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World Book Day is still three months away. But for Jews, who have long been known as the "People of the Book," it's always the right time to consider the importance of reading and owning books.
A fundamental mystical Jewish teaching is that in every thing, even in inanimate material objects, such as stones, earth, water and yes, books, there is a "soul," or a vital spiritual core.
Of course, there are gradations in this spiritual soul. There is, to begin with, a plain material object that simply by the fact of being a created thing, contains a "spark" of the Divine Creative Force that keeps it in existence. On a higher level, there is a material object that has served a good purpose. Higher still is an object that is used in the performance of a mitzva.
Chasidic philosophy explains that when an ordinary material thing is used for a good purpose, especially in the performance of a mitzva, it undergoes a "refine-ment" and "spiritualization," to the extent of becoming literally a holy object, such as a mezuza scroll made from parchment (animal hide).
Now, imagine Jewish books, inspiring and uplifting books; books written by Jews whose whole lives were or are dedicated to Jewish teachings and to the Jewish people. Imagine books that are studied with heart and soul by hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, enriching and illuminating the way they lead their lives. Certainly, these books' "material" and "inanimate" aspects are permeated with light and life. And surely, when we have such Jewish books in our homes their very presence makes an impact.
Jewish books belong in Jewish homes. When they're sitting in warehouses waiting to be shipped out or lining the shelves of bookstores, Judaica stores or synagogue gift shops, they are in "exile" from their natural environment, from their "home." However well treated, they are imprisoned, so to speak. Just as a person who is in captivity can never be fully happy, even if well provided for with material and even spiritual needs, so too can Jewish books never be happy until they are home.
When a Jewish home has Jewish books - on the bookshelves in the den and in the kids' rooms, next to the manuals in the computer room, on the coffee table or the sofa table or the end table - then that Jewish home is full of holiness and light. Jewish books set a tone and create an atmosphere in the home that affects its inhabitants even when they are far from home. That Jewish home is a link in a chain all the way back to the first Jewish home of our ancestors Abraham and Sara.
Jewish books are always appropriate gifts for young and old alike. (Don't be overly cautious about giving Jewish books even to toddlers for fear of what they might do to the books. A Midrash describes small children playing with holy texts and the delights this brings Above!) Be it a birthday, anniversary, or just to say "thanks," a Jewish book is a gift that comes from the heart and nourishes the soul.
We read in this week's Torah portion, Vayigash, that when Pharaoh learned that Joseph's brothers had come to Egypt he instructed Joseph to give them grain as a gift for their father Jacob. But from a later verse, "And to his father he sent like this: ten donkeys laden with the best things of Egypt," we see that Joseph added to these gifts. Joseph did not ask Pharaoh's permission, but acted on his own initiative. The opportunity to do the mitzva of honoring his father had arisen, and he hastened to perform it in the most beautiful manner possible. Not only would Jacob receive a gift of simple grain, but "the best things of Egypt."
The lesson is clear: Whenever the opportunity to perform a mitzva comes our way we must do so as soon as possible, to the best of our ability and in the finest manner we can.
As Rashi explains, Joseph's gift of "the best things of Egypt" consisted of "aged wine" and "Egyptian pol," a variety of broad bean. These beans were the crowning agricultural product of Egypt. Joseph sent his father the very best that Egypt had to offer.
Joseph knew that when his brothers returned and told their father that "Joseph is still alive" the news would cause him great pain over the fact that they had sold him in the first place. Joseph wanted to spare his father suffering and ease his anguish as much as possible. This desire was expressed in his choice of pol:
Pol is a legume; each bean is separate from the others. At the same time it was considered to be a very special type of food. Joseph's gift sent the message to Jacob that sometimes great benefit is derived precisely through separation. In truth, Joseph's separation from his family yielded much good, just as pol was regarded as a great delicacy in the ancient world.
Joseph also sent his father a quantity of aged wine. Wine is a substance that brings happiness and pleasure. Joseph and his brothers had abstained from wine throughout the 22 years of their separation as an expression of grief, as did Jacob. The wine was intended to bring Jacob pleasure.
However, regular wine would not do; Joseph sent him wine that was aged and thus of better quality. Joseph thereby alluded to the fact that although he had been in Egypt for an extended period of time, he had never lost faith that they would one day be reunited. For 22 years no wine had passed his lips, yet he had saved and preserved it in anticipation of his eventual reunion with his father.
From this we learn that whenever a Jew finds himself in "Egypt," beset by troubles and adversity, he must never despair. Even in the most difficult of circumstances he must strengthen his faith in G-d in the belief and hope that G-d will help him overcome his predicament.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Volume 10
by Boruch Wahrhaftig
Working in Brooklyn with suppliers in China taught me some basics of cross-cultural trade, but did not prepare me for life in China. Alternating every couple of weeks between New York and Shanghai had unanticipated side effects.
Language was a manageable concern. I got by on translators, hand signals, and a few important words in Chinese. Over time, with more exposure to Chinese ways, I began to feel more secure and had time to look around more. The Chinese have an ancient philosophy emphasizing family, duty, and honor. The Chinese word for "people" (ren) is used to describe feelings of empathy, altruism, and striving for excellence. In Yiddish - being a mensch.
A succession of takeovers from the Mongols to the communists did not change some basics of Chinese society. The new leaders continued the old ways, adopting new slogans. Throughout, China went on honoring its elders, revering its ancestors, and celebrating the ancient holidays. To the lands where they traveled, the Jews imported their own traditions - everything from Mosaic Law to the bagel with shmear.
An orthodox Jewish man arriving in the People's Republic, I was more than a large white foreigner. I was an inscrutable mystery. China hosts many American and European visitors, but a Caucasian with a yarmulke and beard was an unfamiliar sight that most resembled a Muslim from China's western provinces. It did not help that removing my glasses for my passport photo gave me a wild-eyed zealous look that made border officials nervous.
Within minutes of reaching China, someone touched my chin and said, "Nice beard." Apparently, personal space is measured differently in China. People asked, "Where from?" but my replies only generated puzzled expressions. By the second visit, I learned to answer, "I am American, from New York," in Mandarin. They shook their heads in disbelief and repeated their question in Chinese. In a cap, I reminded people of Fidel Castro, and they cheered Cuba in my honor. Nobody had any idea where I was coming from.
Eventually, I mastered the phrase "wo zai you tai ren", which means "I am Jewish." In China, it was received as if I had said, "I am a famous billionaire," or "I am president of the United States." I went from interesting to amazing in zero seconds. People understood who I am, and they had a near-universal encouraging reaction. Pointing to their head, they would smile enthusiastically and say "hen hao," (very good) with much enthusiasm. This puzzled me.
The Chinese translation of Jewish is 'you tai ren' (pronounced yo tie ren) This refers to the people of biblical Israel, but the literal translation is close to 'people of the truly high place', or 'people of the genuinely exalted nation'. This glowing term made being Jewish in China was an immediate popularity boost. Factories were eager to do business with a member of such a successful heritage. Who was I to argue?
In general, Jews are highly regarded in China, with a reputation for being intelligent and good in business. Early arrivals to Shanghai created some business and civic landmarks that are active today, such as the Sassoon housing development and the famed Peace Hotel. They were Baalei tzedaka, philanthropists, who supported many causes, such as community health care. Shanghai residents are proud of having provided as a safe haven for Jews during the Second World War. There may be no place where an orthodox Jew is more welcome by non-Jewish locals than Shanghai.
During business meetings, the hosts invariably expected to dine before starting business. My colleagues explained that I would not be able to join their meal because Jews have dietary restrictions. People were distressed when I declined an array of delicacies that stared back at me, but never ridiculed my convictions or attempted to persuade me. They had no problem with me needing to fulfill spiritual or religious obligations.
Returning to the USA, I experienced a reverse culture shock. After weeks of relatively trim Chinese, the crowd at the airport appeared noticeably overweight. In the states, almost nobody carried their own bag into the store to avoid the plastic bag fee. At coffee shops, people used credit cards to pay for complex drinks, not cash for juice or water. The waiter filled my cup with tepid coffee before serving my elderly father-in-law. I missed attentive service, hot drinks, and deference to age.
In China, I rediscovered the joy of living small and savoring the moment. The ever-present tea among people working long hours reminded me of my grandfather sitting in the room behind his grocery store, sipping a glass of tea as he perused the Yiddish newspaper. He worked very hard, but made time for morning Minyan, afternoon tea, and evenings and Shabbat with the family.
Visiting China made me notice how quality of life and preservation of older ways go together. The latest technology and popular fads are present, but not permitted to displace the tried and true balance of family, community, and heritage. Jews in America and elsewhere with strong connections to our own history and ways can enjoy the fulfillment of balanced spiritual and physical life in the modern world. We are Jews, living our way of life in every time and place.
Boruch Wahrhaftig's writings on topics of culture, science, and personal well-being is published in the USA and globally. He is the editor at emesdig.com
I Love You!
Join these two adorable, wide-eyed children as they relish every moment of their favorite day of the week! The playful rhymes by author Naomi Lieberman take the reader from Shabbos candles, to Kiddush, from kissing the Torah to a Shabbos party. Your own little ones will soon be chanting along with the lively refrain, "Shabbos, Shabbos, I Love You!"The excitement of each Shabbos activity shines through Avram Zmora's charming illustrations. The love that this little family has for Shabbos, and for each other, is apparent on every page. At the very end, after Havdalah, there's only one thing to do: look forward to the next Shabbos! Hachai Publishing.
Freely translated letter
Teves 14th, 5730 (1969)
I received, in a timely fashion, your letter, though circumstances have delayed my answer - in which you write of the passing of your mother, a"h (may you, all the children and your father be designated for good, long life), and your thoughts and feelings in connection to this.
The truth is that "none amongst us knows anything at all" concerning the ways of G-d, Who created man, directs him, and observes him with a most specific Providence. But certainly, certainly, He is the very essence of good, and, as the expression goes, "it is in the nature of the good to do good." If, at times, what G-d does is not at all understood by the human mind - little wonder:
What significance does a limited, measured, finite creature have in relation to the infinite and endless, and especially in relation to the Absolutely Infinite and Endless?
Nevertheless, G-d chose to reveal a fraction of His wisdom to man, flesh and blood. This He did with His holy Torah, called "The Torah of Light" and "The Torah of Life" - that is to say, it illuminates man's path in life in such a manner that even his limited faculties may comprehend its light. Thus, also in the case of the above-mentioned occurrence, one can find an understanding - at least a partial one - in accordance with what is explained in our (written and oral) Torah.
Actually, this understanding is to be found in two rulings of Torah Law which address our actual conduct in these circumstances. At first glance, they seems to stand in contradiction one to the other, though they appear in the same section of the Code of Jewish Law. The section (Yoreh Deah 394) begins: One must not mourn excessively (beyond what our Sages have instructed us), one who does so in extreme..." Yet, at the section's end it is brought out that "one who does not mourn as our Sages have guided us, is a callous and cruel person." Now, if in such a case it is natural to mourn, what is so terrible about one who mourns more? Why the harsh rebuke mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch? And if to mourn excessively is so terrible, why is it cruel to mourn less?
The explanation lies in the concluding words of the Code of Jewish Law (quoted from the Rambam): "One should fear and worry, search one's deeds and repent."
It is self understood that the soul is eternal. Obviously, an illness of the flesh or blood cannot terminate or diminish the life of the soul; it can only damage the flesh and blood themselves and the bond between them and the soul. That is to say, it can bring about the cessation of this bond - death, G-d forbid - and with the severing of what binds the soul to the flesh, the soul ascends and frees herself of the shackles of the body, of its limitations and restrictions. Through the good deeds she has performed during the period she was upon earth and within the body, she is elevated to a higher, much higher, level than her status prior to her descent into the body. As our Sages expressed it: The descent of the soul is a descent for the sake of an ascent, an ascent above and beyond her prior state.
From this it is understood, that anyone close to this soul, anyone to whom she was dear, must appreciate that the soul has ascended, even higher than the level she was at previously; it is only that in our lives, in our world, it is a loss. And just as the closer one is to the soul, all the more precious to that person is the soul's elevation - so is it with the second aspect - the intensity of the pain. For they, all the more so, feel the loss of her departure from the body and from life in this world.
Also, it is a loss in the sense that - it seems - the soul could have ascended even higher by remaining in this world, as our sages taught in the Mishnah: "One moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is preferable to the entire World to Come."
Thus, since the occurrence contains these two conflicting facets - on the one hand, the freeing of the soul from the body's shackles, and her ascent to a higher world, the world of truth; on the other; the above-mentioned loss - the result is the two legal rulings. The "Torah of Truth" mandates that one mourn - for the time-period set by our sages. At the same time, it is forbidden to mourn excessively (that is, beyond the set mourning period, and also as regards to the intensity of the mourning within these days).
continued in next issue
Rabbi Shlomo ben Yechiel Luria (Maharshal) was a descendant of the foremost commentator Rashi. He was born in Brisk in 1510 and died in Lublin in 1573. He was considered one of the greatest decisors of Jewish law in the Ashkenazic world during his life. He authored the books Yam Shel Shlomo, Chochmat Shlomo and Chidushei Maharshal. An abridged version of Chochmat Shlomo appears in nearly all editions of the Talmud today. He was the rabbi of Brisk and head of the famed Lublin Yeshiva which attracted students from throughout Europe. His yartzeit is 12 Kislev.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Sunday is the Fifth ("Hei") of Tevet, the day on which a significant ideological victory was declared in court. The extensive library of Agudat Chasidei Chabad, established in Russia by the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn, and brought to the United States with great self-sacrifice, was declared the communal property of the Chabad movement, rather than a divisible, personal possession. In spiritual terms it was a triumph for Chasidut, and a sign from Above to disseminate its wellsprings outward even further, as preparation for Moshiach.
As the Rebbe explained at the time, the connection to holy Jewish books was not incidental, but demonstrated that an increase in Torah study (done in a way that leads to the actual performance of mitzvot) will serve to hasten Moshiach's arrival. In 1974 the Rebbe established the Jewish Holy Book Campaign, urging every Jew to have a Chumash (Five Books of Moses), Psalms, Tanya, Siddur (prayer book) and Passover Haggada in the home, at the very minimum. The Rebbe also encouraged keeping a Siddur, Psalms, Tanya and charity box in the car for safe travel, and urged that children have their own holy books with their names on them in their rooms.
Jewish holy books introduce an atmosphere of sanctity into the home. In addition, as the Rebbe explained on Hei Tevet, "When a new holy text is obtained, this enhances all the holy texts one had previously...the knowledge that comes from a new text amplifies the knowledge one previously received from other texts, and indeed, causes a further increase when those texts are studied again."
As the Rebbe concluded, "May we merit to proceed 'with our youth and with our elders...with our sons and with our daughters'...together with all the holy texts, those that have been returned and those that have not yet been returned...on the 'clouds of heaven,' to our Holy Land, to Jerusalem, and to the Holy Temple."
Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt... I will go down with you... and I will bring you up again (Gen. 46:3-4)
Jacob was not sent into exile alone; G-d descended with him and guarded him there. Our Patriarch Jacob possessed an all-comprehensive soul which compounded the souls of all Jews. "Jacob" thus stands for every single Jew, and his descent into Egypt alludes to Israel's descent into galut (exile), including the present one. Thus it follows that even now we are not alone, and that G-d will mercifully hasten the Final Redemption with Moshiach, as it states, "I will also bring you up again."
He sent Judah before him to Joseph, to direct him to Goshen (Gen. 46:28)
Our Sages explain that Judah was dispatched to Egypt before everyone else "in order to establish a house of learning...that the tribes be able to study Torah (Hogim baTorah)." Jacob understood that their sojourn in as corrupt a place as Egypt would pose a threat to the spirituality of the Jewish people, and thus prepared the antidote before their arrival. The word "hogim" implies a study so deep and comprehensive that the Torah actually becomes part of the person. Moshiach is therefore described as a "hogeh baTorah," as the power to redeem the Jewish people from exile can only come from one whose entire existence is absolutely unified with the Torah itself.
(Sichot Kodesh 5750)
Our Patriarch Joseph
Our Sages comment that the entire Jewish people is often referred to as "Joseph" in the merit of his having provided sustenance for them during the years of famine. "Providing sustenance," however, also has a spiritual connotation, and refers to Joseph's willingness to help his brothers even after he was wronged by them. This quality of doing good rather than taking revenge is the inheritance of all Jews, and is derived from our Patriarch Jacob.
(Likutei Sichot Vol. 5)
And Joseph said to his brothers, Is my father still alive? (Gen. 45:3)
When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, they doubted his identity. He therefore repeatedly asked about his father and not his mother (who had died before he came to Egypt), as if to tell them that only their true brother would be privy to this information.
The saintly Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk once recovered from a life-threatening illness. When his recovery was complete, his closest disciples mustered their courage to ask him what he had seen while hovering between life and death.
The Rebbe said that he would tell one thing he learned:
As I walked in the Garden of Eden, I saw among the most honored souls a familiar face. He looked very much like Mottel the Bookbinder. To be sure, Mottel was a G-dfearing Jew, an honest, hard-working bookbinder, but he was otherwise an undistinguished ordinary Jew, not even much of a Torah scholar.
"Is it truly you, Reb Mottel?" I asked the soul as I approached him.
"Yes, it is I," called out Reb Mottel happily.
"But how did you get to this exalted place?" I asked Reb Mottel quite innocently.
"When I was brought before the Heavenly Court, I was asked the usual questions. I had to admit that, regrettably, I had studied very little Torah. I didn't have much of a head for it. Besides, we were very poor, so I had to find a way of earning money to help my parents support the family. I was apprenticed, at an early age, to a bookbinder, I explained to the Court...
"They began the weighing of my mitzvot and sins. On the right side of the scale, angels began putting all my good deeds. Then they pushed the scale down to make it weightier, saying this was for the joy and sincerity with which I performed the mitzvot.
"But then other angels came forward and began to load my sins and misdeeds on the left scale. I watched with horror as my sins were added up. Most of the sins were truly not serious, and they happened because of my ignorance. But, though they were small, they were adding up dangerously, till they tipped the scale.
"As I stood there before the Heavenly Court, trembling and ashamed, an angel suddenly appeared with a worn-out siddur in his hand. Behind him was a line of wagons loaded with sacks.
" 'I am the angel in charge of stray pages from holy books. I go to every Jewish home, every shul and every Jewish school. I look to see the condition of the holy books. Whenever I see a worn out book, with crumpled pages and loose covers it gives me tremendous pleasure, for this is a sign that the books are in constant use. But when I see that some of these books are tattered beyond repair, I am troubled, for every holy book has a holy soul, and every page has a soul, which must be treated with care and respect.
" 'In the course of my travels I met this man here on trial. Ever since he was a child, Mottele loved his little siddur and would often caress and kiss it before closing it.
" 'When it came time for Mottel to be apprenticed, he told his father that there was nothing he would like more than to be a bookbinder.
" 'I have never seen a book-binder like Mottel,' continued the angel in my defense. 'He never got any pages mixed up, never missed a stitch, and always used the best materials. From time to time, he would go to the shuls in his town and collect holy books that cried out for attention. He took them home and worked late into the night to restore them, bind them and give them new life. He never charged for this and never even told anyone about it.
" 'I respectfully request that the Heavenly Court permit me to unload all the sacks of worn-out holy books to which Mottel the Bookbinder has given a second life, and put them on the scale with all his other mitzvot and good deeds.
"The Heavenly Court agreed. Long before the wagons were half unloaded, the scale with the mitzvot clearly outweighed the other side.
"Believe me, dear Rebbe," Mottel concluded, "I was as astonished at what happened before my eyes as you were at seeing me in this place of honor."
"I wanted to ask Mottel a few more questions," explained Rebbe Elimelech, "but at just that moment I began to recover. Reb Mottel's story speaks for itself. But let us also remember," Reb Elimelech enjoined his disciples, "that G-d never fails to give credit and reward for any good deed, even for such a seemingly trivial act as smoothing out a crumpled corner of a well worn page in a holy book.
Reprinted from Talks and Tales.
Chasidic teachings explain that the difference between Judah and Joseph is analogous to that between earth and heaven, inanimate objects and plant life, action and study. Which is higher? This week's Torah portion begins, "Judah approached Joseph," implying that Joseph is higher than Judah, since he must be approached. On the other hand, the Haftora (Ezekiel 37) implies that Judah is higher: "I took the stick of Joseph...placed on it the stick of Judah...and my servant David [from the tribe of Judah] will rule over them." In reality both are true, but in different eras. During the exile, Joseph (heaven, plant life, study) is higher, but in the Messianic Age, the superiority of Judah (the earth, inanimate objects, action) will be revealed.
(The Rebbe, 5 Tevet, 5751)