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The after-effects and after-shock of the devastating earthquake in Haiti continues to send reverberations throughout the world. The humanitarian needs have been a logistical nightmare. As so often after tragedy, such as the Southeast Asia tsunami in 2004, there is a world-wide outpouring of sympathy and aid. When confronted by a natural disaster, the instinct of most of us, from whatever country, of whatever politics, is to reach out, to give support, material and emotional. Such events remind us, all too harshly, of the frailty of life, and the ever-pressing need for acts of goodness and kindness, indeed, for making such acts a priority for all mankind.
Unfortunately, of course, there are those who would profit from such tragedies, use the suffering, hardship, pain and trauma of others to advance their political or supposedly religious agenda. Some pronouncements of "religious leaders" made headlines when they were criticized for their insensitivity or worse, in proclaiming a justification or understanding for a supposed Divine act of retribution. While Judaism does indeed teach us that everything happens by Divine Providence, and that even seemingly random acts of nature are connected to, and result from, the actions of people, Judaism also teaches us that judgment belongs to G-d and G-d alone. Although adherence or non-adherence to the commandments of G-d or to the moral code that He desires for His world do have consequences, we can never claim to understand G-d's calculus. Rather, Judaism teaches us to react to tragedy with compassion, to provide relief and support to those in need regardless of other factors. Tzedeka (charity) is a universal requirement.
Nevertheless, Judaism also teaches us that everything that occurs contains a lesson for our Divine Service. Even negative events, G-d forbid, teach us something - if nothing else, that we need to strengthen our spiritual condition that comprises our first line of defense against the harsh, often brutal forces of nature. Where we find weakness, we must correct an action in some manner.
When a building falls, it is not being punished for not being earthquake-proof. We can however build buildings that are stable enough to survive even a 7.0 tremor. The parallel is true in our spiritual construction. If we understand what an earthquake is, how it affects the world, and then understand the spiritual parallel, we can then also understand what spiritual action can correct, or even prevent, an "earthquake," spiritual as well as physical.
During an earthquake the world is literally torn apart. The foundations of the world are shaken. In order to stop the shaking, the world needs to be stabilized. The foundations must be secured.
What then stabilizes the world? Or, spiritually speaking, what is the foundation of the world?
Our Sages tell us that Torah is foundation of the world. Thus, when we hear about an earthquake, a shaking of the foundations of the physical world, we should understand the inner, spiritual message: that the spiritual foundations have been weakened, that the Supernal Realms are "quaking." Thus, we must strengthen those spiritual foundations, by increasing our Torah study.
While doing all we can to aid earthquake victims in a physical sense, we must also do all we can to correct the spiritual causes of such tragedy. To secure the foundations of the world - study Torah!
Last week we read about the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This week, in the portion of Mishpatim, we begin learning the specific commandments the Torah contains.
There are three categories of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah: Chukim (statutes) are commandments that are above our understanding. Eidot (testimonies) are mitzvot that we would not have arrived at without the Torah. However, once G-d commanded us to obey them, we are able to understand their rationale. Mishpatim (judgments) are simple commandments that are compelled by human logic, laws that society would keep even if the Torah had not commanded their observance.
Most of the Torah portion of Mishpatim deals with these seemingly self-evident laws. Which leads to the following question:
After the extraordinary spectacle at Mount Sinai, why does the Torah stress the rational category of mitzvot, as opposed to the others? Furthermore, why was a supernatural revelation necessary for rules and regulations we would have figured out on our own?
The answer is that the Torah is teaching us how to relate to the whole concept of rational mitzvot. The natural inclination is to base these mitzvot on our intellectual understanding. It hardly seems even necessary to believe in G-d to arrive at the conclusion that it is wrong to harm others, or that we must compensate someone we have injured. These principles are patently obvious.
However, by enumerating the "logical" judgments first, the Torah emphasizes that even these mitzvot must be observed out of faith in G-d. We obey the Torah's rational laws not because they are logical, but because G-d has commanded us to obey them. Indeed, the only basis and source of all mitzvot, regardless of whether or not we understand them, is our Divinely-given Torah.
This is important for several reasons:
A truly ethical life cannot be based on the human intellect, as it is simply too flexible and open to manipulation by the will. If a person really wants to do something, not only will he develop a philosophy by which such action is justified, but he will even turn it into a "mitzva"! The human mind can also devise logical "proofs" for contradictory theorems. It is thus too unreliable a foundation for a moral existence.
Moreover, just as G-d is Infinite and without end, so too is His holy Torah. Even the simplest and most logical mitzvot are endlessly deep. If a Jew observes a mitzva only because he understands it, he misses out on all its inner significance.
By basing our observance on faith, we ensure that our moral system will be stable and unwavering. We also connect ourselves to G-d through even the most "logical" of mitzvot.
Adapted from Volumes 16 and 3 of Likutei Sichot
A Furniture Store Conversation
by Yehudis Cohen
My daughter Devorah and I were doing last minute furniture-and-other-shopping for her new apartment. She was getting married in just over a week and there was still plenty to buy and do.
We had checked Craig's List for days, had poured over the IKEA catalogue, and had gone into at least half-a-dozen furniture stores. In one particular furniture store, a gregarious thirty-something, friendly salesman was being very patient, accommodating and humorous.
At one point in the conversation he told us that, though his given name is Peter, his nickname is Cookie. "Can you imagine what that was like for a big Puerto Rican kid who was always trying to be macho around his friends being called 'Cookie' by his family?" he asked with a twinkle in his eyes.
The price Peter was ready to give us on a sofa and dinette table with six chairs seemed to be the best deal we would find. Still, we wanted to look around a bit more. He gave us his business card and wrote on it his email address and cell phone number. "Call back when you make up your mind," he told us.
By the time we made up our mind, Peter had already left the store. But he graciously agreed to head back to the store and open up especially for us, though he had a family gathering that evening.
Peter wrote up the invoice. Before we signed on the dotted line, I said, "Peter, you can tell that the two of us aren't so savvy about buying furniture. In fact, we're pretty naοve. Are you really giving us a good price?" I asked.
In answer, Peter said, "Let me show you a picture of my guardian angel, and then you'll trust me."
Peter pulled out his wallet and we could see a photo of two cute children. "Well, these are my personal guardian angels, my kids. But, let me show you a different picture."
And with that, Peter took out a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. "Since I put a picture of this holy rabbi in my wallet two years ago, things in my life have been really good."
Devorah and I were taken by surprise. "Peter, where did you get the picture? Why is it in your wallet?"
"My mother is Christian and my father practiced Hinduism. But he had a Jewish boss who had told him about the holy rabbi and my father told me about him. My father taught me to respect and revere holy people of every faith. A number of times when I was in the Brooklyn branch of our store, I would see flyers with a picture of the holy rabbi and it bothered me that sometimes they were lying on the floor. I kept seeing the rabbi's picture all over the place and I started reading up about him. One day, I don't know why, but I just decided that this man's picture should be in my wallet. Since then I've had only good things happen in my life."
Devorah and I digested everything that Peter had said until now and then listened as he continued. "I began trying to talk to the Jewish customers about Jewish things, but I sensed a feeling of superiority from them. Once in a while I would touch the mezuza on the door of the store as I came in. People would mock me for doing it. But I'm used to prejudice, 'cause I'm Puerto Rican.
"I started doing research into my family's genealogy. From my dad's side, my great-grandfather was from Spain. He had one Jewish parent and one Muslim parent. He was a free-mason. It's weird to me that I've gravitated so much to Judaism.
"My great-grandmother on my mother's side was also from Spain and I found out that she was Jewish."
We were stunned. "Peter, was she your mother's grandmother or your father's grandmother?" I asked.
"My mother's," was Peter's answer.
"And was it your mother's father or mother who was the child of your great-grandmother," I probed further.
"It was my mother's mother," Peter answered unhesitatingly.
"Peter, that means that you're Jewish!" I told him emphatically.
Peter thought for a moment, then shared, "I had wanted to go to the holy rabbi's grave to pray before the new year, but I didn't make it."
"It's never too late, Peter. And when you go there, make sure to tell them that you're Jewish and ask them to help you put on tefilin. Do you know what tefilin are?"
Peter nodded his head. "I've been doing a lot of reading about Jewish things over the past two years; I've been studying the Torah. I know what tefilin are."
I told Peter, "Jewish teachings explain that after 120 years - 120 years is a person's lifespan according to Torah - if a Jewish man passes away and hasn't put on tefilin ever in his life, well, that's not a good thing for him when he goes to the next world. Peter, make sure when you go to the Rebbe's resting place that you put on tefilin!"
The paperwork was filled out and signed. It was late, but we were lingering, all lost in our own thoughts. "I don't know why it is that I feel so attracted to Jewish things," Peter said softly.
"Because you are Jewish, Peter. You have a Jewish soul. It's who you are!"
"Yeh, I guess that's what it is," Peter said with a smile.
I spoke to Peter a few times since our encounter in the furniture store. I asked his permission to write up our conversation and he agreed. "I've been looking forward to reconnecting with my Jewish side," Peter told me before we hung up the phone.
Rabbi Nochum and Malki Labkowski have moved to St. Lazare, Quebec, Canada where they are opening a new Chabad Jewish Community Center serving the communities of St. Lazare and Hudson.
The Jewish community of Kostroma, Russia, has begun plans to build a mikva. The mikva will be located in the Kostroma Synagogue on the exact site where a mikva had existed previously until it was closed down by the Soviet regime. A new state-of-the art mikva was dedicated recently in Seine-et-Marne, a suburb of Paris near Eurodisney.
It has been brought to my attention that the Jewish community in Bombay is facing a serious crisis. According to my information, which apparently comes from a reliable source, there are at present about 450 Baghdadi Jews there, whereas the Bnei Israel community numbers about a couple of thousand, spread over the whole of India.
Of the three existing Jewish schools, two are expected to close in May 1970, partly for lack of funds, and partly because the number of students has fallen. The largest Jewish school is the Jacob Sassoon School, where about 300 children, including some Bnei Israel, receive more or less free education and free meals; however, because of lack of funds, free meals might soon be stopped, while snacks will be given only to the poorer children.
I am further informed that poor orphans and widows, and the aged, face increased hardships because of cuts in their monthly allowances etc, A case in point in the recently widowed wife of the Chazan [cantor] of the Magen David Synagogue, left with eight children and so placed that, unfortunately, she is no longer able to maintain the middle-class family life that they have been accustomed to.
Knowing of your keen personal interest in the Jewish community of India, especially Bombay, and of how much your ancestors have done to provide vital education and social services for our brethren there, I am confident that you will look into the present situation, and do all that you can, in the great tradition of your family.
Hoping this letter finds you in the best of health.
Greeting and Blessing:
I just received your letter with enclosure. It was gratifying to read the good news that you succeeded in inducing the Federation to make an initial grant to the Chabad House in your city, thus breaking the ice, as it were, in getting it to begin to move towards supporting Torah-true Chinuch [Jewish education].
Here my thoughts turn to the recent miraculous rescue of the hostages from Uganda. One cannot fail to note the extraordinary aspects at both ends of the hijacking. On the one hand, the ease with which the four terrorists hijacked the airbus in Athens, and on the other, the extraordinary success of the rescue operation. In other words, both the initial crisis and the eventual delivery clearly point to the hand of G-d. And while every Jew is grateful to, and admires the mesiras nefesh [self-sacrifice] of the brave rescuers, we must not lose sight even for a moment of the warning and lesson at the bottom of it all, not just in regard to the danger of hijacking in the ordinary sense but, even more importantly,
In regard to the "spiritual hijacking" of so many of our younger generation by alien and freakish cultures which, unfortunately, capture so many of our innocent boys and girls in Eretz Yisroel [the Land of Israel] as well as in the Diaspora. With all anxiety and love which welled up in every Jewish heart for those unfortunate hostages at Entebbe Airport - surely no less concern should be shown for the spiritual hostages that are abducted daily, and no less mesiras nefesh, to save them. It is also particularly painful to contemplate the secularized education to considerable segments of Jewish youth in the land which even the nations of the world recognize as the Holy Land, where one would have reason to expect that all Jewish children would be brought up in an atmosphere of holiness befitting that Holy Land. It is for this reason that our Chabad people in Eretz Yisroel and everywhere else have undertaken special rescue operations in the area of Jewish education.
May the zechus [merit] of the participation in this work stand you in good stead in all your affairs, particularly to have ever-truer nachas [pleasure] from all your near and dear ones.
Last but not least, I was gratified to note that you commemorated the passing of your late wife, of blessed memory, by publishing one of our Holy Scriptures, the Book of Ruth, with a commentary, and with selected Midrashim of our Rabbis, our teachers, for all generations, in a way that makes it accessible to those who need chinuch and inspiration.
Aharon (Aaron) was Moses's elder brother. He was the high priest ("kohen" in Hebrew) and father to all future priests. There are various opinions as to the origin of the name. One is that Aharon's mother, lamenting her pregnancy since Pharaoh had decreed that all Jewish males were to be thrown into the Nile, said: "I'herayon" ("Woe unto this pregnancy").
The name "Elisheva" is first mentioned in Exodus (6:23). It means, "G-d is my oath." Elisheva was Aharon's wife and sister of Nachshon - the prince of the tribe of Judah. She raised four out-standing sons, Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Shabbat is the first of four weeks when we read a special Torah portion following the Torah reading. The special portion for this week, "Shekalim," deals with the command to every Jew to contribute half a shekel toward the building of the Sanctuary in the desert.
This half-shekel was not only a tax but served the additional purpose of being an atonement for the sin of the "golden calf." After hearing the command from G-d, Moses was perplexed as to how it was possible for a half-shekel to atone for such a horrendous sin.
The requirement to give half of a coin, indeed, had significant meaning. It signified to each Jew who gave - and every Jew did give - that G-d and the Jewish people are one whole. We are not, as mathematicians might think, two separate entities that join together - one plus one equals two. Rather, we are a half and G-d, as it were, is a half. It is only when the two halves are added up that there is one, unified, complete, whole individual.
In addition, there is a more "down-to-earth" implication to this analogy of a half-shekel. Each Jew, as we mentioned before, is a half. Only when one Jew joins together with another Jew - another half - does either Jew become whole. Whether the mitzva of charity, Torah study, visiting the sick, hospitality, or numerous other mitzvot, it is only through connecting with another Jew that we become whole.
If a man digs a pit... the owner of the pit shall make it good, and return money (kesef) to the owner (Ex. 21:34)
A person can "dig a pit" into which other people fall and get hurt. The way to correct this situation and "make it good" is by "returning kesef (related to the word kisuf - longing and yearning) to the owner" - with a sincere desire to return to the "Owner" of the world in repentance.
(Likutei Sefat Emet)
If fire breaks out and finds thorns, and shocks of corn are consumed, or the standing corn, or the field (Ex. 22:5)
It states in the Talmud: "Punishment comes to the world only on account of the wicked, yet begins with the righteous." When G-d brings punishment ("fire") into the world, it is directed primarily against the wicked ("thorns"). However, as long as righteous people exist, their merit protects everyone. Therefore, if G-d determines that punishment is absolutely necessary, the righteous are often the first to be stricken, so that their merit can no longer shield others.
If you afflict them in any way, and they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry (Ex. 22:22)
It is forbidden to chastise anyone too harshly, even if one's intentions are good. Because Penina inadvertently caused pain to Chana (the mother of Samuel) in trying to influence her to pray to G-d for children, we find that she was punished. One must be very careful not to cause someone to "cry out" to G-d, for He will "surely hear their cry."
(The Vilna Gaon)
And holy men you shall be to Me (Ex. 22:30)
G-d wants us to sanctify that aspect of us that makes us human, and to perform holy, "humanitarian" actions. G-d desires good and holy people, as He already has plenty of angels to do His bidding.
(The Rabbi of Kotzk)
Reb Shmuel Brin sat in a waiting room packed with chasidim who had traveled from far and near to seek the advice of the Rebbe Maharash - the Fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe. A tense atmosphere prevailed and showed itself in the serious and worried faces of all. Reb Shmuel was well known, the owner of a distillery which produced vodka, and an ardent follower of the Rebbe Maharash. He had been waiting to see the Rebbe for days, and now his turn had come, and he sat reciting Psalms with a broken spirit.
He entered the Rebbe's study, and was overcome with emotion--what had he done to bring this terrible calamity upon himself? He began to explain the situation to the Rebbe: "As the Rebbe knows, I earn my livelihood from my distillery. A certain tax is paid to the government for the amount of liquor produced, and a special meter attached to the fermenting vat measures each quart. From time to time an inspector comes to assess the taxes due.
"Until now there has never been any trouble, but it seems that one of my employees has found a way, through making a small hole in the vat, of siphoning off some of the vodka, and thereby bypassing the meter. The vodka he managed to steal he sold to his friends, and so he cheated both me and the government. I have no idea how long this has been going on, but this is how it came to my attention:
"A second worker caught the first thief red-handed, and demanded a share in the take. The first thief agreed, but later they had an argument and the second "partner" went to the police. Upon investigation, the police discovered the swindle and arrested the thief. When questioned, he admitted the theft, but he claimed that it was done on my orders.
"I don't know why, but the police freed the thief and arrested me instead. My family barely managed to bail me out and I came here right here away to seek your advice. The penalty for cheating the government is very severe - there is even the possibility of life imprisonment or slave-labor in Siberia."
With that, Reb Shmuel broke into uncontrollable sobs, crying "Rebbe! Help me! Me'ayin yavo ezri - From where will come my help?"
The Rebbe was thoughtful for a while, and then responded: "Yes, your help will come from me'ayin, from the Unknown, from G-d. Return to your home, and when you will meet a Jew in trouble who will say: 'Me'ayin yavo ezri' help him; then G-d will also help you."
Reb Shmuel left very much encouraged. Not long after, Reb Shmuel heard about a terrible misfortune that had befallen his old friend Reb Chaim. He had become destitute in a devastating fire which destroyed his entire inn. With a house full of children, Reb Chaim was desperate.
Reb Shmuel went searching for his friend, and found him sitting near some scorched wooden logs where his inn had previously stood.
The two friends greeted each other warmly. Reb Shmuel eagerly offered his friend a loan, but he shook his head. "Where would you get the money? You have troubles enough of your own," he replied. "As we say in Psalms: 'From where will come my help? My help will come from G-d.' "
As soon as he heard the words of his Rebbe echoed by Reb Chaim, he was even more anxious to extend his help. He didn't let Reb Chaim go until he finally accepted the proffered money.
Weeks passed and finally the day of the trial arrived. Many members of the community appeared to testify on behalf of Reb Shmuel, but things didn't go well for him. The two accusers swore that they acted under orders of their boss, and the prosecutor made a fiery speech denouncing Brin as a swindler of the worst type. Brin could only repeat that he was innocent of the charges.
After the lawyers had concluded their arguments, the judge proceeded to summarize the case and instruct the jury. He concluded his speech saying, "I want to recount the following episode which has a bearing on the case: Once, the young son of a nobleman was traveling by train. He left his luggage on the platform to get some refreshment. On his return it was missing, and along with it, all of his money and ticket. For a couple of days he hung around the station hungry and miserable, noticed by no one.
"Then a man descended from an incoming train, and with one look at the boy, invited him to partake of a meal at his expense. The boy accepted gratefully and told the stranger about his predicament. The man reached into his pocket and gave him money for a ticket. When the boy requested his name, so that he could repay him, he refused, saying that one day the boy would pass on the favor to another, and that would be his reward.
"Members of the jury," concluded the judge, "this man that you see before you is the very man who helped me so many long years ago! Such a man could not be liar and a thief! A man who could so graciously help a complete stranger with no thought of recompense could never commit this crime! I leave it up to you to decide!"
In a few minutes the verdict was returned. "Not guilty!" Reb Shmuel Brin did not immediately hear the verdict. His mind was on the words of his saintly Rebbe: "Fill the void of another in distress, and G-d will fill yours."
The verse "A star shoots forth from Jacob and a staff rises from Israel" (Num. 24:17) refers to Moshiach, according to the Targum, Midrash and Rambam. The Jerusalem Talmud explains that this verse is referring to every single Jew individually. However, there is no contradiction between varying opinions, for the book Me'or Einayim quotes the Baal Shem Tov that in every Jew there is a piece of the soul of Moshiach, and thus the two explanations fit and complement each other.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot II:599, Hitva'adut 5743, p.1315)