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Would you consider turning your yard into a petting zoo complete with a camel, a draft horse, a bull, ponies, two llamas, a yak, a goat, a chicken, a turtle and a boa constrictor?
One grandmother in the mid-West did, for the joint first birth day celebration of her two granddaughters. The $1,200 price tag included entertainment, gifts and decorations.
Or maybe your child would prefer a party at a ski resort, or having his or her friends brought to the party in a chauffeured limo for only $150 an hour?
These are just a few examples of recent children's birthday parties that, as one psychologist notes, "set up lifelong expectations that might be unrealistic. It is important during birthdays to help a child avoid valuing materialism over family and friends."
In a drive to reinstate good, old-fashioned values and, at the same time, keep expenditures down, many parents are opting to get off the birthday bandwagon while they still can.
A little over seven years ago, the Rebbe started an innovative campaign to make birthdays meaningful for both children and adults.
The Rebbe encouraged people to celebrate their birthdays in the traditional Jewish manner.
Jewish teachings explain that a birthday is a time when mazalo gover - the particular spiritual source of a person's soul shines most powerfully. The Divine energy that was present at the time of your birth is once more present and dynamic on the anniversary of your birth each year.
Therefore, your birthday is a perfect time to enhance the quality of your life in the year to come. Things you can do on your birthday to get the most out of your soul-power. These include spending time in self-evaluation, making a positive resolution for the coming year, giving charity, studying Torah, and organizing a birthday party with friends and family. At the gathering make sure to share with friends some of what you learned on your birthday.
After hearing about the Rebbe's suggestions for birthdays, one public school teacher was so taken with this meaningful way to celebrate that she incorporated some of these recommendations into her students' classroom birthday parties. She asked each child to make a positive resolution and to share with the other students something meaningful and valuable they had recently learned.
This coming Wednesday is the 18th of the month of Elul, the birthdays of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov - founder of Chasidism in general, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi - founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic philosophy.
On this day, their spiritual sources shine powerfully. We, today, can key into the extra measure and quality of Divine energy that is present on the 18th of Elul.
Consider taking advantage of that energy this year by increasing in Torah study and mitzvot (commandment)performance.
This week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, seems to contain a grammatical error. "When you go forth to war against your enemies," it begins, "and the L-rd your G-d will deliver him into your hands." Why does the Torah begin the verse with the plural - enemies - and continue in the singular?
Every word in the Torah is exact, every letter conveying a multitude of meanings that teach countless lessons. This verse, which seemingly deals with the subject of conventional warfare, alludes to a different type of war, a spiritual war that is waged by every individual. A Jew may face two types of enemies: one that threatens his physical existence, and one that threatens his special holiness as a member of the Jewish people - his Jewish soul.
The Torah uses the word "enemies" to refer to both of these threats, for the body and soul of the Jew work in tandem, united in their service of G-d. Whatever imperils one's physical well-being threatens one's spiritual equilibrium, and vice versa.
The Torah tells us how to emerge victorious over both types of enemy: "When you will go forth." A person must gird himself with the strength that comes from absolute faith in G-d, even before encountering the enemy. Next, one's approach must be that of ascendancy - "against (literally, 'over') your enemies." Know that G-d Himself stands beside you and assists you in your struggle. Armed in such a manner, victory is assured, not only against conventional enemies, but against the root of all evil - the Evil Inclination, equated in the Talmud with "the Satan (enemy of the soul), and the angel of death (enemy of the physical body)."
When a Jew goes out to "war" fortified with the knowledge that there is no force in the world able to stand in the face of goodness and holiness, not only are external manifestations of evil vanquished, but its spiritual source is defeated as well. The Torah therefore uses the singular - enemy - to allude to the Evil Inclination, the origin and prototype of all misfortune.
The verse concludes with the words, "and you shall take captives of them." If a Jew is not careful and falls prey to the Evil Inclination, all of his higher faculties, given to him by G-d to be utilized for good, also fall into its snare. The Torah teaches that sincere repentance has the power to redeem these captive prisoners, elevating them until even "willful transgressions are considered as merits." Such warfare brings Moshiach and the Final Redemption closer, when the Evil Inclination will be totally vanquished and the victory over sin will be permanent.
The Lubavitch network of day and overnight summer camps was established in 1956 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Today, the largest camp network in the world spans 40 countries. In the former Soviet Union alone there are 40 camps attended by nearly 9,000 children. "Friendship Circle" camps, for special needs children, are often run in tandem with the local Chabad-Lubavitch camp or are sometimes a special division in the camp. This year for the first time in the U.S. there was also a week-long camp especially for Jewish deaf children who hailed from throughout North America and Israel. Most of the camps are named Camp Gan Israel (CGI) in tribute to Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism.
Brand New Year
In this bright and fun picture book, a lively family enjoys all the wonderful Rosh Hashana mitzvot, food and activities that celebrate the start of a new year. Playful rhymes by Rochel Groner Vorst, bold, colorful illustrations by Shepsil Scheinberg and laminiated pages. HaChai Publishing.
My Encounter with the Rebbe
A first-hand account of a unique relationship that Zalmon and Roselyn Jaffe had with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This is not just "another" book about the Rebbe. These events were all recorded as they unfolded from 1958 through 1994. To read My Encounter is to a gain a true glimpse into the experience of being in the Rebbe's presence. The newly released third volume is culled from diary entries from 1977 - 79. PCL Publishing.
Freely translated and adapted
Chai - 18 - Elul, 5712 
To All My Brethren, Wherever You Are,
G-d Bless You All, Sholom u'Brocho:
I send you herewith my prayerful wishes for a happy and pleasant New Year, may it bring blessings to us all.
At the end of this Shemittah (Sabbatical) Year, and on the threshold of the New Year, we are reminded of the great commandment, which is "a strong pillar and a great credit to our religion" (Sefer Hachinuch) - the commandment of Hakhel, when all the people, men, women, and children, gathered during the Festival of Succoth at the holy place in Jerusalem - may it be rebuilt by our righteous Moshiach, speedily in our time-to hear selected portions of the Torah, portions inspiring to piety, love and appreciation of the Torah, the observance of the Mitzvoth [commandments], particularly the Mitzvah of charity.
Although at all times we are commanded to bring up our children in the way of the Torah and Mitzvoth, the Mitzvah of Hakhel, coinciding with this season, impresses upon us our duties towards the children with especial force and timeliness.
Therefore, let every Jewish father and mother, every rabbi and leader, every communal worker and person of influence, heed the call of the Mitzvah of Hakhel: to gather the masses of Jewish children and bring them to... Torah-true educational institutions and ensure their existence and growth; in order that all Jewish children, boys and girls, be brought up in the spirit of piety and love for G-d, love for the Torah and Mitzvoth, love for one another.
In the merit of this, the Alm-ghty will favor us and enable us very soon to fulfill the Mitzvah of Hakhel in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, rebuilt by our Righteous Moshiach, Amen.
With blessings to you and from you for a Happy and Pleasant Year,
Ksivah Vachasimah Toivo [you should be written and sealed for good],
15 Elul, 5739 (1979)
Greeting and Blessing:
I was pleased to be informed of the forthcoming Concert on the eve of the 18th of Elul.
The date is particularly significant and auspicious for the occasion. For the month of Elul is dedicated to teshuvah - return to the roots and sources of Torah and mitzvos [commandments] which are bound up with the real essence of every Jew.
It is well known that very often the heart strings can be touched more readily and effectively by an inspiring melody than by a word of admonishment.
The Alter Rebbe [Rabbi Shneur Zalman], founder of Chabad, explains in Tanya that the essential aspect of teshuvah is in the sincerity of the heart, since it entails profound feelings of regret for past failures and the strongest resolve and commitment for the future. And it is well known that very often the heart strings can be touched more readily and effectively by an inspiring niggun [Chasidic melody] than by a word of admonishment.
Moreover, the concert is taking place on Chai [the 18th of] Elul ("Chai" for "life") - the birthday of the two great luminaries, the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe, who brought new life and inspiration to our Jewish people.
May the concert event be a great success in every respect, a source of lasting inspiration to all of you, and stimulating the activities of Chabad Lubavitch to strengthen Torah-true Yiddishkeit [Judaism] in the community at large.
Wishing you a kesivo vachasimo tova for a good and sweet New Year,
Hillel used to say: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" (Ethics 1:14)
It is up to the individual to better himself and improve through his own hard work. No one else can do this for him. Yet no matter how high a level is reached, a person must never become self-satisfied. "What am I" one should ask, "How may I further improve?" If character flaws are not corrected in one's youth, it is more difficult to change later when bad habits have become ingrained. Finally, performing commandments should never be postponed until a later date. (Mili D'Chasiduta)
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Wednesday is Chai (the 18th of) Elul, the "birthday" of the greater Chasidic movement and of Chabad Chasidut in particular.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the path of Chasidut, was born on Chai Elul. On that date 26 years later, Achiya Hashiloni began to teach him Torah "as it is studied in Gan Eden." Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Chasidut, was also born on Chai Elul.
As the Previous Rebbe explained, Chai Elul introduces an element of chayut, vitality, to our Divine service during Elul, the month in which we correct and make amends for past misdeeds. In the merit of our repentance, G-d grants us a good and sweet year. By infusing our service with vitality, Chai Elul helps us do teshuva with enthusiasm, not just by rote or out of habit.
Superficially, vitality and teshuva may seem contradictory. Vitality is associated with joy, whereas repentance is associated with bitterness, regretting past actions and resolving to do better. Those these seem to be opposite emotions, in Elul we feel both, and at the same time!
Every mitzva we do should be performed with joy, for by observing that mitzva, we fulfill the will of G-d. As teshuva is a mitzva like any other, we experience joy for having been given the privilege.
However, Chasidut gives us another reason to be happy while doing teshuva, by explaining how bitterness and joy can exist simultaneously.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman describes this in the Tanya as "weeping on one side of the heart, and joy on the other side." When we do teshuva, we rage against our Evil Inclination and of failure to withstand temptation. Yet at the same time we are happy, for we know that we are becoming closer to G-d.
Chai Elul (and by extension, Chasidut) thus transforms the entire month of Elul into a labor of love and joy.
You shall not see your brother's ox or his sheep driven away and hide yourself from them; surely you shall bring them back to your brother (Deut. 22:1)
G-d has implanted within us a wonderful character trait: a willingness and urge to be kind to another Jew that is even stronger than the desire to be kind to ourselves. We can always find reasons why we deserve our own suffering, G-d forbid, but when it comes to another's distress, it is absolutely impossible.
You shall not see your brother's donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and hide yourself from them; you shall surely lift them up again (Deut. 22:4)
It is forbidden to make believe one cannot recognize his fellow Jew's material needs, symbolized by the "donkey" and the "ox." For when you help another, you too will surely be "lifted up" and elevated spiritually.
When a person helps his fellow Jew, he himself is thereby elevated. Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the Alter Rebbe, wrote that when one does a spiritual favor for another, "his mind and heart are purified one thousand-fold"; his grandson, the Tzemach Tzedek, added that this is no exaggeration!
Remember what Amalek did to you
Why does the Torah use the singular form of the word "you" instead of the plural?
The early chasidim explained: Amalek, or the Evil Inclination, gains a stronghold only in an individual who is stand-offish and reclusive from the rest of the Jewish People. He who considers himself part of the larger whole and stands in unity with his brethren cannot be harmed by Amalek.
Once, when Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of and first Rebbe of Chabad, was visiting a small town, a fire broke out. He asked to be taken to the site of the fire and, upon arriving there, stood leaning on his cane for a few moments. The fire quickly died down.
When the soldiers who had been trying to put out the fire saw what happened, they ran to their officer and told him about it.
"Bring the rabbi to me immediately," he commanded them.
When Rabbi Shneur Zalman arrived, the officer asked if he was perhaps the son or grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.
"I am not the Baal Shem Tov's grandson in a bodily sense," explained Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "but I am the disciple of his disciple - his spiritual grandson."
"If that is true," said the officer, "then I am not amazed at what took place today. Let me tell you a story," continued the officer.
"My father was a general, and once, when he and his troops were encamped in the town of Mezhibuzh, he was worried sick about his wife. He had not heard from her for some time. Seeing how upset he was, his friends advised him to seek out the Baal Shem Tov, known to be a holy man amongst the Jews.
"My father sent a message to the Baal Shem Tov asking to be received for an audience, but the Baal Shem Tov refused. Again and again he requested an audience, and each time the holy rabbi denied his request.
"Nearly out of his mind with worry, my father thought of a plan. He sent word to the Baal Shem Tov that if he refused once more, my father would force all the Jewish habitants of Mezhibuzh to billet his troops in their homes. Since it was nearly the holiday of Passover, this would have wreaked havoc in the Jewish homes. The Baal Shem Tov finally agreed to see my father so as not to cause the Jews any distress.
"My father entered the home of the Baal Shem Tov, and from where he stood at the entrance, was able to see the holy rabbi in his room studying. My father walked over to a nearby mirror to make sure he looked presentable. He was amazed to see in the mirror, not his own likeness, but a road which lead to the town where he and his wife lived. He called over his aide to witness this remarkable scene and the aide, too, saw the same thing in the mirror.
"As they continued to stare into the mirror, they seemed to walk along the path to my father's house until they finally reached the front door. The front door opened, and there was my father's wife sitting at the table, writing a letter. Looking more closely, they saw the letter itself. In the letter, my father read that his wife had recently given birth to a baby boy, and for this reason could not write more quickly. Both she and her son were well.
"My father was overwhelmed and overjoyed by the experience. He thanked the Baal Shem Tov profusely, and after some time, received the letter which his wife had written. He recorded in his diary the entire episode. I am that infant," revealed the officer.
The Baal Shem Tov loved all Jews. He would invite the simple folk to eat with him on the Sabbath and holidays. His brilliant disciples and the many scholars who also sat at the table could not understand why the Baal Shem Tov showered so much attention on these people.
Knowing how the scholars felt, the Baal Shem Tov once said: "You are surprised that I should favor the simple people? It is true that they have not learned as much as you; some of them even do not know the meaning of the prayers they recite every day. But their hearts are made of gold. They love humanity and all of G-d's creatures. They are humble and honest. How I envy them! I will show you soon that I have not exaggerated."
During the third meal on the Sabbath, it was the Baal Shem Tov's custom to teach his disciples the secrets of the Torah. The simple folk who could not understand the mysteries of the Torah would go into an adjoining room, where they would recite the Psalms of David as best they could.
On this occasion, the Baal Shem Tov closed his eyes, becoming deeply engrossed. Suddenly his face lit up with great joy. When he opened his eyes, all of his disciples could feel his happiness. The Baal Shem Tov turned to the student sitting on his right. "Place your right hand on the shoulder of your neighbor." He ordered the next one to do the same until they all formed a chain. Then he told them to sing a melody that they sang only on the most solemn occasions. As they sang, they felt their hearts rising higher and higher.
When they finished singing, the Baal Shem Tov completed the circle by placing his hands on the shoulders of the students next to him. "Let us close our eyes and concentrate," the Baal Shem Tov said.
An intermingling of melodious voices filled the room. Some of these wondrous voices expressed unshakable faith, others were full of joyous abandon, still others expressed heart-rending appeal. They could clearly distinguish the words of the Psalms. The circle of disciples sat spellbound. Tears flowed from their eyes and their hearts were full of ecstasy, ready to burst.
Suddenly, the singing stopped, for the Besht had removed his arms and broken the chain. The Besht then explained to them how much G-d enjoys listening to the Psalms, especially when they come straight from the pure hearts of simple, honest, humble people.
"Whose voices did we hear a little while ago?" asked the disciples.
"You were listening for one brief moment to the Psalms recited by the simple people in the next room, as the angels in heaven hear them!"
"When you go out to wage war... G-d will deliver them into your hands and you will take captives." (Deut. 21:10) The word in this verse for "captives" is "shivyo." The literal meaning of shivyo is "his captives." "His" implies that the Jewish people will regain that which the enemy captured from us. One of the tasks of Moshiach, in the words of Maimonides, "He will wage the battles of G-d and succeed." At the end of the battles, the Jewish people will find restored all the precious spoils that were taken by the nations during the exile, foremost among them the Holy Temple.
(The Rebbe, Shabbat Parshat Teitzei, 5750-1990)