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How's your blood pressure? Now is surely the time to ask this question as we enter National Blood Pressure Month in the United States. Whether your blood pressure is high, low, or thank G-d, normal, it couldn't hurt to say a few words about the heart.
Throughout the next few months, on Shabbat afternoons, it's customary to study the tractate of the Mishna known as "Ethics of the Fathers." Ethics contains moral guidance from many of our greatest Sages, like the famous question of Hillel, "If not now, when?" And when if not now (yes now, especially as May is also National Get Caught Reading Month) is a more appropriate time to read Ethics on Shabbat afternoons?
So, what can one learn from Mishnayot about the heart, the cause of blood pressure?
In the second chapter of Ethics, studied this Shabbat, we read of an interaction between the great teacher and mystic Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and five of his most outstanding disciples.
Rabbi Yochanan instructed his students, "Go and see what is the good way to which a person should cleave." Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye; Rabbi Joshua said: A good friend; Rabbi Yosay said: A good neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said: One who considers the consequences of his actions; Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said to them: "I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach to all of yours, for in his words yours are included."
Rabbi Yochanan further instructed his disciples: Go and see which is the evil path from which a person should keep far way. Rabbi Eliezer said: An evil eye; Rabbi Joshua said: A wicked friend; Rabbi Yosay said: A wicked neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said; He who borrows and does not repay... Rabbi Elazar said: A bad heart.
Rabbi Yochanan responded: "I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach to all of yours, for in his words your are included."
Obviously, neither Rabbi Yochanan nor Rabbi Elazar were discussing the physical health of one's heart. They were discussing its spiritual health.
The heart is the core and essence of a person, and it is the source of all of a person's powers, both physical and spiritual. Rabbi Elazar is teaching us that if the source - the heart - is good, everything else will also be good, and will not be flawed in any way.
How did Rabbi Elazar come to these amazing conclusions? The Torah concludes with the Hebrew letter "lamed" and begins with the Hebrew letter "bet." When put together they spell the word "lev," heart. From the Torah, we learn how to have a truly good heart. And it is, perhaps, for this reason that Rabbi Elazar's advice to future generations as recorded in Ethics: Rabbi Elazar said: "Be diligent in the study of Torah."
So, whether in celebration of Blood Pressure Month, National Get Caught Reading Month, or simply for its own sake, do something good for your heart: Study Torah.
"Mishna" in Hebrew has the same letters as "neshama," or soul. The words of our Sages as recorded in the Mishna are intrinsically connected to our souls. This is the origin of the custom to study Mishna for a loved one who has passed on, for it brings an elevation to the deceased person's soul when Mishna is studied in the merit of his or her neshama. Studying Mishna is so powerful that Jewish teachings explain, "All the exiles will be gathered in only by virtue of the study of Mishna."
This week we read two Torah portions, Tazria and Metzora. In Metzora we read of a home afflicted with tzara'at, a spiritual plague that caused green or red patches to form on the walls of a home.
What was the cause of this tzara'at? Rashi explains that Canaanites hid gold in the walls of their homes. The tzara'at would appear in these homes. To purify the home from tzara'at, the wall had to be demolished, thus revealing the gold within.
The Zohar explains that only a small number of Canaanites hid gold in their walls. While most Canaanites were resigned to G-d's plan to give the land of Canaan to the Jewish people, there were those who were not. These consisted of Canaanites who were deeply steeped in idolatry, and morally depraved even by Canaanite standards. These Canaanites hid their gold with the plan to one day come back and expel the Jewish people from the land.
The impurities of idolatry of most of the Canaanite homes were superficial and were removed when a Jew would observe mitzvot (commandments) in the home. The walls of the homes of the deeply depraved, however, were penetrated with impurities and it took the presence of a very holy person to extract the impurities. Through Divine providence, only the holiest people moved into these homes. Then, impurities would come out in the form of tzara'at, the house would be demolished, and the gold would be found.
What lesson are we to take from the holy person in a house afflicted with tzara'at?
We all find ourselves in situations which at first glance seem like a punishment, similar to a holy person who finds tzara'at on the walls of his home. The person could rightfully think, "What have I done to deserve this?" But with time and trust in G-d that He knows best, you will find, that it is all to reward you with a treasure.
The same is true when you find yourself hit with a devastating blow; you must realize that G-d specifically put you into this situation. Just as when G-d put a holy person into a depraved house, only YOU have the ability to extract the good from the predicament and reveal the treasure within.
Before I was born, my parents were blessed with a special needs child, my brother Shalom. My parents included him in everything we did. I grew up loving him as they did and did things with him all the time. I would get teased a lot and it hurt. But I think it is my relationship with Shalom that made me into the person I am today. Now I think, what a treasure, what a gift, to grow up this way.
Of course, this is only when dealing with difficult predicaments, but sometimes G-d hands a blow that is so devastating, for example, the loss of a loved one. What treasure could be found in this situation? Even if there is positive, it doesn't take away the pain. In this case all we can do is accept G-d's will and with His help the pain will lessen with time.
With all this said, it is time for Moshiach to come and put this discussion to rest.
Adapted by Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz from the teachings of the Rebbe, yitzihurwitz.blogspot.com. Rabbi Hurwitz, who is battling ALS, and his wife Dina, are emissaries of the Rebbe in Temecula, Ca.
The Empty Seat
by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Wolff
It was during the intermediate days of Passover this year, when I get a call that the President of Ukraine is coming to town to install a new local government. As the rabbi of Kherson, I am invited to attend. I'm not eager to go. My mother and lots of my siblings and their spouses and children have come from far to share the holiday with us, and I really want to enjoy every minute with them.
But duty calls, and I go. I am seated among the invited guests - the city's top brass - to welcome the president. I am impatient, sorry to be missing precious time with my family. At some point, a gentleman comes over and asks if he could sit down in the empty seat next to mine. It is the only available seat left in the whole place. I introduce myself. "I know who you are," he says. "You're the chief rabbi here."
His name is Alexei. We get to talking. I soon learn that he is the administrator of the city's prison system. I ask him if there are any Jews in the local prisons. He tells me about a Jew in a certain prison. He is the prison ringleader, he says.
I tell Alexei that the next day is the 7th day of Passover, and that I would like to get some matzah to the Jewish prisoner. No problem, he tells me. He'll do whatever is necessary to clear me through security at the prison. I wait until I have the chance to shake hands with the President and quickly leave. The area is closed to traffic because of security, so I sprint back home. I grab a package of matzah, some Jewish literature in Russian, and get into my car. The prison is about half an hour's drive.
When I get there, I am greeted by prison personnel waiting to escort me through security.
The prisoner is also waiting for me. "They told me that the rabbi is coming to see me," he says to me. We speak for a while, and I give him the matzahs and the literature.
Outside, I am surprised to see Alexei waiting for me. He wants to know what else he can do for me. Are there other Jewish prisoners, I ask. He already did his research. There are 11 altogether. Let me know how I can help, he says.
Since then, thanks to Alexei's help, I lead a regular Torah class for the Jewish prisoners.
I missed a few hours with my family that Passover day, but look at what I gained...
Tefillin in the Eldridge Street Shul
by Rabbi Yossie Denburg
This past summer, my wife and I and our 12-year-old daughter spent a few days in New York for her bat mitzvah. We love Jewish history so we visited the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
As it turns out, we were the only people in the group. The tour guide was Mr. Yood, an older gentleman in his 80s. He was really passionate about the shul and very excited to show it to us. He recognized that with us he had an audience familiar with shuls. At the very outset I suggested he do tefillin with me. He said "I can't because the shul is a federal landmark, paid for by federal funds, so you aren't allowed to daven in such a place...."
"We're putting on tefillin before this tour is over," I said.
It was obvious that he really cared about the place. I asked him why, and he said "Rabbi Yudilevitch was the first rabbi of this shul, and he was my grandfather. I'm named after him."
"What about your religious association?" I asked. He told me that his parents had belonged to a little shul in Florida. I had not mentioned that we live in Florida. I don't know why, but then I asked him if the shul his parents went to was in Coral Springs.
Now, Coral Springs is a tiny place with, at most, a population of 150,000, so the chances of that were slim. I still don't know why I thought to ask him.
"Wow, yes!" he said. I asked him if it was called Congregation Bnai Israel and he said yes.
I told him that in the early 80s it was a flourishing congregation and I'd go there occasionally. Then, as the shul's population began to dwindle, we would send people to help them make a minyan. When it finally closed down and the remaining Jews really didn't want to see all their plaques and other memorabilia get thrown out, we offered to take them and place them in our shul so they wouldn't end up in the garbage.
"So," I said to Mr. Yood, whose parents had davened in the shul next door, and whose plaques are hanging in our shul, "are you going to put tefillin on with me now?"
And he did.
Reprinted from Lubavitch International. Read more at lubavitch.com
I Go To Eretz Yisroel
Join a young brother and sister as they take their very first airplane trip, all the way to Eretz Yisroel - the Land of Israel! Reading this book, written in excellent rhyme, is a great way to prepare young children for what to expect when traveling by air... from the busy, crowded airport, to waiting in long lines, to checking in their suitcases. Once on the plane, they say the special traveller's prayer,follow instructions, and enjoy the flight. The whole family goes together to special holy places in the Jewish land. They may be little, but even small children know it's important to pray at these holy places. And of course, they take a break to eat falafel, their most favorite treat! Every aspect of this exciting experience is presented in a perfectly age-appropriate manner. Like all the books in this valuable series, I Go to Eretz Yisroel highlights mitzva opportunities, safety and polite behavior in every situation. Written and illustrated by Rikki Benenfeld, Laminated pages. A glossary at the end of the book defines words that may be unfamiliar to the reader. HaChai Publishing.
7th of Iyar, 5727 
Greeting and Blessing:
I duly received your letter, in which you write about various things which you do not under-stand, such as the suffering of your father, etc.
Judging by your letter, it is surely unnecessary to emphasize to you at length the obvious idea, namely that it is certainly not surprising that a human being does not understand the ways of G-d, for a created and finite being surely cannot understand the Infinite. The opposite would rather be surprising, and it is only due to G-d's infinite kindness that He has revealed to man certain aspects of His Divine Providence. There is a simple illustration: It would surely not be surprising that a five-year-old child could not understand the conduct of a great scientist, even though the scientist was at one time a five-year-old boy, and the present five-year-old boy may grow up and become even a greater scientist. In other words, the five-year-old boy is potentially in possession of all the qualities of the mature scientist, yet it would not be surprising that the five-year-old boy cannot understand the great scientist. But a created human being has nothing in common with the Creator insofar as intelligence and capacities are concerned. It is only that because of G-d's kindness that certain aspects of G-d's Providence have been revealed to man, including also the question of suffering, where we can use a similar analogy.
When a young child is told to sit down and learn the ABC, and do homework, etc., this deprives him of going out into the fresh air, sometimes interferes with having his meal on time, and might also curtail his sleeping hours, etc. The child, while complying with these instructions, is not doing so because he realizes their wisdom, but because he has no choice in the matter, since he is compelled by his father or mother or teacher to do this. This is not a case where his freedom is curbed so that he would not go about breaking windows, and the like. Insofar as the child is concerned, it is for him true suffering to be deprived of fresh air, or rest, etc., which by common consent are considered good things. Nevertheless, of what consideration is the child's temporary suffering, even though it extends for days or months, by comparison with the good which he will enjoy thereby for the rest of his life.
A further point to remember is this: When a person who has been ill succumbs to his illness, it is clear to every normal person that the illness could affect only the physical body. Obviously if there is something wrong, say, with the blood of the patient, it cannot affect the patient's spiritual life and his everlasting soul. In other words, when a patient succumbs to an illness, this only happens because the union between the soul and the body has come to an end, but the soul is an everlasting one, and this is one of the basic foundations of our Jewish faith, as many other faiths.
In the Torah it is frequently explained and emphasized that life on this earth is only a preparation for the future and everlasting life in the world to come. This is also taught in the well known Mishnah of Pirkei Avos, which we read and study these Shabbosim [Sabbaths]. The Mishnah states, "This world is like a vestibule to the future world; prepare yourself in the vestibule so that you can enter the banquet hall" (Perek 4, 21).
Now, when during the time when one is in the vestibule there has been a period of suffering, whereby there will be an infinite gain in the "banquet hall," it will surely be worthwhile. It is impossible to describe the joys of the life of the soul in the world to come, for even in this world while the soul is connected with the body, its life is on an infinitely higher plane; how much more so when the soul is no longer distracted by the body. Compare the joy and excitement of a child when he receives a tasty candy, with the joy of a very wise and learned scientist who succeeds in resolving an important scientific problem. Here again, as mentioned before, there is some connection between the child and the scientist, and everything is relative. But insofar as the life on this earth and the life of the soul in the future world is concerned, the differences are not of degree but of kind, and there is no common denominator between the two.
At the same time it should be remembered that the suffering in the "vestibule," which is no more than a corridor to the "banquet hall," is after all a temporary one, and the gain is eternal.
Of course, you may ask why things are so conditioned that one must give up something in order to gain more. This would be the same as a child asking why he must give up his outdoor pleasures, etc. But surely it is not unkindness to the child to "deprive" him so.
I trust that the above will suffice to answer your question.
Why do people say, "bli ayin hara," or "kenina hora"?
An "ayin hara" means an evil or begrudging eye. It is believed that an envious or begrudging glance is able to cause evil to the person at whom it is directed. According to a statement in the Talmud, 99 out of 100 die of an evil eye. Hence, we use the expression in Hebrew "bli ayin hara," or in Yiddish "kenina hora" - meaning, without a begrudging eye, when a person's health, wealth, intelligence, success, etc., are being admired.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
The Land of Israel is not like other lands. Other countries' borders are determined by wars, treaties and politics. The Land of Israel's borders are determined by G-d. There are many mitzvot that apply only in Israel; anywhere else in the world, and you can't do them.
The Land of Israel is called the Holy Land for a reason: its very soil is hallowed, permeated with G-dliness and holiness. It is a land "upon which the eyes of G-d rest, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year." The very air itself "makes one wise," according to our Sages.
After the terrible destruction of the Holocaust, G-d gave the Jewish people a wonderful gift - the opportunity to return to their ancestral home and live according to their own dictates. For the first time in almost 2,000 years, millions of Jews were able to take refuge in the Holy Land. But not only would the Land of Israel provide physical refuge, it was a golden opportunity for real spiritual freedom. For even though the Jewish people would remain in galut (the exile will end only with Moshiach's coming, may it happen immediately), Jews would be able to practice Torah and mitzvot proudly and openly. In allowing Jews political autonomy, G-d gave them a chance for true independence, which can only be attained through the Torah.
Shleimut ha'aretz, literally "the integrity of the land," means that the whole and complete Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Given by G-d to every single Jew, it simply isn't in our power to reject this gift. Aside from the fact that it is against Torah law to cede portions of Israel to non-Jews (thereby putting Jewish lives in danger), the land always retains its special, holy nature.
May G-d continue to guide His people along the right path, and help us to live up to His expectations.
Rebbi [Yehuda HaNasi] said, "...Be as careful in a minor mitzva as with a major one, for you do not know the reward given for the mitzvot..." (Pirkei Avot - Ethics of the Fathers 2:1)
Fulfill all of the mitzvot (commandments) in order to please your Creator, not in order to receive reward or honor. One who is interested in achieving honor through the mitzvot tries to fulfill the "major" mitzvot, whereas he tends to place less emphasis on the "minor" mitzvot. That is, he fulfills the mitzvot which will bring him more honor.
(Or Torah of the Maggid)
He [Rabbi Gamliel] used to say: "Fulfill His will as you would your own will, so that He may fulfill your will as though it were His will..." (2:4)
Try to make the will of the Almighty your own will, and fulfill His will as you fulfill your own wholeheartedly and with enthusiasm. And if the Almighty's will is difficult for you to fulfill, set aside your will because of His will. As a reward, the Holy One, blessed is He, will nullify the will of others, who do not agree with the way you would like things to be, and He will agree with your view.
He used to say: "...The bashful person cannot learn, neither can the short-tempered teach..." (2:5)
A student should not be too bashful in front of his colleagues to say, "I do not understand." Rather, he should ask and ask again, even several times.
(Shulchan Aruch HaRav)
A teacher who is overly rigid and oppressive prevents his words from being accepted by his audience. His students will not be able to discuss their learning with him in the proper way.
This Friday is 2 Iyar, the birthday of Rabbi Shmuel, the fourth Rebbe of Chabad- Lubavitch, known as the Rebbe Maharash.
During the time of the Rebbe Maharash there lived a kind nobleman in the area of Vitebsk who owned the entire village of Chekhov. Many Jews lived on his vast estates and he was so well disposed toward them that he lifted the burden of taxes from those who were poor. In addition he permitted the religious functionaries, the rabbi, the shochet (ritual slaughterer), and the teachers to pasture their livestock free of charge.
This count was not in good health and the older he grew, the weaker and sicker he became, having to visit Doctor Bertenson in Vitebsk more and more frequently. The count's illness forced him to give the administration of his properties over into the hands of his manager who was a violent Jew-hater. This manager together with the local priest conspired to change the count's administrative practices and thus deprive the Jews of the favor they had enjoyed. They even went so far as to deprive many families of their livelihood and to require taxes from even the poorest families. This collusion between the two anti-Semites continued for two years.
During all that time the local Jews, who were mainly chasidim of Rebbe Shmuel of Lubavitch, visited their Rebbe on all the festivals and many Sabbaths. The Chasidic discourses he gave enlivened their existence and they went often to Lubavitch to receive the Rebbe's blessings for their health, their children or their livelihood. Not one of the Jews thought it proper to bring up the topic of the priest and the manager and how they were changing the benevolent policies of the count.
There was one local Jew who did business for many years with the count. He was called Reb Shmuel Isaacs and was respected throughout the region as a reliable, honest merchant. He spent his all his free time studying Torah, and was learned in its revealed and mystical aspects. Once he was visiting Lubavitch for the holiday of Shavuot in the year 1880. In the course of their conversation, the Rebbe asked Reb Shmuel about the state of affairs vis-a-vis the livelihoods of the Jews in the town.
Reb Shmuel answered truthfully and in great detail describing the illness of the count and the ensuing problems of his Jewish tenants caused by the troublesome manager and priest. The Rebbe replied that he was aware of the condition of the count, since Dr. Bertenson had described the nobleman's fragile health. "But why," continued the Rebbe, "didn't you tell me about the change in policy towards the Jews on the count's estates?"
The Rebbe sat quietly in meditation for a few minutes and then said: "Return home now, and when you have the opportunity, tell the count in my name, that I know that his condition is dangerous and that his doctors have all but given up. Nevertheless, I promise him that if he helps the Jews of Chekhov and the neighboring villages, the Alm-ghty will grant him one month's health for each family that he aids."
Reb Shmuel returned home at once and began frequenting the environs of the count's home in the hope of meeting him, but the nobleman stayed inside most of the time now, due to his ill health. One lovely day his physicians advised him to ride out into the countryside to get some air, and it was then that Reb Shmuel encountered him, weak and pale, being escorted into his carriage.
The count recognized the merchant and invited him along for the ride. Reb Shmuel related his conversation with the Rebbe, and the count lost no time in commissioning the merchant to assemble extensive and exact lists of all the Jews living on his properties. He was to visit each of them and assess their needs, while not allowing the purpose of his visit to be discovered.
In due time the count received a list of more than one hundred and sixty families from the township and others from the surrounding villages. The Jews were again aided in making a living, and the count was helped by the Alm-ghty to regain his health.
Reb Shmuel enjoyed a close relationship with the count from that time on, and each year the count was sure to sent a lulav from his own palm trees and some myrtle sprigs from his gardens as a gift to the Rebbe with which to honor the festival of Sukkot.
The count's good health continued for another fourteen years after which he began to feel very weak. He sent at once for Reb Shmuel and asked him to go to Lubavitch and visit the grave of the Rebbe, who had passed away some years before. He was to tell the Rebbe that the count was feeling weak. According to his calculations he was owed another year and seven months of life, and he requested that the Rebbe fulfill his promise.
Tzara'at (typically translated as leprousy) is an external blemish, a surface impurity that cannot be cured by one's own efforts. Hence, Moshiach is metaphorically called a metzora, one with tzara'at, for he will refine the "outermost edge" of the Jewish people. The tiny, out-of-the way blemish we cannot reach on our own prevents the world from being a dwelling place for G-dliness. But Moshiach will do more than refine the negative; he will also reveal the positive.
(From Reflections of Redemption by Dovid Yisroel Ber Kaufmann o.b.m., to whom this column is dedicated)