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The great Rabbi Hillel was known to say, "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?"
Though stated more than 20 centuries ago, Hillel's words sound like great, middle-of-the-road advice to all of us, including the post-millenial Generation Z population.
Basically, it sounds like Hillel is telling us, "You have to look out for number one, but make sure not to forget that there are other people in the world, too.
Sounds pretty sane, doesn't it?
Actually, though, Hillel wasn't talking about our typical pursuits; he was giving us a deep insight into how we should view our involvement in spiritual pursuits and lofty goals.
Hillel was talking about taking responsibility for ourselves spiritually and building up our own cache of mitzvot. Thus, we shouldn't expect to fall back on the good deeds, mitzva observance, or the piety of our ancestors.
On a more personal level, it is a statement about how we must be self-motivated when it comes to Judaism. I can't expect anyone else to take me by the hand and lead me, step by step, toward growth and advancement. I have to do it myself. I can't sit back, relax, and wait to be inspired by an amazing teacher or encouraged by a friend. It's up to me: If I am not for myself, who is for me?
To be more specific, we can't expect G-d to be the one to push us, either. I can't say, "If G-d really wanted me to give lots of charity, have time to pursue Jewish studies, and not work on Shabbat, He'd arrange for me to win the lottery." Or, "If G-d wants me to do this particular mitzva, He'll remove all obstacles from my path."
On the other hand, if I am only for myself, if I am so caught up with and involved in my own personal growth and advancement, that I'm not around to help or guide others, what am I? Just because I can't expect or wait for someone else to hold my hand or inspire me, doesn't exempt me from extending my hand to someone else. It doesn't absolve me from reaching out to another person, from teaching someone else the Hebrew alphabet if I know it and he doesn't--even if the alef-bet is all I know!
The only remaining question one might have after considering Hillel's statements in this light would be, "When should I start getting serious about learning, growing, advancing? And when do I have to begin reaching out to others?" To this, Hillel has a ready reply, actually the closing words of his statement: "If not now, when?"
This week we read the Torah portion of Pinchas. The Haftora is from the book of Jeremiah, and begins with Jeremiah's lineage - that he is from a priestly family. It continues with G-d informing Jeremiah that He chose him as a prophet "Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you..."
Jeremiah's response is, "I don't know how to speak, for I am a youth."
G-d assures Jeremiah, "Don't be afraid of them, for I am with you to protect you...See I have appointed you today, over nations and over kinG-doms, to uproot, to crush... to build and to plant."
G-d then tells Jeremiah of the devastation of Judah and tells him to warn the Jewish people. The Haftora ends on a positive note, describing how G-d remembers that we followed Him into the desert, trusting in Him.
The theme of the Haftora is always connected either to the weekly portion or to the special time of year that we are in. The prophecy of devastation makes sense, as we are currently in the Three Weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple. But what is the significance of Jeremiah's lineage and how he became a prophet?
Jeremiah lived in a time of great spiritual darkness. In addition, he personally experienced darkness as he was taunted because of his pedigree. (His ancestress was Rachav, a gentile woman who became a righteous convert to Judaism.) It seemed that Jeremiah had the cards "stacked" against him, and yet he effected change from his dark situation.
We've had many great prophets and leaders. Some, like Moses, effected the world from a place of light with great miracles and revelation. With so much light, the Jewish people were awed by the wonder of the moment. But when the revelation ceased it was clear that while the light effected them, it did not change them.
Pinchas, like Jeremiah, was also coming from a place of darkness. He was also living in a time of deep spiritual darkness. And he, too, was taunted because of his pedigree. (His mother was Jethro's daughter.) But his actions caused the Jewish people to repent and change themselves. This kind of change is real and everlasting. Therefore his reward was an eternal one: he and all his descendants would be part of the priestly family.
The Three Weeks is a time of darkness, symbolic of our dark exile. Through the Haftora, G-d is telling us how to approach dark times, and how specifically in this darkness, we can bring true, everlasting change and light to the world.
The first thing you have to know is that you are worthy. You may think, "Who am I to make a difference, the whole world looks down at me?" To this G-d answers, you are from the Priests, you are holy and worthy.
The next thing is that we were hand-picked by G-d for this task. "Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you..."
Don't say "I am a youth," thinking you don't have the wherewithal to withstand the world's negativity. You can do it, "Don't be afraid..., for I am with you."
This is the purpose of the exile: G-d has spread us all over the world, he has appointed us "over nations and over kinG-doms," to have a positive effect on our surroundings. And this is the message of The Three Weeks, that specifically from the darkness, we are able to do the most good.
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.
Is This Me?
by Sammi Merenfeld
From Sammi's speech at the Machon L'Yahadus graduation
Growing up I definitely identified with being a Jew but it didn't define me. It was always in my surroundings but not penetrating on a deeper level.
That was, until my brothers became Chabad Lubavitcher Chasidim when I was nine or 10. While the immediate effect was minimal on my life, I did enjoy spending time with them. Whether it was at a Shabbat meal or inside a Sukka didn't matter to me, when your brothers are 10 years older than you and in yeshiva they are the coolest people in the world.
Fast forward 10 years. I had spent four years in and out of college with a handful of people I called "friends," two jobs I loved, three siblings who were Lubavitchers (my older sister followed in my brothers' footsteps), and in an intense relationship.
But, I hadn't finished college in those four years, I questioned my friends' integrity, and I knew that my jobs and relationship weren't going to be permanent.
I never felt like I needed change. I was always comfortable with my routine and personal agenda, but I definitely was not satisfied. I always felt like I had something missing, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
So what changed? On the day of my sister's wedding in October of 2015, I took a long look in the mirror and asked myself "What are you doing with yourself?"
The following day, much to OUR surprise I asked my sister, "Why did you decide to go to study at Machon L'Yahadus?" Her answer was very simple and logical and good enough for me. She told me that if we're Jewish why shouldn't we act like it.
My curiosity was piqued and I spent the next few days questioning my siblings about why and how they ended up living the Lubavitch lifestyle. After receiving a very similar answer to what I got from my sister, I started to question why I in fact don't "act Jewish." These answers resonated with me and before I knew it the floodgates opened and I finally uttered the words,"I think I want to go to learn at Machon L'Yahadus."
I called Mrs. Yehudis Cohen (assistant principal) who enthusiastically shared information the upcoming Winter Program or even the spring Taste of Yeshiva. I said "no" to both and thought long and hard about why I refused to come even though I know I wanted to. Mrs. Cohen questioned what was holding me back and for the first time in my life I had an "AHA" moment. What held me back was that I knew I would be hooked once I came and my life would change forever; I couldn't commit to such a change even though I knew I wanted it.
After a conversation with Rabbi Shloma Majeski, principal of Machon L'Yahadus, I was sure that nothing would change if I didn't want it to and there was no harm in coming. I decided to come in the Fall, a good eight months away from when we were having the conversation. So then it was final, and in September 2016, I arrived to Crown Heights and started unpacking my suitcase at a girls only dorm on President Street. The streets were familiar because of my siblings who had preceded me but that was about all I had going for me.
It feels like yesterday, I can relive the nerves and conversations with the girls if I close my eyes. My roommate and I unpacking side-by-side sharing pieces of our lives and how we ended up here. I remember her trying to convince me what a life changing experience this will be for both of us. "You're going to grow here" is what she said to me. I rolled my eyes and mumbled a silent "whatever." I couldn't believe her, thinking I would be on the next plane out and back to Florida. I was only there for a brief trial run.
I hate to admit when other people are right, but when you know, you know. What I know now is that my roommate was right because you don't realize how far you've come until you take a step back and see where you started.
My friend Eliana says that you can be in school for most of your life and never learn how to be a good person. This is true and even more obvious coming from a secular school system to a school whose foundation is based on Torah. Machon L'Yahadus teaches you not just the practical - which blessing to make when lighting candles on the holiday, or which cheese you have to wait 6 hours for, or even how to be patient when waiting for the washing machine, not that these aren't all valuable skills to have.
There's no scale to judge which is more important, but if it wasn't for Machon L'Yahadus I would never know how to treat another person with ahavat Yisrael (love) no matter how crazy they make you, how to identity your rough edges and refine them in a way you didn't realize was even necessary, how to integrate the Torah into your life in a healthy way that makes sense, and most importantly to respect and listen to your parents, teachers, and friends because without them, this experience wouldn't be happening. We're here to inspire each other to do good and be good, and to use your strengths and weaknesses to help each other and ourselves. I couldn't be more proud to have the privilege to study here under Rabbi Majeski, Mrs. Cohen, Mrs. Nemni, and the rest of our amazing all-star staff that surround me every day, and especially all the girls with the same goals.
This hasn't been the easiest year of my life, but that's what this is about. Challenges are meant to be recognized and not run away from. G-d trusts us to make the right decisions and gives us the strength to overcome the challenges we're faced with. Like swimming in an ocean against the current, the work-out is better when you're not just being pushed to the shore. G-d appreciates the effort and rewards us for it.
Tanya teaches that the mind rules over the heart, but sometimes it's not in sync. I came to Machon L'Yahadus planning to only be here for a month, because my heart was content in Florida, while my mind was living like a Jew. Well, one month turned into two, turned into me standing at graduation telling my story because my mind knows that this is where I need to be and my heart agrees to the fullest. And I'll be back next year for the second year program!
New Emissaries on Campus
Rabbi Mendy and Ariella Weg are moving to Evanston, Illinois, to work with the Jewish students studying at Northwestern University. The new emissaries join Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein and Rabbi Meir and Yehudis Hecht.
Rabbi Yaakov and Hadassah Zar are moving to New York City to work with the dynamic team of Rabbi Dov Yona and Sarah Korn at Chabad House Bowery. The Zars will be focusing on outreach to undergrad and grad students in the area as well as alumni.
CTeen Leadership Retreat
Over 200 emissaries and teen leaders from around the world participated in the 4th Annual CTeen Leadership Retreat and Conference, to connect with one another and to gain and share insight for the year ahead. Workshop topics included team building strategies, mental health awareness, how to delegate effectively, and real-life training scenarios.
26th of Tammuz, 5733 
I was pleased to receive your letter of 18th of Tammuz, following our conversation when you visited here. May G-d grant that just as your letter included good news, so should you be able to continue reporting good news in the same vein and in a growing measure.
You mention that you had some questions and doubts. Of course, one must not feel any shame in asking for clarification, and certainly one should not keep any doubts within oneself, but should seek answers. However, there is only one condition: Whatever the questions and doubts may be, this must not affect a person's simple faith in G-d and in His Torah and mitzvoth [commandments], even if the answers have temporarily eluded him. This condition goes back to the day when the Torah was received at Sinai on the principle of "naaseh" [we will do], before "v'nishmah" [we will understand], the guiding principle for all posterity. The "naaseh," the doing, follows "v'nishmah," the understanding, for G-d, the essence of goodness, desires us to follow the path of Truth on the basis of faith, and then to follow it up with knowledge and understanding. For only then is the whole person involved in serving G-d to the fullest capacity.
One must always bear in mind, however, the limitations of the human intellect in general, and particularly in relation to the area of G-dliness, which is essentially beyond human comprehension. By way of analogy, even within the realm of human intellectual achievement, a small child cannot possibly comprehend an advanced mathematical or scientific formula conceived of by a great professor, although the latter was a small child at one time, and the former could one day even surpass the intellectual prowess of the professor. The relationship between the human mind and the Divine mind is quite different, for it is a difference not in degree, but in kind. It is the difference between a created being and its Creator. Therefore, the Torah and mitzvoth, which are G-d's Wisdom and Will, can at best be comprehended in only a limited fashion. A person is welcome to inquire and probe to the extent of his capacity, but, as above, he must not lose sight of the basic condition of doing and then learning in order to understand.
G-d, the essence of goodness, desires us to follow the path of Truth on the basis of faith, and then to follow it up with knowledge and understanding...
What has been said above is especially pertinent in the present Three Weeks, which commemorate the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh [Holy Temple] and our Exile. For, as we say in prayer: "Because of our sins we have been exiled from our land." Hence, every one of us must do our utmost to rectify and reverse the cause of our Exile by studying more Torah and doing more mitzvoth, and spreading them throughout the environment. Thus we hasten the reversal of the effect of the sins, and bring about the fulfillment of the Divine prophecy that these days shall be converted into days of joy and gladness, with our true and complete Redemption through our righteous Moshiach.
What is Chitat ("Chitas")?
Chitat is an acronym for Chumash (the Five Book of Moses), Tehilim (Psalms) and Tanya (the basic book of Chabad Chasidic philosophy). The Previous Rebbe instituted a study schedule that included reading daily from the week's Torah portion with the commentary of Rashi; a number of chapters of Psalms; and a daily passage of Tanya. The Rebbe continuously urged people (of all persuasions) to study Chitat regularly, as well as the daily portion of Maimonides' Mishna Torah (or Sefer HaMitzvot).
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
We presently find ourselves in the "Three Weeks" between the Fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av.
What is the purpose of a fast? Fasting brings one to repentance. It is also, according to Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidism, the path by which we can weaken and even eradicate our desires and impulses toward that which is not good and proper.
Fasting, however, significantly weakens the body, making it difficult to do even that which we are supposed to do.
The Baal Shem Tov recognized that our bodies are not as strong as they were in times of old. He encouraged his followers not to abstain totally from eating or mortify their bodies. Rather, he broadened the term of fasting to include refraining from a "craving."
By holding ourselves back from gossiping or speaking ill of another person, for instance, we are "fasting." We are abstaining from a negative aspect of communication and are also training ourselves not to continue this bad habit.
If a person is very impatient by nature, taking the time to count to ten before responding or reacting is an effective fast.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. When he stated that fasting is the method by which we can eradicate our bad traits, it was the Baal Shem Tov's definition of fasting that he encouraged.
This, of course, relates only to times that one wished to take upon himself a "personal fast." However, the public fast days, defined by the Torah or our sages, are fast days in the traditional sense. They are days when we abstain totally from all forms of food and drink.
May the Seventeenth of Tammuz be the last public fast day, and may we be privileged to celebrate the Ninth of Av all together in the Holy city of Jerusalem, may it speedily be rebuilt, NOW.
All Israel have a share in the World to Come (Introduction to Ethics of the Fathers)
In Hebrew, the verse literally says, "All Israel, they have a share in the World to Come." The plural is used to indicate that it is only because of their brotherhood and unity that the Jewish people is deserving of reward. According to Maimonides, a person who is otherwise totally scrupulous in religious observance but separates himself from the Jewish community is not worthy of a portion of the World to Come.
(Blossoms, Rabbi Yisroel Rubin)
Moses received the Torah from Sinai (Ethics, 1:1)
Why doesn't the verse say, "Moses received the Torah from G-d"? Just as the Jews received the Torah at Sinai with awe and reverence, so too must all Torah study be approached with the same respect. Furthermore, the Torah in its entirety was revealed at Sinai, including those commandments which G-d had previous given the Jewish people. All mitzvot (commandments) are done solely by virtue of their being given at Sinai.
(Biurim L'Pirkei Avot)
And passed it on to Joshua (Ethics, 1:1).
Just as Moses passed on to Joshua the complete body of Torah knowledge, so too must we impart the entire Torah to future generations. Because all Jews inherit the Torah from Moses, as it states, "The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob," we must likewise emulate his actions as well.
Whoever engages in excessive talk brings on sin (Ethics, 1:17)
Rabbi Abraham Yaakov Sadigorer used to say: "The train was invented to teach us that every minute in life is important; a person may miss the train if he arrives even one minute late. The telegraph was invented to teach us that our every word is precious, numbered and accounted for. And from the telephone we learn that everything that is said is also heard..."
(Fun Unzer Alten Otzar)
Millions of shining pin dots of lights spotted the black sky, and not a rustle or breath of sound was heard as Rabbi Avraham Halevi Bruchim made his nightly rounds through the narrow, winding streets of Safed.
Every night, without fail, Rabbi Avraham walked up and down the streets calling to the sleeping inhabitants: "Awake, awake, Jews; Awake Reb Yaakov! Get up, Reb Yitzchak!" calling each by his name until sleep was shaken away and they rose to address the Creator of the Universe.
According to custom, it was time to begin praying the "Tikun Chatzot" - the midnight supplication prayers; the sleeping scholars of the city must be roused from their slumber.
It was time to remember the Holy Temple, and plead with the Master of the Universe to remember His children and fulfill His promise to rebuild the Holy Temple.
The age-old custom of praying for the Holy Temple was maintained with great devotion in Safed, and the scholars who lived there never overslept thanks to the dedication of Reb Avraham Halevi.
He persistently called the people of Safed to their prayer and study until the many study halls were filled and the voices of the Jews blended into a melodious spiritual symphony of prayer and study spiraling through the starry skies in a crescendo which reached all the way up to the Celestial throne.
The holy AriZal, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the famed Kabbalist, lived at this time and knew the saintly Reb Avraham Halevi very well.
Once, the AriZal came to Reb Avraham with very grave tidings: "It has been disclosed to me that your life is coming to its end. All the years allotted to you have passed. However, I see one possibility for you to live. If you travel to Jerusalem and pour out your heart in prayer at the Western Wall, G-d may look favorably upon your prayer. If you are granted a vision of the Shechina, the Divine Presence, it will be a sign that your petition has been accepted and you will live another 22 years."
Rabbi Avraham Halevi immediately did as the AriZal had instructed him.
He travelled to Jerusalem and prepared himself to storm the Heavens by fasting for three full days and nights.
When he finally reached his destination, he was ready and the prayer rose from the depths of his soul and he wept and begged the Alm-ghty to spare his life.
When he lifted his eyes to gaze at the Western Wall, he saw a vision of the G-dly Presence and the glory of what he saw cause him to fall upon his face on the stones. He wept from the great and turbulent emotion until he fainted.
In his unconscious state he dreamt that the Shechina again appeared to him and said, "My son Avraham, take comfort, for there is hope for your future. Your sons will return to their borders, for I will return the captives from their exiles, and I Myself will comfort them."
Rabbi Avraham awake from his faint in elevated spirits, filled with joy.
He returned to Safed and resumed his activities there.
One day the AriZal met him on the street. "I see by looking at your face that you had success in Jerusalem and that you did see the Shechina. You will surely live another 22 years."
The prediction of the AriZal was realized.
Rabbi Avraham lived 22 more years, bringing many Jews to prayer and repentance.
A full 22 years after this event occurred he passed away to his eternal reward.
The AriZal said of him that he was a reincarnation of the Prophet Jeremiah, who also called his fellow Jews to repentance before the destruction of the First Holy Temple.
The mitzva (commandment) of inheritance is listed last by Maimonides. This indicates that the laws of inheritance complete the laws of the Torah. The laws of inheritance will only be fully applicable in the times of Moshiach, which completes the purpose of giving the Torah. There are three methods of dividing the land - by tribal size, by lot, by inheritance. These three methods correspond to three stages in Jewish history, the final stage being when we will truly inherit the land, and the unity of the Jewish people with the Essence of G-d will be truly revealed.
(From Reflections of Redemption by Dovid Yisroel Ber Kaufmann o.b.m., to whom this column is dedicated)