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Life is full of those little truisms that we hear as children and play back as adults. Recorded in books like Life's Little Instruction Book and P.S. I Love You, sprinkled throughout The Reader's Digest and gathering dust in The Farmer's Almanac, pithy sayings and bons mots can do more than just make us smile or send us running for a pen and paper to write it down and hang it on the refrigerator.
If someone were to ask you, "What's your motto in life?" or "What are your golden rules for living?", how would you respond?
Perhaps by familiarizing ourselves with one of the treasure-stores of Jewish wisdom, Pirkei Avot - Chapters of the Sages, we can each find our own special saying that "fits like a glove."
(On the long Shabbat afternoons throughout the summer months, it is customary to continue our study of Pirkei Avot which was begun in the spring.)
Many of the teachings of our Sages in this guide to Jewish living are preceded by the words "He used to say..." One commentator points out that most of the Sages quoted therein said many, many things, some much more famous that the teaching quoted in Pirkei Avot. However, "he used to say" tips us off to the fact that what is recorded in Pirkei Avot for that particular Sage was his motto in life, the slogan he lived by and with on a daily basis.
For instance, Joshua ben Perachaya used to say, "Judge every person favorably." The great Sage Hillel said, "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures, and bringing them near to the Torah." Hillel also made the famous statement: "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"
Shammai, Hillel's colleague, said, "Receive every person with a cheerful countenance."
Shimon ben Gamliel said, "There is nothing better for one's person than silence" and "not study but practice is the essential thing."
Rabban Gamliel said, "Do not say, 'When I will have free time I will study [Torah],' for perhaps you will never have free time." He also used to say, "In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man [i.e., mentsch]." This is just a sprinkling of the many insightful saying one will find when perusing Pirkei Avot.
To acquire a motto for life, one needn't create an original or innovative saying. Your "saying" already exists for, as the wise King Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun." It is waiting to be personalized and stamped by you with your individual and distinctive character. But first, you must find it.
"Learn it and learn it, for everything is within it," is Ben Bag Bag's bon mot as recorded in Pirkei Avot. He was referring to the Torah, in all its glory.
Studying Pirkei Avot at this time of year is one of the ways we can "learn it" and find "within it" a motto for life that will truly bring life. For, as it says in Proverbs, "It is a tree of life for all who hold onto it."
In this week's Torah portion, Beha'alotecha, Aaron, the kohen gadol (high priest), is commanded to light the menora: "Speak to Aaron...When you light the lamps."
According to Jewish law, any Jew, even someone who is not a kohen, is permitted to light the menora and the kindling will be valid. Furthermore, the trimming of the menora's wicks need not necessarily be done by the high priest; any kohen is allowed to perform the task. Why then is the commandment to light the menora directed specifically at Aaron?
The fact that the Torah addresses Aaron indicates that although others are permitted to kindle the lamps, Aaron, the high priest, is the one who should do so. For lighting the menora is an activity best done only by someone with the spiritual standing of a kohen gadol.
The commandment to kindle the menora is symbolic of every Jew's obligation to involve himself with others and exert a positive influence on everyone with whom he comes in contact. All of us are commanded to ignite the Divine spark in our fellow Jews and light up our surroundings.
How are we to exert this influence? By emulating the example of Aaron, the high priest, the embodiment of the highest level of holiness. We too must not content ourselves with presenting a watered-down version of Torah and mitzvot to our fellow Jews; only the highest levels of sanctity and holiness will suffice!
What was so special about the kohen gadol? One day each year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest entered the holy of holies, the most sanctified place on earth. The chamber itself was bare except for the tablets of the law, the Ten Commandments. Indeed, this is the essence of the high priest: the Torah in its purest form.
The Ten Commandments were engraved in stone, its letters part and parcel of the tablets themselves, inseparable from the substance in which it was etched. Again, this expresses the nature of the high priest: someone to whom the Torah is his very essence.
The commandment to light the menora is both the duty and the merit of every single Jew. All of us are required to kindle our own "lamp," our G-dly soul, and ignite the spark of G-d that dwells in others. And while any Jew can and must light the "menora," his own G-dly soul and his environment, it must be done in a manner consistent with the high priest, whose whole being was synonymous with the highest levels of sanctity.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Volume 2
Grandma Rachel's Challah
by Shirley Coles
Fridays were always a very special day in the home of my grandparents. Not only did sundown mark the beginning of Shabbat, but there was much cooking and baking going on and the house smelled heavenly. My mother and I occupied a small room across the hall from the kitchen and, when I would sit doing my homework after school, I knew what we would be having for dinner that night without ever leaving my desk. Grandma Rachel was considered to be one of the best challah makers in our community
Mingled with the aroma of roasting chicken, apple stuffing, potatoes and her special carrot dish called tsimmus (which was definitely not a favorite of mine), was the unmistakable perfume of baking bread...challah. My mother and my aunts used to ask Grandma to teach them how to make the beautiful, braided and shiny loaves, but she stubbornly kept the secrets to herself. If they stepped up quietly behind her while she worked the sweet dough, I would hear her stamp her foot and say what sounded like "gay, gay, gay aveck".
One afternoon, homework done, I walked into the kitchen to inhale to my heart's delight. Grandma looked up."Vas vilst du, Tsureleh? I was all of twelve at that time, the eldest granddaughter. She and I had been friends and gin rummy buddies for a long time and she knew I was not seeking to become a baker of challah. Thus, I was allowed to stand close and watch as her busy hands kneaded and punched, shaped, and then braided the fragrant dough. Not only did she make one large bread, but there would be a smaller version which she placed on top of the first. It was a veritable work of art.
"Kally" is hard to say, Grandma," She looked at me and giggled, her round tummy shaking under the flowered apron. "Nisht kally," she said, patting my face with a floured hand, which made her laugh all the more. "It's chhhhhhalahhhh...with a chhh. Make like you have something caught in your throat and need to spit it out." It took a couple of hard coughs but I got it right. Then it was time to put the loaf into its pan and into the oven. I knew that the next time I saw it, there would be a golden brown masterpiece ready for Friday night dinner.
But one mystery remained. Grandma had removed one small piece of dough from the rest before she baked it. This little nugget was baked and then burnt...yes, burnt! After all of that, she would say a tiny prayer and throw it away. She watched me. My mouth must have been open in amazement. "Better close your mouth, Tsureleh, or a fly might go in. I think you are old enough to hear why this is done." It was a long time ago, and I may not be remembering correctly, but I believe the little piece of burnt challah dough was supposed to commemorate the destruction of the Temple.*
The Temple, she said, was the center, the heart, of Judaism, the source of blessings, and it was where the High Court or Sanhedrin sat. It was where sacrifices were offered, and the source of all prayer. It was the meeting place of all Jewish people when they gathered to celebrate the Three Festivals. "Tsureleh, when the people came together to daven (pray) and dance and be with one another in friendship and love, it made us strong. When the Temple was destroyed by fire, we lost those things. We have to remember and mourn and cry for this and then rebuild...always rebuild."
I cannot eat challah without smelling that wonderful aroma of baking bread, without seeing my Grandmother's hands creating it, without hearing her voice, without feeling her soft, floured hands on my cheek. The lesson of the burnt offering has come back to me many times in my life. Whenever dreams are shattered or faith weakened...whenever we lose heart, we have to remember first to mourn the loss of the strength we can find in each other, in our roots, and then we must find our way back to them and rebuild anew.
Challah is not merely a beautiful and delicious bread to me....it is Grandma Rachel, it's part of all she taught me about who I am and that I am a part of a rich and precious heritage. She is gone from me now, but never lost. With every one of my senses, she is immortal.
Mrs. Coles, of blessed memory, passed away last fall.. We hope to share more of her wonderful articles in future issues. Reprinted with permission of her daughter.
[Ed.'s note: The seperation of challah, one of the 613 commandments in the Torah, is in fulfillment of the verse (Num. 15:20-21), "The first portion of your kneading, you shall separate as a dough offering (challah)... In all your generations, give the first of your kneading as an elevated gift to G-d"]
A new Torah scroll was dedicated and paraded to its home at Chabad of Riverdale, New York amidst much rejoicing. The scroll was written by Rabbi Faitel Lewin who donated it in memory of his parents. "Nosson's Shul" in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, welcomed a new Torah scroll. The Torah, completed on the third yartzeit of Nosson Deitsch, will be used at the synagogue that was opened by Nosson's friends in his memory that has grown into its own small community.
Good Deed Awards
The 20th Annual Good Deed Awards Ceremony, sponsored by Chabad of Mineola, Long Island, was highlighted by the inspiring speech of Andrew Paley, a parent of two 4th grade children who survived the shooting carnage in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. The Paleys travelled from Connecticut to share their experience with the VIP star-studded gathering of leaders in government and industry, assembled to honor Long Island teenagers for their acts of goodness and kindness.
The date for this letter was not available
... In reply to your question as to what should be the Jewish attitude towards the matter of "religious dialogue" which has been advocated in certain Jewish and non-Jewish circles.
It surprises me that you should have any doubt in this matter. For, anyone with some knowledge of Jewish history knows with what reluctance Jews viewed religious debates with non-Jews. There were many good reasons for this attitude, in addition to the basic reason that Jews do not consider it their mission to convert gentiles to their faith, nor do they wish to expose themselves to the missionary zeal of other faiths.
Each and every generation has its own characteristics which have a bearing on contemporary problems. One of the peculiarities of our own day and age - a circumstance which makes such "dialogue" even more reprehensible - is the confusion and perplexity which are so widespread now, especially among the younger generation. Symptomatic of this confusion is the lowering, or even toppling, of the once well-defined boundaries in various areas of the daily life. This process, which began with the lowering, or abolishing altogether, of the Mechitzah [divider] in the synagogue, has extended itself also to the abolishing of boundaries in the areas of ethics, morality, and even common decency. In some quarters it has even led to a perversion of values, reminiscent of the lament of the prophet: "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (Isaiah 5:20).
One can hardly blame the young generation for their confusion and perplexity, considering the upheavals, revolutions and wars which have plagued our times, and the bankruptcies of the various systems and ideologies to which the young generation has pinned its hopes for a better world. Moreover, many of those who should have been the teachers and guides of the younger generation, have compounded the confusion and misdirection, for various reasons which need not be elaborated here.
One of the consequences of the said state of affairs is also the misconception prevailing in some quarters regarding the so-called "interfaith" movement. The "brotherhood of mankind" is a positive concept only so long as it is confined to such areas as commerce, philanthropy, and various civil and economic aspects of the society, wherein peoples of various faiths and minority groups must live together in harmony, mutual respect and dignity. Unfortunately, the concept of "brotherhood" has been misconstrued to require members of one faith to explain their religious belief and practices to members of another faith, and in return to receive instruction in the religion of others. Far from clarifying matters, these interfaith activities have, at best, added to the confusion, and, at worst, have been used with missionary zeal by those religions which are committed to proselytizing members of other faiths.
The alarmingly growing rate of intermarriage has a variety of underlying causes. But there can be no doubt that one of the factors is the interfaith movement, or "dialogue" (which is a euphemism for the same), wherein clergymen of one faith are invited to preach from the pulpit of another. It is easy to see what effect this has on the minds of the young, as well as of their parents, whose commitments to their own faith are in any case near the vanishing point.
This in itself offers a complete justification for the prohibition which the Torah imposes upon the study of other faiths - if, indeed, external justification were necessary. Only in exceptional cases does the Torah permit the study of other religions, and that also only to specially qualified persons. Bitter experience has made it abundantly clear how harmful any such interfaith dialogue is. Thus, even those Jews to whom the Torah is not yet, unfortunately, their Pillar of Light to illuminate their life, but who still wish to preserve their Jewish identity and, especially, the Jewish identity of their children - even they should clearly see the dangers of intermarriage and complete assimilation, G-d forbid, lurking behind these so-called "dialogues," and should reject them in no uncertain terms.
continued in next issue
Osnat was the daughter of Dina (after she was raped by Shechem). Her grandfather Jacob made her an amulet necklace engraved with G-d's name and stating that she was a descendant of Jacob. She was miraculously transported to Egypt where she was adopted by Potifar (one of Pharoah's ministers) and his wife. When Joseph was appointed viceroy of Egypt, girls and women threw their jewelry at him to attract his attention. Joseph saw the inscription on Osnat's necklace and understood that she was from the Children of Israel. Joseph married Osnat and they had two sons, Menashe and Efraim. Jacob later counted these two grandchildren as his own sons.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
Over 100 years ago, on the 20th of Sivan (this coming Wednesday), Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim was closed by special order of the Russian government. The yeshiva, which had been established to counter the new and foreign ideologies that threatened the Jewish people from within, was a favorite target of proponents of the Enlightenment. Indeed, on this occasion their slander succeeded, but only for a very short while, as we see in this excerpt from the Previous Rebbe's diary dated 21 Sivan, 5662 (1902):
"Yesterday, a messenger arrived around six o'clock with a letter stating that at twelve noon a police captain, his lieutenant, and three officers had burst into the great study hall of the yeshiva and ordered everyone to stop learning. They wrote down all the students' names, then ordered that the place be evacuated. The captain then instructed that the windows be closed from the inside, and when everyone had exited, the front door was locked. A wax seal was affixed to the official order, with strict instructions not to open it.
"The action had been initiated by the Regional Minister of the Enlightenment, who had issued an order to immediately close all yeshivot founded by Rebbe Schneersohn."
What was the reaction of the Previous Rebbe, the administrator of Tomchei Temimim? He simply made a new entrance.
"After arriving [in Lubavitch] and evaluating the situation, I instructed Yankel the builder to construct a small platform with a flight of stairs leading into the front window ...I put a metal can on top of the wax seal so that it wouldn't break. By seven in the morning the yeshiva was open as usual."
Decades have passed. Neither the Russian goverment of the Czar, nor the Communist government of the USSR, could force the students of the Lubavitcher yeshiva to stop studying Torah. Today Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivas and day schools in the former Soviet Union flourish; there are nearly 700 schools under the auspices of Chabad-Lubavitch world-wide. New entrances are made, and the doors are open "as usual."
Speak to Aaron and say to him: When you light (Beha'alotcha) the lamps (Num. 8:2)
As Rashi notes, from the word "Beha'alotcha," which means "going up," our Sages derived that there was a step in front of the menora upon which the priest stood. A question is asked: If the menora was only three cubits tall, and therefore within easy hands-reach, why was it necessary for the priest to stand on something? The answer is that Aaron wore the special headdress of the High Priest, with its golden plate on which the words "Holiness to the L-rd" was engraved. As Jewish law forbids the High Priest from raising his hands higher than the gold plate, a step was placed in front of the menora to make his service more comfortable.
And Aaron did so (Num. 8:3)
As the Midrash explains, "This comes to declare the praise of Aaron, that he did not act differently" (i.e., that he carried out everything G-d commanded him to do in an exact manner." Another person in the same situation might have lost his composure: spilled the oil, dropped the wicks, etc. Aaron, however, did not allow his intense emotion to interfere with the performance of his holy service.
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for behold I come, and I will dwell in your midst, says the L-rd (from the haftorah, Zech. 2:14)
Our Sages taught that the Divine Presence only rests upon someone who is joyful. G-d therefore advises the Jewish people to rejoice, as preparation for His presence among them.
Rabbi Nachum of Chernobyl felt the suffering of his fellow Jews deeply. Whenever he was not engaged in Torah study or prayer, he would devote himself to helping his fellow Jews in any way he could. Although he was a poor man himself, he would collect large amounts of charity to distribute to the needy. He spent much time traveling through towns and villages to discover what spiritual or physical needs he might be able to fill for his beloved brethren.
Rabbi Nachum was concerned not only with the lack of material possessions, but also the spiritual poverty which endangered his Jewish brethren's holy souls. In every place he visited, Rabbi Nachum would ask, "Do you have a shul? Do your children have a teacher? Is there a mikva here?" After he identified the needs of the community Rabbi Nachum set about raising funds.
On one of his travels, Rabbi Nachum visited a small village which had no mikva. The villagers had to travel a distance to a larger neighboring town. In the winter, when the roads were often muddy, these trips were nearly impossible. Of course, Rabbi Nachum resolved to have a mikva built for the village.
When he returned home, Rabbi Nachum approached a wealthy member of his congregation with a startling proposition: "If you will pay for a mikva in the village I have just visited, I will sell you my portion in the World to Come." The rich man was stunned by Rabbi Nachum's offer but accepted it immediately.
When his Chasidim heard about the unusual arrangement, they were shocked. How could the Rebbe have done such a thing? Seeing the questions in their eyes, Rabbi Nachum explained to them: "According to the teachings of the Torah, every Jew must love G-d with 'all you heart, with all your soul and with all your might.' It has been explained that the phrase 'with all your might' means with all your money. Like every other Jew, I recite this verse every evening and every morning, and I wonder, 'How can I, a Jew who owns nothing and has no money fulfill this command? When I profess to love G-d with all my material means, what can I possibly be saying? Am I lying to myself?'
"This is what I have concluded regarding my situation. Although I may not have money, I do have one very valuable possession, and that is my portion in the World to Come. I have found that people are willing to put a price on anything. There are even such people who will put a price on the after-life. Since that is the case, and I cannot fulfill my duty to love G-d with 'all my might' in any other way, then I am obligated to sell this property to meet my obligation."
Menachem Mendel of Kosov (1768-1825) was a figure of great stature, who founded a number of Chasidic dynasties. As is the case of many outstanding personalities, he had many followers and he also had opponents.
There was one Jew in Kosov who was bitterly antagonistic to the Rebbe. This man took great pleasure in interfering with any of the Rebbe's projects.
Thus, it was a great shock when one day the Rebbe's "emeny" showed up at his door. "I must speak with Reb Menachem Mendel," the man demanded. The attendant showed him to the Rebbe's room and closed the door behind him.
No sooner were they alone than the man opened up his heart and poured out his problem: "I have a daughter of marriageable age, and I have no money for a dowry. Rebbe, please advise me how I can solve this problem."
"How much money do you need for a proper dowry," asked the Rebbe.
The man mentioned a very large sum. At once, the Rebbe opened his drawer and withdrew all the money he had. He put on his desk what amounted to several hundred gold coins, a huge amount of money, which he had amassed over some time. The man accepted the money and left, freed from his terrible burden.
It wasn't long before people found out about the amazing act of kindness on the Rebbe's part. The Rebbe's own brother. Reb Yitzchak, was infuriated when he heard about the incident, and he decided to go and reproach his brother face to face.
"I can't believe what you have done!" he railed at his brother. "You, who watch every penny when it comes to the needs of your own family have just given away a fortune to a man who has been your greatest opponent for years! I just cannot understand you!"
Rabbi Menachem Mendel was not surprised at his brother's reaction. "My brother, you should know that you are not the first one to condemn my action. But just as I ignored my first critic, I will ignore you, too! You must believe me when I tell you that I had good reasons for what I did."
His brother was a bit taken aback that someone else had the temerity to question the rebbe, and asked, "You mean to say that someone else was here before I came, someone with the same criticism? Tell me, who was it?"
"There was someone else," the Rebbe assured him. "It was my evil inclination. He came and tried all of his cunning arguments to convince me not to give this money. It seems he was very displeased about this unbelievable opportunity which came to me out of the blue, and he used all of his wiles to dissuade me from this mitzva. However, just as I have told you, I told him that his arguments were of no use. I did what I had to do."
In this week's Haftora we read (Zech. 3:8): "For behold, I will bring My servant Tzemach (literally "branch") Why is Moshiach referred to by this name? To emphasize that even though it may seem as if the branches of the royal House of David have been cut off, the "root" still exists, and when the proper time arrives, Moshiach, a descendent of King David, will be revealed. In the same way that a root can lie dormant and concealed for many years, yet germinate and develop into an entire tree under the right conditions, so too will Moshiach arise to redeem the Jewish people when G-d determines the right time has come.