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Mindfulness. Fully Present. Direct Experience. Achievement Zone. In the Moment. Therapists, life coaches, pop psychologists and others, encourage exercises to make sure we are at our "brain best" so that we can zero in on a task and be oblivious to distractions. When you are in your personal zone you are at your most productive state.
How is this accomplished? One suggestion is to follow a ritual, like a surgeon who, on operating days, rises at the same hour, drives to work on the same route, parks in the same parking spot, dons his scrubs in the same order, positions himself in the same place beside the patient.
"It's not superstition. In following his ritual, the surgeon systematically focuses on the task ahead. By the time he is ready to operate, he is completely in his zone." (Discover Your Achieve-ment Zone by Edwin and Sally Kiester)
Following rituals can also help us enter our optimal spiritual zone.
Let's take the example of prayer. There are many rituals that we do that help us get into a "prayer zone" before we even begin praying.
If we were going to a crucial meeting, we would certainly perform various preparatory actions in order to get ready. In addition to making sure that our dress was immaculate, that we had brushed up on the proper etiquette, and that we had sufficiently "psyched" ourselves up, we would use the time traveling to the meeting to further contemplate and meditate on the ramifications of the meeting and the various strategies we wished to present.
When we pray, we are attending the ultimate meeting with the Biggest CEO of all. But, as we don't see G-d, it is much more difficult to get into the mood of preparing for our meeting with Him. So we have "rituals" that help us get into our zone, that help us psyche ourselves up for that all-important meeting.
True, we have been cautioned not to make our prayers "fixed" or habitual, repeating the words like a meaningless chant, but with the right attitude, our rituals help us get into a "prayer zone." We wash our hands before praying; give charity; recite a declaration that we obligate ourselves to treat our fellow Jews with kindness, love and respect; and have a fixed place for prayer.
These pre-prayer rituals are neither trivial or trite. They help us reach our "prayer zone" so that we can connect with G-d more effectively.
Take an example from the upcoming High Holidays. The annual rituals help us get into the mood, reach our spiritual "achievement zone," and get ready.
Starting six weeks before Rosh Hashana we start wishing people verbally and in writing that they should be signed and sealed for a good year. A simple ritual like that helps us (and the person we're saying it to) focus on what we should (and should not!) be doing to insure that we have a good year.
The month before the High Holidays we sound the shofar daily. Let's face it, if you don't already know how to blow the shofar one month before Rosh Hashana, practicing won't help enough. And even if it does help, why a month and not just a few days before Rosh Hashana?
Sounding the shofar is another pre-Rosh Hashana ritual. Our prophets say that one can't possibly hear the shofar without being moved to introspection.
The closer we get to Rosh Hashana, the more the rituals intensify. This includes saying the "Selichot - Peniten-tial" prayers starting this Saturday night.
Even the more well-known and seemingly less significant rituals such as dipping apples in honey, eating honey-cake, or sending and receiving Rosh Hashana cards create an atmosphere that not only brings back memories, but also helps us focus on the significance and uniqueness of this time of year.
So, as we begin to perform "all those rituals," let's remember that not only does each ritual have its own unique spiritual ramifications and significance, but it also helps us arrive at our achievement zone more efficiently.
This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, contains the curses to be inflicted on the Jewish people if they do not obey G-d. The Torah teaches that "no evil comes from Above." Accordingly, we must conclude that even the most terrible curse contains only good, albeit in a hidden fashion.
Our Sages made two statements on the subject of hidden good: "Everything that G-d does is for the best" and "This is also for the best." The first statement is attributed to Rabbi Akiva, who once set out on a journey with a donkey, a rooster, and a candle. Weary from his travels he reached a town, only to be turned away from all of its inns. Rabbi Akiva had to spend the night out in the open field on the outskirts of town.
That night, a lion appeared and devoured the Rabbi's donkey, a wild cat came along and gobbled up the rooster, and the wind blew out the candle. Rabbi Akiva said, "Everything that G-d does is for the best." In the morning Rabbi Akiva found out that during the night murderous robbers attacked the town, slaughtering all its inhabitants. He then understood that what had befallen him had saved him from a similar fate.
This story illustrates one way of understanding ultimate good which seems to be hidden within its opposite. Although Rabbi Akiva's misfortunes caused him temporary anguish, he was spared further suffering by those very events. The wording itself of "everything G-d does is for the best" implies that whatever happens leads to ultimate good, even if it appears at first that the events themselves are not good.
A second story, about Nachum Ish Gamzu, illustrates another way of reconciling our problem. He was sent by the Sages to appease the Roman Emperor with a chest full of pearls. Along the way, unbeknownst to him, the pearls were stolen and replaced with earth. When the Emperor opened the tribute and saw the dirt he wanted to put the sage to death. Nachum Ish Gamzu said, "This is also for the best."
And indeed it was, for G-d sent Elijah the Prophet in the guise of a minister, who suggested that the dust might be similar to the dust with which Abraham was victorious in his wars. The Emperor sent some to his soldiers on the front who immediately won the battle. In gratitude, the Emperor awarded Nachum Ish Gamzu great riches and high honors.
In this instance, what seemed at first to be misfortune turned out to be advantageous. Not only did nothing bad happen to Nachum Ish Gamzu, but he ended up being given great wealth by the Emperor. Had he brought pearls to the Emperor there was no guarantee that he would have been well received. It was precisely the earth which delighted the Emperor. There was no evil; everything which transpired was good.
Nachum Ish Gamzu, Rabbi Akiva's teacher, was one generation closer to the era of the Holy Temple. Rabbi Akiva lived in a time more properly belonging to the exile. When the Holy Temple stood, the Jews could more easily discern the good contained in everything, even that which at first appears adverse. The exile makes it difficult to see this, and only the good resulting from seemingly bad events is discernable. As we approach the Final Redemption may we soon merit that G-d removes all concealments so that we will be able to truly understand the ultimate good hidden in all of our suffering throughout the ages.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
If We are Strong
From an interview with Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Sfat, Israel, son of the former Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, of blessed memory.
When our teacher Rav Eliyahu was the chief rabbi of Israel, he traveled to France for an official visit. France, as usual, was not with us. As always, she exerted pressure on Israel to abandon sections of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel for the benefit of the Arabs. During that period, the pressure was quite strong.
The visit schedule included a state reception in the presence of French President Jacque Chirac. Before the official reception the Rav had to follow the accepted tour route, including the State Museum which contains cultural treasures of the French people.
During the visit they showed the Rav a throne upon which Napoleon sat. "When did Napoleon live?" the Rav asked. The hosts were embarrassed by the question, and "explained" to the Rav when Napoleon lived. The Rav then asked, "Is the throne of Napoleon for sale?" An awkward silence hung over the room. "No," the hosts finally answered, "This is a very important item. We don't sell historic heirlooms."
They continued the visit and arrived at the section which described the French monarchy. They showed him the room of Louis XIV: "Who was Louis XIV?" the Rav asked. "What did he contribute to the world? Was he ethical?"
"No," the hosts answered honestly. "The entire monarchy was not that ethical, but this is our history, and we're proud of it and honored by it."
At the state reception with the French president before a large crowd, the Rav spoke about his visit in the museum. He told the guests about how embarrassed his hosts felt that a rabbi from Israel would not know who Louis XIV was. After all, these are very important historical figures. "I asked them whether they were ethical people and they hemmed and hawed, but they told me that this is their history, and they're proud of it."
The Rav said to the crowd, which included the president of France and some of his cabinet: "You expect me to know and honor French history, despite the fact that I'm not a citizen of France. Am I as an Israeli not supposed to know and honor my own history? Do the French not have to honor the Bible which has made such a great contribution to the world? Am I able to not honor the words of Moses that told us not to place the Land of Israel into the hands of strangers? Why must we honor your kings, that lived two or three hundred years ago, but not honor a chain of our own kings that lived long before them?"
The [Israeli] translator from the embassy was not so bold as to translate the Rav's words exactly. The rebbetzin signaled to the Rav - who wasn't intimidated by anyone, and stopped in the middle of his talk, and said, "I understand that my translator does not exactly recognize the rabbinic mode of speech. I ask the Chief Rabbi of France to translate my words."
He had no choice. The Rabbi of France rose to translate the Rav's talk. The Rav explained that he tried to find out the price of Napoleon's throne. "I wanted to buy it." The audience burst out laughing. He explained how they "explained" to him, in all seriousness in the museum that the effects from Napoleon are very important, and not for sale. "These are historical items, and we don't sell our history."
"Napoleon lived 200 years ago," the Rav answered, "and you respect him and refuse to sell his throne. Now I ask: must we sell Jerusalem, a city that has belonged to the Nation of Israel for 2,800 years?"
The entire audience stood, moved, and began to applaud. Even the President of France stood up, approached the Rav, shook his hand firmly and said to him, "I have never heard words like these." The French President turned to the invited guests and said to them, "We would like to bestow upon the Rabbi a precious golden medallion that we give only to heads of state. When we arranged this reception we did not think to give it to the rabbi. But the instructive words of Rabbi Eliyahu were a 'once in a lifetime experience.' We would like to express our appreciation with this state medallion."
I tell this story because it's not just a story about Rav Eliyahu. It's a story about ourselves. This is a story of life training. It's a story of faith - for if we are strong in our faith it will prevail.
Reprinted with permission from choppingwood.blogspot.com. Translated by Rabbi Reuben Spolter
Dollars and Sense
While Mrs. Markowitz was away, young Eli Katz fed her fish and brought in her mail. Now he's earned five dollars of his very own! After giving tzedaka (charity), how will Eli decide to spend his cash? Drinks, snacks, toys... no matter what he buys, Eli senses that there's something more satisfying and long-lasting to be found. When a friend needs a very important favor, clever Eli Katz suddenly realizes how to obtain the one thing that will last him forever. A great story about dollars, sense, generosity... and the kind of good that money can do! Written by Tehilla Deutsch, illustrated by Glenn Zimmer, published by HaChai Publishing.
Red is my Rimon
What colorful mitzvot (commandments) come into your head - when you think of yellow or brown, blue, and red? - Study these pages and take a good look - at the rainbow of mitzvot all over this book! Written by Dvora Glick, illustrated by Dena Ackerman (laminated pages for little hands), published by HaChai Publishing.
In the Days of Selichoth, 5720 
To my Jewish Brethren Everywhere,
G-d bless you!
Greeting and Blessing:
The Days of Selichoth [penitence] at the conclusion of the outgoing year, and the Ten Days of Repentance at the beginning of the incoming year, emphasize the centrality of Teshuvah (Repentance) in Jewish life. It is in the spirit of Teshuvah that the old year is ushered out and the new year ushered in.
Teshuvah, as is well known, comprises two integral parts: Sincere contrition in regard to the negative aspects of the past, and resolute determination in regard to the future.
The aim of Teshuvah, however, is, as the term indicates, a return to the former untarnished state. It enables the repenter to rehabilitate themselves, and be restored into G-d's favor, so that one "again becomes acceptable to G-d; ingratiated and beloved to Him as before the sin" (Tanya, Iggeret Ha-Teshuvah, chapter 2).
This means, first of all, that the repentance must be carried out so thoroughly and sincerely as to make it possible for the repenter to shape the future without blemish, not only in deed, but also in word and thought.
Secondly - and herein lies the wonder of Teshuvah - that Teshuvah erases all blemishes of the past. In other words, Teshuvah has the power of retroactivity. For although the past is no longer under a man's prerogative, nevertheless, G-d - Who is beyond any category of time and therefore transcends the categories of time and limitation - has endowed Teshuvah with a special and wonderful quality, by means of which a person can regain mastery over their past. Moreover, by means of this special power of Teshuvah, a person is able not only to render the past neutral and ineffective, but one can also reverse it and turn it into something positive, as our Sages of blessed memory expressed it: "Willful wrongs become, in his case, as though they were merits" ([Talmud] Yoma 86b).
This power of Teshuvah, whereby a person is enabled to retain control over the past, is possible because, on the one hand, it is derived from a source which transcends the category of time, as mentioned above;
And, on the other hand, it is drawn upon fully and implemented in a way that it permeates the whole being of the repenter, reaching to the very core of their Divine soul, which likewise transcends time and change, and always "remains loyal to G-dliness," because it is "verily a part of G-dliness above."
It is on the basis of this everlasting relationship between Jew and his Maker that the Old Rebbe, author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law], declared: "A Jew is neither willing nor capable of being sundered from G-d."
Likewise is G-d's love, as it is written: "I love you, says G-d" (Malachi 1:2) - and nothing can change it (Vayyikra R. beg. of ch. 7).
And just as Teshuvah embraces and permeates every aspect of the repenter's being, from the innermost core of his soul down to his every day conduct and experience, so - measure for measure - does the blessing which it brings embrace the person both spiritually - to the sublime heights of being "united with the Shechinah [G-d], beloved and precious, close and endeared (Rambam, Hil. Teshuvah 7:6-7), and materially - to be inscribed for a happy and sweet year, blessed with "children, health and sustenance", down to all his needs in his daily life.
With the blessing of Kesivo vachasimo toivo L'shono toivo umsuko [inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year] materially and spiritually,
Devora (Deborah) the prophetess (Judges 4-5) lived at a time when idol worship was rampant and the Jews were oppressed by the Canaanites. Devora, who referred to herself as a "mother in Israel," prophecized, taught and judged the people under a palm tree. She was recognized by the entire Jewish people as the authority of her time. She encouraged Barak to assemble an army to overthrow the enemy. At Barak's insistence, Devora accompanied him to war, and the Canaanites were routed. Devora is remembered also for the beautiful song she composed praising G-d and recounting the miraculous victory.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
The bikurim that we read about in this week's Torah portion were a unique expression of thanks to G-d, showing an awareness that the blessings which we receive emanate from Him. To emphasize our gratitude for these blessings, we are enjoined to give the first and the best produce as an offering to G-d. Furthermore, we make a public statement of thanks before G-d in the Holy Temple.
The concept of expressing thanks to G-d is one of the fundamental principles of Jewish life. We begin each day with an expression of thanks when we say the prayer, Modeh Ani, in which we gratefully acknowledge G-d's return of our souls. This first act upon awakening is the foundation for all of our subsequent conduct which includes many blessings and expressions of thanks.
The importance of thanking G-d is further emphasized by the Baal Shem Tov's teaching that the creation of the world is renewed every moment. This reflects the unbounded nature of G-d's kindness. The comprehension of this idea should arouse our unbounded and deep-felt gratitude, for we realize how everything is dependent on G-d's kindness at every moment.
All facets of our lives are bikurim to be offered to G-d. Thus, we should not think that our commitment to G-d involves only "Jewish things." Instead, every aspect of our conduct should be permeated with holiness and should be carried out as befits a person who is in the presence of G-d.
All of our thoughts, words, or acts are bikurim, a first fruit offering to G-d. They should therefore be the best we have to offer.
By living our lives in a manner of bikurim, not only do we thankfully acknowledge G-d's kindness, we also cause everything in our lives to be sanctified and holy.
The Torah portion of Ki Tavo contains a section known as the "Reproof" - punishments that will be inflicted on Israel if they do not obey G-d. On a deeper level, however, these curses are directed at the Evil Inclination, as the Torah states several chapter later (Deut. 30:7): "And the L-rd your G-d will place all these denunciations upon your enemies, and on those who hate you." This will reach its culmination in the Messianic era, when "I will cause the impure spirit to depart from the land." At that time, all of Israel's enemies, both within and without, will be destroyed.
I have not deviated from Your commandments, and I have not forgotten (Deut. 26:13)
The Sefat Emet asks a question about this verbal declaration, which concerns certain tithes that were given to the Levites every third year: If a person hasn't deviated from G-d's commandments, isn't it self-evident that he hasn't forgotten them either? Why the seeming redundancy? Rather, he goes on to say, it is entirely possible to perform a mitzva (commandment) yet "forget" what one is doing - if the mind is focused on other matters...
Because you did not serve the L-rd your G-d with joy and gladness of heart...therefore will you serve your enemies (Deut. 28:47-48)
Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad, would cite this verse to underscore the importance of serving G-d in a joyous manner. Doing so brings joy to G-d Himself, as it were, and has the power to nullify all decrees.
In the morning you will say, "Would that it were evening!" And in the evening you will say, "Would that it were morning!" (Deut. 28:67)
The early Chasidim interpreted this "curse" as impetus along the path of self-improvement: When you wake up in the morning and consider the quality of your G-dly service, you will pine for the superior level of the night before. In the evening, when assessing the day's spiritual progress, you will find that you have regressed, and hope to return to that morning's level.
The month of Elul was drawing to a close. Everyone was getting ready for the approaching High Holidays, and the "scent" of Rosh Hashana was already in the air. The aroma of honeycake and taigelach (honey cookies) wafted through the air and the marketplace was overflowing with all kinds of merchandise and produce, including the special fruits that are traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashana like pomegranates.
Jewish homes were bustling with activity; they were swept from top to bottom and new clothes were fitted and sewn. At the same time it was serious business, as residents prepared themselves spiritually for the coming year. More attention was paid to praying with a minyan, refraining from gossip and in general, improving behavior.
Inside the Baal Shem Tov's study hall the preparations for the Days of Awe were also underway. Prayers were recited with increased devotion, and all thoughts were focused on returning to G-d in repentance.
One evening, a few days before Rosh Hashana, the Baal Shem Tov's disciples were getting ready to pray the evening service. All that was missing was the Baal Shem Tov himself, who had yet to arrive. At precisely the appointed hour the Baal Shem Tov entered the study hall, but instead of opening his prayer book he remaining standing, lost in thought.
Of course, no one dared mention that it was time to pray. The minutes ticked by and still the Baal Shem Tov seemed distracted, as if he were in another world. His holy face was suffused with intense emotion. However, the Baal Shem Tov's students were already used to such things.
When the Baal Shem Tov suddenly roused himself almost an hour later and opened his prayer book, his countenance was virtually shining with joy. That evening, the Baal Shem Tov prayed with unusual intensity and longing. It was obvious that something of very great magnitude had occurred.
After the service the Baal Shem Tov explained: "Not very far from here lives a Jew who grew up in a traditional Jewish home. But as he grew older, he began to associate with the local peasants. Slowly he abandoned the Jewish path till he was virtually indistinguishable from the gentiles and completely estranged from his roots.
"Many years passed. The man left the province where he was born and went to live in a totally non-Jewish environment. As time passed, he forgot everything about the Jewish way of life, its prayers and its customs. Before he knew it, 30 years had elapsed.
"Tonight," the Baal Shem Tov revealed, "this Jew happened to be visiting a Jewish town on business. As soon as he entered the village he could sense the commotion, and this aroused his curiosity. When he asked a passer-by what was going on the man answered, 'Everyone is getting ready for a holiday we call Rosh Hashana. According to Jewish tradition, it is the day on which man was created and the whole world is judged.'
"For some reason this explanation struck a chord in the heart of the Jew. Maybe it was the exclusionary 'we' that emphasized the huge chasm that separated him from his brethren, or perhaps the mere mention of the Day of Judgment. In any event, the man's soul was inexplicably awakened, and he was flooded with memories of his childhood.
"As he wandered through the marketplace he was suddenly stricken by the horrifying realization that he had exchanged a life rich in meaning for an empty existence. At that moment he looked up, and was surprised to find himself standing outside the main synagogue. By then it was almost dark, and people were arriving to pray the weekday evening service.
"The man was seized by an overwhelming desire to join them, but he was also embarrassed by his non-Jewish appearance. In the end the urge to pray won out, and he went into the women's section and hid behind the curtain.
"As the cantor chanted the words 'And He is merciful, forgiving of sins....' a shudder passed through the man's body. How he wished to pray, but the words were long forgotten. Tears streamed down his cheeks. When the last congregant had gone home he couldn't bear it any longer and burst out crying. 'Master of the universe! I know there is no greater sinner than I, but I also know that You are merciful and full of loving-kindness. Heavenly Father, forgive me my transgressions and I will sin no more. I wish to return to You and live as a Jew. Please accept my prayer and do not turn me away!'
"The man's heartfelt repentance caused a great commotion in the celestial realms," the Baal Shem Tov explained, "and his prayer ascended to the very Throne of Glory. In fact, it was so powerful that it brought along with it many other prayers that had been waiting hundreds of years to ascend.
"When I sensed what was going on in the man's heart," the Baal Shem Tov concluded, "I decided to wait for him to pray so I could join him. Tonight's service was delayed so we could pray with a true penitent..."
For in Your great mercy we trust, and upon Your righteousness we rely, and for Your forgiveness we hope, and Your salvation we await.