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The trophy sits on the shelf. We forget about it, except once in a while, in passing, when we glance up or someone says something - then we remember. We remember the moment of victory, we remember receiving it. The joy, the triumph, the transportation beyond ourselves - how can one describe such emotions? If you've had the feeling, you know it - know it so deeply you can return to the moment and re-experience it. The swirling sensation, the sense of self-dominance, the assuredness of ascendancy over opponents and obstacles alike.
Yet the trophy, this symbolic success, questions the value of winning. At least, at times this thought come to mind: "Do not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but rather be like servants who serve their master without the intent of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you." (That's Antigonus of Socho, Ethics of the Fathers 1:3).
The victory should be its own reward. Oh, I know the trophy's only symbolic - didn't I just say that? - but still, what does it symbolize? Something material, a competitive victory. And if we say, let the game or the sport be a metaphor for a mitzva (commandment), an analogy for action spiritual, then we're back to Antigonus of Socho. We struggle and wrestle with our yetzer hara - our evil inclination - for a trifle. We serve for the sake of a reward.
We pursue the token, the reward of our mitzvot - be it health, wealth, wisdom, long life, an after-life. Do we really keep kosher only and just because G-d says so? Well, yes, but - but do we in truth have no other motive, no trinket of superiority in sight?
This business of trophies, of rewards - of getting things for doing well - doesn't it seem a little bothersome, even once in a while? (Doing well, doing right, doing good - conquering adversity and conquering adversaries - the ideas are transferable. Athletics, sports, competition prepare you for life; they're a microcosm of the personal and social struggle. Etc. They teach discipline, responsibility. Etc. Etc. Effort, talent, persistence are rewarded, just like in the "real world." Etc. Etc. Etc. And the reward for all this? A cheap - or not so cheap - statue.)
So where's the altruism, the realization that "the reward of a mitzva is a mitzva"? (That's Ben Azzai, in Ethics 4:2.) Indeed, there's a story of the Baal Shem Tov being told that he lost his share in the World to Come, because he defied a heavenly decree to help out a fellow Jew. The Baal Shem Tov rejoiced for he knew then that he served G-d "as a servant who serves his Master without intent of receiving a reward." He could serve G-d simply and completely for G-d's sake, not his own. (Of course, he was later granted again a share in the World to Come.)
It seems to me that while we struggle against the animal within and the temptations without, we strive for a balance between the selfish and the selfless. If we are to follow the dictate to "set aside your will because of His will..." (Rabban Gamliel, Ethics 2:4) it means we have to have a will of our own to start with.
So maybe the trophy mentality isn't so bad. Maybe materialistic acknowledg-ment of achievement carries a spiritual significance. A gold star, a fancy car - a trophy. Maybe it's not the trophy itself, the sign, that matters, but what the trophy stands for - what is signified. What did we do to earn it, anyway?
There is a reward for our labors, our struggles. We earn the trophy, the World to Come, Redemption, the days of Moshiach. But to do so, our struggle has to be the right struggle. As Rabbi Elazar said (Ethics, 2:14): "Be diligent in the study of Torah; know what to answer an unbeliever; and know before Whom you toil, and Who your employer is that will pay you the reward of your labor."
This week we begin the customary study of Ethics of the Fathers each Shabbat afternoon.
The Torah portion of Shemini opens with a description of the eighth and final day of the consecration of the Sanctuary, the day when the Divine Presence first rested therein. The name of the portion - Shemini - means "eighth" and alludes to the special significance held by the number eight. Eight symbolizes that which is above the laws of nature and the boundaries of our physical world. It stands for that aspect of G-dliness which exists even beyond the realm of our human powers of description.
One would think that the contents of so lofty a section of the Torah would deal with correspondingly lofty subject matter - philosophy, belief in G-d, metaphysics - but we find that Shemini delineates the laws between kosher and non-kosher animals. Why such a mundane a subject for a Torah portion which is supposed to express so high a level of holiness?
In many instances, a fine line exists between that which is kosher and that which is forbidden. A kosher animal whose windpipe and esophagus are only partially severed when slaughtered is not fit for consumption. A difference of only a fraction of a centimeter can determine whether or not the flesh of the animal is kosher or not, as Jewish law prescribes that both windpipe and trachea be more than half severed with one movement of the knife.
In our own lives, we also occasionally must make decisions which are as fine as a hair's breadth. Choosing between good and evil when the choices are obvious and blatant is much easier than making a decision between two extremely fine points. For such decision making, extra help from Above is necessary.
The Evil Inclination sometimes disguises itself in a "robe of holiness." It discourages a person from performing a mitzva through guile and doubt, presenting all sorts of seemingly plausible and erudite excuses. A person may become confused when the two paths of action before him both seem to have merit. The Evil Inclination can even make a sin appear to be an actual mitzva.
How are we to overcome the wiles and cunning of the Evil Inclination? How can we be sure that the decisions we make are the right ones? By learning the lesson which is taught in Shemini.
Man alone, bound as he is by the laws of nature and the limitations of the human intellect, cannot always overcome his Evil Inclination. But when a person gives himself over to G-d, Who is not bound by any natural law and is infinite, and asks His help to "distinguish between the unclean and the clean," one can indeed conquer the Evil Inclination and avoid falling into its net.
A Jew's connection to G-d is so strong that it cannot be split asunder by any power on earth. When a Jew does a mitzva (commandment) - mitzva comes from the Hebrew word for binding together and connecting - he ties himself to G-d with a supernatural strength. Armed with this power, we can see through the mask of the Evil Inclination when we are presented with even the finest points of contention.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
A Mezuza Pointed the Right Way
by Sarah Schmerler
My mother, Dr. Miriam Schmerler, a devout woman all her life, had been living in a nursing home for seven and a half years. Suffering from Alzheimer's, she couldn't remember my name, the faces of her family - practically anything, but with one exception: she remembered her Hebrew. She could intone every prayer with the cantor, and she could even correct the grammar of the volunteer teacher who came to the Home to give a weekly lesson from the Torah portion. Judaism was Mom's life, just as it always had been.
One Friday afternoon, just an hour before Shabbat, a phone call came to me from the very kind, non-Jewish administrator of the Home. "Ma'am," he said, "I wasn't consulted on this, but it appears that the funding will soon be cut for your mother's kosher meals. Would you like to voice any objections?"
"Yes, I certainly would!" I replied. There just wasn't much I could do so late on a Friday afternoon.
I felt distressed, unable to give Mom immediate help on this vital issue. Before I hung up, however, I happened to ask the administrator, "Do you know what a mezuza is?"
"Yes," she said, "I believe I do."
"Well, speaking of 'kosher,' did you know that a mezuza must also be kosher, and so it must be checked periodically by a qualified scribe? I'm wondering if you know when the mezuzos at the Home were last checked."
Of course she didn't know if any of the mezuzos in the Home had ever been checked. We both admitted that it might take a long time to go through administrative channels to find out. I thanked her, and realized that even if the kosher food would be a tough bureaucratic struggle, perhaps I could take things into my own hands regarding Mom's mezuza.
After Shabbat, I consulted my rabbi. "Halachically speaking," he said, "checking the mezuza on your mother's door is her responsibility, not the Home's. As a resident there, she falls under the category of a renter in a large facility. As a renter, she must look out for her own mezuza. Seeing as she's unable to do so, the burden falls on you, her child." Indeed, one kosher issue that I could control!
That week my brother and I began the struggle for my mother's right to kosher food, and we were met by harsh resistance. My brother decided that we needed legal counsel. Investigations were launched into the practices of the Home, and it was getting ugly. However, on my private quest for a kosher mezuza, one call to the local Chabad Center was enough.
I called the Center on Tuesday and told the young rebbetzin my story. She told her husband. The very next day, Mom got a visit and a mezuza check-up. The rabbi emailed me, "I'm not a scribe, so I could only check it informally, but one thing is for certain: your mother's mezuza was affixed upside-down! It is also lacking a wrapper on the outside to protect it." He said he would return shortly to the Home to reinstall the mezuza right side up. In a later email, I told him he might as well just replace the parchment and give it a wrapper.
However, as soon as the rabbi had turned the mezuza right side up, I received news from the administrator that the funding for Mom's kosher food was already a done-deal! Apparently, the funder was bluffing, and it was entirely in my rights to secure kosher food. Also, mysteriously, there were now mezuzos affixed on all the rooms of the Home. No one was able to tell me where these had come from.
As if all that wasn't enough, a big check my husband had been owed for over six months, and which we desperately needed, arrived in the mail. He carried the envelope up the stairs, calling out, "Our problems are solved!" and tears of relief came to my eyes. At the same time, some part of me was not surprised.
Almost two weeks prior to all these events, I dreamt a troubling dream about Mom. In the dream, I was walking out of a large building with a number of people from my synagogue. We came upon a strange, white, industrial-type hallway with four shallow steps leading down. As we walked down these steps, I noticed a few elderly people ahead of us with canes, walkers, and nursing attendants. One of these people was Mom. Suddenly, I saw her body flip upside down and suspend in mid-air, her mouth wide open in shock. It seemed no one could help her, so I rushed down the steps and flipped her right side up. I checked to see if she was breathing, and let her recover. She was terrified, but alright. I soon put her back in the care of her attendant, and we all continued walking together.
Perhaps the most amazing part of the dream was when she was upside down, her body was rigid and tilted at a 45-degree angle-just as a mezuza is tilted, when affixed to a doorpost.
Sarah Schmerler writes about Judaism and fine art. She works as an art consultant, and is based in Brooklyn, NY.From the forthcoming book by Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin, edited by Matthew Brown.
Rabbi Shmuel Menachem and Chaya Moushka Volovik have moved to Western Monmouth County, New Jersey, to work at Chabad of Western Monmouth County, focusing on outreach to Jewish teens. Rabbi Bentzy and Devorah Stolik will be arriving soon in the East Rockville/Aspen Hill, Maryland, to establish a new Chabad House serving the the needs of local Jews. Rabbi Moshe and Taliah Langer have established a new Chabad House in the Pacific Heights neighborhood in S. Francisco, California, to serve nearby neighborhoods.
After three years of planning, fundraising and design, Chabad of Solon, Ohio's Ruthy Wolfson Mikva has opened its doors, to the delight of the local Jewish community. Ms. Wolfson dedicated the mikva to the memory of her mother, Tova Gruenspan, a Holocaust survivor.
From I Will Write it in Their Hearts, freely translated
10 Iyar, 5710 (1950)
Greetings and blessings,
...We are now in the midst of the days of the Counting of the Omer. We can learn a lesson in the service of G-d from every matter. From a mitzvah (commandment), in particular, we can learn many things.
The Counting of the Omer teaches us, among many other things, that time is precious. We always have to be counting. If we miss one day, that creates a blemish not only in the day that was missed, but in the days and weeks that follow. Conversely, when we do count that day, the coming days and weeks are also blessed.
In the blessing for the Counting of the Omer, we praise G-d as E-lokeinu ("our L-rd") which means "our strength and our vitality" and "the King of the universe," implying that He controls the entire world. (As a matter of course, it can be understood that He must, and He will, give all types of good to those whom He calls "My son, My firstborn, Israel.")
This applies to an ordinary person. In particular, it applies to a person who has influence over many people and whose activities are reflected within many Jews and have an effect on them. And in a most particular sense, it applies to those who have already succeeded in having an influence on others. They certainly must use every opportunity - and indeed, seek out new opportunities - to have an effect in strengthening the Torah and Yiddishkeit (Judaism) and spreading the Torah and the teach-ings of Chassidus. My revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, hk"m, promised that one can rest assured that any effort undertaken will not be without results.
Signing with regards to those who receive influence from you and with wishes for a recovery for your wife and success in your work to illuminate your surroundings,
8 Iyar, 5710 (1950)
Greetings and blessings,
I found out, incidentally, that your emotions have become very volatile recently [and] that you are irritable.... Certainly, you heard from my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, hk"m, and learned from his talks, discourses, and letters, that there is nothing accidental in the world, but on the contrary, everything is controlled by Divine providence. On our part, we must try to align our deeds with the intent of the His providence. Who am I to say that I know the intent of His providence? Nevertheless, since I heard about the above, and it is possible for me to help - at least to a certain extent - I am therefore writing this letter.
The reason for your emotional volatility was not told to me, but it is likely to be your dissatisfaction with your present situation. The G-dly soul is not happy with your spiritual circumstances and the animal soul is not happy with your material situation. Therefore you let your body and your nerves just have their way.
It is difficult for me to give a particular answer to your assertions regarding your appraisal of your situation, because I have not heard those assertions from you directly.
I will therefore offer only a general answer according to my understanding of your situation. Since you have a greater vested interest in the matter than I do, according to Torah law, my testimony and conception of the matter is more trustworthy.
My perspective is that the Rebbe established you in the path of light, i.e., Torah. Moreover, he did not remain content with this, and also granted you a portion in "the light of the Torah," i.e., that you and the teachers under your direction are chassidim who study the teachings of Chassidus, whether profusely, in an average way, or at least to a limited extent. And you are able to instill the fear of Heaven into your students, which is the purpose of the Torah and its mitzvos.
This was not enough. From early on, the Rebbe led you by the hand and directed you in all your affairs. You built a home on the basis of the Torah and its mitzvos. Thank G-d, you always had the means to provide for your sustenance and the sustenance of the members of your household and you have that now as well. And you have received blessings from the Rebbe that this situation will continue in the future, and furthermore, that you will be able to give tzedakah (charity) generously.
In brief, this describes your spiritual and material situation. After all that, why are you so disturbed? That although certain things are granted you in hand, in addition, you have to work?! That this entails heartache?! That you must deal with simple people?!
The Rebbe's time and energy were certainly precious. He certainly had the right to demand more from Above than others and, nevertheless, he went through all sorts of challenges and endured them over and above the norm.
Who then can come along and indulge himself and claim, "I don't want to do that!" (which inevitably leads to the assumption) "I can't do that," and [as a result, to the conclusion:] "I'm walking away. I'm all upset"?!
Is this the right approach, Reb ....?
With good wishes for your wife and to all the members of your household, for blessing for all types of good.
Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch
Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, who was known as the Rebbe Maharash was born on 2 Iyar, 1834 and passed away in 1882. He was the son and successor of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch known as the" Tzemach Tzedek." He traveled extensively on communal matters, succeeding in several instances in nullifying disastrous governmental anti-Jewish decrees. He is known for his approach "L'chatchila Ariber," (to begin with, go over) overcome obstacles by rising above them as if they didn't exist.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
In this week's Torah portion we learn of the death of two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, after they brought a "strange" fire before G-d.
According to some commentators, the brothers brought an offering in accordance with the sacrificial laws as they had been practiced by our ancestors before the Torah was given by G-d to Moses. This, then, is what was strange about it.
Chasidic philosophy offers a unique explanation as to what was strange about the fire. A Jew's soul is likened to a flame, or, at times, a candle. Though placed in a body, it strives to reunite with its source, the G-dly flame. Nadav and Avihu's longing to be united with G-d was so great that they allowed their souls to leave their bodies, "consumed" by the G-dly fire.
However, the true purpose of the soul's descent into this world is not to leave the body and be reunited with its source. That union is meant to take place only when the soul has completed its mission. Rather, it descends to this world in order to transform and elevate its surroundings. If the soul leaves the body it cannot accomplish this.
Many stories have been told about great and holy people whose souls transcended this world and traversed other spiritual planes. They revel in the experience of enjoying the spiritual light and revealed G-dliness of these other worlds. But when the time comes for their souls to return to their bodies, they accede, knowing that this was the true purpose of their life to begin with.
Nadav and Avihu allowed their longing for G-d to supersede their mission in life - to bring G-dliness and holiness into this world.
And Aaron raised his hands ("yadav") toward the people and blessed them (Lev. 9:22)
Although the word for hands, "yadav," is pronounced in the plural, it is written without an extra yud, as if in the singular ("yado"). This is an allusion to the importance of Jewish unity: When the Jewish people stand united, Aaron's "hands" are transformed into a single hand reaching up to Heaven, to bring down an abundance of G-dly blessing.
And these shall be an abomination among the fowls...the stork (chasida) (11:13-19)
The Talmud explains that the stork is called chasida, which comes from the word meaning kindness, because it is kind to its peers. If this is so, why is it counted amongst the impure birds, normally birds of prey? Because the stork is kind to its peers, only. It only worries about those in its own flock or group.
Nevertheless, a fountain or pit where there is plenty of water (literally "a mikva of water") shall be clean (Lev. 11:36)
One of the reasons that according to Jewish law the conversion process includes total immersion of the person's body in a mikva is as follows: Our Sages said (Tractate Yevamot 22): "A proselyte who converts is considered as a newborn." The waters of the mikva (ritualarium) are symbolic of the amniotic fluid surrounding the infant in the womb before birth.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
You shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy, because I am holy (Lev. 11:44)
The rich man's son doesn't worry about livelihood because his father is always there to help him financially. So too is it with the Jewish people: Because our Father is holy, it doesn't take very much effort to be holy ourselves. All we need do is take a step in the right direction, and our Father helps us along...
(Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev)
A severe decree was being formulated against the Jews. Rabbi Menachem Mendel, known as the "Tzemach Tzedek" (the third Lubavitcher Rebbe), sent his youngest son, Reb Shmuel (later known as the Rebbe Maharash) to Petersburg in an attempt to get the decree rescinded. Traveling with Reb Shmuel was his older brother Reb Yehuda Leib, twenty years Reb Shmuel's senior.
Before commencing the journey, Reb Shmuel insisted that Reb Yehuda Leib agree not to bless anyone during their trip. "Our father is the Rebbe and he is the only one who should give people blessings," he declared. Having no other choice, Reb Yehuda Leib agreed to these conditions.
In every town they visited along the way, people converged on Reb Yehuda Leib. They begged him, as the son of such a great tzadik (righteous person), to give them a blessing for health, a living, children, etc. To each person, Reb Yehuda Leib replied, "Go visit my father, surely he will bless you."
In one particular village, there was a woman who was especially persistent. She had not been blessed with children and was certain that, with the blessing of a tzadik (righteous person), she would indeed merit to have children of her own.
The woman stationed herself in front of Reb Yehuda Leib. She begged and pleaded, screamed and cried that he must bless her to have children. But still Reb Yehuda Leib refused to bless the woman. "Go to my father, the Rebbe," he stated simply. "Surely he will bless you."
The woman was not satisfied with this answer. She continued to cry out to Reb Yehuda Leib that he should bless her. Finally, at wit's end, Reb Yehuda Leib said, "Go to my brother. Perhaps he will bless you."
The woman repeated the entire scene in front of Reb Shmuel. She begged and pleaded, cried and screamed that Reb Shmuel bless her to have children. But nothing could move Reb Shmuel. He insisted that only his father, the Rebbe, could do anything for the woman. Seeing that she would not take "no" for an answer, Reb Shmuel told his brother and the carriage driver to get ready to leave. They quickly got into the carriage to begin their journey home and away from the woman.
But the carriage didn't budge. The woman had cleverly placed a stick in the spokes of the wheels to keep them from turning.
Reb Shmuel climbed down from the carriage and, in annoyance told the woman, "Go eat a bagel" - equivalent in today's vernacular to "go fly a kite."
Satisfied at last, the woman left Reb Shmuel and Reb Yehuda Leib to continue their journey. She promptly went home and made bagels, concentrating all the while on the blessing that the bagel would surely elicit. It occurred to the woman that just to be sure that the blessing would really be actualized, she should maybe eat two bagels. So that is exactly what she did.
The following year, Rabbi Menachem Mendel passed away and Reb Shmuel, though the youngest of his seven sons, was chosen to succeed him as Rebbe.
One day, a man came into Reb Shmuel's study with two cakes which his wife had baked for the Rebbe. "You blessed my wife last year that she would have a child, so she has asked me to bring you these cakes in gratitude."
Reb Shmuel had no recollection of the event so the man recounted the entire episode to Reb Shmuel. He finished by saying, "You said to my wife, 'Go eat a bagel.' That is exactly what she did and your blessing came true."
"But why," asked Reb Shmuel in amazement, "are you bringing me two cakes?"
"My wife had wanted to make sure that the blessing would really materialize so she ate two bagels and had twins!" said the beaming father.
"Know," Reb Shmuel told the husband, "I saw that there was a heavenly decree that you and your wife were not destined to have children. It was only in exasperation that I told your wife to eat a bagel, not as a means of blessing. But because of her simple faith, her strong faith in the blessing of a tzadik, the decree was annulled and you and your wife were blessed with children."
In the "Hamotzee" blessing over bread we say: "Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth." Why do we thank G-d for "bringing forth bread from the earth" when in reality it yields wheat, which must then be baked into bread? According to the Talmud, when Moshiach comes the earth will produce ready-made bread. Our Sages instituted the blessing with these particular words in anticipation of the Messianic era.