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Have you made your summer plans yet? If you're intending to go away, you might already have started packing or thinking about what you'll take along with you.
Usually, before we go anywhere - even if it's just a day trip to the country - we need to know what the weather is going to be like, what kind of activities we're going to be involved in and how long we'll be staying. This information makes our packing easier and the trip more pleasant.
Imagine the ordeal of packing for a surprise, mystery trip. You'd have to take your whole wardrobe along - not knowing whether you're going to a hot or cold climate, to casual or elegant affairs, or taking walking tours or sightseeing buses.
Each and every mitzva we do is a journey - an excursion to self-betterment, an adventure to a heightened relationship with G-d, our fellowman, and ourselves.
Mitzvot are not many people's typical idea of a vacation, though, certainly not the kind of lazy, laid back, relaxing vacation many of us envision when we're at the height of a frenzied, hectic day.
They are a different kind of vacation, however, a kind of vacation you can go on every day of your life, every minute of your day. Because who doesn't want to take a vacation where you can visit new sights, reconnect to your past, carve out for yourself a place in history, experience something eternal.
One of the greatest things about vacation via Torah and mitzvot is that because of the diversity of each mitzva, you can experience the whole spectrum of vacations each and every day that you do different mitzvot. Relax by communicating with G-d (praying in the vernacular), putting on tefilin, lighting Shabbat candles. Bathe in the vast sea of Torah that is available through attending classes, reading books, or listening to pre-taped lessons in the privacy of your home. Be dazzled by the bright lights of the Infinite Light (Ohr Ein Sof) when you contemplate G-d's greatness and the purposefulness of the world and its every creation. Wine and dine at sumptuous banquets on Shabbat and holidays. Exercise your conscience and workout on your self-control by fulfilling the mitzvot between one person and another: not being jealous; loving your fellowman; judging everyone favorably; honoring your parents. The list goes on.
But, what kind of packing should you do for a vacation of mitzvot? The rule of thumb that the better you've packed the more you'll enjoy your vacation applies to mitzvot as well. Ask questions! Find out why, when, and how to do each mitzva. Learn the significance and the inner meaning behind the customs. Pack in all of the knowledge you can as you go along.
But, don't hesitate to do a mitzva just because you think you might not be properly prepared. After all, would you pass up a surprise, mystery trip just because preparing is a hassle or you didn't have a chance to pack?
Enjoy your vacation!
This week's Torah reading, Behaalotcha, begins with the command to Aaron to kindle the Menora, the candelabrum in the Sanctuary. The Menora symbolizes the Jewish people, for the purpose of every Jew's existence is to spread Divine light throughout the world, as it is written: "The soul of man is the lamp of G-d." With "the light of the Torah, and the candle of mitzvot (commandments)," our people illuminate our surrounding environment.
The Menora extends upward in seven branches, which symbolizes seven different paths of Divine service. And yet it was made of a single piece of gold. This shows that the various different qualities that characterize the Jewish people do not detract from their fundamental unity. Diversity need not lead to division, and the development of true unity comes from a synthesis of different thrusts, every person expressing his own unique talents and personality.
Not only does the Menora point to the importance of every individual, the manner in which it was kindled underscores the need for independent effort. This concept is reflected in the literal meaning of the phrase the Torah uses when relaying G-d's command to kindle the Menora: "When you raise up the lamps." The foremost commentator Rashi explains that this means the priest should apply the flame to the wick "until the flame rises on its own," and shines independently.
Interpreting this concept allegorically, each of the expressions Rashi uses reflects a fundamental concept.
"The flame" - Every person is potentially a "lamp." This, however, is not enough. He must realize his potential and become a flame, producing radiant light.
"Rises" - A person should not remain content with his current level, no matter how refined. Instead, he should seek to proceed further, searching for a higher and more complete degree of Divine service.
"On its own" - A person must internalize the influence of his teachers until their light becomes his own. The knowledge he learns should endow him with the power to "shine" independently.
Moreover, he should "rise on his own," i.e., the desire to proceed should become his own nature. Even without the encouragement of others, he should continually seek to advance.
These concepts apply not only to our personal strivings for spiritual growth, but also to the manner in which we reach out to others. We should not encourage dependency. Instead, our intent should be that the people with whom we share Judaism should also become "flame[s] which rise on [their] own" - independent lamps that spread the "light of Torah" throughout their surroundings.
From Keeping in Touch adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Rabbi E Touger, published by Sichos In English.
A Promise Fulfilled
From Matthew Jurgens' Bar Mitzva Speech
Today is not about a simple Bar Mitzva. Today is a celebration of G-d; of destiny; of things that are simply bashert - or meant to be. It's a celebration of dreams being actualized; of fulfilling promises made; and it is the celebration and guidance of two souls who are undoubtedly dancing in heaven today - my Grandpa, Lester and my mother, Michele.
I was born on March 13, 1984. My mother died 2 years and 8 months later. I have one fuzzy memory of my mother which involves me playing a card game with her when she was in the hospital - believe you me, I hold it ever so tightly. I once told my aunt that my view of mom was that she was perfect, even though I'm sure she wasn't because, well, no one is. My aunt politely corrected me, "Matthew, she was pretty much as close as you could get." As this was coming from her sister, you've got to believe that this was the case.
Before my mother passed away, she had but one wish for an energetic young rabbi, Anschelle Perl, who was the only rabbi willing to see her in this hospital even though she was not a member of his congregation. That wish? "No matter what happens to me, please promise me that Matthew will one day become a Bar Mitzva."
Seems simple, right? Simply flash forward 11 years, sprinkle in a little Hebrew School on the evenings and weekends and, voila; you'll have a Bar Mitzva boy! My journey has been nothing of the sort.
Still a toddler, my father tried his best to keep me safe, happy, and cared for after my mother passed away. In general, he did a very good job of this. Amongst different decisions that were made, my father, who wasn't raised Jewish but had been practicing Judaism because of my mother, decided to get re-married to a woman who also wasn't Jewish. This gave me a new maternal figure in my life. Through one event upon another, the Hebrew School that I had been attending was no longer seen as the most suitable place for me. At about seven years old, I was gently told that if I would ever feel left out of the family for any reason because of your religion, I could have a baptism..."
Some months later, I told my family that I had wanted to have a baptism. And sure enough, in April of 1992, I was baptized in a catholic church and began a religious education in Catholicism.
So on we went - I continued going to Catholic School one day a week for Catholic studies, though I still kept up with the Jewish holidays because of my amazing aunt, grandmother, and grandfather. As I matured, I grew fond of both religions and associated myself as "both Jewish and Catholic."
When I was 13, I received the worst news I had received in 11 years. I lost my grandfather without any warning.
At the funeral, I ran into someone who I had only heard about in stories, Rabbi Anschelle Perl. Rabbi Perl looked at me and with his warm smile and said, in his unmistakable English accent, "You know, we still have to talk about that Bar Mitzva for you, dear boy." As Rabbi Perl only told me recently, he did indeed strive to make this occur, but unfortunately, the idea was not met with enthusiasm.
But then something bigger intervened - something that I'll never be able to fully explain.
I was 14 and sitting in church for my Catholic Confirmation day. My mother's name echoed through my head and resonated in my heart. Right then and there I realized...I'm not meant to be here. I'm not meant to be doing this. This is not my path.
I knew then that this life, this religion, was not my identity. I knew then and there that one day, I was going to become a Bar Mitzva, no matter what.
At the age of 16, I met the girl who would one day become my wife - my beautiful Lori. Naturally, I told Lori my story... Intently, she listened to every word, asked question after question, and made me feel so validated and empowered in my Jewish heritage. I remember her telling me words that my grandmother had told me before, but I wasn't ready to hear them until now, "Remember that if your mother is Jewish, then you are Jewish too."
And so college came - a time for freedom and a time to find myself. I went to the Hillel House at Boston University. I was ready and raring to go for my Bar Mitzva. But, through one event or another, my gut just told me it wasn't the right time.
After I graduated, I was introduced to Rabbi Levy of the Oceanside Chabad. We discussed Judaism, life, family. Rabbi Levi Gurkov said he would help me every step of the way. Through no fault of his own, I guess I just wasn't ready.
A few more years passed. My wife and I are married under the stars on a glorious late afternoon in August. We had a traditional Jewish wedding with all the trimmings.
Six more years pass. Lori and I have a beautiful Jewish home with a gorgeous daughter, Madeline. I even have Israeli in-laws!
I have a conversation with my aunt Sharon (Licato) who shares something incredible with me. "Leah (who's my amazing cousin) and I are heading to a Bat Mitzva this weekend and you will never guess who the rabbi is." I guessed right. Rabbi Perl.
Sharon came to the Bat Mitzva, re-introduced herself to Rabbi Perl, gave him my cell phone number and, not more than two hours after the end of the Bat Mitzva, I got a beautiful message from him.
We speak, I catch him up on my life. And, in the midst of being a father of a young daughter, a husband, maintaining a household, working as a school administrator, being an adjunct professor, and continuing work toward my doctoral degree in educational administration - it's time for me to fulfill a life-long goal and it's the chance for a most esteemed rabbi to fulfill his promise.
Dovid, Rabbi Perl's son, graciously begins teaching me Hebrew. In little more than six weeks I'm reading Hebrew.. I grasp more and more lessons from both rabbis and just try to take it all in. And here I am, 29 years later; a promise fulfilled.
So, today marks what feels like the pinnacle of the longest journey. However, a wise rabbi told me recently that today is not the end of a journey; it should be thought of as a rung of a ladder toward a continued life and journey with Judaism - the religion that I hold so dear and am so proud to be associated with. Today, I climb up to this rung and I share this day with you all, and with my incredible grandfather and my beautiful mother.
12 Communities, 12 Torahs
Twelve communities in four different countries now have on-loan their own Torah scrolls thanks to New York based Beis Yisroel Torah Gemach and Merkos Suite 302. The fully refurbished Torahs were sent to Paris; Argentina; Waterloo, Ontario; London, Ontario; Gurnee, Ill.; Overland Park, Kan.; Onley, Md.; Los Altos, Calif.; Amherst, Mass.; Denver, Colo.; and Philadelphia. They are loaned out for different time periods, mainly until the recipients can arrange for permanent Torahs. An additional scroll, which is in too poor condition to be repaired, was dispatched to Sharon, Massachusetts where a scribe will use the Torah to educate children and adults about the process of writing and repairing Torah scrolls, in addition to other ritual objects.
Five hundred Eurostars members participated in a seven-day tour of Europe including Paris, Berlin and the grounds of Auschwitz in Poland. The university age Jews hailed from 24 communities spread throughout the former Soviet Union.
Excerpt of a letter, the date of which was not available
I trust you will not take it amiss if I will quote in this connection the words of the wisest of all men, King Solomon, "G-d made man straight, but they sought many accounts." In other words, man often confuses himself with delving, unnecessarily, into inquiries and accounts of things which should be taken for granted and which do not really present any problems. Needless to say, that the more intellectual a person is, the more he is inclined to seek "accounts" and, consequently, the more apt he is to get confused.
This reminds me of the episode which a professor of medicine once told me. On one occasion when he was learning anatomy, and particularly the anatomy of the leg, describing the various muscles, etc., amounting to hundreds, all of which are so perfectly coordinated in the motion of the leg during walking, he became so engrossed in the details (all the more so being a man of great intellect) that momentarily he found his walking difficult and quite complicated as he began to analyze the working of each muscle and joint, etc. The moral is obvious.
Now to your question:
I will first briefly state here the logical basis of the Truth that the Torah and Mitzvos [commandments] have been given to us Jews by Divine Revelation. This is not very difficult to prove, since the proof is the same as all other evidence that we have of historic events in past generations, only much more forcefully and convincingly.
By way of illustration: If you are asked, how do you know there existed such a person as Maimonides (whom you mention in your letter) author of Yad HaChazakah, Sefer HaMitzvos, etc., you will surely reply that you are certain about his existence from the books he has written, and although Rambam (Maimonides) lived some 800 years ago, his works now in print have been reprinted from earlier editions, and those from earlier ones, still uninterruptedly, going back to the very manuscript which the Rambam wrote in his own hand. This is considered sufficient proof even in the face of discrepancies or contradictions from one book of Rambam to another. Such contradictions do not demolish the above proof, but efforts are made to reconcile them, in the certainty that both have been written by the same author.
The same kind of proof substantiates any kind of historic past, which we ourselves have not witnessed, and all normal people accept them without question, except those who for some reason are interested in falsification.
In many cases the authenticity of an historic event is based on the evidence of a limited group of people. Even where there is room to suspect that the witnesses were perhaps not quite disinterested, if there is nothing to compel us to be suspicious (and especially if we can check the evidence and countercheck it) it is accepted as fact.
Now suppose that 600,000 parents would today say to their children, "This morning you and we were all gathered at a certain place, and we all heard a Heavenly voice proclaim the Decalogue." The children would not accept this for they would say: "If we were there with you, why did we not hear or see anything?" Now, making the single assumption that human reactions have not essentially changed in the course of centuries, I assume that such would have been the reaction also in the previous century, and two centuries ago and so on, until we reach the generation whose parents witnessed the event of the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
And let it be emphasized again that during this long chain of tradition, there has been no break, nor has the number of transmitters at any time been reduced to less than many hundreds of thousands, for at no time was there less than one million Jews in the world, Jews from all walks of life, who had no personal ax to grind, etc., yet in each generation of the uninterrupted and unbroken history of our people, this event was accepted as authentic history and the text of the Decalogue remained exactly the same. This is certainly undeniable evidence according to all the rules of scientific proof accepted today.
The same cannot be said of any other religions in the world, which you mentioned, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. In the case of all these religions, there is a definite break, or the tradition narrows down to a single person such as Buddha, Mohammed, or the founder of Christianity, who transmitted his teachings to a group of 12 Apostles.
Contemplate three things and you will not come into the hands of sin: Know what is above you (mimcha)...(Ethics 2:1)
According to the Maggid of Mezritch, this teaching can be interpreted as follows: "Know that what is above - mimcha - is from you." Know that everything which you receive from Above is a reciprical reaction to what you do here in this world.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This week's Torah portion, Beha'alotcha, discusses the lighting of the menora by the kohen (priest) in the Holy Temple. The flames of the menora can be compared to the human soul.
The commentator Rashi states that "the menora must be kindled until the flame rises on its own." This means that G-d has given each one of us a soul, and He is constantly giving us opportunities to improve in Torah and mitzvot.
Our goal is to use our soul and the opportunities we are given to bolster our initiative to do more, to increase in our Divine service. We must each strive to be a flame, rising on our own. This is not to say, G-d forbid, that we could be so self-sufficient as to not need G-d's help in order to carry out His will, but that automatically His will becomes our will. Just as the kohen kindles the lights of the menora, so too does G-d kindle the light of our souls until they rise on their own .
In this week's chapter of Pirkei Avot, we learn further about how to advance in our service to G-d:
"Be wary of those in power, for they befriend a person only for their own benefit; they seem to be friends when it is to their advantage, but do not stand by a man in his hour of need." (Ethics 2:3)
While the literal meaning is surely sound advice, there is also a non-literal interpretation. The Rebbe explains that "those in power" refers to our egos, thoughts, and feelings. Although we rely on these in order to function, we must be aware of their fundamental self- interest, and that they are only concerned with their own benefit.
However, the soul - the essential self - is concerned only with being closer to G-d and observing His Torah and mitzvot. By succumbing to the desires of the soul rather than to the desires of the ego, we will surely find ourselves on the path of Torah. This, in turn, will lead to a world that is ready for Moshiach.
But the man Moses was very humble, more so than any man on the face of the earth (Num. 12:3)
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explained that Moses felt humble especially in comparison to our generation, the last generation before Moshiach. For, despite the extreme darkness that would reign immediately preceding the Final Redemption, Moses foresaw and was humbled by the self-sacrifice our generation would show to keep the Torah alive even in the most difficult circumstances.
(Sichat Purim, 5747)
I am in the midst of the people, six hundred thousand men on foot (Num. 11:21)
This verse hints at the mystical principle that there is a spark or part of Moses in every Jew. Because Moses was connected with every Jew, he was therefore able to be the "faithful shepherd" of Israel and redeem them from Egypt. Similarly, the Baal Shem Tov taught that every Jew has a spark of the soul of Moshiach within him - the very core of which he is to unveil and release to govern his life. Each Jew will thus redeem himself, which in turn will bring about the national redemption for all of Israel. Because Moshiach is intimately connected with every Jew, he therefore has the power to be able to redeem the entire Jewish nation.
And if you go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresses you, then you shall blow an alarm with the trumpets (Num. 10:9)
Unlike the sound of the shofar which arouses fear, the sound of the trumpet elicits a feeling of joy. The Torah teaches that when one approaches "the enemy that oppresses you" with joy (including the acceptance of suffering with love), "hatzar" ("the enemy") will be transformed from "tzara" ("woe") to "tzohar" (a window for illumination"). [Each of these words is composed of the same three letters: tzadik, hei and reish.
(Baal Shem Tov)
It happened over 200 years ago on a snowy, stormy night. On a desolate road in the middle of Poland, a Jewish businessman's wagon, laden with goods, was stuck in the mud. The wagon wasn't budging, and the two strong horses that had previously been faithfully doing their job were now helpless.
The driver tried all the tricks he knew; the horses strained until they were exhausted. Another few hours in the cold and they would freeze to death. The forest was filled with wolves and robbers who were just waiting for such an opportunity. The horses and the contents of the carriage would be easy pickings. The situation was desperate.
The businessman was at the end of his wits. He turned to the driver and begged him to run to the nearest town; perhaps there he could find someone with a horse or two, or a few strong men to come back and help.
The nearest town was the city of Apta. The driver took a small swig from the small vodka flask and began walking swiftly. By the time he entered the town it was well after midnight. Except for the screaming winds the streets were enveloped in black, frozen silence.
Where would he find anyone to help him now? But he couldn't go back. With no choice he began walking, hoping to find some sign of life. Eventually, he saw a dim light in the synagogue. He entered the silent building, tried to warm himself up and after a few seconds burst into tears.
Suddenly he heard from a corner of the room someone say something. He looked up to see a thin, young man who had been sitting and studying Torah by candlelight. "What's wrong?" the young man repeated. "Why are you crying? What happened?"
The driver walked over to him, dried his tears, and told him the whole story; where the carriage was stuck, how he had come looking for some help and added that possibly there was a tavern or some other place in the town where they could find strong fellows or maybe a horse or two to help push the carriage.
The young man told him not to worry, put on his coat, closed his book and told him to follow him. The driver couldn't believe his ears! It was a miracle!! He thanked the young man profusely and thanked G-d for sending him. Soon there would be help! Probably he knew where there were some big strong men! The driver followed him into the street but to his surprise the young man kept walking straight.... out of the town in the direction of the carriage.
The driver tried to protest, to explain that it was senseless to go alone, they had to go back and get help; bring a horse or even three. But the young man just kept walking swiftly through the swirling snow and freezing wind until they arrived at the site of the carriage.
Approaching the carriage, the young man looked at the businessman who had exited the carriage and then said quietly, "You have already been stuck here too long. I hate to see it when people are stuck. The time has come that you should continue on your journey."
There was something so simple in this young man's words that it caught the driver by surprise. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"I mean, go back up to your seat, crack your whip over the horses and continue on your journey." He replied.
"And what will you do?" The driver asked.
"I'll get in the coach and return with you to Apta."
The confident tone of the young fellow's voice made the driver jump up onto the carriage, climb to his place, grab his whip and snap it over the horses and amazingly, the horses pulled the carriage smoothly out of the mud to freedom.
The astonished businessman and the driver entered the carriage and the young fellow entered after them. Minutes later they arrived in Apta and when the carriage stopped the young man alighted and walked quietly off without saying a word.
Before they could digest what just happened the irresistible smell of freshly baked bread wafted by them. They followed the aroma and in just moments found themselves entering the bakery of Apta and being greeted by its owner, a religious Jew. "Welcome honored guests! Come wash your hands, sit down, and have some fresh bread" he said.
They washed for bread while the baker prepared some hot tea and as they ate they told their host about the miracle that they had just experienced.
"Young man? Miracles? I know everyone in this city" the baker said "and I can tell you for sure there are no young, thin miracle workers here. Perhaps it was Elijah the prophet himself!"
Suddenly the door of the bakery opened and a thin figure wrapped in an old winter coat slipped into the room. The baker's smile turned to a look of disgust. "That's my son-in-law! The whole day I work to support him and his family. He does nothing. He drives me crazy!"
The driver's face registered shock. "He's the one who took us out of the mud!!"
The baker's eyes widened. "He is the miracle worker?" he asked, and then he fainted.
As soon as the baker's son-in-law heard the commotion he ran to his father-in-law's aid. When the baker came to his senses he began to beg forgiveness.
That night a hidden tzadik became revealed to the world, a great rebbe who would help thousands lift themselves "out of the mud" known as the Yid HaKodosh (Holy Jew) of Peshiska, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz.
Just as a baal teshuva (lit. "master of return") is described as one who was distant but has now drawn close, similarly, G-d has made Himself distant and will come close via His teshuva. The verse, "If the annointed priest sins, bringing guilt to the people" (Lev. 4:3) refers to the "annointed priest - kohen haMoshiach," because it is through Moshiach that G-d performs His teshuva. Our Sages state that Moshiach will bring the tzadikim (righteous) to teshuva. This includes the ultimate tzadik, G-d Himself. His teshuva is the complete redemption.
(Ohr haTorah, Yalkut Moshiach UGeula al HaTorah)