalem (recalling the siege of Jerusalem), my suggestion - in addition to the regular observances on Fast Days, as set forth at length and in detail in Poskim and in books of Mussar and Chassidus - is as follows:
During this day - expressly for the sake (Zechus) of the security and strengthening of Eretz Yisroel, materially and spiritually, and for the material and spiritual benefit of all Jews wherever they are - in Eretz Yisroel as well as in the Diaspora and particularly for the benefit of our brethren behind the "Iron Curtain," a special effort should be made in the spirit of "Old Israel" - in the areas of Torah [study], Tefilla (prayer) and Tzedoko (charity). Specifically:
After praying (both in the morning and in the afternoon) to learn (and where there already are daily study groups, to add) a subject in Torah, including Halachah pesuka (final ruling),
Immediately following the prayers, even before learning, to say several chapters of Psalms (in addition to the regular portion);
Before and after praying - to give Tzedoko (in addition to the regular donation), including Tzedoko for a sacred cause or institution in Eretz Yisroel, Eretz haChayim ("Land of Living").
Needless to say, one who repeats the above again and again in the course of the day, is to be praised, and each time - the more one does it (in quantity and quality), is to be praised all the more. And, as in all matters of Holiness, it is desirable that all the above be done with a congregation, (with at least a Minyan).
May G-d accept, and He will accept, the prayers and supplications of Jews wherever they are, and soon, in our very own days, may the Promise be fulfilled that "These days will be transformed into days of rejoicing and gladness,"
With the true and complete Geula (Redemption) through our righteous Moshiach.
With esteem and blessing,
What is the purpose of a fast day?
Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidism, refers to a fast day with the term "desirable day." "Fast day" (ta'anit) is related to the word "inui," suffering, indicating that the theme of the day is to convert the negative day of suffering into the positive "desirable day." This transformation produces a "desirable day" of greater quality. The purpose of the fast day is to stir our hearts and do teshuva - repentance - for our own deeds and those of our ancestors. A person must search his soul and repent for any sins that he may have committed. In a situation where one is not required to fast (e.g. a person who is not well), one is nevertheless required to do teshuva.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
The Tenth of Tevet, which occurs this week on Wednesday, December 19, is a fast day. It commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezar of Babylon, which ultimately resulted in the destruction of the First Holy Temple in 422 b.c.e.
The strength - both of the obligation to fast and its positive influences - of the Tenth of Tevet stems from the fact that it commemorates the first of the tragedies associated with the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple).
Thus this date begins the process of destruction. It is well known that the beginning of any process contains more power than the subsequent stages and for this reason, there is added power to the Tenth of Tevet. The positive influences of the Tenth of Tevet are connected to the fact that a fast day is a "day of will" when our prayers and teshuva are more willingly accepted by G-d.
As we are taught that "the beginning is wedged in the end," and the ultimate "end" purpose of the destruction of the Holy Temples will be the rebuilding of the Third and Eternal Holy Temple, the Tenth of Tevet is an auspicious day to hasten t he coming of the Redemption.
Of course, our most fervent prayer is that the Tenth of Tevet not be a day of mourning but be turned into a day of celebration and joy with the coming of Moshiach. Thus, by our immediate decision to increase our acts of goodness and kindness, our performance of mitzvot, study of Torah, and specifically the giving of charity, which brings the Redemption closer, we are showing G-d that our actions are in consonance with our heartfelt prayers. May the realization of those prayers happen in the immediate future.
For how shall I go up to my father, and the lad is not with me (Gen. 44:34)
Every Jew must ask himself: How can I go up to my Father in heaven "and the lad is not with me" - without bringing the days of my youth? A person must be especially vigilant that he not squander away his younger years.
(Ma'ayana Shel Torah)
And Jacob said to Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my wanderings are one hundred and thirty years; the days of the years of my life were few and bad" (Gen. 47:9)
How could Jacob have said this when the average life span after the generation of the flood was one hundred and twenty years? Jacob was the third of the Patriarchs and thus most intimately bound up with the third and eternal Holy Temple, to be built by Moshiach. All his life Jacob yearned for the everlasting peace and tranquility of the Messianic era. For as long, then, as the Redemption did not come, Jacob regarded the years of his life as qualitatively few and meager, because they did not contain that which is most important of all.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbat Parshat Mikeitz, 5752)
Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt... I will go down with you... and I will bring you up again (Gen. 46:3-4)
Jacob was not sent into exile alone; G-d descended with him and guarded him there. Our Patriarch Jacob possessed an all-comprehensive soul which compounded the souls of all Jews. "Jacob" thus stands for every single Jew, and his descent into Egypt alludes to Israel's descent into galut (exile), including the present one. Thus it follows that even now we are not alone, and that G-d will mercifully hasten the Final Redemption with Moshiach, as it states, "I will also bring you up again."
The saintly Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk once recovered from a life-threatening illness. When his recovery was complete, his closest disciples mustered their courage to ask him what he had seen while hovering between life and death.
The Rebbe said that he would tell one thing he learned:
As I walked in the Garden of Eden, I saw among the most honored souls a familiar face. He looked very much like Mottel the Bookbinder. To be sure, Mottel was a G-d-fearing Jew, an honest, hard-working bookbinder, but he was otherwise an undistinguished ordinary Jew, not even much of a Torah scholar.
"Is it truly you, Reb Mottel?" I asked the soul as I approached him.
"Yes, it is I," called out Reb Mottel happily.
"But how did you get to this exalted place?" I asked Reb Mottel quite innocently.
"When I was brought before the Heavenly Court, I was asked the usual questions. I had to admit that, regrettably, I had studied very little Torah. I didn't have much of a head for it. Besides, we were very poor, so I had to find a way of earning money to help my parents support the family. I was apprenticed, at an early age, to a bookbinder, I explained to the Court...
"They began the weighing of my mitzvot (commandments) and sins. On the right side of the scale, angels began putting all my good deeds. Then they pushed the scale down to make it weightier, saying this was for the joy and sincerity with which I performed the mitzvot. "But then other angels came forward and began to load my sins and misdeeds on the left scale. I watched with horror as my sins were added up. Most of the sins were truly not serious, and they happened because of my ignorance. But, though they were small, they were adding up dangerously, till they tipped the scale.
"As I stood there before the Heavenly Court, trembling and ashamed, an angel suddenly appeared with a worn-out siddur (prayer book) in his hand. Behind him was a line of wagons loaded with sacks.
"'I am the angel in charge of stray pages from holy books. I go to every Jewish home, every shul and every Jewish school. I look to see the condition of the holy books. Whenever I see a worn out book, with crumpled pages and loose covers it gives me tremendous pleasure, for this is a sign that the books are in constant use. But when I see that some of these books are tattered beyond repair, I am troubled, for every holy book has a holy soul, and every page has a soul, which must be treated with care and respect.
"'In the course of my travels I met this man here on trial. Ever since he was a child, Mottel loved his little siddur and would often caress and kiss it before closing it.
"'When it came time for Mottel to be apprenticed, he told his father that there was nothing he would like more than to be a bookbinder.
"'I have never seen a book-binder like Mottel,' continued the angel in my defense. 'He never got any pages mixed up, never missed a stitch, and always used the best materials. From time to time, he would go to the shuls in his town and collect holy books that cried out for attention. He took them home and worked late into the night to restore them, bind them and give them new life. He never charged for this and never even told anyone about it.
"'I respectfully request that the Heavenly Court permit me to unload all the sacks of worn-out holy books to which Mottel the Bookbinder has given a second life, and put them on the scale with all his other mitzvot and good deeds.
"The Heavenly Court agreed. Long before the wagons were half unloaded, the scale with the mitzvot clearly outweighed the other side.
"Believe me, dear Rebbe," Mottel concluded, "I was as astonished at what happened before my eyes as you were at seeing me in this place of honor."
"I wanted to ask Mottel a few more questions," explained Rebbe Elimelech, "but at just that moment I began to recover. Reb Mottel's story speaks for itself. But let us also remember," Reb Elimelech enjoined his disciples, "that G-d never fails to give credit and reward for any good deed, even for such a seemingly trivial act as smoothing out a crumpled corner of a well worn page in a holy book.
Reprinted from Talks and Tales.
Our preparation for building the Holy Temple should involve building new houses, and adding to existing houses, so that Torah, prayer and good deeds penetrate and fill every corner. This idea is contained in the term, "Bayit Malei Sefarim - a home filled with books." Every home should contain not just a prayer book and Chumash (Five Books of Moses), but a large number of holy books. Furthermore, the holy content of the books should fill and permeate the entire home, even areas empty of books. The effect of the books should be felt even outside the home."
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe, 5748 - 1988)