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Judaism doesn't believe in asceticism. Torah does not consider it a lofty goal to totally separate oneself from the world and its pleasures. Rather, we are encouraged to enjoy life, but in a uniquely Jewish fashion.
Maimonides writes in his Mishne Torah: "A person may desire... not to eat meat, nor to drink wine, live in a pleasant home, or wear fine clothing... This is a wrong path and it is forbidden to follow it... Our Sages directed man to abstain only from those things which the Torah forbids him and not to deny himself those which are permitted."
We are all going to partake of this world no matter what, as we should. So we might as well do it Jewishly.
The Talmud states that when one is surrounded by beautiful objects and furnishings it expands the mind and relaxes the person. One can therefore study Torah more assiduously. So when you re-decorate or purchase artwork, consider whether this color paint or that artist's work of art, are mind expanding or stress reducing.
Don't deny yourself "meat" or "wine" or any of the delicacies in-between. But do make sure that it's kosher. Additionally, remember our body is on loan to us from G-d, so eating healthy enables us to return it in as good shape as possible.
Wear fine clothes and keep up with the fashion - if you can afford to. But while you shop, keep in mind that you want to dress Jewishly, with dignity. And if you can't afford or have no interest in dressing on fashion's cutting edge, dress with just as much dignity, but less expensively.
At an international Chanuka gathering - connecting together people on five continents by satellite - the Rebbe expressed the above concepts and brought them one step further. With an awareness of the purpose of creation for all material things, we can use them toward their proper purpose. He said:
"Our involvement with material things should be motivated by more than a desire for self-gratification. This involvement should be purposeful in nature and ultimately directed toward serving G-d.
"In this manner, not only does this satellite-link communicate spiritual truth: it expresses it itself. For satellite communication, like every other creation brought into being by G-d, exists for a purpose. As our Sages declare, `Whatever the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world, He created solely for His glory.' In this instance, G-d revealed the wisdom for this and other technological advances that unite different parts of the world so that we could better appreciate the oneness that pervades all existence.
"But Judaism never allows anything to remain in the theoretical. Practical application and an orientation toward action are the backbone of Judaism:
"The oneness achieved through satellite communication allows one person to share with another not only in the realm of thought, but also in a tangible way. For example, charitable funds can be transferred from one account to another regardless of the geographic distance, and in this manner, a needy person can be promptly given the wherewithal to purchase his physical necessities," the Rebbe concluded.
We are physical people in a physical world. That's the way G-d created us and that's the way He wants it. But He also "wants" us to reveal the true purpose of everything physical and use it for its G-dly purpose.
As we approach the Messianic Era, when the Divine purpose for everything will be fully revealed, it becomes easier to achieve the goal of using the pleasures of the world to bring pleasure to ourselves and ultimately to G-d.
The Jewish nation has endured four exiles: The first in Egypt, the second in Babylonia, the third in Assyria. The fourth and final exile is the one we have been in for the last two thousand years, the "exile of Edom." (Edom stands for Rome, and symbolizes the countries of the Western world.)
The Torah portion of Vayigash delineates the beginning of the Jewish people's journey into exile. G-d appeared to Jacob and promised, "I will descend with you into Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again." Bolstered by this promise, Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt and began the Jewish people's 210-year sojourn there.
In many respects the exile in Egypt was the harshest of all the exiles; it occurred before the giving of the Torah, which afforded future generations the strength to withstand the suffering. Also, as with other painful experiences, the first time it occurs the wound is always the deepest and the hardest to overcome.
In addition, the Jews' exile in Egypt differed from future ones in that all Jews were involved. Later exiles found Jews scattered all over the world, assuring that whenever Jews were discriminated against in one country there were other lands in which they enjoyed relative freedom, and could come to the aid of their brethren.
Furthermore, Egypt itself was a land that posed particular difficulties. Not only was it spiritually corrupt, but our Sages describe it as a fortified country from which not even one slave could escape.
This first and most difficult exile served one positive purpose - to act as preparation for the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Egypt was the crucible in which the Jewish nation was purified and made worthy of the Torah.
We learn this from the Hebrew name for Egypt, "Mitzrayim," which comes from the word meaning "limitation" and "constriction."
When water's flow is artificially blocked by placing an obstruction in its path, the water flows even more forcefully because of the temporary impasse. When one's thumb is held over the tap to partially obstruct the flow, the water shoots out that much more forcefully from the faucet.
Such is the Divine purpose of our exile, to uncover within every Jew the hidden strengths and stores of faith that are in the Jewish soul. The difficulties and pressures of the exile cause these inner qualities and self-sacrifice to be revealed.
The experience of exile can be used for our maximum benefit - to strengthen our commitment to Torah and mitzvot (commandments). Just as the Jews eventually left Egypt victorious and with "great wealth," and were worthy of receiving the Torah, may we be worthy to usher in the Messianic era, now.
The Power of an Essay
by Esther Sternberg
Nearly four decades ago, the Rebbe told me to publish a book of essays written by girls about the mitzva (commandment) of lighting Shabbat candles. The Rebbe told me to make a contest to get the girls to write, and to offer prizes to the winners.
Two years later, we again publicized a contest and offered prizes to the girls who wrote the winning essays. The contest generated a lot of excitement, we selected the winners, and I thought I was finished as I had had no intention of publishing another book.
Then one day, my husband said, "We just got a call from the Rebbe's office. The Rebbe wants to know, where is the second book? ...it must be distributed before Rosh Hashana!"
It was just a little over a month until Rosh Hashana. How would we put out a book in less than five weeks? I reviewed the compositions from our last essay contest, and saw that we didn't have enough interesting material to fill a whole book.
I called a friend who was in charge working at Camp Emunah, a girls' overnight camp in the Catskill Mountains run by Lubavitch. At the time there were many new immigrants from Russia and Iran attending Camp Emunah. I explained the Rebbe's request to my friend, Yehudis Metzger. I asked if she could get the girls to write compositions about lighting Shabbat candles.
A little while later, I received a number of essays, including one from a 12-year old girl named Laura. She had just come from Russia and wrote that in camp she had learned to keep Shabbat for the first time. She concluded, "I hope that when I come home I will continue to keep Shabbat just like I did in camp."
We put together the book and it was printed in time for Rosh Hashana. We printed Laura's essay in Russian and also translated it into English. That was the end of the story. Or so we thought.
Thirty years later, a woman from Philadelphia called me. "My name is Yanna. This past Shabbat, I was at the Chabad House and I noticed a book called A Candle of My Own. I looked through it and saw an essay by a girl named Laura, who wrote about how much she loved Shabbat and how she hopes to continue keeping Shabbat when she gets home.
"I happen to know Laura. Her husband and daughter have been coming around to the Chabad House and I think Laura is ready as well. I believe that if I show her a copy of the book with her own essay in it, it could change her life."
I had only two books left, and I was reluctant to part with one of them. But if it could possibly change someone's life...
I agreed to give a copy to Yanna. For three weeks I didn't hear from her and thought maybe it had gone to waste. Then I received a call.
"Mrs. Sternberg, this is Laura Fisher. I used to be Laura Brovender. I was in Camp Emunah and I wrote that essay. This past Shabbat I was invited to a Shabbaton. There was a large crowd, and there was an easel set up with a cloth covering. I thought maybe it was a painting that would be unveiled during the Shabbaton.
"Suddenly someone got up and said, 'Laura, we have a surprise for you!'
"They took off the cover and on the easel was the book of essays, opened to my composition. I read it and started to cry. It brought me back to my childhood, when I loved Shabbat and wanted to keep it so badly. But my parents made fun of me and wouldn't let me keep Jewish observance. I still remember all the blessings I learned in camp."
Then her husband got up and showed a prayer book that his wife had received that summer from her counselor in Camp Emunah. The counselor had written a blessing to Laura. First the ink is strong, then the pen is running out of ink and the letters look faded. Then apparently the counselor got a new pen and the letters are strong again.
Laura's husband pointed out that this blessing from the counselor is the story of Laura's life. The experience in Camp Emunah was like the bold first ink, and left a strong impression on Laura. Then the letters faded, but now they are coming to life again and Laura is newly inspired to take on more Jewish observances.
Everyone at the Shabbaton was very moved, and Laura called to thank me for my foresight in putting together that book. I told her, "Don't thank me, thank the Rebbe."
She said, "Do you see the vision of the Rebbe? He knew that years later I would need inspiration and I would see this book again one day when I was ready for it. Now I'm ready."
Laura and Yanna came to visit me together with their daughters, and I told them many stories about the Shabbat Candle Lighting Campaign initiated by the Rebbe in 1975 and about the Rebbe. I was also invited to Philadelphia to speak to the Russian Jewish community there. I formed a close relationship with Yanna and Laura.
One Shabbat I was hosting Yanna and Laura in my home in Crown Heights. We were discussing the story and I said, "It would be so interesting to find out the name of the counselor who taught Laura."
Laura said, "I don't even know how I ended up in Camp Emunah that summer. I had just come from Russia in May, and by June I was already in camp. My counselor made me feel so at home."
All we knew about the counselor was that her name was Yona, because that was how she signed her letter in Laura's prayer book. Once again I called my friend Yehudis Metzger and she told me that Yona was a friend of her daughter Tova. I called Tova (Meizlish), now an emissary of the Rebbe in Mexico, and she told me that Yona Hershkowitz was a wonderful Russian woman. She had tragically passed away in a car accident, leaving behind four young children.
Yona had been only 16 years old that summer when she was Laura's counselor, yet she had the depth and maturity to give her all to the girls in her charge and to impact their lives significantly.
Hearing about Yona's passing, Laura committed herself to be more careful in her observance of mitzvot in Yona's honor.
Every act ignites a spark. Maybe for the spark to burst into a flame will take a week, or a few weeks, or even a few years or decades. But every mitzva is a candle that will lead to another spark and flame.
Reprinted from The N'Shei Chabad Newsletter.
The Jewish community of Ivanova, Russia, opened a new synagogue and JCC. In addition to a synagogue, the facility includes classrooms, Sunday-school facilities, a library, a kosher cafeteria and social-service offices. There are also plans for the construction of a mikva as well.
A special celebration took place recently in Miami Beach, Florida, with the ground breaking and laying of the cornerstone for the new synagogue and mikva of Bais Menachem of Miami Beach. Established in 1989, the congregation had outgrown its current location.
Chabad of North Tel Aviv, Israel, dedicated a newly renovated Sanctuary at the Chabad House and welcomed a new Torah scroll as well.
Freely translated, from www.meaningfullife.com
3rd Day of Week, 5th of Teves, 5736 (Dec. 9, 1976)
Greeting and Blessing
... In reply to your inquiry and request for instructions in connection with the forthcoming fast of Asoro b'Teves (10th of Teves), in view of the situation in and around the Land of Israel -
You will surely be instructed by the rabbi of your congregation this coming Shabbos, which is the eve of Asoro b'Teves, in his sermon, and in practical terms, since the essential thing is the deed.
However, since you have also approached me in this matter, I will set forth, at least, several suggestions - after the following introductory remarks:
Regrettably, there are people who claim that it is necessary to think and act "big," in terms of global dimensions and stupendous undertakings, etc., etc. Surely they mean well; and to the extent that such resolutions are practical and are actually carried out - they are very helpful to improve the situation.
Yet, we must never overlook - indeed, rather greatly emphasize - the so-called "small and unsophisticated" things which each modest congregation, or even each individual, can and must do - beginning with the old, yet ever-new, Jewish way, collectively as one people and also as individuals. This is the action of "the voice is the voice of Jacob" - Torah and prayer - which G-d himself has shown us to be the first effective action to nullify the power of "the hands of Esau" - in whatever shape or form they are raised against us.
Certainly this should find the fullest expression in a day which the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) declares to be a Day of Fasting, one to which the prophet Isaiah refers as a "chosen fast ... a fast and time favored by G-d."
Now, in answer to your inquiry, and since the Fast of Asoro b'Teves is especially connected with Eretz Yisroel (the Land of Israel) and the holy city of Jerusalem (recalling the siege of Jerusalem), my suggestion - in addition to the regular "observances" on Fast Days, as set forth at length and in detail in Jewish legal works and in books of Mussar and Chassidus - is as follows:
During this Day - expressly for the sake of the security and strengthening of Eretz Yisroel as well as in the Diaspora - and particularly for the benefit of our brethren behind the "Iron Curtain," a special effort should be made in the spirit of "Old Israel" - in the areas of Torah, Tefillah (prayer), and Tzedoko (charity),
Specifically: After the prayers (both in the morning and at Mincha [the afternoon prayer]) to learn (and where there already are daily study groups, to add) a subject in Torah, including a legal ruling,
Immediately following the prayers, even before learning, to say several chapters of Psalms (in addition to the regular portion);
Before and after the prayers - to give charity (in addition to the regular donation), including charity for a sacred cause or institution in Eretz Yisroel, Eretz haChayim ("Land of the Living").
Needless to say, one who repeats the above again and again in the course of the day, is to be praised, and each time - the more one adds in these activities (in quantity and quality), is to be praised all the more.
And, as in all matters of Kedusha (Holiness), it is desirable that all the above be done in a group (with at least a Minyan).
May G-d accept, and He will accept, the prayers and supplications of Jews wherever they are, and soon, in our very own days, may the Promise be fulfilled that "These days will be transformed into days of rejoicing and gladness,"
With the true and complete Redemption through our righteous Moshiach.
With esteem and blessing,
End of letter from previous issue regarding public Menorah lightings in the United States
I hope and pray that everyone who has a voice and influence in Jewish community affairs and is concerned for the preservation of Jews and Judaism in this country no less than for the preservation of the American way, will indeed act in the spirit of the basic principle of "this nation under G-d, and government of the people, by the people and for the people." Including also the Jewish people, and do everything possible for the good of every Jewish child, that he and she remain Jewish, marry a Jew and live Jewishly; and of course a good Jew is also a good American.
Picture this scene: Millions of Jews - men and women, infants and seniors, scholars and lay people - assembled in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount. A hush falls over the crowd as the king of Israel ascends on to a platform and reads sections of the holy Torah. The nation is inspired and invigorated. A display of unity and a statement of purpose converge to refocus the people. This scene repeated itself in ancient Jerusalem on a septennial basis. When the Temple will soon be rebuilt, the practice will be renewed, with Moshiach himself reading from the Torah.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
On the Shabbat following the writing of the letter printed on the left, Shabbat Parshat Vayigash, the Rebbe gave more details as to how we can aid the situation in the Land of Israel on the Tenth of Tevet (this year Tuesday, December 22).
The Rebbe began by explaining that while he had intentionally not stated details - as each person should fulfill the directives according to their heart's desires - "nevertheless, since every inspiration requires details in order for it to be actualized, we can find specific directives based on the words of our Rebbes, our Leaders, in similar situations and in the words of Sages in general":
Study of Torah. Specifically: The laws regarding fasting, and since the ultimate purpose of a fast day is that it be transformed into joy and gladness and to a holiday - we should also study the end of the Laws of Fasting in Maimonides' Mishne Torah, where he discusses the fulfillment of the promise that the fast days will be transformed to "holidays" and "days of joy and gladness."
Prayer. Specifically, the three Psalms, 20 22 and 69 that the Previous Rebbe had directed be said in 1941. Even though the present situation is not at all as severe, G-d forbid, as it was then, yet it is still appropriate to make an additional effort beyond the conventional
Charity: The siege of the walls surrounding Jerusalem began on the 10th of Tevet. Accordingly, based on the words of our Sages "I am your wall - this is Torah" - charity should be given to a Torah organization, and more specifically - (also) to literally help build a 'wall' - charity to construct a Torah building (or for the maintenance and repairs of an existing building).
There is a virtue in the charity outside of Israel and a virtue in the charity given for Israel. Its is therefore appropriate to give the additional charity both for a Torah organization outside of Israel and for a Torah organization in Israel, which will be rebuilt by our Righteous Moshiach.
And, as the Rebbe concluded then, the more you add in these three activities the better it is.
You shall tell my father of all my honor in Egypt (Gen. 45:13)
"Tell my father not to worry," Joseph requested of his brothers. "All the honor and respect heaped upon me by the Egyptians has not had a negative effect. It has not made me lose the humility necessary to worship G-d properly."
And he saw all the wagons which Joseph had sent to carry him (Gen. 45:27)
Rashi comments that with these wagons Joseph alluded to the very last subject in Torah he had learned with his father Jacob before being sold into slavery, that of the egla arufa (beheaded heifer). When Jacob saw the wagons (agalot - the same root word as egla), he realized that his son was sending the message that he had not forgotten all that he had learned with his father so many years ago. We see from this that seemingly insignificant actions of the righteous are fraught with meaning and serve as lessons and examples for those who take heed.
(Maayana Shel Torah)
Here is seed for you; and you shall sow the land (Gen. 47:23)
The righteous Joseph, the spiritual leader of every generation, gives each of us the encouragement and strength we need to worship G-d. But we must not rely solely on that which we receive from the tzadik; we must also sow the seeds we are given.
The era of the First Holy Temple was replete with both the greatest wonders and the greatest temptations. Although miracles were daily occurrences, the people succumbed to the temptation of idol worship which prevailed among the nations of the world at that time. Destruction came upon the Jewish nation slowly, and though the prophets begged the people to return from their sinful practices, it was to no avail.
In the year 3228 (533 b.c.e.), Menashe, the evil son of the righteous King Hezzikaya, rose to the throne of Judea. Through his insidious influence idol worship spread through the land. The next half century saw the great struggle between the arch-rivals Babylonia and Egypt encroach into the Jewish kingdom, as Judea became a vassal king of King Nebuchadnezar.
The year 434 b.c.e. saw the first wave of exiles, the elite of Jerusalem, leave for Babylonia. These men included the greatest leaders and scholars of the time: Mordechai, Daniel and Ezekiel, men who would be instrumental in bringing about great miracles in the future. Only the poor were left in the land, and the future clearly pointed to the exiled community which was to grow and flourish in Babylonia.
Eight years later, the end came as the forces of the Babylonian commander besieged Jerusalem and battered its defences. The Holy Temple, the king's palace, as well as the rest of the city was burned and laid waste. The remaining leaders were executed and the people forced into exile under torturous conditions.
Although the destruction had been bloody and crushing, the Jewish exiles in Babylonia gradually rebuilt their lives and communities. The Babylonian rulers permitted the Jews considerable independence to reconstruct Jewish life in the new environment. The adjustment was made easier by the fact that the earlier exiles were now well established.
The exiles thought that their stay in Babylon would be a short one. They waited and longed for the day on which they would return to the Holy Land. However, it was decreed differently: The prophet Jeremiah told them that it was decreed in Heaven that they must remain in Babylon. "Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat their fruit...Increase there...Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to G-d for her, because through her peace, you will have peace."
And so, the exiled Jews settled down in Babylon. But how could they retain their Jewishness in a foreign land, bereft of the Holy Temple and its Divine service, and surrounded as they were by idol worshippers? The guidance of the Sages of the time set the pattern for Jewish life for all coming generations by establishing the foundations of Torah study, assuring the continuation of the Jewish people both in and out of exile.
One of the early exiled Jews mentioned above was Daniel. Together with three companions, the 15 year-old Daniel was amongst those chosen to attend the king in the royal palace. True to their upbringing, Daniel and his friends resisted the temptations of the royal lifestyle. Refusing to partake of non-kosher food, they were given beans and water, but in spite of this meager diet, they remained robust. The wisdom of the Jewish youths attracted attention, and Daniel and his companions were appointed to high positions in the royal court. Nebuchadnezzar had reached the pinnacle of his power, but he began to worry about the future.
One of the most remarkable episodes in the life of Daniel occurred when the king had a terrifying dream. When he awoke, the king was unable to remember the dream that had so frightened him. His terror and anxiety mounted, and he summoned his advisors, and ordered them to reveal to him both the dream and its meaning. But even under the threat of death, they couldn't explain a dream which the king himself couldn't recall.
Then, the king called upon Daniel. In response to his prayers, G-d enabled Daniel to describe and interpret the dream. His explanation was as follows: The king saw in his dream a towering statue whose head was made of gold. The golden head represented Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of the known world at the time. The chest and arms were silver, which symbolized Persia and Media, weaker kingdoms, which would, nevertheless, replace Babylon. The thighs of the statue were copper, representing Greece, the third and weaker empire in the chain. Its legs were of iron, this symbolic of the cruel rule of Rome, the fourth empire. The statue's toes were partly iron and partly earthenware. This represented the two kingdoms which would follow Rome: the Holy Roman Empire and the Moslem rule and the many smaller kingdom's which would result from their fragmentation. As the dream continued, a small stone rolled toward the figure and smashed it. Then, the small stone grew into a huge mountain. This small stone represented the King Moshiach, who would overthrow these kingdoms and rule in the end.
The king accepted Daniel's interpretation and raised him to even higher rank. A succeeding king, Belshazzar was to have another, even more astonishing need for Daniel's interpretive powers when Hebrew words mysteriously appeared on the wall of his palace during a drinking orgy. He interpreted those words correctly, as well, predicting the demise of his kingdom, which occurred that same night.
G-d, return to my tent, do not leave Your place - the Holy Temple; bring to an end the days of my mourning; indeed, come to give me my reward... L-rd , the portion of my heritage, hasten to my aid, loosen my sackcloth and gird me with joy; light my darkness, and with Your light illuminate the night of redemption for which I long, for You are my light... L-rd , redeem my soul from sorrow and sighing; grant relief to Your people, my King and my Holy One; change to well-being the Fast of the Fifth, to joy and gladness the Fast of the Fourth and the Fast of the Tenth.
(From the Penitential Prayers said on 10 Tevet)