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by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger
"I am a good person at heart. I want to help others; that's what's important. Let me concentrate on doing good for my fellow man. When I'm finished with that, I'll worry about doing what's good for G-d."
This is not a new argument. On the contrary, we hear it surfacing many times throughout our history. Yet, from the earliest times, Judaism has not accepted this approach. On the upcoming holiday of Shavuot we celebrate the Giving of the Torah. On Mount Sinai, when G-d gave us the Ten Commandments, He divided them up into two groups: The first four commandments focus on our relationship with G-d: to believe in Him, not to worship idols, not to take His name in vain, to keep the Shabbat. The remaining six speak about our relations with our fellow man: honoring your father and mother, not killing, not stealing, and not committing adultery, not bearing false testimony, and not to covet.
The two groups are given together and the commandments between man and G-d come first. Why? Because on our own, we can't be sure we will always be good people. We need an objective standard governing our conduct. A person can have the best intentions and yet when it comes to his actual conduct, he may harm others severely.
How could that possibly happen? Because "love covers all blemishes," and self-love is the most powerful form of love there is. Because of a person's preoccupation with himself, what he likes, and what he thinks is right, he may lose sight of what is happening to another person. Even though he is harming another person, he might think that he is doing good.
A little bit more than a generation ago, this thesis might have been contested on the battlegrounds of logic. But today, we are all witness to what happens when the need for a G-dly standard is ignored. In the early 1900s, the paragon of civilization, the master of science, culture, philosophy and ethics, was Germany, and as a nation she pointed to the success of man's efforts to better himself.
And yet this nation perpetrated the most hideous crimes and atrocities in history - and all in the name of humanity's advancement. Moreover, it was not only the rabble in the street that supported these deeds. By and large, the champions of science and culture did not stand up against the Nazi regime. Indeed, the overwhelming majority collaborated with it.
Left to his own devices, man may not perceive the motivation for his actions, or their consequences. That's why the Torah gives us objective standards of justice and good. A person should uphold them, not because he thinks they're valuable or beneficial, but because they are G-d's law, immutable and unchangeable.
This perspective also protects us from the other extreme: individuals who claim to be religious, but have no conception of dealing fairly with their fellow man. When ethics are understood as G-d's law, such people will not be able to continue their double standard. They can't hide behind the cloak of holiness while they act dishonestly. For, on the contrary, the Torah leads us not only to spiritual development and connection to G-d, but also to growth as people and advanced interpersonal relationships.
From Keeping in Touch, published by Sichos in English.
This Shabbat we begin reading from the Book of Numbers, whose Hebrew name, Bamidbar, means "in the desert." There are many places in the world that, from a Jewish perspective, are "deserts." Lacking even the most basic necessities of a Jewish community, the surrounding atmosphere is not one of Torah and sanctity. From a physical standpoint it might be a luxurious garden spot, but in the spiritual sense it is a "desolate wasteland."
A Jew finding himself in such a location might think that it is impossible to lead an authentic Jewish life under these conditions. He might even begin to compromise his Judaism, at first relinquishing those elements he doesn't consider "essential," yet gradually giving up things that really are. "Here it is different," he may say to himself. "A Jew cannot be expected to behave the same as if he lived in a traditional, Jewish neighborhood."
However, when we consider this week's Torah portion, the fallacy of such thinking becomes apparent. The Torah relates how the task of carrying the numerous components and vessels of the Sanctuary was divided among the Levite families. It describes how the journeys were conducted and how the Sanctuary was erected in every location the Jewish people encamped. Indeed, it is quite astounding when we remember that all this occurred in a barren wilderness, devoid of human habitation.
How was this possible in a place without life, let alone any trace of holiness or Judaism? And yet, the very first thing the Jews did upon arriving in an encampment was to erect the Sanctuary, immediately transforming it into a holy place where they could serve G-d!
The Torah thus teaches that G-d has not limited the power of holiness to operate only under certain specific conditions. Wherever a Jew goes, be it a "desolate wasteland" in the physical or spiritual sense, he has the ability to establish a "sanctuary" to G-d, to sanctify that place and spread the light of Torah and mitzvot (commandments).
All that is necessary is to allow the inner light of the G-dly soul to illuminate, to light up the correct path to follow. The Jew will then see how all obstacles and difficulties will disappear, until he too will reach the "Holy Land."
This concept, which applies to all Jews, is especially relevant to Jewish women. In the same way that the Jewish women were the first to contribute to the physical Sanctuary, so too do they play a unique role in erecting a spiritual sanctuary to G-d. As the "akeret habayit," the core and mainstay of the home, the Jewish woman has the unique ability to establish a Jewish tone in the home, and the strength to protect her family from negative influences.
Adapted from Volume 2 of Likutei Sichot
by Tamar Wisemon
The night is calm, the weather warm despite the late hour. A faint breeze filters through the sheltered courtyard, brushing our hands and faces, as if reminding us, "Now is not the time to sleep, but time to learn." White bulbous lamps break the darkness, their light reflecting off the open books on our laps, etching ripples in the Jerusalem-stone wall that props us up. Melodious crickets accompany the low murmur of eighty young women in forty pairs studying a single text.
Our teachers coax sleepy minds to remain open with startling insights, tempting us with inspiring Torah tidbits and treasures.
The night preceding the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Children of Israel slept. G-d Himself had to wake them up the next morning. To make amends for this lackadaisical insensitivity to the awesome gift we were about to receive, we stay awake on Shavuos night, studying Torah until dawn.
In Jewish communities throughout the world, men (and increasingly, women) gather after the evening meal for lectures by noted speakers, or study privately at home or in shul. The morning prayers are recited at daybreak, after which the weary participants return home to eat a slice of festive cheesecake and fall into bed.
But Shavuot in Jerusalem is special. When we regained the Western Wall a few days before Shavuot in the '67 Six-Day War, a tradition developed.
In the stillness of the night, Jews from all around Jerusalem walk to commemorate the festival at our holiest site. It is now four in the morning, and the star-speckled dark blue sky has barely begun to pale. The wind picks up, as it does in the transition from night to morning. I shiver slightly and button my sweater, partly from the chill and partly preparing for the journey ahead. It is still dark as we trickle forth through Bayit Vegan's silent streets. Making our way down a hill, we catch sight of others headed in the same direction, and flow into the same rhythm.
High spirited bubbling teenagers emerge from schools and youth centers, forming whirling eddies as they converge in groups and then drift apart. From apartments doorways appear couples pushing babies in strollers. We spy an occasional elder, moving staunchly forward with a cane. No longer just eighty students, we are now part of a people stream making its way through the night.
At each junction our numbers swell. The traffic lights switch dumbly between green and red, but with no cars on the road, we move on ahead. The whirring of wheels is supplanted by the soft steps of feet. Parked vehicles and locked stores have dark and vacant windows, but the street is alive. At one intersection, near Jerusalem's Great Synagogue and the Sheraton Plaza Hotel, I find myself poised on the edge of a wide road that marks the descent to the Old City. A few decades ago, I would have had to climb the ugly, square tower block beside me to catch a glimpse of the Kotel (Western Wall), then under Jordanian control. But looking down the hill today, wave upon wave of bobbing heads cascading into the valley and up again towards the walls of Jerusalem. The full width of the road is filled with walkers, yet everyone seems to have enough space to move at his or her own pace within the constant motion.
Jaffa Gate rises from the ancient soil, allowing us to pass through. Just within the walls stands the Tower of David, a timely reminder that Shavuos is also King David's yartzeit (although the Citadel itself dates from a later period). The crowd surges down and around the Arab shuk's shuttered alleys and shallow steps, coming to a halt among a crush of people waiting to pass through a sentry post. I am channeled through a tunnel-like passageway like a leaf floating in a current, my individuality submerged in the flood of humanity around me, as in a whirlpool.
Suddenly we burst out into the floodlit plaza. The Kotel towers above, a tangible structure anchoring this surreal heavenly scene.
The Kotel plaza breathes and reverberates with the motions of hundreds of people dressed in their finery, men and women watching with weary smiles as dawn breaks over their heads. The night has given way to a pink marbled horizon streaked with gold, and the Kotel is bathed in the light of a new day. Giddy from lack of sleep, I open my prayerbook with a feeling of fulfillment.
My Shavuot morning journey is unlike any other visit to the Kotel. There are no guided tours of foreigners, clicking cameras and posing for group shots. No buses and taxis jostling at the entrance. Just silent waves of praying figures, each of whom has walked for up to two hours to be here. Together we stand before the Kotel, as our forefathers stood centuries before, awaiting the day when the Temple will be rebuilt and the sea of people who walk through the night to reach her will become an ocean.
Tamar Wisemon is co-founder of Sviva Israel and currently its director of media and technology. This article is in the merit of a complete recovery of three-year-old Adelle Chaya bat Adva Bitton, who is still unconscious after being critically injured in a terrorist rock ambush in March.
Attendants at a local unity event in Salem, Massachusettes the week after the Boston Marathon bombing, were the first to pledge commitments to acts of goodness, and getting others to do the same. The good deeds were posted on a huge board at the actual event. Since then, www.Goodness4Boston.com, the idea of Rabbi Shmaya Friedman - associate rabbi and youth director at Chabad of the Boston's North Shore - has found willling participants from around the world who want to turn their feelings of helplessness into empowerman.
Rabbi Avrohom and Shterna Simmonds are moving to Saskatchewan, Canada, where they will establish Chabad of Regina. They have already made contact with over 200 Jewish families through holiday and pre-holiday programs over the past year.
2 Sivan, 5711
With the approach of Shavuot, the festival of our Receiving the Torah, I want to send you a brief message, although I am greatly overburdened with work. This ought to indicate to you how highly I value the work of your group for advancement in both the knowledge of Torah and the practice of its precepts.
Being G-d given, the Torah has infinite aspects. The purpose of this message is to point out to you one of the most important aspects of the Torah.
To many the Torah may be a means to gain reward and avoid punishment. Others consider the Torah a guide to good living. I will give you my view after a brief introduction.
The world is a creation by G-d. As such, it can have no common denominator with its Creator. This cannot be amplified here, for lack of space, but it should be sufficiently clear anyway.
This world consists of a variety of creatures, which are generally classified into "Four Kingdoms": mineral, vegetation, animal and mankind.
Taking the highest individual of the highest group of the four mentioned above, i.e. the most intelligent of all men, there can be nothing in common between him, a created and limited being, and G-d, the Infinite, the Creator. No analogy can even be found in the relative difference between the lowest of the lowest "Kingdom" and the highest of the highest, for both are created things.
However, in His infinite goodness, G-d gave us a possibility of approach and communion with Him. G-d showed us the way how a finite, created being can reach beyond his inherent limitations, and commune with G-d the Infinite.
Obviously, only the Creator Himself knows the way and means that lead to Him, and the Creator Himself knows the capacity of His creatures in using such ways and means.
Herein lies one of the most important aspects of the Torah and mitzvot to us. They provide the ways and means whereby we may reach a plane above and beyond our status as created things. Clearly, this plane is incomparably above the highest perfection which a man can attain within his own created (hence, limited) sphere.
From this point of view, it will no longer appear strange that the Torah and mitzvot find expression in such simple, material and physical aspects as the dietary laws, and the like.
For our intellect is also created, and therefore limited with the boundaries of creation, beyond which it has no access. Consequently it cannot know the ways and means that lead beyond those bounds.
The Torah, on the other hand, is the bond that unites the created with the Creator, as it is written, "and you that cleave to G-d, your G-d, are all living this day."
To the Creator, all created things, the most corporeal, as well as the most spiritual, are equally removed. Hence, the question, "What relationship can a material object have with G-d?" has no more validity than if it referred to the most spiritual thing in its relationship to G-d.
But the Creator gave us a possibility to rise, not only within our created bounds, but beyond, toward the Infinite, and He desired that this possibility be open to the widest strata of humanity. Consequently, he had conditioned this possibility upon ways and means which are accessible to all, namely the Torah and mitzvot.
From this point of view it is also clear that no sacrifice can be too great in adhering to the Torah and mitzvot, for all sacrifices are within the limits of creation, whereas the Torah and mitzvot offer an opportunity to rise beyond such limits, as mentioned above.
It is also clear that no person has the right to renounce this Divine opportunity by professing indifference toward reward and punishment. Such views are but the product of a limited intellect which has no right to jeopardize the very essence of the soul, for the latter, being a "spark of the Divine," is above the intellect and any arguments it can produce, to deter him from the utmost perfection which he is able to attain.
I wish each and every one of you and your respective families an enjoyable and inspiring Yom Tov with lasting effects throughout the year.
Rabbi israel Baal Shem Tov (also known by the acronym Besht) was born 18 Elul, 1688. At age 5 he lost his father who enjoined him before passing: "Fear no one and nothing, but G-d alone! Love every Jew whoeheartedly!" On the Besht's 26th birthday, the prophet Achiya Hashiloni began teaching him the secrets of the Torah. For these 10 years he continued living as a "tzadik nistar" (hidden righteous person) after which he was commanded to reveal himself and his teachings to the Jewish people. These teachings became known as Chasidism. On the first day of Shavuot in 1760 he passed on.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
There is a Midrash which tells of how the Jewish people designated their children as the guarantors of the Torah. It is perhaps in this vein that the Rebbe stresses each year that all Jewish children should be present in the synagogue on Shavuot to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments.
Shavuot this year will take place on the evening of May 14 through the evening of May 16. The Ten Commandments will be read on the first day of Shavuot in synagogues around the world on Wednesday, May 15.
Why do we need to bring the children? So that they can become familiar with the "terms" of the guarantee. The children's presence in shul actually confirms our guarantee.
In Hebrew, the word for guarantor is "orev." Orev can also mean pleasant or sweet. What sweeter guarantors can we have than our children, who can help influence our own deeds to be pleasing?
One of many beautiful concepts in Judaism is that the Jewish soul can comprehend long before the mind does. With this in mind, we see how imperative it is to bring even babies to shul; though their minds might not yet comprehend where they are, their souls certainly do.
This Shavuot, on Wednesday, May 15, let us all bring our guarantors to shul to hear the reading of the Torah.
A very happy Shavuot.
G-d spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai... (Num. 1:1)
G-d purposely chose a desert in which to give the Torah. He spoke to the Jews in a place where everyone enjoyed free access, to show us that every Jew has an equal obligation and share in the Torah.
(Bamidbar Rabba and Michilta B'Shalach)
Count the heads of the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses... (Num. 1:2)
In order to know the number of people in each tribe, first they were counted according to their families and then each member of the family was counted. This shows us the importance of the family. The existence of the Jewish people is based on and dependant on the actions of each family.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Count (literally, "Raise") the heads of the congregation... (Num. 1:2)
When Moses was commanded to arrange a census of the Jewish people, the word used was "se-oo" more literally meaning "raise." This indicates that the counting was actually an elevation for the Jews. The census brought about the resting of the Divine presence on the Jewish nation because it indicated that each individual could affect the destiny of the entire people. Similarly, Maimonides writes: "Each person should consider the entire world as balanced between good and evil deeds. His one action could sway the world to the side of good, bringing salvation to the whole world."
Those who pitch [their tents] on the east are the standard of the camp of Judah...the tribe of Issachar...and the tribe of Zevulun...(Num. 2:3-7)
The tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zevulun camped near Moses and Aaron. For this reason, they all became great scholars. This shows us the importance of choosing righteous neighbors.
The Haftorah on the second day of Shavuot is from Habakuk. The following story is about the prophet Habakuk.
The prophet Habakuk lived in the Land of Israel. One evening when he and his fellow-workers had finished their work in the fields and were eating their supper, a spirit of prophecy came upon Habakuk. He saw an angel before him who told him that G-d desired that Habakuk bring a portion of his meal to the Prophet Daniel, who was in a lions' den in Babylon.
The angel took him and flew off with him, landing him a few moments later right in the very midst of the lions' den. There sat Daniel with the lions sprawling at his feet, like loyal watchdogs guarding a beloved master!
The two prophets settled down to their evening meal, happy in their chance of having a scholarly discussion. The lions did not disturb them despite their own hunger, but instead walked about the den circling Daniel and Habakuk as they ate, talked and blessed G-d for his mercies and miracles. Daniel told Habakuk how he came to be in the lions' den:
"When King Darius of Media had appointed me as his personal counselor," began Daniel, "all his courtiers became inflamed with jealousy. It did not interest them that I had already acted as counsellor to the previous Babylonian king, and that my appointment, therefore, was not a matter of favoritism, but because of my suitability. All they could feel was resentment that I was chosen and not they. So, they decided to get rid of me.
"But try as they would, they could find no crime to charge me with, and so they conspired to convince the king to enact some new law which would make me suspect.
"King Darius had until then always shown the greatest respect to our Jewish faith, and this, too, annoyed his courtiers very much. The king, who himself told me all this later, said he had not suspected a thing when his courtiers came to him with an air of extreme loyalty and asked him to give his seal to an important new law. The new edict read: 'Every citizen of the land should publicly acknowledge the king as the highest authority, and that only to him must every kind of request be made or prayer be said.'"
"I can see their plot against you now," said Habakuk. "Yes," continued Daniel, "after the king had passed this last law his courtiers watched every move I made! Naturally I was not going to allow any man made law to interfere with my prayers three times a day. These courtiers pounced upon me one day and dragged me before the king, accusing me of praying to someone other than to the king. They immediately demanded the maximum penalty for this offense - that I be thrown alive into the lions' den. This harsh punishment would serve as an example to anyone who would dare to break the new law in the future.
"King Darius, who was really not evil, but had been misled and drawn into this new law without giving it proper thought and consideration, was horrified when he saw the results of his thoughtlessness. He regarded me as a friend and honored advisor, and now he was being expected to have me mercilessly thrown to hungry lions. But, having put his royal seal to the decree, he had no choice but to carry out the law.
"Yet, I did not lose hope," concluded Daniel, his eyes shining with great faith in G-d. "I prayed to G-d that he show these heathens that He and He alone was, is, and ever will be the One and Only Master of the Universe which He created and controls. I prayed that He spare my life, and not allow the hungry lions to touch me, so that all people would see the miracle and acknowledge G-d's greatness above all mankind.
"Imagine, therefore, the wonder of my enemies when I was thrown into this deep pit from which there is no escape, and instead of the famished beasts pouncing upon me and tearing me to pieces, the lions came gently fawning upon me and kneeling down before me in submission. Then they settled around me in a circle as if to protect me. This wondrous miracle left no possible doubt but that G-d chose to save me from hurt, that He is the Master, and that only what He wills takes place!"
When Daniel finished his story, he and Habakuk bade each other farewell, and the angel took Habakuk and transported him back to his home in the Land of Israel, in the same manner as he had carried him to Daniel.
Later, Habakuk heard, as did the whole world, that King Darius had Daniel removed from the den. At the same time, the King ordered that Daniel's enemies be thrown into the lions' den instead. This time, however, the lions behaved differently. As soon as the courtiers came hurtling down into the lions' den, the beasts pounced upon them and tore them apart, giving a fitting end to such cruel tyrants who wanted to give this horrible punishment to the innocent, G-d-fearing and law-abiding Daniel.
From The Complete Story of Shavuot by Nisan Mindel, published by Kehot Publications
The giving of the Torah represents a turning point in the world's spiritual history: G-d revealed Himself to man and gave him a code of law. Since that law is G-dly, it - like G-d - does not change. Since the Torah is G-d's truth, there is nothing that can be done to improve on it. Nevertheless, the Torah is infinite and unbounded as is G-d. Although the Torah will not be changed, in the era of the Redemption, new dimensions of Torah will be revealed that will eclipse the Torah teachings of the present age. For at present only a limited glimmer of the Torah's essence is revealed, and in the era of the Redemption, we will appreciate the Torah as it truly is.
(From Keeping in Touch by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger)