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Moses Maimonides is perhaps the greatest of all Jewish philosophers. His works include the Mishneh Torah, the only comprehensive code of Jewish law encompassing all areas including agricultural and sacrificial; the Guide to the Perplexed, still a definitive work of Jewish theology; a commentary on the Mishnah, important letters to Jewish communities, and works on medicine still relevant.
Maimonides - or Rambam, as he is also known (an acronym for Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon) was forced at a young age from his home on the Iberian Peninsula by the invading Christians. Eventually he settled in Cairo, where he became the personal physician of the Sultan Saladin. This story, handed down through the ages, occurred perhaps toward the beginning of Maimonides' time as royal physician.
During a dinner discussion, Rambam argued that only human beings can change their character. The process of self-transformation is something only people can experience. And when a person changed his or her character, Rambam said, their actions change. Hence, humans can refine themselves, animals cannot.
One of the sultan's advisors, seeing an opportunity to humiliate the sultan's Jewish physician, proposed a wager, claiming he could transform a cat into a waiter - that he could teach it to behave contrary to its nature. If Rambam's argument was that a change of behavior indicated a change of nature, then, the advisor said, he could prove that animals are just as capable as humans.
Now the advisor was also a remarkable animal trainer, and he did indeed succeed in training the cat to walk on its hind legs, to hold a little tray in its paws, to wear a costume of sorts, etc.
On the designated day, Rambam arrived with only a little box. The sultan and his court seated themselves. With great fanfare the advisor opened the door and in walked the cat - costumed, on two legs, with a tray of delicacies in his paws.
The sultan looked at the Rambam, who, still smiling, opened his box. Out ran a mouse. The cat immediately dropped the tray, went down on all fours and began chasing the mouse all over the great dining hall.
There are, of course, many lessons we can take from such a story. But one lesson may not be so obvious: since human beings have the potential to transform themselves, to transcend their animal natures, they also have an obligation to do so. If a cat, by dint of rigorous training, can pose - falsely, and even for a moment - as a "waiter," then a human being, by dint of hard work and commitment, can change ones nature thoroughly and permanently.
In fact, providing the tools to change one's nature or character, is the main idea of Chabad Chasidut (Chasidic philosophy), according to its founder, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi:
Once, the "Tzemach Tzedek," asked his grandfather, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "What is the main idea of Chasidut?" He did not ask what Chasidut was because he already knew that Chasidut is a G-dly study and understanding that contains the inner teachings of Torah. He wanted to know what was the principal idea of Chasidut.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman answered that the essential idea of Chasidut is to change the nature of one's attributes - meaning not just to change one's nature from bad to good, but even if one has a good nature, to change it, for nothing should be done simply because it's one's nature.
This week's Torah portion, Noach, contains the narrative of Noach and the Great Flood which covered the earth in his generation.
After many months "at sea" in his ark, Noach opened the window to check on the sodden and water-logged world, to see if it had finally dried.
"In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month," Noach found that the earth was indeed "perfectly dry."
It was then that G-d spoke to Noach and issued the command: "Go forth from the ark, you, and your wife, and your sons, and your sons' wives with you."
Why did Noach need a special command from G-d to induce him to leave the cramped quarters he had endured for so long? Why didn't Noach exit the ark joyously of his own accord as soon as he saw that the land was dry?
Noach's reluctance to leave may be understood in light of the great miracle which occurred inside the ark itself.
All the animals within it, the ferocious and the tame, miraculously co-existed peacefully with each other, contrary to their natural inclinations and instincts.
Just imagine the hundreds of different species sharing their relatively small living space (the entire ark was only three hundred cubits long and fifty cubits wide) for an entire year - yet no animal caused harm to another the whole time!
Chasidic philosophy explains that the atmosphere in Noach's ark was akin to what will happen when Moshiach comes, when "the wolf will lay down with the lamb" and peace will reign on earth.
Noach, his family and all the animals in the ark enjoyed a peace which will return to the world only with the Final Redemption and the Messianic Era, speedily in our day.
Understandably, therefore, Noach was hesitant to leave the peaceful environment of the ark for the natural order that had existed before the Flood.
The earth may have finally dried, but Noach preferred the Messianic existence within the confines of the ark to returning to the vast expanse of dry land which beckoned.
He therefore needed G-d's encouragement to disembark, to begin the next chapter in mankind's history and to fulfill the purpose of creation - the establishment of a dwelling place for G-d down below in the physical world.
"Go forth from the ark" is likewise G-d's counsel to every Jew.
The Jew is enjoined to go out of his "four cubits," no matter how rarefied and holy, to fill the earth with G-dliness and holiness according to Divine plan, through the learning of Torah and the observance of mitzvot (commandments).
Adapted from a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
A Woman of Hope
by Cathy Cole
I was born in March of 1953 in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where my father was stationed as a Marine during the Korean War. My family returned to New York six weeks after I was born. My parents settled in Long Island, and I had a typical suburban childhood in a middle class neighborhood.
My father owned a luggage and gift shop in Manhattan, while my mother was a homemaker. All through my childhood, I attended public school in Hicksville. Hebrew school was reserved for my brother, who needed preparation for his bar mitzva. I was told that Torah study was not needed for a girl. But then my father came upon hard times in business, and the temple threatened to suspend Hebrew School for my brother unless dues were paid. My father removed my brother from the school and hired a tutor for him to complete his lessons. No one in my family spoke of Hebrew School or attending services again.
From the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted a career in science. By the time I was a sophomore in college, I decided to adapt my science background to medicine. During this time, I lost three of my grandparents in four years. My parents decided to make a new start in California, and took my younger siblings with them while I finished my studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I had plans to attend medical school after graduation, but my plans did not work out as I had hoped. I followed my family to California to think about my future.
In 1976, I went to nursing school at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley to begin my career in health care. I also completed a Master's degree in Public Health Education at California State University in Northridge. The combination of health care and public service shaped my creative thinking of what I could accomplish. I enrolled in a full time nurse practitioner program, studying together with medical residents and fellows for one additional year. The chance to move to advance practice and have more of a say in patient care was very appealing to me. The training was the best combination of medicine and nursing philosophy, teaching me how to give the patient quality care while also taking the time to be a perceptive listener.
In 1977, I met my husband Larry quite by accident. He was a patient assigned to me while I was working on an orthopedic floor of a small community hospital. We began dating after his back surgery and release from the hospital.
In 1978, I began my nursing career as a labor and delivery nurse. Now I spend my time in cancer care. It seems that I have been through the entire continuum of life through my work. I have spent over 30 years as a nurse practitioner in gynecology and women's health, mostly in the field of breast cancer care. I have worked with women as young as 14 to as old as 85, coping with all sorts of challenging symptoms. I lobbied for changes in the law to allow women access to low cost mammography, even when they have no insurance coverage. I travel within California as well as around the country to teach health care providers the proper techniques in examination, diagnosis, referral and treatment of breast abnormalities. I have also been fortunate enough to work for major hospitals, on mobile mammography units, and in comprehensive cancer care centers. Every day is a new challenge, one in which complete dedication and a non-judgmental style is of paramount importance.
I began my work at the City of Hope in Duarte, California, in 2003. I now manage the clinic operations as well as handle my own patient population of women who, thank G-d, are past treatment and interested in health promotion and avoiding recurrence.
There comes a time in our lives when we yearn to find meaning to life and to the circumstances that surround us. So much that was happening in my life was overwhelming, and finding meaning to my life and the greater universe around me became very important. Judaism had been at the periphery of my life since childhood, but suddenly it seemed to be the central constant that I needed to embrace.
I had been sent a flyer about a course offered by Chabad of Agoura, "Toward a Meaningful Life," based on the book by Rabbi Simon Jacobson about the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I attended the six-week course and learned much about myself and how to deal with life's questions.
Then in 2001, another flyer came to my home inviting me to an open house, where we would be introduced to the new Rabbi and Rebbetzin who had just moved to Thousand Oaks, California, where I live. When I met Rabbi Chaim and Rebbetzin Shula Bryski, it was so comfortable, so inspiring, and so profound to me. I thought of my grandparents and how much their faith had meant to them. Suddenly, I desired the comfort of Judaism again. Rabbi Chaim and Shula have helped me find that comfort and strength.
Rabbi Chaim has often stated that Shabbos is like "Club Med for Jews," a real chance to slow down and put aside the week's worries for 25 hours. Yes! I enjoy and look forward to my vacation every week. Friends and family have had to make adjustments. They have learned not to call me on Friday night or Saturday, and I have had to adjust myself not to shop, go to the bank or do errands on Shabbos. While my family still struggles with my commitment to Chabad and all that I have learned, I know my path is correct. The fact that I am a constant reminder to them of our roots and our heritage is a worthy calling.
My life now is filled with the patience and understanding that only having a relationship with Hashem (G-d) can bring. My husband and I, after 30 years of marriage (may G-d grant us many more), live comfortably in Thousand Oaks. I have come to understand that my life circumstances were destined by Hashem.
Reprinted with permission from the N'Shei Chabad Newsletter
Rabbi Aharon Dovid and Chava Rivka Backman recently moved to Tampa, Florida, where they are establishing the USF Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of South Florida.
Rabbi Moshe and Rivky Gancz have arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, where they will be the directors of Adult Education and Outreach for Chabad in Cleveland.
Rabbi Avremi and Nissa Bracha Yarmush have just moved to Bellingham, Washington, where they are assuming the position of directors of the Chabad Jewish Center serving Whatcom County and Western Washington University.
These young couples are joining the army of over 4,000 emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe world-wide.
4th Day of Chanukah, 5715 (1955)
...You can well appreciate the inner pain and anxiety that have been caused by the reported changes introduced in the character of the yeshivah in recent years, changes which are inimical to the character of the yeshivah and harmful to its students.
I shall mention but several of the more grievous ones:
- The purpose of chinuch (Jewish education) is to bring up the Jewish child, boy or girl, to a life of the utmost possible degree of perfection, religiously as well as morally and ethically.
Co-education is not conducive to the attainment of this end; on the contrary, it is a sure step in the opposite direction.
The state of morality of present-day youth is too painful a subject to dwell upon. Even non-Jewish educators have largely come to realize the harmful effects of coeducation.
Statistics, by no means complete, since for obvious reasons they are not fully reported or even recorded, reveal the state of moral depravity to which coeducation leads.
It has therefore been one of the cardinal and basic principles of our educational institutions not to permit coeducation at all costs, and it grieves me very much to hear that the yeshivah has not abided by this principle.
It has thus taken upon itself the responsibility for a breach in the fortress of chastity and morality of young children, a terrible mistake which, if not quickly rectified, is likely to bring irreparable harm, G-d forbid.
Needless to say, the financial argument that it is more expensive to run separate classes for boys and girls is not an argument at all, as the matter vitally concerns the future of many children; even if the future of a single child were involved, money would be no consideration, as our Sages say, "He who saves one life is deemed to have saved a whole world."
- It is also self-evident that one of the main purposes of the yeshivah is to prepare the Jewish child for life in an environment in which Jews form a minority.
Jews have always been "the smallest among the nations," but our strength does not lie in numbers. It is the Jewish way to be a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Living according to our holy Torah, adhering to and practicing the high standards of our mitzvoth (commandments) in our everyday life, has made us "different," but herein lies our strength, and this is what has preserved us through the ages.
This Jewish consciousness and rightful pride in our destiny has to be implanted in our children from their earliest formative years, and the vital importance of it cannot be over-emphasized.
The fact that we live in a democratic country, with a full measure of freedom, makes such Jewish consciousness even more imperative, for being a small percentage of the total population, the forces of assimilation assert themselves more strongly than elsewhere.
It is the duty of the yeshivah to remove from the child any vestige of inferiority complex about his Jewishness in a predominantly non-Jewish environment he may have, until he grows up to understand that democracy and freedom are not a cauldron of assimilation, but rather the contrary: they offer the possibility for everyone to take his place, enjoy his rights and live according to his faith one hundred percent, and the opportunity to the Jew to fulfill his life's destiny.
(Incidentally, this is also a better way to win the respect of one's gentile neighbors, rather than by attempts to emulate them and invade their privacy, their religious customs, etc.)
- With the above truth in mind, it has been a basic principle in all institutions founded by my father-in-law, of saintly memory, and in others to which his influence extended, to set up a system whereby the sacred Jewish subjects are taught in the morning and the secular subjects in the afternoon.
Apart from the fact that the child's mind is more receptive and retentive in the morning, there is the basic principle of impressing upon the child the order of importance of these two departments, namely, that the Torah and Jewish way of life come first and foremost. Only in this way can he be brought up to properly appreciate his great Jewish heritage, and with pride and fortitude face any challenge he may encounter as a Jew.
It is therefore very painful to learn that the yeshivah has disregarded this vital principle, and that in certain classes, at any rate, the order has been reversed...
There are other points which call for correction, but the above three should suffice to induce some self-searching and reflection on the vital issues at stake.
Again, I repeat: I am aware of the usual arguments purporting to "justify" the above defects, and even call them advantages. The actual harm, however, is not minimized thereby.
The best of educators cannot always fully estimate the lasting imprint of what appears as small and unimportant in the child's education.
The child, in his tender years, has well been likened to a seed, or young plant, upon which the slightest scratch may grow to unforeseen proportions and crippling effects.
By the same token, every effort to correct even the smallest defect in the child's education is inestimable in value...
Maintain Your Jewish Name
Our Sages stated that one of the reasons the Jews merited the redemption from Egypt was that "they did not change their names." They continued using Hebrew names throughout the entire exile. Find out what your Jewish name is (a Jewish name can be Hebrew or Yiddish) and your mother's and father's Jewish names. If you were never given a Jewish name, chose one yourself after consulting your rabbi. Consider slowly switching to using your Jewish name.
In memory of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg and the other kedoshim of Mumbai
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
The name of this week's portion, Noach, is identified with rest and satisfaction. The Shabbat on which we read the portion of Noach infuses the upcoming week, and indeed, the entire year, with a sense of rest and satisfaction.
In a talk on this Shabbat a number of years ago, the Rebbe stated that it is an appropriate time to make a "just accounting" of one's conduct in the new year. The Rebbe described the manner in which this accounting should take place:
There are two approaches to the just account of one's conduct. One involves focusing one's attention on the particular weaknesses and failings evident in one's behavior. The other places the emphasis on involvement in positive activity, thrusting oneself into the service of Torah and mitzvot (commandments) with renewed energy. In this way, all negative factors will be nullified for "a little light banishes much darkness."
Ultimately there should be a fusion of both services, that a person's focus of attention to his past conduct be included in a process of growth and development that is intended to lift one to a higher and more elevated rung.
When one approaches this just account in this fashion, one's feelings are not centered on bitterness or sorrow-although one is aware of problems that must be corrected. One is involved in a process of striving to ascend upward and this is the focus of one's emotions.
Furthermore, one appreciates that the reason for one's descent is to ultimately return to G-d and to demonstrate that regardless of the situation a Jew finds himself in, he still shares an essential connection with G-d. For these reasons, the just account mentioned above will be accompanied by feelings of happiness and pleasure.
The Rebbe concluded this discussion by saying that "We are living in an era when all the service necessary to bring the Redemption has been completed. Ultimately, then, the just account we make must lead to the conclusion that Moshiach must come immediately."
Noach was a perfect, righteous man in his generations (Gen. 6:9)
The Torah uses the plural "generations" because Noach's lifetime actually spanned two of them: the generation of the Flood, and the generation that replenished the earth afterward. Compared to the immoral people who lived before the Flood, Noach was righteous in deed. Compared to those who built the Tower of Babel and who were intellectually dishonest, he was perfect and without blemish.
(Beit Yosef, quoted by Magid Meisharim)
Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood (Gen. 6:14)
If the purpose of the ark was "to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth"-to make sure that each animal species continued to propagate-why did G-d instruct Noach to make it "for himself"? Because man's place in the universe is unique and crucial to all of creation. If he conducts himself according to G-d's will, he raises up and elevates the entire world; if not, he drags down the entire planet with him.
(Sefer HaMaamarim 5699)
And only Noach was left (Gen. 7:23)
In previous verses Noach is referred to as "perfect" or "righteous," yet after the Flood he is simply "Noach," the name he was given at birth. For it was only in relation to the wicked people around him that he was deserving of such complimentary titles and descriptions.
And Noach...planted a vineyard...and drank of the wine and became drunken (Gen. 9:20-21)
Why does the Torah relate such an unsavory story about Noach? Because despite his relative greatness, Noach's character and true nature was coarse. For this reason, the people of Noach's generation didn't consider him any better than they were. By contrast, the conduct of Abraham both privately and publicly was that of a holy man, prompting everyone who saw him to declare, "You are a prince of G-d in our midst."
There were once two chasidim who were followers of Rebbe Moshe Tzvi of Sevran. One, Reb Meir who had recently lost his wife, was a poor Torah scholar. The other chasid, Reb Tzvi Verbka, was a wealthy innkeeper. Divine Providence decreed that their lives become entwined as follows:
After the untimely death of his wife, the young Reb Meir went to live and study at the court of his Rebbe. He set out on foot to Sevran. On Lag B'Omer he stopped at an inn belonging to Reb Tzvi. There, he joined the other Jews in their festive celebration. Although Reb Tzvi was away on business, he had prepared a large meal complete with ample refreshments.
When the guests had all eaten and drunk they decided to have some fun. One of the locals suggested: "I've got an idea! You're a widower and the innkeeper's daughter is a widow - why don't the two of you get married?"
Reb Meir was an earnest young man, and after thinking it over he agreed. The laughing crowd proceeded to the daughter's house where they presented their idea to her. Seeing that they were all happily drunk, she saw no harm in humoring them. When Reb Meir proposed the match to her she agreed in a spirit of fun. The crowd drew up a marriage contract and brought out four broomsticks and a tablecloth to serve as a chupa. The bride and groom performed their respective roles perfectly, even breaking the glass at the end of the ceremony to shouts of "Mazal tov!"
The bride and groom were carried on the shoulders of the drunken celebrants, and the merry-making continued into the night until everyone was tired. They all went off to their rooms, leaving Meir abandoned. The next morning he resumed his trip and soon arrived in Sevran.
Meanwhile Reb Tzvi returned home. Seeing the littered remains of the night's feast and the make-shift chupa he asked what had gone on. When he was told about the make-believe wedding between his daughter and the poor traveler, he began to wail: "What have you done? This was a perfectly legal marriage and you have married my daughter to some wandering beggar!"
There was nothing to do, but to go his Rebbe without delay and obtain a divorce for his daughter. Reb Meir had already arrived in Sevran and had explained the story to Rebbe Moshe Tzvi.
When the Rebbe suggested that he give her a divorce he flatly refused; he was very satisfied with the arrangement. The Rebbe summoned a rabbinical court that decided that the father of the bride must pay the groom damages of 1,800 rubles, after which he would grant the divorce. Both sides agreed, but a delay of a few days was requested in order to gather the money.
The Rebbe moved quickly. Borrowing 300 rubles he set about to transform the appearance of the young groom. With a haircut, a new suit and a beautiful fur hat, Reb Meir was a sight to behold. He impressed everyone with his good looks and intelligent mien.
When Reb Tzvi arrived, money in hand, the Rebbe took him aside and whispered, "I have found the perfect match for your daughter." He introduced Reb Tzvi to the renovated Reb Meir, whom he didn't even recognize. Reb Tzvi was duly impressed and agreed to the match. When the Rebbe revealed the truth Reb Tzvi's face fell.
But the Rebbe spoke further: "I heard in heaven that this match has been decreed. You, however, were supposed to have lost your entire fortune, and so been forced to take this match. When I prayed on your behalf I succeeded in averting that part of the sentence."
When the Rebbe saw that Reb Tzvi was still unmoved he continued: "Let me tell you a story. There was a wealthy man with a daughter of marriageable age. The Baal Shem Tov told him of a match for his daughter and asked that the girl's brothers meet the prospective groom. When they arrived, they noticed a bagel-seller in the street. Secretly, the Baal Shem Tov called to the peddler and gave orders that he be groomed and properly attired.
"The Baal Shem Tov then called the now elegant-looking bagel-seller to appear and he invited the visiting brothers to test the young man on any aspect of Talmud they wished. They asked the most difficult questions and to their surprise, he answered brilliantly. They rushed home to tell their father about the excellent match the Baal Shem Tov had proposed. The couple was introduced, the arrangements made, and a beautiful wedding was celebrated.
"Soon after the wedding the bride and her family were shocked to find that the groom, who had seemed so scholarly the week before, showed no evidence of his previous brilliance. The brothers went to the Baal Shem Tov for an explanation and he told them: 'I saw in a vision that this bagel-seller was your sister's destined mate. It had been decreed that your father die, leaving her an orphan forced to go begging. In that way she was to have met her husband. But I pleaded for your father's life, promising to arrange for the couple to meet in some different way.' "
Reb Tzvi's face had softened; he was now convinced that this match was right. The couple lived many happy and prosperous years together, frequent visitors to the court of the Rebbe of Sevran.
The foundation of all foundations is the belief in the coming of Moshiach, for then will be (the state of) "G-d will be King over all the land and all will recognize His Kingship. Although he may tarry, nonetheless we are obligated to wait and anticipate and ask 'When will You rule in Zion?'"
(Chofetz Chaim on the Torah Parshat Noach 8:22)