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The Baal Shem Tov instilled in his followers many important life lessons. But two of the most basic principles were: whoever and whatever one encounters, the encounter provides a lesson in how to serve G-d, and that everyone deserves respect, for it is possible to learn from anyone.
One day, between winter and spring, when the roads were slushy mud and the temperature was well below freezing, the students of the Baal Shem Tov were in the synagogue immersed in their studies.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door, disturbing their concentration and devotion. One of the students opened the door. There stood a poor Polish peasant, from the look on his face, clearly in need of help.
"My wagon is stuck in the mud," the peasant said, pointing to the road.
The wagon was laden with barrels and boxes - obviously the peasant's livelihood. All four wheels were trapped, muck over half their spokes. And the poor peasant was clearly not strong enough to lift the wagon by himself. Aside from his slight build, his gray beard and wrinkled skin showed he was as old as the students were young.
"Please," the peasant said, "you are young and strong. Please help me get my wagon out of the mud."
The students looked at each other and the excuses started flying:
We don't have time. We can't interrupt our studies. We're not strong enough. We don't know how.
On and on and on. We can't this. We can't that. We can't. We can't.
With each passing excuse the peasant grew angrier and angrier. Finally, he got fed up. He shouted: "You CAN! But you WILL NOT."
At last some of the students, embarrassed, went to pull the wagon out of the mud and help the peasant on his way.
When the Baal Shem Tov heard of the incident, he reprimanded his students.
First, he told them, you failed to show the proper respect. Even if the man wasn't old, even if he wasn't poor, the fact that he was in need and asked for your help, Torah requires you preserve his dignity while giving him aid. How much more so one who is old and poor. Jew or non-Jew, it does not matter. [As Rabbi Akiva says, "Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of G-d" (Ethics 3:14).]
Further, the students were told, this peasant has taught you a valuable lesson. Each of us has a Divine mission, a spiritual task only we can accomplish. At times that task may seem overwhelming. We will be spiritually stuck in the mud. We may feel the G-dly task is inter-rupting something important. We will find excuses why we can't do it.
We should know that the ability to accomplish a task is G-d given. This even applies to a mundane task, work that must be done on a physical level, as part of the job of transforming the world, making it a place of goodness and kindness and a dwelling for G-dliness. Each of us is given what we need to do what is asked of it.
But the decision to do it (or not) is our choice. The desire to do it must come from within. The will to do it - that is ours.
So, when it comes to doing a mitzva (commandment) or an act of kindness or goodness - don't be stuck in the mud.
The true test of a Jew's Divine service is seen precisely when he encounters trials and difficulties. The trial serves to reveal his hidden abilities, and his service of G-d is strengthened by the experience.
The 40 years of wandering through the desert were a trial for the entire Jewish people, a preparation for their service in the Land of Israel. In general, there are two types of tests a person may face: the trial of wealth, and the trial of poverty. The Jews' trial in the desert consisted of both elements, and this was reflected in the phenomenon of the manna.
This week in the Torah portion of Eikev we read about the manna - a G-dly food, "bread from the heavens." In the desert, the Jewish people did not have to worry about where their next meal would be coming from; the manna fell predictably from the sky each day. It was entirely digestible, and had whatever taste a person wished. In addition, the manna was accompanied by gemstones and pearls. Thus the manna was symbolic of the epitome of wealth.
At the same time, however, the manna also embodied an element of poverty. Eating manna, the only sustenance the Jews were offered, was not satisfying like regular food. Moreover, the Jews received only enough manna for that particular day; there was never any extra. It is human nature that when a person's house is stocked with food, he becomes sated after eating very little; when there is nothing in his cupboard, he is never fully satisfied.
Thus we see that the manna was extremely contradictory. On one hand, it was the richest sustenance a person could ask for; on the other, it was poor and unfilling.
When a person looked at the manna he saw only manna, and not the other foods whose taste he was experiencing. This in itself caused a feeling of deprivation. And because the Jews only received enough manna for one day, they had to have faith that G-d would cause it to fall the next day, too. So although the manna was the epitome of abundance, from the Jews' standpoint it was a trial of poverty, as the coarseness of their physical bodies prevented them from fully appreciating its G-dly qualities.
In truth, the manna teaches us a lesson in how to overcome both types of tests we may encounter throughout life:
When a Jew is blessed with wealth, he shouldn't think that it is the result of his own efforts. Rather, he must always remember that it is G-d Who has granted him these riches. And if, G-d forbid, a person is faced with the test of poverty, he must likewise remember that "no evil descends from on High." His suffering is the consequence of his own misdeeds, and he must accept it with love. For G-d bestows only bounty and beneficence, despite the limitations of our physical eyes.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Volume 4
World's Largest Center
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, served as the Chief Rabbi of Yekatrinoslav for over 30 years from 1907 to 1939. In 1939 he was arrested by the communist regime for his fearless stance against the Communist Party's efforts to eradicate Torah Judaism in the Soviet Union. After more than a year of torture and interrogations, he was sentenced to exile in Chi'ili, Russia. After completing four years in exile in Chi'ili, Reb Levi Yitzchak moved with his wife, Rebbetzin Chana (who had followed him into exile) to nearby Alma Ata, where he passed away less than four months later on 20 Av, 1944.
In June 1990, with a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel and Chana Kamenitsky moved as emissaries of the Rebbe to Yekatrinoslav, known today as Dnepropetrovsk. In 2008, nearly 70 years after Reb Levi Yitzchak's was arrested for promoting Torah Judaism, work began on what will be the world's largest Jewish center, to be known as the "Menorah Center." It is being built on the property adjacent to Dnepropetrovsk's Golden Rose Synagogue.
When completed, the center will consist of seven vertical towers resembling the seven branches of a Menorah. The symbolism of the project is underscored by the lighting scheme proposed for the future Jewish complex, the concept of which is that each evening, lighting will rotate from one tower to another, representing the lighting of a new candle each day beginning on the first day of the week. Correspondingly, the first day (Sunday) to the last (Saturday) will be fully covered by all seven towers.
The total area of the Menorah Center will comprise nearly 40,000 square meters.
Among the features anticipated for this future complex is a Museum of Jewish history and the Holocaust, conference halls, kosher restaurants, bookstores, space for classes and community programs, charities. There will also be a banquet hall for celebrations such as weddings and other Jewish life-cycle events. These facilities will be available to the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk as well as other Jewish organizations active at the local, regional, national and international level.
As the largest Jewish community center in the world, the Menorah Center will complete the Dnepropetrovsk Central Synagogue campus, which already includes the buildings of the Rosalind Gorvin Jewish Community Center and the Chaya Rivka Women's Mikva.
According to a JTA article, Alexander Sorin, the architect of the tower, is the son of a prominent Soviet-era architect who designed many of the major buildings in this industrial city. Foreigners stayed away during the Soviet era because of weapons technology research and construction facilities. The first floor leading through the Holocaust museum and the center will resemble a Jerusalem alleyway with brown stone and a slightly claustrophobic feel, Sorin said. The center will have a kosher hotel and lobby with an elevator programmed to allow observant passengers to ride on Shabbat. The community is seeking an independent contractor to run the hotel. There will be apartments for visiting Jewish educators and community workers, as well as office space to rent for Jewish-related entities such as the Jewish Agency for Israel, an Israeli consular office and other organizations. The Holocaust museum will feature the research of a group of scientists known as Tkuma, or "resurrection" in Hebrew, who have been collecting testimonies, artifacts and names of the 11,000 Jews killed by the Nazis in Dnepropetrovsk on Simchat Torah in 1943. The museum will accompany a sprawling monument in a local park with dozens of stones engraved with victims' names. Activities run by the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community are spread out across dozens of buildings. The Menorah Center will centralize that activity, though most outlying facilities will remain.
Rabbi Velly and Chanchkie Slavin will be moving to Melbourne, Australia. where they will join the other emissaries of the Rebbe at Chabad Malvern. The Slavins will focus on young adults. Rabbi Shmuly and Fraidy Hecht have recently established a new Chabad Center, Chabad of the Okanagan, serving the Jews of Okanagan Valley, BC, Canada. Rabbi Raphael and Sarah Kats have established a new Chabad Center in Saskatoon, SK, Canada. Rabbi Zevi and Devorah Leah Wineberg will be joining the other emissaries at the Ha'maor Center in Johannesburg, South Africa. Rabbi Yisroel and Mushkie Raskin have arrived in Mckinnon, Melbourne, Australia, to establish a new Chabad Center there.
16 Av, 5739 (1979)
I am in receipt of your letter of July 27, in which you write in regard to conversion in accordance with the halacha (Jewish law) which, of course, is the only valid conversion.
Needless to say, it is difficult to deal with such a matter through correspondence. The best thing would be if you could speak personally to a practicing Orthodox rabbi, for it is a very important and serious matter. If, for some reason, this is impossible to do without delay, you ought to write to one of the competent rabbinic authorities, such as the Union of Orthodox Rabbis (address below), in whose domain it is - not in mine. And since they treat such matters in confidence, you can write to them quite freely in every detail.
Though you write that you have spoken with an Orthodox rabbi, I see from your letter that you are still confused, and the sooner it - your status - is rectified, the better.
P.S. I gather from your letter that you are aware of the general attitude of the Jewish religion not to encourage proselytizing, and, indeed, to discourage would-be converts. A gentile who wishes to embrace the Jewish faith is often reminded at the outset that gentiles, too, have a Divinely ordained purpose in life which is to promote the rules of justice and decency and the other basic Seven Divine Precepts, with all their ramifications, which have been given to all mankind (the descendants of Noah, hence the so-called Seven Noahide Laws), thereby attaining spiritual fulfillment.
You should, therefore, not be surprised that you have not been encouraged in your desire for conversion according to the halacha, which is the only kind of valid conversion. For, obviously, any other form of conversion has no validity whatsoever, since it would be a self-contradiction to adopt a new religion in a way which is contrary to that religion. And since halachic conversion requires a total commitment on the part of the proselyte to strictly adhere to all the laws - the do's and the don'ts - of the Jewish religion, which, in your present place and circumstances is well nigh impossible to fulfill, there is an additional strong reason to discourage you from taking that step. For, with all your best intentions, you would not be able to conduct a full Torah-true life in your present place - the first condition of halachic conversion, lacking which there can be no conversion.
Since it is a very serious matter, I am reiterating here what has been indicated in the main body of the letter, namely, that before you take up residence in a city and neighborhood where you can be certain of being able to carry out the said unequivocal commitment to conduct everyday life in accordance with the Jewish Code of Law (Shulchan Aruch), there is no point in talking about conversion. That is, unless, after discussing the matter with an Orthodox Rabbi, and despite his reasoning and discouragement, a basis may be found for pursuing the matter.
I trust you will accept the above in the proper spirit, since it is first of all my duty to clarify the true aspects of the situation, and it would also be in your best interests, as well as your family's, to follow the path of truth.
CHANOCH means "dedicated." Chanoch was the son of Yered and the father of Metushelach. (Genesis 5:18) He buried Adam.
CHAMITAL means "morning dew." Also spelled CHAMUTAL, she was the wife of the righteous King Yoshiyahu (Josiah) and the mother of two kings, Tzidkiyahu (Zedekia) and Yehoachaz (Jehoahaz). She was the daughter of Yirmiyahu from Livna (II Kings 23:31-37).
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Shabbat, the 20th of Av, is the yartzeit of the Rebbe's father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson. Hounded and harassed by the Communists, imprisoned and exiled to Asia, Reb Levi Yitzchak's self-sacrifice and iron-will never broke. But his physical body eventually did, and after years of torture and illness he passed away in 1944 in Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan.
Reb Levi Yitzchak's concern for his fellow Jew was legendary. In Russia there was a Chasid by the name of Reb Ozer Vinikorsky, who five times (!) had received a draft notice from the Red Army, with an invitation to appear before the medical board. After five close calls he still hadn't been drafted, but the constant threat was taking a psychological toll.
The Chasid went to Reb Levi Yitzchak for his blessing and advice. Touched by the man's suffering, Reb Levi Yitzchak not only blessed him, but outlined a detailed plan that would rid him of this worry forever. Reb Levi Yitzchak told him the particular day he was to appear before the board, the exact time to show up, which streets he was to take, which chapters of Psalms to recite - he even told him how many coins he should give to charity that morning! The most important thing, however, was to concentrate on G-d's holy Name Havaya before opening the door to the Ministry. If he followed these instructions, nothing bad would happen.
As Reb Ozer later related, "I followed Reb Levi Yitzchak's directives to the letter. Inside the Ministry were many tables; at each table sat a different type of medical specialist, and the potential recruits had to be examined by all of them. Afterwards, I took my files and handed them to the official who would give me my final answer. 'Poor fellow,' he said as he looked at my pityingly. 'It isn't often that every single doctor finds a different defect!' " Reb Ozer received a complete deferment.
May the memory of Reb Levi Yitzchak Schneerson inspire us all and stand the entire Jewish people in good stead.
Then your heart will be lifted up (Deut. 8:14)
Humility is not enumerated among the Torah's 613 commandments; if being humble were considered a mitzva, many Jews would rush to observe it in the most beautiful manner possible, with the end result being pride in just how humble they are!
(The Baal Shem Tov)
And [He] will bless the fruit of your womb, and the fruit of your land, your grain, and your wine, and your oil (Deut. 7:13)
The Torah specifically mentions grain, wine and oil, for they are the mainstay of man's sustenance.
They have quickly turned aside from the way... they have made a molten image (Deut. 9:12)
Not every transgression causes a Jew to immediately abandon the straight and narrow and completely forfeit his connection to the Jewish people. The sin of idol worship, however, is so elemental and consequential that the very first step in its direction tears the Jew away from everything that is holy. As it states in the Talmud (Chulin): "An apostate who commits idolatry thereby rejects the entire Torah."
(The Rebbe, Reb Heshel)
With seventy persons... as the stars of the heaven for multitude (Deut. 10:22)
This verse begins and ends with the Hebrew letter beit, alluding to Jacob's exhortation to his children that they remain attached and devoted to their households ("beit" 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 Sage and leader of the Jewish people, Rabbi Akiva was going on a long journey. In order to make his travels easier, he took with him a donkey, a rooster and a candle.
The donkey would carry his meager possessions and afford him a ride when he was too weary to walk. The rooster would wake him at dawn and the candle would allow him to study Torah at night when the sun had set.
Early one morning, Rabbi Akiva rose, prayed, and went on his way. He traveled the whole day, stopping only to eat and say the afternoon prayers.
At nightfall, Rabbi Akiva was very close to a town and he decided he would spend the night there. But there was no hostel for wayfarers. When Rabbi Akiva inquired as to whether he could perhaps stay in someone's home, he was rudely told, "We have no room. Keep on traveling."
Rabbi Akiva remained outside, late into the night, hoping that someone would notice his quandary. But no one invited him in. Despite the lateness of the hour and the coldness in the air, Rabbi Akiva said, "Whatever G-d does is for the best."
The Sage did not want to remain in a city where the inhabitants were so evil that they could not even find a place for a weary traveler. Thus, Rabbi Akiva found a comfortable spot in a nearby field, lit his candle, fed his donkey and rooster, and then began to study Torah.
So absorbed was he in his studies, that Rabbi Akiva forgot that it was the middle of the night and he was in a field, vulnerable to the dangers of the outdoors. Suddenly, Rabbi Akiva heard a mighty roar and he saw a lion bound out of the nearby forest and attack his donkey. He did not even have time to recuperate from the shock of what had just taken place when a cat, appearing out of no where, pounced on his rooster and dragged it away. Moments later, a gust of wind blew out his candle.
Calmly, Rabbi Akiva said, "Whatever G-d does is for the best."
Much later that evening, Rabbi Akiva heard loud noises and great confusion coming from the town. When dawn broke, Rabbi Akiva learned that soldiers had attacked the city, wreaking havoc and leaving death and destruction in their wake. Survivors were taken captive. The soldiers had even passed through the very field in which he had been sleeping.
Rabbi Akiva realized what had happened and said, "Now truly everyone can see that whatever G-d does is for the best. Had the lion not devoured my donkey it would have brayed; had the cat not eaten the rooster it would have crowed; had the wind not extinguished my candle it would have lit up the darkness. Then the soldiers would have found me and taken me prisoner."
It happened once that the Jewish people in the Land of Israel decided to send a gift to the Roman Caesar in the hopes that he would treat them well. They filled a box with precious stones and gems. They asked the wise and pious Nachum Ish Gamzu to bring the treasure to the Caesar. Nachum was known by the unusual epitaph "Gamzu," which means "this too," for no matter what happened he always said, "This too is for the best."
Nachum Ish Gamzu agreed to take the box and started on the long and dangerous journey. He traveled on a ship for many days. After the ship docked at its destination, Nachum found an inn to stay at overnight. He said the evening prayers and went to sleep, exhausted from his tiring journey.
The innkeeper, however, was not tired. In fact, he was quite alert and interested to see what his newest lodger had in his beautiful box. The innkeeper crept into Nachum's room and peaked into the box. The stones and precious gems dazzled the innkeeper. Within moments he had stealthily emptied the box and refilled it with common earth and stones.
Early the next morning, Nachum awoke, said his prayers and went to the Ceasar's palace, eager to fulfill the mission the Jewish community in the Holy Land had placed upon him. When it was Nachum's turn to go before the Caesar, he said, "Your Majesty, I have brought you a beautiful gift from the Jews of the Land of Israel."
The Caesar was eager to open the beautiful box. But when he opened the box his face burned with rage. "Have I not enough dirt and stones! The Jews wanted to insult me! I will punish all of them. But first I will put to death the one who had the audacity to bring this 'present' to me."
Nachum Ish Gamzu said simply and softly, "This too is for the best. Whatever G-d does is for the best."
At that moment, one of the princes spoke up. "Surely the Jews would not send the Caesar common dirt to anger him. Perhaps there is a secret in this dirt. Let us throw some into the air and perhaps it will turn into swords and arrows as it did in the time of their ancestor Abraham!"
The Caesar agreed to try. They threw the dirt into the air and it turned into sword and arrows. The Caesar ordered the box refilled with gold and precious gems to bring back to the honorable Jews in the Holy Land.
Nachum took the box and returned to the Holy Land. "Truly everything that happens is for the best," Nachum said as he retold the story to his brethren.
A few Chasidim were standing outside the room of the Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch. They were discussing how Moshiach will reveal himself at the appointed time, and each Chasid expressed his own idea. While they were talking, the door to the Rebbe's room suddenly opened up and the Rebbe himself was standing there. The Chasidim moved back in shock. The Rebbe became serious, turned to them and said, "This is how Moshiach will come - suddenly!"