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Americans who like to complain about the government have a few targets, as if these exemplify government inefficiency. One of their favorites is the Post Office. "What if," they say, "your business was run like the post office?"
(According to the laws under which it now operates, the U.S. Postal Service is a semi-independent federal agency, mandated to be revenue-neutral. But let's face it, people still fully associate the USPS with the government and as the epitome of inadequacy.
We might actually make the argument that more services, private and public, should work as well as the post office. Oh, sure, there are the lazy workers. But what business doesn't have its share of those?
But think about it. For less than half-a-dollar, your letter can get from San Diego, California to Portland, Maine in less than a week. And that's one of only how many billions of letters per week? Also, I don't know about you, but our handwriting is practically illegible - yet our letters get delivered.
Oh, sure, we now have faster means of communication - phone, email, faxes, SMS, facebook, twitter. But nothing beats a well-written letter, or even a heart-felt note, faithfully delivered. Don't we still wait for the mail? Isn't that one of our first questions when we get home - even when we're not expecting anything - what's in the mail?
All for a postage stamp - less than half-a-dollar.
What makes the postal service work as efficiently and inexpensively as it does, despite, glitches, some incompetent employees, etc. It works because it's an integrated network, with one goal - to get the letter from here to there.
In a sense, the Jewish people are like the postal service. Sure, there are a few of us who seem to be lazy when it comes to Jewish life and observance. (The operative phrase is, "seem to be," since, as our Sages teach, all Jews are filled with mitzvot (commandments) and good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.) And there are the occasional glitches when Judaism's answers to the big and little questions get misplaced or temporarily lost.
But for the most part, we get "Jewish goods and services" - Shabbat and holiday services, life-cycle services (weddings, brit, bar and bat mitzvas), kosher food, Chanuka candles, mezuza services - delivered, and on time.
And we work together. A "Jewish post office" in one city will make sure the "packages" get to its counterpart in another. (Need a mohel for a brit? What about a kosher meal on an airline, or Shabbat candles in a small town, so small it may not have a synagogue?)
We even have a "system," a way of handling questions and complaints and making sure everything's up to standard. It's called the Shulchan Aruch - the Code of Jewish Law, with qualified rabbis as the supervisors.
One more thing: The Jewish people also have a single goal - to get the letter from here to there. But the "letter" we're dedicated to getting out and getting delivered is the Torah, in its complete sense - an easy-to-open envelope containing a "letter" that is addressed to all of us individually and collectively.
So what's stopping us? Well, there is the little matter of postage due - not just tzedeka (charity, which hastens the Redemption) - but dedicating ourselves to Jewish observance and Torah study - that is, showing that Jewish life and observance has our "personal stamp of approval."
This week's Torah portion opens with an unusual expression: "Eikev ("if" or "because") you listen to these laws..." Instead of the more common word "im" to denote "if," the Torah uses the word "eikev," which means "heel."
According to the Torah commentator, Rashi, eikev alludes to the "simple mitzvot (commadnments) usually trampled underfoot" - those mitzvot whose importance is sometimes denigrated.
Rashi's explanation is based on a Midrash which states: "These are the simple commandments that people are not always careful to keep; they toss them under their heels."
The Midrash is not referring to a person who considers these mitzvot to be trivial, G-d forbid, or who scorns them intentionally. Rather, the Midrash refers to a Jew who accepts that these mitzvot must be observed and who endeavors to keep them, yet keeps postponing their observance until they are "tossed under the heel."
Such a person is likely to divide G-d's commandments into categories, according to what he perceives as importance.
To him, the "important" mitzvot are the "head" and must take priority. "Let me first observe the 'important' mitzvot perfectly ," he says "then I'll start with the others." The simplest mitzvot are left for last. According to this way of thinking, the Jew does not demand of himself a level of conduct that is "within the letter of the law" until he considers himself to have mastered the "important" mitzvot.
What is the consequence of such an outlook? When this person is asked to love every single Jew - including those he does not know personally - he replies, "How can you ask that of me? It's hard for me to love people I do know! How can you expect me to extend it to Jews I've never met?"
When pressed to observe mitzvot even more scrupulously than is required he replies, "No! There's got to be a certain sequence in observing mitzvot. Demanding that I do more than the basics is like asking me to walk in the street barefoot while wearing a beautiful tie around my neck! You've got to start at the beginning and work your way up."
While these arguments may sound logical at face value, they are nothing but the counsel of the evil inclination.
In truth, the foundation of a Jew's G-dly service is his faith; it is predicated on the acceptance of the yoke of heaven, not on intellectual arguments or rationalizations.
The function of the mitzvot is to connect us to G-d. Every mitzva that a Jew observes strengthens his bond with G-d, regardless of whether it is an "important" commandment or a "simple" one, i.e., related to the "head" or to the "heel."
If any mitzva allows us to draw nearer to G-d and unite with Him, why not do it immediately?
Adapted for Maayan Chai from Likutei Sichot, Vol. 19
A Life of Giving
Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, whose yartzeit (anniversary of passing) is this Monday, 20 Av, was a descendant of the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. His eldest son, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, became the present Lubavitcher Rebbe.
It was a few days before Passover in 1939 when four NKVD agents burst into the home of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson in Dneperpetrovsk. The search continued for hours until Rabbi Levi Yitzchok was ordered to accompany the NKVD agents.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchok was sent to Kiev where he spent six months in jail and underwent grueling interrogations. In August 1939 he was sent back to Dneperpetrovsk. Rebbitzen Chana was informed that she was allowed to deliver a package of food and money to the jail for him. This was the first time that she had been given any positive proof that her husband was still alive.
A non-Jewish professor who spent time in jail with Rabbi Levi Yitzchok later told Rebbitzen Chana: "I will never forget this remarkable man for his sharp intellect, extensive scholarship, and incredible courage. Four of us were crammed into one cell and the only reason why we didn't lose our minds was because we were so affected by Rabbi Levi Yitzchok's tremendous valor. Despite our suffering and feelings of depression, his indomitable spirit sustained us. He stood by his religious principles with unwavering determination. One incident in particular deeply moved me. One day the prison authorities ordered all the inmates to shave off their beards. Some of the prisoners, including a number of rabbis and other religious Jews, unsuccessfully attempted to resist. Not so with Rabbi Levi Yitzchok! When his turn came, he declared firmly,
" 'I will not remove my beard under any circumstances!" The prison wardens were so surprised by the authoritative tone of his voice that they left him alone."
Among the charges against Rabbi Levi Yitzchok were: being the "ringleader of an underground clerical anti-Soviet organization, building an illegal ritual bath, cooperating with "extreme reactionary religious groups from abroad," holding unlawful gatherings in his home, establishing funds for assisting the wives and children of Jewish prisoners and exiles, and receiving matzas and money from abroad to be distributed among needy Jews.
Eventually, Rebbitzen Chana was summoned to NKVD headquarters. She was informed that that her husband had been sentenced to five years of internal exile in an Eastern Asian republic.
She was told to prepare some provisions for his journey because he had refused to eat any food he had been offered throughout his imprisonment.
Rebbitzen Chana's joy at seeing him was mixed with shock when she saw how badly his health had deteriorated. He had become so emaciated that he was almost unrecognizable.
"Thank G-d we have been able to meet!" Rabbi Levi Yitzchok exclaimed through the iron bars that separated them. Their entire meeting only lasted a few minutes. When they parted, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok asked his wife to forgive him for anything he may have said or done to offend her over the years. He was clearly worried that he might not survive the hard journey ahead.
Soon after this Rabbi Levi Yitzchok and his fellow exiles boarded a train to Chiali in central Asia. It was a long, arduous journey that dragged on for a whole month.
Chiali was a miserable, impoverished outpost where even obtaining a loaf of bread was a difficult process. Every three days everyone lined up to receive their ration of one loaf, which was often moldy. Only those who managed to reach the front of the line were lucky enough to receive any bread at all. Anyone standing further back than the middle of the line would be sent home empty-handed.
Many different types of people joined the breadline. They included prisoners and criminals of various backgrounds. There was shouting, cursing and ceaseless shoving to reach the front of the line; there were often violent incidents.
Although Rabbi Levi Yitzchok wore simple clothing and was very unassuming, his noble appearance attracted the attention of these coarse peasants. Even the most boorish among them understood that Rabbi Levi Yitzchok was no ordinary prisoner and they treated him with respect. On more than one occasion they even sneaked him into the front of the line to save him the difficulties of waiting for bread.
After five years of exile and with much effort Rabbi Levi Yitzchok was given permission to resettle him Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan.
On the train ride to Almaty, a crowd of young people gathered around Rabbi Levi Yitzchok. They sensed something unusual about this traveler. Many of them were Jewish students and they spoke to him on a variety of subjects. Afterwards they said that they had never met someone who had such a wide knowledge or such a vast intellect.
In Almaty, despite his severe illness and being racked with pain, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok devoted himself to Jewish communal life.
During his last few days, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok lay in bed, hovering on the edge of unconsciousness. He murmured quietly to himself. At one point he suddenly asked for some water to wash his hands. "I have to prepare to move to another world!" he explained.
The next day, 20 Av, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok's condition deteriorated even further. He continued to murmur quietly to himself. Someone tried to hear what he was whispering. When he drew close enough, he could hear the words, "Ikvos Moshicha," (the footsteps of Mashiach.") Before the end of the day, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok's pure soul had returned to its Maker.
To read more visit www.chabad.kz
Website Find Ancestors' Graves
The Jewish community of S. Petersburg, Russia, has established a unique internet project www.Jekl.ru. The project allows visitors to the site to locate any of the 80,000 graves in the Jewish Preobrazhensky cemetery in S. Petersburg, as well as request services to care for a gravesite. In the few months that www.jekl.ru has been functioning, they have received thousands of hits, as well as phone calls and letters from people who don't have internet access and who have searched for their ancestors' graves for decades. The project took nearly three years to set up. Upon entering the name and date of death of the deceased into the search field in the Russian language, one is able to view a photo of the grave and information about its exact location in the cemetery.
Freely translated and adapted
28 Sivan, 5717 (1957)
In reply to your letter of the 21st of Sivan in which you write about the state of your health - you describe your ailment and that you were cured of it several times and after a period of time it returns:
It would be proper for you to question a specialist in this area and follow his instructions - and "permission was granted the healer to heal."
However, it is patently obvious that the fact that at times you use expressions that are the "opposite of blessings," this causes damage to your soul's health and thus also causes damage to your physical health [inasmuch as the health of body and soul are interdependent]. Moreover, the verse specifically states with regard to each and every Jew, "I shall bless those who bless you, ... [and curse those who curse you]."
Taking into consideration that your occupation is ..., such conduct becomes even more unthinkable. Furthermore, that which is stated in the writings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria is known that at the time a person is angry, his soul is exchanged, G-d forbid - and surely it is not necessary to go on at length about a matter as plain and simple as this.
Moreover, since as the verse states, "As water reflects the face to the face, [so does the heart of man to man,"] when you act with forbearance, and only words of blessing and kindness will issue forth from your mouth, this is bound to evoke reciprocal feeling on the part of your wife, tichye, and peace and joy will reside in your home.
Also, study in appropriate depth Iggeres HaKodesh, Epistle 25 [found in the book of Tanya] of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in which he explains the teaching of our Sages, of blessed memory: "Whoever is in a rage resembles an idolater."
It would be appropriate for you to inspect your tefillin, especially the tefillin of the head, and after morning prayers to recite the daily portion of Tehillim (Psalms) as divided by the days of the month, bli neder (without a vow).
... The main problem is the immediate danger (facing the many Jews who are receiving therapy involved with aspects of idolatry). Thus it is understandable that the first steps to be taken are that of saving them from this danger - this requires immediate and ongoing action.
One of the methods and ways of doing so [immediately] is that all those who already have permission to perform a similar form of therapy devote particular attention as to how they can perform the above [meditation] therapy in a kosher manner.
Moreover, it is important that these doctors and others as well publicize that this particular doctor is offering this particular form of therapy. They should also seek to influence all other doctors who practice mental healing that they too interest themselves in providing such [kosher] therapy to those patients who are in need of it.
[Once this is done, it is] also [important] to establish a connection between these doctors so that they be able to be of assistance to one another in therapeutic techniques, that they be able to offer encouragement to one another, and similar matters.
An in-depth study of this form of therapy, establishment of a general institute [of kosher meditation] and the like are all fine and necessary.
However, all this requires preparation (assembling material from those who have already been practicing this and from those who will be doing so in the future, acquiring a thorough knowledge of the literature that has already been written about meditation, consulting the experts throughout the world and doing so with proper honor to each of them).
This, of course, cannot be done in haste (in order not to anger the experts, etc.) and must therefore be done step by step. This is not so with regard to the methods I proposed above that can be implemented immediately - and the sooner the better. ...
From Healthy in Body, Mind and Spirit, Vol III, compiled by Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg, published by Sichos in English
Educate the Soul
A parent must educate his children from their earliest ages. He must be conscious of "the part of G-d from Above" present within his children's souls, and therefore dedicate himself to their education with self-sacrifice. This includes making his children aware that their mission in the world is to be a living example of how one lives in preparation for the era of peace, G-dly knowledge, health and all good things in the Era of the Redemption. (The Lubavavticher Rebbe, 20 Av, 5751)
In memory of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg and the other kedoshim of Mumbai
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This week, on the 20th of Av (occurring Monday, Aug. 10 this year) we commemorate the yahrzeit of the Rebbe's father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson. This week's Torah portion, Eikev, describes the uniqueness of the tribe of Levi.
Maimonides explains that this uniqueness is not reserved only for those whose lineage is from that tribe but includes, "each and every person... whose openness of his heart dictates to rise above the material concerns of this world and make 'G-d his portion and his inheritance,'" i.e., to dedicate himself to Torah and mitzvot (commandments).
At a gathering, the Rebbe described how his father's life exemplified the desire to make G-d his portion and his inheritance:
"Although the Russian government at that time pressured rabbis to issue proclamations declaring their support of the government and their willingness to accept its authority, my father conducted himself as a rabbi did in previous generations [and did not succumb to the pressure].
"Furthermore, he did this with mesirut nefesh -- self-sacrifice. In particular, this is reflected in his journey to the Russian capital to receive permission to bake 100% kosher matzas for Passover. This journey was successful and they agreed to accept his rulings. Although this caused financial loss to the government - and that was considered a very serious matter - the matzas were baked under his supervision and were distributed throughout Russia.
"Although he knew of the possibility of severe punishment, he continued his efforts to spread Judaism, and furthermore, did so while in exile itself. Moreover, he was recognized for his wisdom by non-Jews, and when they asked him for advice, he also endeavored to influence them to fulfill their seven mitzvot, and to the extent possible at that time, he achieved this... My father's desire was to spread Judaism in his own community and throughout the entire Jewish people and to do so with mesirut nefesh."
May we truly learn from Reb Levi Yitzchak's mesirut nefesh and incorporate it into our daily lives until the revelation of our true and righteous Moshiach.
And now Israel, what does G-d your L-rd ask from you but to fear G-d your L-rd and to follow in all his ways to love him and serve him with all your heart and all your soul" (Deut. 10:12).
The Talmud asks "Is then fear such a small matter?" and answers, "For Moses it is a small matter." Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the first Chabad Rebbe, asked, "The Torah speaks here to every Jew. How is this an answer for every one. The answer which is given is that every Jew, whoever he may be, contains a spark of Moses. This gives every Jew strength to attain fear of G-d easily"
Do not say to yourself, "It was my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity. You must remember that it is G-d your L-rd who gives you the power to become prosperous. (8:17-18)
The Talmud states: "The difficulty with which a person sustains himself is like the Splitting of the Red Sea." Just as the Splitting of the Sea was an unforeseen miracle, so does a person's sustenance come to him from G-d in a hidden manner.
(The Seer of Lublin)
With 70 persons...as the stars of the heaven for multitude (Deut. 10:22)
This verse begins and ends with the Hebrew letter bet, alluding to Jacobs's exhortation to his children that they remain attached and devoted to their households ("bet" means "house" in Hebrew) and not assimilate amongst the Egyptians; it i s for this reason that the Jews are known as "Beit Yaakov - the House of Jacob."
The great Maharal of Prague became famous throughout the Jewish world for his wealth of Torah knowledge and saintliness. His father-in-law, R. Shmuel Reich, had close contacts with royalty. The ruler of Prague at that time was Ferdinand I.
Shmuel Reich was a favorite of his, because of his intelligence and great ability. This aroused much jealousy and hate among the courtiers, who could not bear to see a Jew attain so high a position.
King Ferdinand was a devout Catholic, and if, at first, this did not influence him against his friendship to Shmuel Reich, there came a time when the king's mind, too, was poisoned against Jews.
In the year 5316 (1556) the Catholics in Rome experienced their "victory" over the Jews by publicly burning their treasures of literature, their precious books. When this inquisition triumphed, its spirit spread even into the court of King Ferdinand in Prague.
The king announced to the leaders of the Jewish community that he could no longer afford them his protection. It was therefore in their own interests to leave Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia.
Shmuel Reich knew that the courtiers were vulnerable to accepting bribes, and he was willing to give away his entire fortune to save the Jews from being driven out of their homes. However, when he discussed this idea with his brilliant son-in-law, the Maharal, the latter advised against such a plan, fearing it would provoke similar measures elsewhere.
At that time, Prince Ferdinand of Bohemia, the son of the king, paid a visit to Prince Johann of Moravia. They were both deeply interested in astronomy and came upon a problem which seemed unsolvable. The two made a bet that the first to find the solution to the problem within six months would become the "spiritual master" of the other, who would become his "spiritual slave."
After the bet had been made, Prince Ferdinand visited some properties of his which were managed by a Jew, Moshe Yitzchak Sobel. In the course of their conversation, the Prince mentioned the bet.
"I understand that you have discussed the problem with your scholars, but have you approached Jewish scholars?"
The Prince scoffed at the suggestion. "What do Jews know about such subjects? All they can do is wail about the destruction of their Holy Temple and dream about some miraculous redemption," he retorted contemptuously.
Moshe Yitzchak Sobel had known the Prince since he was a child, and so he took the opportunity to speak to him frankly: "You have a completely erroneous conception of Jews, and of course the fault lies with the one who has been responsible for your training. If you wish to hear the opinion of a great scholar, why, you have one right nearby, in the person of the Rav of Prague. There is not a science of which he has not the most expert knowledge!" exclaimed Moshe Yitzchak.
"If you really believe that the Rabbi of Prague can solve my problem, then bring him to me," said the prince. "But arrange the matter secretly. It must not become known that Ferdinand has need to resort to such a low people as the Jews to help solve a scientific problem."
Although the prince uttered these words in a friendly tone, Moshe Yitzchak was deeply hurt. He spoke at great length to the Prince, refuting his appraisal of the Jewish people. Moshe Yitzchak's words made a profound impression upon Prince Ferdinand. He had known for some time of the palace intrigues against the Jews at the hands of the priests, but his father, the king, was helpless to combat their incitement.
A few days later, the Prince called Moshe Yitzchak and asked him to arrange that the Maharal visit the palace. The Maharal agreed to visit the Prince and at their meeting the Prince told of the problem which no one had been able to solve. To the great delight and surprise of the Prince, the Maharal wrote out the solution without hesitation! The Prince wanted to reward the Maharal. But the Maharal declined, saying that it is an accepted custom among Jews, since the time of Moses, to impart knowledge to others without remuneration, the only exception being when people did this as a means of earning their living.
The Prince took a great liking to this remarkable Jew who seemed to know so much about every conceivable subject. The Maharal stayed about a week at the castle, or rather at the house of Moshe Yitzchak Sobel, visiting the Prince at the castle every day and spending several hours discussing all sorts of scientific matters with him.
The Prince took the opportunity of learning all he could about Jews, their mode of living, their belief and faith, their history, etc. He was astonished at the great breadth of knowledge displayed by the Maharal. "How is it that you know so much about natural science?" he once asked the Maharal. The Maharal explained to him that actually all these sciences can be learned in our Torah, and in order to be a good Jew, one has to study them all. He further explained to the Prince that it was a Jewish tradition to hand down, from generation to generation, the Torah and everything connected with it.
Adapted from Memoirs of the (Previous) Lubavitcher Rebbe
Every place on which your feet will tread will become yours. Your boundaries will extend from the desert [to] Lebanon, from the river, the Euphrates river, until the Final Sea. (Deut. 11:24) By referring to the Mediterranean as "the Final Sea" (instead of "the Great Sea" as in Deut. 34:6), the Torah alludes to the concept that, ultimately, in the Messianic age, the Holy Land will expand throughout the entire world, reaching, "the Final Sea."
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Parshat Eikev, 20 Av)