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Have you ever watched a baby as she works toward upward mobility? At just a few months old, she's squirming around inch by inch. Months later, she's raising herself onto her hands and knees, rocking back and forth as she gets used to the new position and height. But her arms and legs aren't very strong and she plops down every once in a while, bumping her little nose or chin. But, don't worry, she'll be up again soon to try it again.
Months pass. Tentatively, she pulls herself up to a standing position using furniture and other objects as leverage. Even more cautiously she lets go for a few seconds and smiles, as if saying, "Look, no hands!" Oops, there she goes, plopping down once more, only to stand up again a few minutes later and repeat the whole exercise.
Soon she'll be cruising along the furniture. Weeks later she'll be taking a step, unaided, from one piece of furniture to the next.
When she's much more confident, she'll try two and three steps, each time plopping down. But she'll get back up again. Then six or seven steps before plopping down. Then ten wobbly steps, then plop.
A baby's approach to learning a new skill, such as walking, is the approach Judaism demands of us when learning a new mitzva-skill, whether a mitzva between oneself and G-d or the interpersonal mitzvot (commandments) between one person and another.
In general, we seek out experiences which enhance personal growth when there is a feeling of dissatisfaction with our present state. This is a good sign, for it indicates vitality and an urge to rise and improve oneself.
Unlike babies, however, many of us stop trying or slack off if we "fall," i.e., the attempt was not met with immediate success.
Today, when so much of our lives are measured in nanoseconds, we half expect to be able to eradicate a bad habit or master a new mitzva instantly. And when that doesn't happen, despondency or inertia can set in.
A little voice inside says, "Why bother, you'll fall back into your old routine anyway," or "You'll fall flat on your face trying and everyone will see." The little voice will use every means to prevent us from carrying out our good intentions of self-improvement and advancing in Jewish observance. An otherwise highly successful person can be paralyzed by that little voice, certain that he will fail miserably and that others will note his failure.
The misleading voice should be ignored. For, as Chasidism explains, the attempt itself is invaluable and esteemed by G-d. Only people who never try never make mistakes or fall short.
The next time we have the opportunity to learn something new or are presented with an obstacle that needs to be overcome, we should remind ourselves to take "baby steps." It's not just a matter of going slowly. More importantly, it means getting back up even if you've plopped down or fallen flat on your face.
The commandment to build a Sanctuary to G-d appears in this week's Torah portion, Teruma. The mitzva (commandment) was given to all Jews - men, women, and according to the Midrash, even children.
The Sanctuary in the desert was a tremendous innovation, an entirely new phenomenon that had never before existed: a physical "house" for G-d in which the Divine Presence was "enclothed" and dwelled. In fact, it is such a radical concept that King Solomon was moved to wonder, "Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built?"
How, then, can such an amazing thing be accomplished by every Jew, even the simplest?
In actuality we find that only a handful of people were responsible for making the Sanctuary's components, such as Betzalel, whom G-d filled with "the spirit of the L-rd." Nonetheless, the Torah clearly states that the building of the Sanctuary was dependent on the actions of every Jew. But how could a single individual have the power to cause G-d's Presence to dwell in a physical structure, when the entire world is too small to contain Him?
The question becomes even stronger when we look at the wording of the command itself, "And they shall take to Me an offering." As Rashi explains, this means that the contributions for the Sanctuary had to be made for the sake of heaven, i.e., with pure intent. As not everyone can attain such an elevated level of Divine service, how could the command be directed at all Jews?
In order to understand, we must go back to the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, when the Jewish people underwent an essential transformation. When G-d chose the Jews from among the nations, He took ordinary, corporeal human beings and turned them into "a kingdom of priests and a holy people."
Since then, every single Jew is connected to G-d on an essential level, which is why our Sages said, "Even though he may have sinned, he is still a Jew." Inside every Jew is a "pintele Yid," a Jewish spark that does not allow him to be separated from G-d. The true inner desire of every Jew is to obey G-d's will; if it is not always apparent, it is only because the Evil Inclination has temporary control. Moreover, even if it seems as if a Jew's motivation for serving G-d isn't entirely "pure," on the deepest, innermost level, it is.
Because the essence of the soul is always inextricably bound to G-d, every single Jew thus has to the capacity to establish a dwelling place for Him.
Adapted from Sefer HaSichot 5752, vol. 2
Meeting the Shabbat Queen
by Miriam Karp
Miriam had met Brocha in her art class at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In the class, the students would regularly critique each other's work:
When Brocha's turn came she explained her nice and pretty piece to the group. "I have friends who had a Chasidic wedding this summer, and I made a painting of it as a gift for them."
"I'm working on a Jewish-themed painting, too," I mentioned casually.
"Jewish? You?" Brocha's Jewish outreach radar went up. She looked me over. With my wild long hair and paint-stained overalls, she probably had assumed I was another artsy Zen, Hindu, whatever.
Brocha dutifully latched onto me and started inviting me. Come to a class. Come meet my rabbi.
I had noticed the rabbis sitting with their table on the Diag, giving out brochures and trying to get students to go into their sukka and eat a piece of honey cake. Like seeing the Amish: a curiosity, another world that had no connection to mine.
Sherwin, from the Holistic Health Council, had taught us that all movements of Judaism were outdated and irrelevant, most especially and absolutely the Orthodox. The term Orthodox said it all. Dogmatic. Primitive. Xenophobic. And Chasidim were ultra-stone-age Orthodox.
But Brocha wanted me to come. I had to field some kind of invitation every time I was in art class.
I finally relented. I'm supposed to be open-minded and tolerant. One time can't be that bad.
So I went with sweet Brocha to a class discussing the Ethics of the Fathers. The three students, Rabbi Goldstein and I, sat with a text. There were no candles, incense, wood, or soft lighting. There was no chanting, meditating or dervish dancing.
It was intellectual, using the mind to discuss a text. But it wasn't a university class, where objective analysis ruled. The text was discussing some kind of spiritual perspective. The ideas were interesting but out of context to anything in my life. One doesn't discuss G-d; one melts into the godhead in an ecstatic merging with the oneness.
Learning - as these Jews called this activity, as an active, present-tense verb - did not connect, certainly not as a way to reach my burning goal, to come close to the cosmic energy.
Okay, at least now Brocha will leave me alone, I figured. I learned with her and the rabbi.
But Brocha wouldn't stop. Come for a Sabbath. Have you ever celebrated Shabbat? It's very special. She kept at it with single-minded determination. I didn't want to go. But since I was miss universal, all oneness and goodness, I couldn't keep saying no.
And the word Shabbat did evoke a warm tingle. On Friday nights at Camp Tamarack, we were supposed to dress a little nicer. We entered a hushed dining room, tables covered with white paper tablecloths, lit candles, challah, and bottles of grape juice. Something subtle but special hung in the air.
So, I finally agreed. "Fine, I'll come," I told Brocha, and she happily told me where and when.
I somewhat apprehensively knocked on Brocha's door at the appointed time, before sunset one Friday night. She seemed glad that I had come. She was intelligent and sincere
We went to the rabbi's house for the Friday night Shabbat meal. It was pleasant but kind of boring, served up with way too much food.
There were 20 or so students gathered around the dining room table, which was bedecked with a crisp, white tablecloth. They sang, joked and seemed to be enjoying themselves, but they didn't fit into my definition of spiritual.
I was a child of the universe and lover of humanity; however I couldn't help but rank the chatting people gathered round the table. Way below me on the hip barometer. In fact, they were scraping the bottom, I assessed with non-judgmental compassion.
After the meal I went back with Brocha to her apartment. The next day we went to services and after services, we walked to Levi Goldstein's house - Levi was the rabbi's brother. We opened the door to the basement apartment. A young, simply dressed woman looked up with a warm and inviting smile. "Good Shabbos! Welcome!" she sang as much as spoke, with a lilting French accent. Her greeting felt like a blast of golden, radiant sunshine.
There was something magnetic about Levi's wife, Baila. A radiating, compelling energy of depth, sincerity and most of all, joy.
I walked into that flat with no expectations, or negative ones, ready to endure and get out. Suddenly, I could feel, almost taste the Shabbat Queen. I could feel the Shechina (divine presence) though I knew not of the concept. Baila kissed the mezuza scroll on the doorpost. That slight movement caught my attention. What was she doing? I could sense something profound and real.
I got it. I felt, I intuited what I later learned words to describe. G-dliness was there, all around her, and these actions and words celebrated or enhanced or revealed that energy, somehow grounded it and made it more tangible.
I had gone along with Brocha to that luncheon date, figuring I'd sit through some drippy conversation and yet-drippier food. I sat there in that little, sparsely furnished apartment in shock.
I don't remember any particularly fascinating explanation or insight. I just remember basking in the intense feeling of light - well, Shechina - that glimmered and shone.
After going for so many years to so many centers, lectures, ashrams, and happenings, finding a drop here and another morsel there, piecing together a collage of bits of spirituality that rang true, I was wary of a too-easy or complete answer.
As I sat on the folding chair at the small folding table, picking at my gefilte fish and potato salad, something was different. Somewhere deep inside me, my soul stretched and smiled. "I know you're probably cynical, but guess what? This could be it: an integrated path, your long-lost and ferociously sought-after path!"
Baila had a purity and sweetness about her, was highly intelligent, and full of deep insight. There was something unadorned and honest. Straight from the source. I started, on that Shabbat afternoon, to get an inkling of something authentic and ancient; something I was connected to.
Excerpted with permission from Painting Zaidy's Dream.
Painting Zaidy's Dream
How does a nice, Jewish, atheist, girl become a Chasidic mother of a large family? Miriam Karp received her Jewish education in the first Humanistic temple. From childhood on, a longing for something more compelled her to embark on a fascinating journey. In Painting Zaidy's Dream she chronicles her questioning, spiritual glimmers, and raucous hippie adventures, followed by earnest bumbling, soaring delights and bitter disappointments as she encounters and grows into the world of Torah and observance. Available on amazon.
My First Book of Kosher Animals
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20 Adar, 5739 (1979)
This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 7th of Adar, in which you write about the problem of smoking.
Needless to say, this is a matter for specialists in this field, namely the medical profession. Herein also lies the answer why rabbinic authorities have not taken a position on this matter.
Additionally, and this, too, is a basic factor:
Even according to those medical authorities who hold the opinion that cigarette smoking is harmful to the health, this opinion is based on the quality of cigarettes as they are now manufactured, which contain harmful substances.
A great deal of research is being conducted to find a way to eliminate those harmful substances in cigarettes and produce a harmless cigarette, in which case there would be no room at all for issuing an issur [ban] on cigarette smoking.
Thus, for rabbis to issue a ban at this time would, at best, be premature, but more importantly, any ban in accordance with the Torah would be a permanent one, as the Torah itself is permanent and unchangeable.
As for the general obligation to take care of one's health, there is no need for rabbis to take any special action, since this is a fundamental din [law] in the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law].
Since you have written to me on this matter, I want to take advantage of this opportunity to make a practical point.
Noting how concerned you are with a matter which has to do with physical health, even though it is not unanimous, and there are people who think that in certain cases, at any rate, there is a positive aspect, and the withdrawal from it may be even more harmful than the smoking, all of which need not be discussed here - I trust that you are surely much more involved in promoting the spiritual health of fellow Jews, namely strengthening their observance of the Torah and mitzvoth [commandments] in everyday life.
In this area there is no room for any doubts or differences of opinion about the Torah and mitzvoth being "our life and the length of our days."
It is surely unnecessary to point out to you that this is the obligation of every Jew in accordance with the mitzvah of "You shall love your fellow as yourself" as well as "Reprove, you shall reprove your people."
Noting the repetition, our Sages emphasize that it indicates perseverance "up to 100 times," which means that having tried unsuccessfully 99 times, there is still the obligation to try once more, certainly if one is just beginning to fulfill this obligation.
17 Menachem Av, 5737 
...On the basis of your writing it is surely unnecessary to emphasize to you at length the need to make additional efforts in matters of Torah and mitzvot, especially as I see that in certain matters you have already made important strides.
Needless to say, there is always room for advancement in all matters of goodness and holiness - Torah and mitzvoth [commandments], which are infinite, being derived from and connected with the Infinite.
Every additional effort in this direction also brings additional Divine blessings.
I would like to point out that in taking upon oneself an additional effort in Torah and mitzvoth, it should be "bli-neder" [without taking an oath].
With general reference to your request for guidance as to how to fulfill your purpose in life, particularly in light of the Chassidic teachings which you cite in your letter, the general guideline has already been given in the Mishnah:
"I have been created to serve my Maker" - such service being the study of Torah and fulfillment of its mitzvoth; or, in the words of the Tanya... : "to make for Him, blessed be He, an abode in the lower world," as explained there and in Chassidic discourses at great length.
It is very helpful, indeed necessary, as our saintly Rebbes have urged, and this is also based on the teaching of our Sages in the Mishnah, to have a companion with whom to discuss matters of Judaism from time to time.
The text in the particular Mishnah is "Acquire for yourself a companion," which immediately follows the words "Make (appoint) unto yourself a teacher."
Thus, in regard to a companion, the emphasis is on acquisition, implying "at a cost" - whatever form such "expense" may require.
Of course, such companionship is not binding, and if the companion turns out to be not after one's heart, a more suitable one can be acquired.
3 Adar I
Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidism, said: The commandment of ahavat Yisrael (love of one's fellow) extends to anyone born into the people of Israel, even if you have never met him. How much more so does it extend to every member - man or woman of the Jewish community where you live, who belongs to your own community.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
In this week's Torah portion we read the verse, "They shall make Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell within them." A grammatical question immediately becomes apparent. If the Jews are commanded to make a sanctuary, why does G-d say He will dwell within "them" and not within "it"? Within them, as explained by Chasidic literature, means within every Jew. For, within the soul of every Jew is a place devoted and dedicated to G-dliness.
On the above point, the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, explained: The site of the sanctuary remains sacred, even in times of exile and desolation. The Midrash says that the Divine Presence never departs from the Western Wall. The destruction of the Temple is limited to its building alone. This is true, too, of the personal sanctuary within every Jew. For, the foundation of every Jew is whole. Every form of spiritual desolation found in the Jewish people is only in those aspects of a person analogous to the part of the building above the foundation. The foundation of the individual sanctuary, however, remains in its holy state.
Expanding on this idea, the Rebbe has spoken on numerous occasions about the need to turn our homes into mini-sanctuaries. This is accomplished by turning our homes into sanctuaries for Torah study, charity, and prayer. In addition, we would do well to fill the house with true Jewish furnishings--Jewish books and a charity box attached to a wall so that it becomes part of the actual structure.
Each member of the family, including children of all ages, can also participate by making their own rooms into mini-sanctuaries. Torah study, prayer, and charity can all be practiced in the individual mini-sanctuary, as well as other mitzvot.
Within every Jew, within each Jewish home, is that spark of G-dliness which, though it might be dormant, remains totally indestructible. It is the sanctuary that G-d commanded us to make in this week's Torah portion. May we all merit to beautify and enhance our own personal sanctuary.
And they shall bring Me a contribution (Ex. 25:2)
Concerning prayer it is said, "Better a little with the proper intentions than a lot without the proper intentions." However, with respect to tzedaka (charity), "a lot without the proper intentions" is also good! The main purpose in giving tzedaka is to help others; the motivation behind the deed is secondary. In simple terms, the more money is given, the more good can result from it.
And they shall make an Ark...two and a half cubits its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height (Ex. 25:10)
As our Sages put it, "The place of the Ark was not subject to measure." Miraculously, the Ark of the Covenant (containing the two Tablets of the Law) did not take up any space in the Holy of Holies. Although built to the above dimensions, if one measured the distance between the Ark and the four walls, the result was the same as if there were nothing at all in the chamber. Similarly, a true Torah scholar does not "take up any space." Humble and self-effacing, he shuns the limelight and does not ask for special honors.
Their knobs and their branches shall be out of one piece; all of it shall be one piece of beaten work (miksheh) of pure gold (Ex. 25:36)
The Hebrew word "miksheh" is related to "kasheh," meaning difficult or hard. It is a very difficult thing, the Torah tells us, to reach the level of "pure gold," making sure that our every penny is "kosher," untainted by the slightest hint of fraud or deception. Yet a person who does so is likened to the menora, whose purity illuminates the very heavens...
Once, in the city of Mechooza in Babylonia, a very poor man came to the yeshiva of Rava (270-350 c.e.). Rava was not only one of the greatest Jewish scholars of his time and head of the great academy there, but he was also extremely wealthy. Rava was renowned far and wide for his tremendous charity. No poor person ever left his home without his needs being met by the great rabbi.
So, when the poor man arrived in town, the other paupers directed him to the home of the sage and philanthropist. Rava was a good judge of character. When he called the pauper into his study, one look was sufficient to tell him that this man had not always been in such a sorry state. The man's whole demeanor, his manner of speaking and his deportment all showed that he had once been a man of means and high social station.
Rava engaged the man in conversation and, sure enough, discovered that he came from a good family and had not so long ago been a wealthy merchant. Business reversals had taken their toll on his fortune and he was reduced to begging for his daily bread. "What is it that you wish, my good man?" asked Rava.
"I am very hungry and have come here to receive something to eat," the beggar replied.
Rava was anxious to satisfy the man's needs, and so he asked him, "What do you usually eat?"
The man's expression visibly changed. "I eat fattened fowl basted with rare sauces and I drink only the finest aged wines."
Rava was taken aback by the poor man's reply. True, he had formerly been wealthy, but wouldn't it be better if he had accustomed himself to simpler fare now that his circumstances were so reduced? Rava replied to the beggar, "I understand that you may have eaten these delicacies before, but perhaps you should lower your expectations under the circumstances. After all, you can't expect most people to be able to cater to such expensive demands."
The man listened and then shrugged his shoulders. "Why should I? I am not asking for anything that belongs to those people. All the food in the world belongs only to G-d, and He is able to fulfill the needs of every living creature. If He so wishes it, the people I meet will receive the means to feed me the food which I am used to. Besides, at this point in my life, I have become too weakened to accustom myself to a change in diet. It isn't as if I simply crave these foods; I truly need to have them for my health."
As the two men continued their conversation, one of Rava's servants appeared to announce the arrival of a guest. "My master's sister has just arrived!" he announced.
Rava rose in surprise, for he hadn't seen his sister in 13 years. As he crossed the room to greet her, he noticed that she was carrying a beautifully decorated basket covered with an embroidered cloth. She presented the basket to him as a gift. When he lifted the cloth to see what was inside, he was shocked to see a fat roasted chicken and a bottle of aged wine!
Rava was momentarily speechless as he contemplated the gift and the words that had just been spoken by the beggar.
"How fortunate am I to see so clearly the workings of G-d. For, I have not seen you in so many years, and here you are bearing exactly the foodstuffs this man has requested of me! You are a messenger from the Holy One, Blessed be He, sent to teach me the truth of G-d's providence over all of His creatures, for He surely provides each of them with his needs at the proper time."
By this time Rava's students had gathered to hear the words of their teacher. He turned to the poor man and said, "My friend, I beg your forgiveness for my hastily spoken words, for I had not understood the truth they contained. Please, sit and partake of these delicacies which were undoubtedly sent only for you."
Thus, the master and his students learned a lesson of the greatness of G-d's mercies on His creatures and to what lengths we must go to emulate His ways.
Each Jew has what to add to this world. By making this addition and increasing the Jewish content of his environment, he draws down additional Divine blessings to the world which in turn make it possible for him to carry out his service with joy and, in particular in the month of Adar, increase one's joy. This additional happiness, despite the constraints of exile, hastens the advent of the era when we will leave those constraints and experience the true and complete happiness of the Future Redemption.
(The Rebbe, 26 Shevat, 5751-1991)