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With a grunt and a moan, you brace yourself for the heat of the steam room. You lower yourself into the steaming water, letting yourself relax, allowing all of the tension and stress to slowly seep away. You sit and sit and site and shvitz. The ahhh comes later, with the cool, refreshing water libation, eagerly sprinkled over the entire body. Who could ever imagine that such a deluge could be so enjoyable? Only those who have experienced the shvitz first hand.
The modern day version of the "shvitz bath" is the summer months in 80 or 90 degrees (fahrenheit) plus weather - high humidity makes the analogy even closer. Going from your air conditioned office or shopping center to the asphalt paved parking lot where, upon spotting your car, you first open the windows to begin getting the car temperature to drop from 100 degrees to 95. In such weather even those silvery, reflective window shields don't help much. But when you've driven a little, and the air conditioner is working at full power, ahhh.
Or perhaps you've been working out in the back, doing some gardening. You get so hot that you retreat to the shade of a tree, twirling the slice of lemon and ice cubes in your iced red zinger. Ahh, that feels good. You can feel the cool liquid coursing through your veins. You feel like every sip entering your body is a fountain. You can't imagine that you would be more wet if you were in the swimming pool.
We only fully appreciate the air conditioning or the cool drink when we have first experienced the intense heat.
The shvitz bath, the intense heat, humidity, discomfort, are the challenges G-d gives us. The refreshing water, the cool air or chilled drink is the growth and the heightened perspective that we have once we have come through the challenge. Even if we didn't overcome the obstacle as successfully as we would have wanted, we have new-found insights and knowledge, we have stretched and grown because of them.
We subject ourselves to the "shvitz" because we know its purifying effects and the intense pleasure we derive from coming out of it.
Of course, no one wants to be challenged by G-d. In fact, we beseech G-d not to challenge us, as King David, the Sweet Singer of Israel cried out, "Do not bring tests upon me." True, running a marathon or attaining a certain level of knowledge are challenges we accept willingly, but those are self-imposed, when we feel we can "handle" them.
No one wants challenges from without. But when those challenges present themselves, they have a purpose. Jewish teachings explain that when misfortune befalls a person he should examine his deeds and see where he can make a "tikun" - an improvement. Much like the shvitz, they are not punishments but opportunities for growth and refinement. An opportunity at the end of the day to say, "Ahhh."
The commandment to give tzedaka (charity) appears twice in this week's Torah reading, Re'ei. Significantly, each time the Torah mentions this commandment, the verb it uses is "doubled."
The first commandment is "You shall surely open your hand to your brother," which is written in Hebrew, "Open, you shall open your hand to your brother." The second commandment is "You shall surely give him," written "Give, you shall give him."
Our Sages deduced from this double phraseology that the obligation to give tzedaka is not limited to one occasion. Rather, a Jew must give again and again, throughout his life. On the words "You shall surely open your hand" Rashi, the foremost Torah commentator, notes, "even several times." On the words "You shall surely give him" he comments, "even 100 times."
In fact, the two verses refer to two different aspects of the mitzva (commandment) of tzedaka. The first verse is directed to the giver. The Torah appeals to him, "You shall not harden your heart or shut your hand from your needy brother...You shall surely open your hand." The person giving the tzedaka must work on overcoming his Evil Inclination.
The second verse, however, concerns the act of giving itself. The emphasis here is on the poor man's needs, and the obligation to provide him with whatever is necessary.
This helps explain why, in one instance, Rashi comments "even several times," while in the other he observes "even 100 times":
A specific number can only be suggested for an act that is measurable. It is meaningless to assign a number to how many times a person must attempt to overcome his Evil Inclination, as it is an ongoing, life-long struggle. In this case, "even several times" is specific enough. By contrast, "even 100 times" implies that the poor man's needs are varied and many.
On a deeper level, there are two ways a person can fulfill the mitzva of tzedaka. The first involves battling the temptations of the Evil Inclination. The second consists of just doing it, pure and simple.
However, there is an advantage in the first method, as the struggle against the Evil Inclination serves to arouse the soul's vast and unlimited powers. Choosing to do good, in spite of one's natural inclinations, reveals the G-dly soul's infinite strength and capacities.
By giving tzedaka, particularly during the coming month of Elul, when it is customary to give more than usual, every Jew will merit to be inscribed in the Book of the Righteous, leading to the Final Redemption, as "Israel will only be redeemed through tzedaka."
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Vol 34
It Takes a Smile to Change a Life
by Chava Tombosky
Every single act we do, every decision we make with regard to our behavior, affects our lives as a microcosm and as a macrocosm. Even the tiniest gesture, like a smile, can change our own fate and possibly the fate of the world in an enormous way.
When I was five years old, my parents were trying to make the decision of where they would send my brother and me to school. My parents were hoping to send us to the local public school, but my mother had made a request to the school board to send me to a different district with other Jewish kids whom I had had as friends. The school board refused to accommodate my mother's request and insisted I go to the recommended public school that had shared my zip code. "If you want your daughter with Jewish kids, then we suggest you move," was their recommendation.
At the time, my father was practicing medicine and was visited weekly by a jovial rabbi who spent his Fridays bringing grape juice and challah to the patients and Jewish doctors. Each week, without fail, my father would receive Rabbi Newman's visit followed by this question - "Nu, Dr. Shallman, where will you be sending your children to learn Aleph Bais?" And each time my father would say the same thing, "My kids are toddlers, I think we have time."
After two years worth of Friday visits, the time had come. My parents had to make the decision of where they would be sending me to kindergarten. That Friday Rabbi Newman came for his weekly visit with his weekly question, and my father responded: "Nu, Rabbi, what do you got?"
"I thought you'd never ask," replied the rabbi. He invited my parents to an open house for a Jewish day school called "The Hebrew Academy" in Orange County. My parents were very impressed and signed my brother and I up.
For years I always wondered what inspired my parents, who were reform Jews, to put their two children into a traditional Jewish day school where half of their children's day would be spent on Judaic studies that included Torah text and lessons on Jewish laws. It was a school that celebrated Israel, and Torah values daily, not just the three times a year as we did in our family. The school did not in any way represent the lifestyle we had at home. My mother and I barely lit Shabbat candles. The most Jewish thing we had was a statue that looked like a "Chai" hanging on the mantle and stale Manishewitz matza from Passover three years prior hiding in the cupboard. Sometimes we would eat at the local "kosher style" deli, and once each year on Chanuka we would light our Menora followed by presents. Our Judaism was hardly part of our lives except by association, of course.
Obviously, this decision completely reshaped my life. I was consumed with my Judaism on a daily basis that led to a very real journey, which created the path I am on today. Finally I asked my dad what made him do it.
My father recounted the moment he knew The Hebrew Academy was our home. He was waiting for my mother to come out of a meeting when he happened to see the third grade class being let out for the day. The rabbi bent down and whispered gentle words of encouragement to each child, followed by a smile before dismissing them to the bus. Children walked past my father with a twinkle in their eye and my father said it was the most moving experience he had ever watched. It was at that moment he said he knew that what he wanted for his children was a school that would foster their love for Judaism, and for themselves for the sake of their self- esteem, and for their own self- pride. He knew we would have that as he watched it being demonstrated by Rabbi Dubinsky that day.
To think that one man's smile changed another man's life, which was an innocent act that the Rabbi never even thought twice about. He probably never even knew anyone was watching him.
What happens to you as a macrocosm, can affect your microcosm even by accident. This one innocent act proved to sustain, feed and change many other lives besides the ones who were affected by the encouraging words of this Rabbi. And if one random act can alter an entire path, how much more so, one foible can surely have the same ripple affect causing a flutter that gains momentum into a catastrophic wave which has everlasting affects on others' future negatively.
I frequently imagine what would have become of my life had Rabbi Newman not visited my father each week in his office. I especially wonder how my life would have looked had Rabbi Dubinsky decided not to take the time to dismiss his students with so much kindness. To this day, he has no idea how that moment has affected and changed a life.
I have a rule that I never use real names in my articles, but this is one time, I felt it was necessary, for I hope that one day, both Rabbis Newman and Dubinsky will read this article and gain much strength from knowing their random sweetness impacted an entire family in an incredibly memorable and positive way.
With my child's eighth grade graduation around the corner, I dedicate this article to all teachers who have impacted my children's lives this year and for many years to come. And to all the teachers out there who continue to change lives, you are the ambassadors to shaping our macrocosm and altering our microcosm favorably every day.
Read more of Chava's articles at mybigfatjewishlife.com
Two Minutes for Torah
Two Minutes for Torah, by David Y. B. Kaufmann, is a collection of short essays, originally published as the front page article in L'Chaim, each of which offers a two minute meditation on the connection between the seemingly random, external events of life and their inner spiritual value. Meant to be read in those "in-between times,"these essays will inspire you and also provide something to discuss with friends and family over a cup of coffee or at the Shabbat table. Order as an eBook or in print at davidybkaufmann.com.
In the Month of Elul, Chodesh Horachamim, 5733 [Month of Mercy, 1973]
To the Boys and to the Girls
Participants in the Tzedoko [charity] Campaign
G-d bless you
Greeting and Blessing:
I was pleased to be informed that you fulfilled my request to act as my agents in the Mitzvah [commandment] of Tzedoko connecting it with a word of Torah, and adding to it your own Tzedoko.
Needless to say, in every case of doing a Mitzvah there is no place for a "Thank you" from a human being, since doing the Mitzvah in fulfillment of G-d's will is itself the greatest reward and truest happiness, and as our Sages of blessed memory declared: "The Reward of a Mitzvah is the Mitzvah itself."
However, it is in order to express thanks for acting as my agents in this joint effort and for this I say: Thank you very much to each and every one of you.
I also take this opportunity, as we have entered the month of Elul, to remind you of the special significance of the month, the Month of Divine Grace in preparation for Rosh Hashonoh and for the entire coming year, may it be a good one for all of us.
The Alter Rebbe [Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidut] explains the special significance of this month by means of the well-known parable of a "King in the field;"
"When a King approaches the city of his royal residence the people of the city go out to welcome the king in the field. Then everyone who wishes is permitted to come and greet the king and he receives everybody graciously and with a smiling face. But after he enters his Royal Palace special permission is required to see the king and this also is the privilege of a chosen few."
This, then, is the significance of the whole month of Elul, when the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He, makes known that He is "in the field" and everyone - man, woman, boy and girl can come to Him without difficulties, or special introductions.
But - one may ask - what is the meaning of approaching the King in the field, since G-d has no likeness of a body, nor a body and as the Torah warns; "You have not seen any image (of G-d)?"
Therefore the Alter Rebbe goes on to explain that this approach has to do with prayer, for prayer in general and in the days of Elul in particular is an occasion concerning which is written, "May G-d cause His face to shine upon thee" - face to face - the person praying standing directly in the presence of the King, as in the parable above.
And the Alter Rebbe adds, that in order that such closeness be truly meaningful in a lasting and tangible way, it must be followed by actual study of Torah, by Tzedoko and Good Deeds.
May G-d grant that each and every one of you should go from strength to strength in all matters of Goodness and Holiness, Torah and Mitzvos, and be a source of pride and true Nachas [pleasure] to your parents and teachers, and may you make fullest use of the auspicious days of this month and be inscribed for a good and sweet year materially and spiritually.
With the blessing of kesivo vechasima tovah [written and sealed for good],
Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5742 
I am in receipt of your letter of the 22nd of Av, with enclosure. As requested, I will remember you in prayer for the fulfillment of your heart's desires for good with regard to yourself and all the members of your family.
There is surely no need to remind you - except in the sense of "encourage the energetic" - that there is always room for advancement in all matters of Yiddishkeit [Judaism], Torah and Mitzvos, especially as you have the great Zechus [merit] of living in the Holy Land, "The Land on which G-d's Eyes are continuously, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year."
Receipt is enclosed for your Tzedoko, and may the Zechus of it additionally stand you all in good stead. It would be advisable to have the Tefillin and Mezuzos checked to make sure they are Kosher, if this has not been done within the past twelve months.
Wishing you and all yours a Kesivo veChasimo Tovo, for a good and sweet year.
NETANEL means "gift of G-d." Netanel ben Tzoar was the prince of Yissachar, the tribe which devoted itself solely to Torah study. About him it is said that he had the "kingship of Torah." Another Netanel was the fourth son of Jesse and King David's brother. (I Chronicles 2:14)
NOADYA means "appointed by G-d." Noadya was a prophetess (Nechemya 6:14). According to some opinions, Noadya means "against G-d" and was the name used for Shemaya ben Dilaya when he prophesized against Nechemya.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Shabbat we bless the month of Elul, the final month of the year before Rosh Hashana. One of the most fundamental principles in Judaism is that a person can always change for the good. Regardless of one's past actions, the only requirements are remorse for misdeeds, the resolve not to repeat them, and a sincere desire to draw closer to G-d. This process of returning to one's true, inner nature (which is essentially good in the Jew) is known as teshuva, to which the entire month of Elul is dedicated.
Unfortunately, the concept of teshuva is sometimes misconstrued. "Becoming a baal teshuva" is not just for Jews who were never exposed to Torah and never had a chance to learn the basics. The greatest rabbis and scholars are also obligated to "do teshuva," for when it comes to levels of holiness and purity, there is no end to up. Only G-d can assess what is in a person's heart, ignoring the externals. On the contrary, a person who was raised in a religious home is better equipped to "do teshuva," armed with the benefit of a Jewish education to guide him.
The story is told of a teacher in a "baal teshuva" yeshiva who, in the course of an audience with a certain Chasidic Rebbe in Israel, described how wonderful his school was. In the midst of the conversation, he felt a sudden need to clarify that he himself "was not a baal teshuva."
"And why aren't you a baal teshuva?" the Rebbe gently chided him.
"Doing teshuva" is not a one-shot deal. A Jew doesn't become a "baal teshuva" by beginning to perform mitzvot and assuming that he's made it. The initial turning toward G-d may be revolutionary, but teshuva is an ongoing process. Every day we are faced with choices; every day is a new opportunity to elevate and refine ourselves. The upcoming month of Elul is a particularly good time to renew our resolve...
Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse (Deut. 11:26)
There are two different kinds of "today" - the "today" of blessing and the "today" of curse. Consideration of the present moment as an impetus for action can be either positive or negative: "If not now, when?" spurs a Jew on to do good, whereas "Eat and drink for tomorrow we die" leads him down the path of evil.
(Rabbi Chanoch Henich of Alexander)
You are children of G-d, your G-d" (Deut. 14:1)
The Baal Shem Tov deeply loved simple folk. He would frequently remark that love of the Children of Israel is love of G-d; when one loves the father one loves the children.
You shall not shut your hand from your needy brother (Deut. 15:7)
The first letters of this verse in Hebrew spell out the word "Tehillim" - Psalms. Reciting Psalms on behalf of a poor person is not enough; one must open his hand and give him material sustenance as well.
(Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin)
From when the sickle begins to cut the upright corn (Deut. 16:9)
Once a group of Chasidim complained to their Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, that their spiritual advisor was being unduly harsh. The Rebbe told the spiritual advisor privately later, "It is sure that one must eradicate ego and pride without mercy, as it says, 'From the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn'-one must put the 'sickle' to the 'standing corn' of egotism. However, this is only in regard to oneself. Concerning others, the Torah clearly states, 'do not swing the sickle on your neighbor's grain.'"
The young man stood in the middle of the teeming thoroughfare contemplating the scene. His life in the city was exciting - how could he ever have lived in the town of Berdichev? Ha! Why now, he was a man of the world-nothing was barred to him. He turned right and continued down the tree-lined street, heading for his favorite cafe. Here, he could be with people of his own intelligence and wit. How good it was not to be living in that little village steeped as it was in ancient Jewish rituals.
As so, his days and nights passed in political discussions and drinking. In the morning he would frequent the usual cafe and peruse the morning newspaper, looking for some articles of interest with which he could regale his companions. By afternoon he would stroll the ever-fascinating streets, and by evening, he would again head for the cafe where he and his friends would meet and compare lofty, intellectual concepts.
The mitzvot (commandments) so carefully taught him by his parents never surfaced in his mind, so enthralled was he with the sights and sounds of the big city. Many, if not most of his new acquaintances were also Jewish, and had also managed to "escape" the narrow confines of towns and villages like Berdichev. They had also forsaken the teachings of their parents, grandparents and countless generations of ancestors who had clung against all odds to the same Torah.
One morning, as he lay in bed planning his day's activities, he was startled by his landlady's knock at the door. What could she want? he thought, as he clambered out of bed and into a dressing gown. She looked uneasy as she stood there holding a telegram in her outstretched hand.
"From home," she said. As he took it, the young man felt queasy. His parents would never send a telegram if there was no desperate need. The words confirmed his worst fears. Through the blur of his tears he read again and again the words, "Father has passed away. Come home. Mamma."
He sunk down in his chair. Father is gone. Oh, no. Within the hour he was on his way home to Berdichev.
The funeral passed and the seven days of shiva were over, yet he lingered on with his widowed mother, enveloped in his own gray bereavement. The month of Elul had arrived and the holiday feeling was almost palpable. He wasn't sure why, but for some reason, he derived comfort from the familiar sights and sounds of his old home town.
The young man walked aimlessly through Berdichev, lost in thought, when suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the Rebbe, Levi Yitzchak, who was known for the great love he had for his fellow Jews.
"You know, young man, I am really very envious of you," remarked the Rebbe, smiling.
The young man was unsure of what was coming next. He waited for the punch line. Reb Levi Yitzchak continued, "During these days of repentance, every Jew has the opportunity, by truly returning to G-d, to turn his sins into merits."
The young man laughed. "Well, if that's the case, you'll be even more jealous next year. For then I'll have a whole new pile of sins to work on!"
"Let me tell you a story," said the Rebbe. "Once a landlord was travelling through his property and a terrible rainstorm came up. He stopped at an inn which he rented out, hoping to find respite from the elements. But, when he brought his horses into the stables the rain cascaded in torrents through the holes in the roof. "Well," he thought, "at least in the inn I'll be able to dry out." But when he entered the inn, the situation was not much better. Puddles like small lakes dotted the floor and a raw dampness pervaded the room.
"The angry landlord approached the innkeeper and said, 'When I rented this inn to you it was in excellent condition. How have you allowed it to deteriorate this way!?'"
"'Your Excellency,' stammered the embarrassed innkeeper, 'I knew you would stop in some time, but I didn't think it would be so soon.'"
With that, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak turned and walked away, but his little story had planted a seed in the young man's mind.
A few days after Rosh Hashana had passed, the young man fell ill. The illness worsened and many specialists were called in, but no cure could be found. Within weeks, it seemed apparent to the young man that his end was quickly approaching. He recalled the rabbi's story and was consumed by regret at how he had wasted his precious life which was ebbing away.
He sent a messenger to Reb Levi Yitzchak begging him to come to his bedside and guide him back to the right path, for his Jewish soul pulled at him and gave him no rest. Reb Levi Yitzchak came at once. He sat at the young man's bedside day after day instructing and encouraging him until he achieved a true and complete repentance.
Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev asked his Chasidim, "Why did Moshiach tell Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that he will come 'Today, if you listen to G-d's voice'? For, aren't we taught that G-d will first send Elijah the Prophet before that awesome day arrives?" Reb Levi Yitzchak answered himself, "Elijah comes to elevate everyone from their mundane tasks and prepare them for Moshiach. However, 'If you will listen to G-d's voice,' if we will prepare ourselves on our own, then Moshiach will be able to come 'today,' immediately, without the Prophet having to come first to prepare us."
(Siftei Tzadikim b'Haalotcha)