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by Izzy Greenberg
The soul descends from its pristine, spiritual abode into a dirty world of half-truths and outright lies, where slight-of-hand magicians and con artists rule by virtue of their mastery of the art of illusion. Transcendental consciousness is replaced by confusion. Perfect unity is exchanged for a fragmented, chaotic existence. And throughout it all, the soul is forced to endure the most humiliating indignations imaginable, to eat and breath and sleep like an animal, to be held prisoner by a physical body and an animal soul, trapped within our natural, earthly tendencies.
In spite of all this, the soul wants to come here. Though this may be the world of lies, it is also the world of purpose. Though it may be a world of illusions, it is also the world of action. The soul's purpose is to refine the pit into which it is thrown, and make a beautiful castle out of it. For the soul to remain spiritual is hardly a great feat. For the animalistic within us to be boorish is obviously pointless. In either case, we do not achieve anything worthy of the soul's descent. Our job is to transcend both and live in a state in which they are one - we are to become trans metaphysical. To live on a level in which the animal and the spiritual within us work together, like a horse and rider, to pursue the same agenda.
The Israelites of ancient Egypt left the most powerful and advanced civilization of their time to faithfully follow G-d and Moses into a desolate, blistering desert full of snakes and scorpions. Imagine a North American today choosing to give up the comfort and security we enjoy to go live in a war-ravaged, disease-infested nightmare of a country for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. And this act is perceived as the defining moment that marks the foundation of the Jewish nation, emblematic of our capacity to overcome the trappings of materialism and connect to G-d - even if it means you have to do something a little outrageous.
This is our spiritual inheritance, our gift to humanity and our mission in life: To embody the loftiest of spiritual experiences within a material reality and to disregard the status quo - or create a new one; not to divest from worldly realities or to fight against them, but to transform them, to rebel with them against the prevailing structure, and create a new world order.
The counting of the Omer, marking the days between Passover and Shavuot, is a period of introspective stocktaking. Each day represents one of the soul's unique faculties, making it an opportune time to get to know the soul, its powers and how to draw on them to fulfill our mission of making ourselves and this world into a spiritual abode.
Perhaps all that it takes is for one person to become truly trans metaphysical, to grab the bull by the horns and actually live as if the material and spiritual are one, and teach the rest of us how. Maybe it could be you.
Izzy Greenberg, a writer, scholar and teacher, is the Creative Director of Tekiyah Creative.
This week's Torah portion, Bechukotai, begins with the words "Im bechukotai teileichu - If you will walk in My statutes."
The Talmud explains that this verse is a standing request G-d makes of the Jewish people. G-d is constantly pleading with His children to keep His holy Torah.
Furthermore, because the request emanates from G-d, it simultaneously imbues us with the power and the strength to fulfill it. "Bechukotai" thus also represents G-d's promise to us that we will do so. We will walk in the Torah's statutes. We will observe the Torah. And not one Jew will be cut off from the Jewish people.
There are three categories of commandments in the Torah: judgments, testimonies, and chukim - statutes.
Which mitzvot (commandments) are considered judgments? Judgments are commandments that are compelled by human logic, rational laws that society would keep even if the Torah had not commanded us to observe them. Human understanding alone would have led us to realize their necessity.
What are testimonies? Testimonies are mitzvot that we would never have arrived at without the Torah. Nonetheless, once G-d commanded us to obey them, we are able to understand their rationale. These commandments are acceptable to the human mind and are comprehended by the intellect.
Statutes, however, are entirely above and beyond our understanding. We do not know why we are supposed to observe these commandments. Mitzvot falling into this category are the red heifer and the prohibition against wearing garments containing shaatnez (a mixture of wool and linen).
Although the Torah states, "If you will walk in my statutes," the intention is that we keep all three types of commandments: judgments, testimonies and statutes. Why then does the Torah specifically mention "statutes"?
The Torah's use of the word "bechukotai" contains an important lesson: that a Jew should observe all of the Torah's mitzvot for the sole reason that G-d has commanded him to do so. It doesn't matter whether we understand a mitzva rationally or not; we must demonstrate the same degree of obedience when fulfilling all of G-d's commandments. Judgments, testimonies or statutes - all mitzvot are to be performed in a manner of "walking in My statutes."
Thus "bechukotai" is not only G-d's plea that we keep His Torah, but instructs us in the proper manner of observing all mitzvot: obedience to G-d's will. At the same time, "bechukotai" is G-d's promise that we will succeed.
Adapted from Volume 1 of Likutei Sichot
Lag B'Omer in Ramat Gan
by Rabbi Meir Kaplan
When I was in Israel two years ago to be with my mother and siblings for the yahrtzeit (anniversary of the passing) of my father, there was a promise I gave to a community member which became the highlight of my visit.
It started just over two months earlier, on Purim, when a young woman walked into our community Purim party with her sweet children. It was well into the celebration. When I mentioned that I would be visiting Israel in a short while, she asked for a favor. "I have a great aunt who lives there. Would you visit her on my behalf? I'm sure she'd be very happy to see you." I agreed.
To be quite honest, my agreement didn't make sense, in fact I have no doubt that on any other day I would have never accepted to do that...I was going to be in Israel for less than three days. I would not even be visiting my own grandmother nor many of my aunts and uncles who live there because of the short time. Why then would I visit the great aunt of a woman whom I had met just a couple of times in my life?...
But after giving her my word, I had no choice. So before leaving for Israel I got the contact information of Esther S. in Ramat-Gan.
On my second day in Israel, on Wednesday night, the eve of Lag B'omer, I went with my mother to celebrate the holiday with hundreds of thousands of Jews at the resting place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron. My flight back to Canada was on Thursday at 1:10 p.m. I decided to leave early in the morning; hoping that I'd have time to stop by, at least for a short while, at Mrs. S's home to give her regards from her niece and family.
As I drove toward the center of Israel, closer to Ramat Gan and the airport, traffic became heavier. It quickly became clear that if I would get off the highway to go to Ramat Gan I might miss my flight. While standing in a traffic jam I dialed Esther's number. "It's Rabbi Meir Kaplan from Victoria, BC. I want to give you warm regards from your family in Victoria and tell you that they are doing great. I was planning on visiting today, but due to the slow traffic, I won't be able to make it this time."
"I'm expecting you and I'm looking forward to seeing you. Where are you now?" I heard the kind but firm voice on the phone ask. I soon realized that I wasn't being given a choice...
"I'll try my best" I said. "I have your address, but I really don't know how to get to you," I added. "Don't worry, when you get to Ramat Gan just park your car and take a taxi. I'll pay for it when you get here." I looked at the clock; it was 10:10 a.m. My flight was three hours away and I was headed in the opposite direction of Ben-Gurion airport, sure to get lost in the big city of Ramat Gan.
I took the exit to Ramat Gan and started looking for an available taxi. "My friend," I called through the window, "can you show me the way to Tirtza Street? I'll pay you when we get there."
"Follow me" the driver said.
As we approached a traffic light, a driver making an illegal u-turn hit my car. "Don't you see I'm making a u-turn?!" he shouted. After he cooled down, we quickly took pictures and exchanged information. Now, on top of everything else, I had an accident to deal with. But more importantly I lost 15 precious minutes. After a quick debate with myself I decided that if I had made it this far, I couldn't quit now.
At 10:45 a.m. I was knocking at Mrs. S's door. After a few minutes of silence an elderly woman walked out of the elevator, looking concerned. "I've been waiting for you outside, what happened?"
"I'm sorry for the delay" I said, "I'm so happy to be here now, Esther. I feel bad, but I have only 10 minutes as I have a flight in just over two hours from Ben-Gurion"...
Esther took me into her kitchen "I'm extremely excited and I don't know where to begin... Let me start by telling you that while today I'm not a religious woman - it's not who I really am. I suffered a lot, like the Jews of my generation, in addition I had my personal 'tzoros' (troubles), so I've walked away somewhat from my roots... Let me show you who I really am", she said while picking out an old paper from a big pile of pictures and documents that she had prepared for our meeting.
"You see, here in the front row, this is me soon after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. I grew up in a Chassidic family. I was educated in a Beit Yaakov school", she said in a shaky voice, while moving the paper closer to me. I looked at the pamphlet. In the picture there were Jewish girls walking in a parade holding a sign stating in Hebrew "Tziyon b'Mishpat Tipade v'Shaveha b'tzedaka - Zion will be redeemed with Justice and its captives with righteousness." Then I read the Yiddish headline: "Big Celebration of Lag B'omer in Bergen-Belzen Camp"...
"Do you know what date is today?" I asked her excitedly. "Today is Lag B'omer, and this is your picture celebrating today's holiday exactly 66 years ago!..."
Esther's face turned white and tears began streaming down her face. She hadn't realized the significance of this picture today. I took a deep breath and thought of the Divine providence that brought me to meet her that morning. I was overcome with emotion.
Fifteen minutes later I was on my way, but the image of young girls, who lost their families to the Nazis, walking with Jewish pride on Lag B'omer on the soil of a death camp, accompanied me my entire trip back to Canada. I have a story to tell her family when I get back home; I have a Lag B'omer lesson for all of us.
Rabbi Meir Kaplan and his wife Chani, are the directors of Chabad Vancouver Island in Canada. This article is from Rabbi Kaplan's weekly blog. Read more at www.chabadvi.org
Get ready for... The Great Parade! The full-day celebration - parade and fair - is themed on Jewish unity and pride. It is based on the Lag B'Omer parades that have been held on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York, since the 1940s. On Sunday, May 18, celebrate the life and learning of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabbi Akiva and the great Jewish men and women who brought new joy and unity to the Jewish people! Visit thegreatparade.com for more info. Outside of the tri-state area? Contact your local Chabad-Lubavitch Center to find out about local Lag B'Omer Parades and celebrations in your area..
Continued from previous issue
You will surely gather that the preceding paragraphs are in reference to the beginning of your letter, in which you express your discontent at the lack of deeper knowledge of the various aspects of the Torah.
Besides, you surely recall the saying of the wisest of all men about true wisdom, "The more the knowledge, the more the pain." For, in regard to the knowledge of the Torah, which represents the infinite wisdom of the Ein Sof, the more one learns, the more one becomes painfully aware of the distance which is still to be covered, a distance which is indeed infinite.
As a matter of fact, even in the so-called exact sciences, every discovery uncovers new unexplored worlds and raises more questions than it answers. Yet, this is what provides the real stimulus and challenge to learn and probe further. How much more so in regard to the Torah, Toras Chaim, the true guide in life, both the physical and spiritual life.
Incidentally, the present days of Sefira, which connect the festivals of Passover and Shavuos, have a bearing on the subject matter. For, just prior to the departure from Egypt, the Jews were in a state of slavery in its lowest form, being slaves in a land which the Torah calls "The abomination of the earth."
Indeed, anyone familiar with the conditions in Egypt in those days knows how depraved the Egyptians were in those days, and much of this had tarnished the character of the Jews enslaved there. Yet, in the course of only fifty days, the Jews rose to the sublimist height of spirituality and true freedom, both physical and spiritual.
Furthermore, the spiritual freedom which the Torah had brought them, and which has also illuminated to some extent the rest of the world, was linked with material freedom, namely freedom from any material problems, as the Torah tells us that the children of Israel had the Manna and the Well, and all their material needs were provided in a miraculous way.
The narratives of the Torah are not simply stories for entertainment, but are in themselves a part of the general instruction and teaching which the Torah conveys in all its parts. And in these narratives we find also the answer as to how the situation might be under certain conditions at some time in the future. If the conditions would be similar to those which existed at the time when the children of Israel left Egypt, with complete faith in G-d, following the Divine call in the desert, leaving behind them the fleshpots of Egypt and the fat of the land, not even taking any provision with them, but relying entirely on G-d, and in this state of dedication to the truth, they followed the Pillar of Light by day and by night - should these conditions be duplicated, or even approximated, then one may well expect a most radical change, not only over a period of years, but in the course of a number of days.
Pesach Sheini, 5723 (1963)
Lag B'Omer is a particularly fitting day for celebration by Jewish children in the manner and spirit sponsored by the Lubavitch House...
The history of Lag B'Omer is well known.
Our Sages of the Talmud explain that the days of the counting of the Omer (Sefira) were saddened by the tragic consequence of the failure of the thousands of disciples of Rabbi Akiva to respect and love each other, which brought emptiness and desolation into Jewish life.
The 33rd day of the Sefira ("Lag" B'Omer) stood out as a bright exception.
Later, Jewish life was revived again by the surviving disciples, especially Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who unlocked the secrets of the Torah and gave us the holy book, the Zohar. Lag B'Omer is the day of his yahrzeit.
Lag B'Omer reminds us that disunity and separateness among our Jewish people is caused by the neglect of Torah and mitzvot in our daily life.
It also reminds us that Ahavas Yisroel - love of our fellow Jews - is the "Great Principle" of the Torah, as taught by Rabbi Akiva, and further explained by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and (in more recent generations) by Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Shneur Zalman [founder of Chabad Chasidism] and their successors.
Lag B'Omer calls upon each and every one of us, young and old, to strengthen the oneness of our people, through the study and practice of the one Torah, given to us all by the One G-d.
May G-d grant that the forthcoming Lag B'Omer celebration will inspire each and every one of you to a greater measure of love of G-d, the Torah and the Jewish people, to be expressed in your personal daily life and conduct, and in growing efforts to spread the Torah and Mitzvoth [commandments] among our people everywhere.
This will surely bring you, and your near and dear ones, a greater measure of Divine blessings, and the fulfillment of your hearts' desires for good, materially and spiritually.
Every person must know that G-d, through His individual Providence, gives each person the ability to bring G-d's supernal Will from the potential state to the actual. This is done through fulfilling the mitzvot and strengthening Judaism and our holy Torah at all times in every place. All depends solely upon one's avoda.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This coming Sunday (May 18 this year) is Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. It is traditionally an auspicious time for fostering an increase in Ahavat Yisrael, the mitzva of "And you shall love your fellow as yourself."
The emphasis on loving our fellow Jews on Lag B'Omer goes back thousands of years, to the days of Rabbi Akiva. Although 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students passed away in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot (for failing to show each other the proper respect), no one died on that day.
Yet we cannot say that Rabbi Akiva's disciples did not observe the mitzva of Ahavat Yisrael. These were not "regular" people; they were the disciples of a very great tzadik, who surely instilled in them the knowledge that Ahavat Yisrael "is a very important principle in the Torah." What happened, rather, was that they failed to show the proper degree of respect.
Each one of Rabbi Akiva's students was a great scholar in his own right. Accordingly, in addition to the usual measure of love every Jew must demonstrate for his fellow, an extra degree of deference and honor was required.
Lag B'Omer thus reminds us that it is not enough to love our fellow Jew merely to the extent that he is not insulted. We must take that extra step and demonstrate an additional degree of honor that makes all the difference.
In truth, every Jew is deserving of special respect, as every Jew is considered to be an entire world. G-d Himself stands above each and every Jew and scrutinizes his behavior at all times, setting aside all His other affairs, as it were, just to watch him and see what he is doing!
And if any Jew is worthy of such close attention, surely he deserves that extra degree of respect!
May the Jewish people immediately merit true unity with the ingathering of the exiles, with the coming of Moshiach and the Final Redemption.
Ben Zoma said: "Who is wise? He who learns from every person, as it is stated: 'From all those who have taught me I have gained wisdom...' " (Ethics 4:1)
In order to learn, a person does not have to be a sage - every person should learn. A wise person is not merely one who learns, but rather one who sees something positive in every person, and from him, he learns that positive quality.
(Likutei Diburim )
He [Ben Azzai] used to say: "Do not regard anyone with contempt, and do not reject anything, for there is no man who does not have his hour and no thing which does not have its place." (4:3)
There is no man who does not have his hour when circumstances favor him. Similarly, there is nothing which does not have its place which the Holy One has designated as its proper place. All creatures and every single detail of creation forms the totality and completeness of the world. Accordingly, one may not despise any person or any thing in the world.
(Maharal of Prague)
Rabbi Yochanan HaSandlar said: "Every assembly which is for the sake of Heaven will endure, but that which is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure." (4:11)
The purpose of a gathering should not be to secure the victory of one's own opinion, for in this case, each member of the group will want his opinion to be accepted, and the truth will be ignored. Rather, the purpose of the gathering should be "for the sake of Heaven" - to clarify the matter and discover the truth. Then the purpose of the assembly will be successful.
In the last years of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, there lived a woman named Ima Shalom "the Wise." She was born into a family of scholars descended from Hillel and was related both by marriage and birth to the greatest Sages of her time.
Once, a Roman nobleman visited Ima Shalom and began to ridicule the Jewish religion. He said to her: "I have read the account of your G-d's creation of Eve. I really wonder how you Jews can believe in a G-d who is no more than a thief."
Feigning anger, Ima Shalom replied: "I am going to the Roman consul to seek justice. Do you know, last night a thief entered my house and stole all my silver cups and bowls and left vessels of gold in their place!"
The Roman laughed, "You certainly can't call him a thief - he is a friend."
"That's true, " replied Ima Shalom. "And it is the same with G-d, who took a single rib from Adam's body and left in its place a wonderful and valuable gift. Adam received a good, beautiful wife to be a comfort and helpmate and to save him from loneliness."
But the Roman still objected. "Why, then," he countered, "did your G-d first put Adam to sleep and then steal from him like a thief in the night?"
Ima Shalom called her servant and instructed him to fetch a piece of raw meat from the butcher shop in the market place. She then took the meat, seasoned it and cooked it while the Roman looked on. When it was well-cooked, she served him a portion and invited him to eat. He refused, saying, "I have no appetite for the food you have prepared, since I recall how disgusting it looked just a little while ago when it was raw."
Said Ima Shalom, "Do you think Adam would have been pleased to receive Eve if he had been able to see her being created from his own rib?" The Roman had to agree that Ima Shalom had bested him in the dispute.
Long, long ago in the Land of Israel in the city of Sidon, lived a wealthy Jew and his wife. They lived together in perfect happiness, loving each other with a rare, deep love. The only sadness in their life was that they had not been blessed with children.
One day, a dark shadow eclipsed their happiness. Their tenth year of marriage passed and still they had no children. In those days the practice followed was that such a couple divorced and remarried in order that they might be fortunate and have children. But the husband had no desire to send his wife away, although he felt obligated to do so. He could never love another woman no matter how many children she might bear him.
One of the greatest rabbis of the day, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, was visiting the town of Sidon, and the sad couple went to him to ask his advice. In his wisdom, he knew that this couple shouldn't be divorced, but instead of telling them this directly, he presented them with an unusual plan.
"Your marriage was celebrated with a wonderful feast. Now, although you must part, why don't you give another banquet in honor of the happiness you shared all these years."
The couple found his advice strange, but they returned home and set about preparing an elaborate feast. They invited their many friends and acquaintances, who marveled at this strange paradoxical celebration. The tables were laid with great splendor. The guests were regaled with the finest meats, rarest wine and the most exquisite entertainment.
As the guests began to leave, the man turned to his wife and said, "I know of no gift fine enough to give you. But when you go tonight to your parents' house, take the most precious possession you desire from my house."
At last, a glimmer of light shown in his wife's sad eyes. She said nothing, but then said that she was returning to her private quarters so that she might prepare a parting toast for her husband. She soon returned with a tall silver goblet filled with wine. Her husband drained the cup and then retired to the couch to rest from the strain of the evening. He had drunk perhaps too much throughout the evening... He drifted off into a deep sleep, and when she was sure that the strong drink had taken affect and he wouldn't awaken, his wife had her servants carry him to her father's house.
The next morning when he opened his eyes, he didn't know where he was. He cried out in alarm, "Why am I here?"
But, his smiling wife appeared from the next room. "You granted me permission to take for myself the most precious possession in our home. But I have no desire for gold or jewels - you are my only treasure."
Now, they understood the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon's advice. He had wished only for their happiness. The wife returned to her husband's house, and they lived together even more happily than before. Their happiness was crowned by the birth of a child who was the reward of their abiding faithfulness and love.
Our Sages say that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was "well-versed in performing miracles." Indeed, he was so spiritually elevated that although he lived in the time of the destruction of the Holy Temple, for him it was as though it never happened; he did not experience exile. However, the principal association of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai with the redemption is as it is said, "With this work of yours [the Zohar] ... they shall go out of exile with mercy."
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbat Emor 5747-1987)