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"No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers..." It's summertime and the last thing on most people's minds is being a student.
Even if you're not in summer school, there is one type of student that we should all strive to be - fall, winter, spring and summer - a student of Aaron (brother of Moses and the first High Priest of the Jewish people).
Why? Because the students of Aaron love peace and pursue peace, love one's fellow creatures, and endeavor to bring them closer to G-d.
This Shabbat afternoon, we study once again the first chapter of Pirkei Avot - the Ethics of the Fathers. We read there: "Be one of the students of Aaron - loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures, and bringing them near to the Torah."
Aaron's uniqueness can be seen not only in his lifetime, but in his passing, as well.
Aaron's death was mourned by the entire Jewish people, men and women, for everyone appreciated his patient endeavors to spread peace and harmony among them.
At times, the Midrash tells us, Aaron would even bend the truth a little in order to engender peace between friends, relatives, husbands and wives.
This teaching is directed to every member of the Jewish nation; every Jew is urged to emulate Aaron's behavior and to reach out to others with love and care. But unlike many of the other teachings in the Ethics which are merely conveyed as suggestions, this teaching is phrased as a command. Thus, it is something every one of us should aspire to.
As professional students of Aaron, our study doesn't end here, however. For, the teaching is worded, "Be one of the students of Aaron." This serves as a reminder that one must realize that there are other "students," and one's own favorite path in bringing about love and unity among the Jewish people is not the only possible approach.
The Talmud teaches us that every person has his own unique personality, thus every person will have his own unique way to generate peace, love and inspiration. Part of our responsibility in this area is to remember that while we are carrying out the teachings of Aaron, we must show respect and love for those who are working toward the same goal but in a different manner.
"Loving your fellow creatures," is a surprising choice of words, for Hebrew has many words that mean "person." Chasidic thought explains that the word "creatures" refers to human beings whose only redeeming feature is that they are G-d's creations; this is their sole virtue. Thus, even "creatures" are deserving of our love.
The Rebbe explained that this teaching is particularly relevant today, for we need to accustom ourselves to the spirit of the Redemption.
In the past, love of one's fellow creature was necessary as a preparation for the Era of Redemption. Since the exile came about because of unwarranted hatred, we would nullify the reason for the exile by spreading love among our people. This in turn would cause the exile itself to cease.
Since, however, we have already completed all the spiritual matters necessary to bring Moshiach, "We can assume that the reason for the exile has also been already eradicated," the Rebbe stated. At present, therefore, the emphasis on love of your fellow creatures comes primarily as a foretaste of the Era of the Redemption.
And through living in the spirit of the Redemption, accustoming ourselves to this way of thinking, and more significantly, to this form of conduct, we will hasten the actual coming of the Redemption. May this take place in the immediate future.
This week's Torah portion, Matot, begins with the concept of vows, relating how a person will take a vow forbidding himself from indulging in a particular material activity or partaking of a food or beverage. Why would a person take a vow? Because he feels he needs a safeguard. He senses that his involvement in a given activity is becoming too difficult to control, so he establishes a system of checks and balances that force him to restrain himself. By declaring a particular food or activity forbidden, he assures that he will not indulge in it.
But why is that necessary? If he doesn't want to indulge, why doesn't he simply exercise control, why does he need the external restraints of a vow?
Anyone who has ever developed a negative habit knows the answers to these questions. Ask an alcoholic if he can have just one drink, or ask a person who has given up smoking if he can have just one cigarette. They'll tell you that it's virtually impossible. Once you start, it's almost impossible to stop. The only way to avoid sliding down the slippery slope is to stay far away. Theoretically, a person can have always have control over his behavior, but practically, safeguards help.
There is, however, a way to avoid the entire issue. Why does a person become obsessed with a particular activity to the extent that he cannot control himself? Because he feels a need for happiness and satisfaction that he hopes that the particular activity will provide. He continues performing that activity in the hope of receiving that satisfaction until he has developed the habit. Once he has developed the habit, it is hard to overcome it. But if he never develops an obsession, he will not lose his self-control.
But doing that requires having an alternate source of satisfaction. Indeed, our Torah tradition provides us with such a resource. When a person derives satisfaction and pleasure from his spiritual activities, he will not feel lacking, nor will he need something to give him a "high." When his spiritual activity fills him with energy and vitality, that will become his focus and then he will be able to regard material things with a mature perspective. He will not reject the material, but neither will he be over-excited about it. He will be able to see it with the proper perspective and use it for G-d's purposes and not his own indulgence.
In that vein, our Sages point to the verse "Know G-d in all your ways" and explain that this concept is central to the Torah's guidance. "Know[ing] G-d in all your ways" implies that a person will not be spending all his time in the synagogue or house of study. Instead, he will be involved in "your ways," in ordinary activities in our material world. Nevertheless, his intent will not to be indulge is own pleasures, but to serve G-d.
Everything in this world can be used for the service of G-d. Indeed, that is the reason for its creation as the Mishna teaches: "Everything which G-d created in this world, He created solely for His glory." Hence, there is no activity from which we must refrain and abstain entirely. Yet we should be sure that our involvement in these activities is for the sake of His glory and not our indulgence. In that way, we will able to derive pleasure that is both meaningful and satisfying.
From Keeping In Touch by Rabbi Eli Touger
A First in Guatemala
by Rabbi Ben Tanny
After an eight hour journey I got off the bus. The boy who handled the bags tried offering me what he thought was my U.S. army khaki duffel bag. It looked like mine, but it wasn't mine.
Slowly we worked out what had happened. A woman had gotten on the bus in Guatemala City with an identical bag and had gotten off at the previous stop with my bag. Things like this do not shock me. I tend to be amused by G-d's sense of humor: I had been traveling around the world for years and had never met anyone with the same bag as me until now in Guatemala of all places.
The boy and I jumped into a cab and rushed back to the previous bus stop. We checked all over but could not find the woman or my bag.
It was Friday afternoon. I was hoping to catch a bus to one of the national parks before Shabbat. By late afternoon there was still no sign of the woman. I went to find a guest house. My mind was focused on a backpacker's worst nightmare: the disappearance of a backpack.
My backpack is my home, with everything I need to survive: clothes, a toothbrush, and juggling balls. It also has things like my camera recharger, medication, contact lenses and other things that are impossible to replace in a third-world country village. But the most valuable items are my tefilin and siddur (prayer book)!
For the first time on my trip I had put the tefilin in my pack. I always carry my tefilin in a small bag with my other valuables. The one day I put my tefilin in the pack is the one day that a woman in Guatemala gets on the same bus as me, with the same bag, and then gets off with my bag!
In the local market I bought bananas, avocados and candles. Then, I found a guest house. "Is this all you travel with?" the guy run-ning the guest house asked in an American accent.
"Today it is, because a woman has my stuff."
"By the way my name is Tom."
"Ben," I said, and we shook hands.
"I've lived here for seven years. Your bag isn't coming back," Tom said. "The contents are worth more than the woman can make in a few years!"
Tom continued, "But I know something that will cheer you up. My dad and I make the best banana pancakes in Guatemala and tomorrow I'll make you one for breakfast. Then I'll show you where to buy some clothes and a new backpack!"
I did not bother to explain to Tom that I would not eat the pancake and that I would not do any clothes shopping either. I lit Shabbat candles and a candle for the first night of Chanuka. I tried to pray what I could from memory. I sang a few Shabbat songs, and ate my bananas and avocados.
Tom was curious about the candles and we spoke about Jewish stuff. I also told him about the tefilin and that this was my most valuable item.
"If you have this special spiritual item in the pack, G-d will get you your bag back."
"From your mouth to G-d's ears," I replied.
I gazed intently at the burning Shabbat and Chanuka candles. The lost tefilin came to mind. They were a special pair; a gift from G-d.
For my Bar Mitzva I had received a relatively large and heavy pair of tefilin. In my teens, I had become active with outdoor adventure: running trails, climbing mountains, and bicycling long distances. Carrying the bulky and weighty tefilin with me, especially if I was doing a 24-hour adventure race, seemed annoying. One night I started thinking that on the next adventure trip I might not take my tefilin.
The following morning my mother had called. "Guess what! You won a raffle. Remember you gave me money for (charity) raffle tickets? I bought the tickets you wanted but there was left-over money so I put in for tefilin. You won the tefilin of your choice valued at up to $1,200!"
I was able to buy tefilin that were very small and meticulously-made with every stringency possible. "I will miss these tefilin," I thought as I gazed at the candles. "They were special to me. But if G-d gave them to me in this unusual way, then He can take them back in an unusual way."
Later after saying the "Shema" before going to sleep, I spoke to G-d. It is one of the few times in my life that I truly felt like I was talking to Him and that He was listening:
"G-d, you can keep the backpack, all the cables and the rechargers, malaria medication and contact lenses. You can keep the $100, and even my five favorite juggling balls. But since my Bar Mitzva I have not missed a day of putting on tefilin. When Sunday morning comes, if You want me to put on tefilin, You need to get me a pair, because it is up to You. Even if I try to get to Guatemala City where I can find tefilin, the chances of me getting there by sunset are not high. It's a long trip. There needs to be a bus going, I need a seat, and You need to arrange that there won't be landslides, bus breakdowns, riots, wars, or rebel activity. So between You and me, it is probably easier for You to get my tefilin to come back, than to make a miracle where a bus will not break down in a third-world country!"
It is the only time in my life I prayed with the understanding that there was absolutely nothing I could do about the situation other than ask G-d for His help.
Shabbat morning I walked to the bus station. There was still no sign of my bag. "This is Guatemala, no bag ever come back. You can have this bag of woman's clothes," said the bus official, offering me the woman's duffel bag.
"No thanks," I said.
I found Tom back at the guest house. "I don't get it," he said, shaking his head. "You've got the tefilin things; G-d has to get them back to you. We're going back to the station."
Twenty minutes later we were standing in the station. The man working there smiled at us and presented my bag fully intact.
"This is first time I see in Guatemala! Yesterday woman come home late at night and see she have wrong bag. So she travel back five hours today and hope she find her bag still here!"
I was ecstatic. I was about to explain that I could not carry the bag because it was Shabbat when Tom lifted it over his shoulder. "It will be an honor to carry this bag," he said. Together we walked back to the guest house.
Read more of Rabbi Ben's adventures at travelingrabbi.com
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Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av, 5743 
Greeting and Blessing:
I received your letter of the 19th of Tammuz, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness in writing to me in detail about our esteemed mutual friend. No doubt you have already heard from your patient, who has kept in touch with me.
I am most gratified to note the personal attention and concern you have shown towards your patient. There is certainly no need to emphasize to you how important it is for the patient - also therapeutically - to know that his doctor is taking a special interest in him. This is all the more important in a case of a sensitive person, and especially as our mutual friend is truly an outstanding person who lives by the Torah, and particularly, by the Great Principle of the Torah V'Ohavto L'Re'acho Komocho [the commandment to love one's fellow Jew as one loves oneself].
The above, incidentally, is particularly timely in connection with the present days of the Three Weeks, which remind all Jews to make a special effort to counteract, and eventually eliminate, the cause which gave rise to the sad events which these days commemorate, and hasten the day when these sad days will be transformed into days of gladness and rejoicing.
Wishing you Hatzlocho [success] with this patient and all your patients, and in all your affairs.
5th of Tammuz, 5744 
Greeting and Blessing:
I received your letter of June 28th, in which you write about your desire to convert and become a Jew.
It has often been explained that, actually, a gentile does not have to become a Jew in order to attain fulfillment through the Torah and Mitzvos [commandments], because He, Who gave the Torah with all its 613 Mitzvos to the Jewish people at the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, gave, at the same time, the Seven Basic Religious and Moral Laws for all humanity.
These are the so-called Seven Noahide Laws, with all their ramifications, which were originally given to the children of Noah, i.e., all humanity, and which are quite sufficient to ensure a truly human society, and fulfillment of every human being. Thus, there is no obligation on the part of any gentile to assume the responsibility of observing the whole Torah with all its 613 Mitzvos, except those specific basic laws with their ramifications, as mentioned above.
By way of illustration from the physical human body, where each limb and organ has its own particular function within the harmonious growth and development of the entire body, and this function is its actual fulfillment. There is no point in a leg, for example, desiring to become a hand and the like. Only in extreme exceptional cases are there situations when certain gentiles have a special relevance to conversion, but this is very exceptional from the viewpoint of the Torah.
At the same time, it is to be remembered that conversion is an irrevocable act. For once it is carried out in accordance with the prescribed laws of the Torah and one becomes a Jew, the person cannot change his mind afterwards. Therefore, one should approach this whole subject very, very seriously and earnestly, and be quite sure that this is his real desire. But, since a person cannot be absolutely objective where one is personally involved, it would be advisable for you to talk the matter over personally and in detail with a competent Orthodox Rabbi, who could further explain to you all that is involved.
At any rate, inasmuch as everything is by Divine Providence, and you have written to me on the subject, it is my duty and privilege to call your attention to the importance of the observance at this time of the said Seven Noahide Laws, one of which is also the matter of being kind and charitable to others - not only materially but also spiritually. This means to promote the said Seven Basic Laws with all their ramifications among the gentiles, both by precept and example, for we are assured that, "Words coming from the heart enter the heart and are eventually effective," especially when accompanied by a living example.
Wishing you Hatzlocho [success] in all the above.
REUEL means "friend of G-d." Reuel was another name for Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, who joined the Jewish people during the their journey in the desert. (Exodus 2:18)
RUTH is from the Syrian and Hebrew meaning "friendship." In the Book of Ruth, Ruth was a Moabitess who married the son of Naomi when they lived in Moab. When Naomi's sons and husband died, Ruth returned with Naomi to Israel and said the famous words, "Wherever you go, I will go. Your people will be my people." Ruth, a righteous convert to Judaism, was an ancestress of King David, and, therefore, Moshiach.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
There are two approaches to the present period of the three weeks between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and Tisha B'Av, the period which commemorates the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Holy Temple.
One approach is to dwell on the awesomeness of those tragedies and the difficulties suffered by our people in the exile which followed.
The other approach, while not minimizing the extent of our nation's loss, puts the emphasis on the purpose of the exile. Heaven forbid to say that destruction and exile are ends in and of themselves. Rather, within the ashes of the Temple's destruction was kindled the spark of the Future Redemption.
In an ultimate sense, this was the purpose of the exile - to prepare the Jewish people and the world at large for the higher and deeper level of fulfillment to be reached in that era.
There is no question that the second approach is the one more followed in the present age.
Our Sages declared, "All the appointed times for Moshiach's coming have passed; the matter is only dependent on teshuva (repentance)."
We have already turned to G-d with sincere teshuva. Thus, when speaking of the readiness of our generation, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe used the allegory of a garment that is complete in all respects - "and all that is needed now is to polish the buttons."
Surely, the over 60 years of vibrant Torah activity since that statement was made, have been sufficient to accomplish that purpose.
We are standing on the threshold of the Redemption. Moshiach's coming is no longer a dream of a distant future, but an imminent reality which will very shortly become fully manifest.
Through living with the concept of Moshiach, we will hasten his coming and bring about the era in which these three weeks will be transformed from mourning into the celebration of the Redemption. May this take place in the immediate future.
To execute the vengeance of G-d on Midian (Num. 31:3)
Rashi explains that one who takes a stance against the Jews is actually standing against G-d. Midian tried to fight the Jews by causing them to sin, enticing them with their beautiful daughters and their idols. The sins of illicit relations and idolatry were against the will of G-d; therefore, when war was waged against Midian, G-d was taking His revenge on them. We also see the great love G-d had for the Children of Israel, for even when they sinned and died in the subsequent plague, G-d took His revenge because Midian had wronged them.
The name "Midian" comes from the root "madon," meaning quarrel and strife. Midian symbolizes contention and unwarranted hatred. Therefore, the war against Midian is truly "the vengeance of G-d." For, there is nothing as opposed to G-d as dissension and needless hatred.
Arm some men from among you for war (Num. 31:3)
G-d instructed Moses to avenge the Jews against Midian. Why, then, did Moses send others to fight the battle? Moses had lived in the land of Midian and felt it was not right for him to personally harm those who had treated him well. This is in keeping with the saying, "don't throw stones into the well from which you drank."
The saintly Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (founder of Chasidism, known also by the acronym "Besht") was sitting in his room. A light knock on the door interrupted his thoughts as his attendant announced a visitor.
The visitor was a prosperous looking middle-aged Jewish man. "I have heard of the fame of the saintly Rabbi. I wished to see the Rabbi's holy face and receive his blessing, though I am not in need of anything, thank G-d," said the visitor.
The Besht studied the man's face. Then he said, "It is written, 'G-d directs the steps of man.' This means that no Jew goes anywhere without being directed by Divine Providence. Though you may not know it, you have not come here of your own free will."
The gentleman looked puzzled, but waited for the Baal Shem Tov to continue. To his great surprise the Besht began to tell a story:
"Once, there lived two boys who were best of friends. They went to yeshiva together from the time they were small children. The years flew by, and soon the boys were married businessmen. Each one went to live in a different town.
"At first, both did very well and became quite wealthy. Later, however, one of them made many bad business deal after another, until he lost his entire fortune.
"The poor man remembered his more fortunate friend and decided to seek his help. Arriving at his friend's house he was warmly welcomed. They chatted, remembering old times. Eventually the host asked his visitor the reason for the surprise visit. The visitor poured out his heart, saying that he came to seek help.
"The host told him that he had nothing to worry about. He called his book-keeper and ordered him to draw up a balance of his affairs. To the amazement of the clerk and the visitor, he ordered half of his fortune transferred to his impoverished friend. 'My friend,' he said, 'we always shared everything we had. I am now going to share everything I have with you again!'
"The poor man returned home rich again. He set up his business and shortly doubled his fortune. But what happened to his friend? His fortune took a turn for the worse. Soon, he was very poor.
"It was now his turn to seek the aid of his friend, whom he had helped in his hour of need. He went to his friend's house. He was made to wait quite a while, and finally, out came the servant with word that his master did not remember the name of the visitor, and in any case was too busy to see him.
"The poor man could hardly believe his ears. 'Confidentially,' the servant added, 'ever since my master regained his riches, he has become a hard man with no sympathy for anyone!'
"There was nothing for the poor man to do but return home. He could not get over the humiliation and disappointment he had suffered and he soon died.
"On the very same day, the rich man in the other town had an accident and died too. The two souls ascended to heaven and appeared for judgment. The soul of the poor man who had treated his friend so generously was told of his great reward and the Gates of Paradise were thrown open for him. But the other soul was condemned to suffer atonement, until the soul became pure and clean again.
"The first soul said sadly, "How can I enjoy the happiness of Paradise knowing that my friend is not with me, and is being punished on my account?" The soul was given permission to pronounce judgement in this case. Without hesitation, the soul said that both of them should again be sent into bodies, to live their lives anew, so that the other soul could make amends where it had failed. Selflessly, this soul accepted a life of poverty again, in order to help the other soul.
"Some time afterwards, two baby boys were born in two different towns, one rich and one poor. When the poor boy grew up, he went from door to door begging alms. One day he arrived in the town where the rich man lived, and knocked at his door. The rich man opened the door, and upon seeing a beggar, exclaimed, 'You are a stranger in this town if you do not know that I do not give alms to any beggar, not even local ones!'
"The beggar had not eaten for three days. He collapsed and died.
"Now what do you think of this rich man?" the saintly Baal Shem Tov concluded, his keen eyes piercing through the visitor.
The Baal Shem Tov's visitor grew pale and frightened. His eyes filled with tears, but he could not utter a word, for he remembered the beggar who had knocked at his door a few days before he made his way to the Baal Shem Tov. The pale and haggard face of the dead beggar which had made no impression on him then, now began to torment him, and he wept bitterly.
"Is there any hope for me? Is there anything I can do to save my soul?" the visitor pleaded.
The Baal Shem Tov replied, "Yes, there is something you can do. You must try to find the survivors of the poor man and ask their forgiveness. You must provide them with all their needs for the rest of their lives and distribute the rest of your fortune to the poor and needy. Then, pray to G-d with all your heart, for He is near to all who call unto Him in truth."
Concerning the Era of Redemption we read (Psalm 126:2): "Our mouth will then be filled with laughter" The numerical value of the Hebrew word meaning "laughter" (s'chok) is 414; this is also the numerical value of the Hebrew words "Or Ein Sof" ("the Infinite Light"). This suggests that the inner meaning of the "laughter" is the revelation of G-d's delight.
(Likutei Torah, Bamidbar, p. 19d)