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Let's take a moment to look at recycling. We're not talking about writing on scrap paper for convenience sake. Nor saving the tomato sauce can for the drippings from the meat. We're talking about the check-the-number-on-the-plastic-put-the-used-foil-aside-shred-documents kind of recycling.
In most states in the U.S. and most countries in the world, recycling is not yet mandatory. And even where it is written into city or state ordinances it is not actively enforced. After all, what law enforcement officer wants to go through someone's smelly garbage just to see if the person is throwing out cans or recycling them?
Despite the lack of legislation or enforcement of recycling, many, many people do recycle of their own free will.
Have you ever thought about what kind of a statement you're making every time you put aside a newspaper for recycling, or return a soda can to the store even though you could care less for the nickel?
You're saying, "I have a responsibility to future generations, and I believe that my one small act can make the world a better place."
That's a pretty powerful statement to make by simply tossing a bottle into a recycling bin rather than a garbage bin. And yet, it's so simple that most of us don't even consider its significance.
Now, you're probably wondering if we're "into" recycling, or we're anti-Styrofoam or pro-green. We're none of the above. We're just interested in seeing how meaningful simple, daily acts can be, thus recognizing the higher purpose in everything. And also, of course, how these types of actions relate to basic Jewish concepts.
Jewish philosophy explains that each one of us should look at the world as if it is perfectly balanced. There is an equal number of good and evil deeds. Therefore, one good deed could, quite literally, tip the scale. The magnitude or magnificence of the deed is not at issue. For, if a scale is totally balanced even a feather can shift it - which is not to say that Judaism prefers quantity over quality. Rather, no one should think that they or their action is too insignificant or puny to make a difference.
Here Jewish philosophy and recycling converge. Because the underlying premise in concern for the environment is that despite the fact that billions of tons of glass, plastic, paper and aluminum is not being recycled, I make a difference each time I choose to recycle.
Recycling teaches us, in this instance, to forget about the rest of the world. Forget about the next-door-neighbors who aren't recycling. Forget about the fast-food place that is still using Styrofoam. Forget, even, about the fact that it's becoming harder and harder to find uses for some of the recycled materials. That's not my problem. My responsibility is to shift the scale with my small, seemingly insignificant act. And, in truth, it is just "seemingly" insignificant. For only G-d knows the import and ultimate consequence of a person's actions. I have to try to the best of my ability, and even stretch myself a little further than my ability allows, to tip the global scale through my small but world-shifting actions.
In this week's Torah portion, Noach (Noah), we read that after the flood, Noach sent a dove out of the ark. It returned, "and behold, it had plucked an olive leaf with its beak," and Noach knew that the water had subsided from the earth.
Why does the verse tell us what kind of leaf it was? And why does it say that it was plucked? What about this olive leaf told Noach that the water had subsided from the earth? And where in the world was the leaf from?
Why an olive leaf? Rashi explains that olives are bitter and the dove was hinting, that he would rather have bitter food from the hand of G-d, than sweet food from the hand of man.
Even more. Olive trees are very hardy trees, and we see that Noach knew this, as Rashi tells us, that Noach took on to the ark a "(grape) vine and a fig sapling." However, he didn't take an olive plant, because he was certain, that being a very strong tree, some would survive. Therefore, it makes sense that the dove would have found an olive tree.
Why does it say that it was plucked? This means that Noach was able to tell that it was a fresh leaf and not one that was found floating on the water. It was a new leaf that grew after the flood.
This was also what indicated to Noach that the water had subsided from the earth. Because even if the tree was on a mountain, the fact that it had enough time to grow new foliage, indicated that there had been enough time for the water to subside.
According to a number of our Sages, the olive tree was in Israel, which as also purified by the flood. But why would Israel, the Holy Land, need to be affected, i.e. purified by the flood?
The flood had a positive impact on the earth as well. First, it purified the earth from the evils of the generations that preceded the flood. Second, we must conclude, that the flood also added a new level of holiness to the earth, because, what point would there be to send the whole flood, just to have the earth return to its prior state. (We also see this from the fact that our Haftora calls the flood, the "Waters of Noach." Noach also means, "it is good," that is that the flood had a positive side, it raised the status of the earth.) This is what the Holy Land gained by having the flood, it was raised to an even higher level of holiness.
The flood is symbolic of all our troubles. Just as the flood's ultimate purpose was to raise the status of the earth, so too, every difficulty in life is really a positive in disguise. It is a necessary hardship, which is there for your benefit, to bring you to a higher place, spiritually and physically. And if you can see it this way, life will start to become easier and happier.
Soon all the floods will end. There will be healing, livelihood, children, all our desires for good with the coming of Moshiach. Then, we will not be the same as before the struggles, we will have been elevated to a higher state, both physically and spiritually. May it happen soon.
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.
by Rabbi Mendy Katz
Shortly before Sukkot I received a call from Jack (not his real name). His wife was on her deathbed and when she passed, he planned to cremate her.
Having received many similar calls over the years, I know how difficult it is to convince a family not to go through with cremation once they've set their minds to it.
Since it was literally minutes before the holiday, I told Jack briefly why Judaism prohibits cremation, but he was adamant, so I suggested we continue our conversation in person after the holiday.
Unfortunately, his wife passed away the next morning. The family found me in my sukka and we sat for a few hours discussing death, burial and cremation. I brought out every argument I could think of. I explained that the body is G-d's gift to us, a temporary loan which we are required to take care of and return undamaged. The same way we don't tattoo, commit suicide or otherwise mutilate the body, we also cannot burn it.
But Jack and his family weren't buying it.
I explained that when Moshiach comes and the dead are resurrected, it's important to have a body. Still nothing.
So I tried to describe how much pain the soul feels when the body burned.
But Jack and his family told me they don't believe in the soul, the after-life or G-d.
I excused myself for a minute, left the sukkah and offered up a heartfelt prayer. "Almighty G-d," I said, "I need Your help here! I am struggling to convince this family of the importance of a proper Jewish burial. Please help me..." I said a few chapters of Tehillim (Psalms) and I returned to the sukka.
We continued the conversation and at the end, Jack says to me, "Rabbi, I don't believe in anything you've said, but I've decided to bury my wife. Why? Because my mother in law (who is still alive) begged me to bury her daughter. She said 'I was the one who brought him into this world, I should be the one deciding how she should pass on.' So I'm going to do it, Rabbi."
Here I was, trying every rabbinic argument in the book, and although ultimately I succeeded, my success had absolutely nothing to do with me! None of my reasoning worked. It was entirely G-d who helped me facilitate this mitzvah. But I was left with an important message: never give up! Try your hardest, and when you do, G-d will surely help you.
As I drove home from the funeral a couple of days later, I thought about one of the sermons I gave on Yom Kippur, where I discussed the concept of a soul coming down to this earth for 70-80 years perhaps to perform one single mitzva. Maybe, just maybe, this was my mine.
I spent the week vacationing with my family in Knysna, South Africa, with plans to travel to Cape Town on Thursday - a drive of six or seven hours. Mid-drive we were running low on gas, so I planned to stop at the next gas station, fill up the tank, and give the kids a chance to get out and stretch their legs. Twenty minutes later we finally spotted one, but I was too far across the highway to get to the exit in time.
I moved over to the slow lane and stayed there until we next chanced upon a gas station, about half an hour later, in a town called Heidelberg. I paid for gas and purchased some snacks for the kids, and just as we were piling into the car to continue on our way someone tapped me on the shoulder and said "shalom aleichem" in a heavy South African accent.
It was Moshe and his wife Susan, excited to see other Jews in this far-flung town, hundreds of miles from South Africa's established Jewish communities. Moshe gladly took the opportunity to put on tefillin, explaining that he had not done so in years. The more we talked, the more I realized why we had missed that first turn on the highway. It may have gotten us to a gas station thirty minutes earlier, but we would have missed out on the opportunity to meet Moshe and Susan. It's always refreshing to see Divine providence so clearly at work!
In a sense, we're all on a fast-moving highway: the highway of life. Are we heading the right way? Are we traveling in the direction that will take us to where we need to be spiritually? Or are driving just as fast in the opposite direction, away from all that is holy and important?
If you discover you're headed in the wrong direction, even if you've been driving that way for months or years, it's not too late. You just need to make the decision and turn the car around. You have plenty of time to forge ahead, but the first, most important, and most difficult step is to acknowledge that you've been going the wrong way, and to take that first step in the right direction.
Rabbi Vigler co-directs Chabad Israel Center of the Upper East Side in New York City. From Rabbi Vigler's blog at www.chabadic.com
Rising! The Book of Challah, Recipes for Challah and Life
Rochie Pinson shares the experiences and insights she has gleaned during decades spent perfecting the art of challah baking and teaching challah workshops around the world. In her wise, warm, and humorous voice, she guides the reader through every step of the rewarding process of making challah. The most comprehensive guide to challah-baking ingredients, equipment, and techniques ever published. 38 unique, time-tested challah recipes, 37 illustrated braiding techniques with step-by-step instructions, 75 gorgeous, full-color photographs. This is the book for beginners and experts alike. Nothing intimidating or complicated here, every recipe is meant to be used, cherished, and passed on to the next generation of challah bakers. Feldhein Publishers.
From a freely translated letter dated 25 Elul, 5750  continued from the previous issues
In a deeper sense, one can understand the preeminence of matter from the fact that (not only the mitzvot themselves, but) also the reward for mitzvot is ultimately connected with the physical world.
There is the well-known Psak Din [legal ruling] made by the Ramban (Nachmanides) as to the nature of the ultimate reward:
To be sure, according to the Rambam (Maimonides) the ultimate reward is Gan Eden [the Garden of Eden] - the spiritual world where souls, without physical bodies, abide "in the presence" of the Shechina [the Divine Presence]. Moreover, the Rambam explains that the highest possible spiritual state that the soul attains while it is "clothed" in a physical body can in no way be compared to the sublime spiritual exaltation that the soul experiences in Gan Eden, divested of the physical body.
Nevertheless, the Ramban, who lived a generation after the Rambam, and studied the latter's works, ruled that the ultimate reward will come after T'chiyat Hameitim (Resurrection of the Dead), when the souls will once again descend to earth and be clothed in physical bodies. The rule of halacha in the case of divergent authoritative opinions is to adjudicate in favor of the later authority, and it rules so specifically in the present case.
Yet, we need to probe further. Granted that a Jew possesses an extraordinary capacity, derived from serving Hashem, to spiritualize the physical world and provide for Hashem an abode in this lowermost world. But how are we to understand comprehensibly the idea that the highest spiritual reward for the neshama [soul] in the World to Come (Olam Haba) will be bestowed on the neshama specifically when it is clothed in a physical body, and in this material world?
One explanation is that precisely a physical creature (not a pure spirit) has been endowed with such a paramount G-dly force that is not found even in the loftiest spiritual realms. The reason is that only the Creator alone has the power and ability to create yesh me'ayin (physical being from non-being) - and this preeminent quality of physical matter will be revealed in the era of T'chiyat Hameitim.
It may be added here that the above concept is also the key to the dictum "Make Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] here," quoted earlier. Inasmuch as the preeminence of Eretz Yisrael is in its kedusha that permeates the physical land itself, it is the task of Jews living outside the Holy Land to achieve the level of kedusha [holiness] of Eretz Yisrael in their immediate surroundings, so it will permeate that part of the physical world that Divine Providence has allotted them to spiritualize.
In order to accomplish this task, special strength and effort are required. This is indicated in the exhortation, "Make Eretz Yisrael here." This is where the New Year comes in, with its outstanding distinction of starting off with the treble chazaka, the extra strength needed in chutz la'aretz [the diaspora], namely, the influence of three consecutive holy days recurring again and again, to permeate the stark corporeality of the world at large.
It may be added further that there is an allusion to the foregoing in the sayings of our Sages of blessed memory, that "in the future to come, Eretz Yisrael will extend itself to all lands." For by that time the Jewish people will have completed their task of making an "abode" for Hashem in this world. And having refined and sublimated the corporeality of this world and irradiated it with a full measure of kedusha, the kedusha of Eretz Yisrael will in effect be extended into and throughout all lands around the globe.
May Hashem grant everyone, man and woman, in the midst of Klal Yisrael, to act in keeping with the above perceptions for strengthening and disseminating kedusha-Yiddishkeit [Judaism] in the everyday life, in and around oneself, in the fullest measure. And this will enhance the blessed ketiva vachatima tova in all aspects, spiritual as well as material; indeed, even more in the area of material.
Including especially, the essential blessing - the true and complete geula [redemption] through Moshiach Tzidkeinu [our righteous Moshiach], as promised by Hashem: "I have found My servant David and anointed him with My holy oil," and he will lead us upright to our land, all three constituents of our Jewish people: Kohanim, Leviim, Yisraelim.
With esteem and blessing for ketiva vachatima tova, for a good and sweet year both materially and spiritually
What is Gematria?
Torah can generally be interpreted on four levels: literal, allegorical, homiletic and esoteric. Gematria, which involves each Hebrew letter having a numerical value, is allegorical. When Hebrew words or phrases have the same Gematria, this alludes to the inner connection between the two. For instance, one of G-d's names, "Elokim," has the same Gematria as "hateva," meaing nature. When "Elokim" is used in Scripture, it represents G-d's presence within nature.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
The holiday-filled month of Tishrei is behind us, and we now find ourselves in the Hebrew month of Marcheshvan. The name is derived from the word "mar," meaning "drop," as it is in Marcheshvan that the rainy season begins (in the Land of Israel).
In general, winter is the time for rain, while summer is the time for dew. Rain and dew are physically both water, but like everything else in the material world, these phenomena contain an important spiritual lesson for us to learn.
The Torah teaches that rain is dependent on the quality of our service of G-d. G-d causes the rain to fall in the merit of our prayers. If we don't behave as we should, G-d punishes us by withholding His life-giving waters. Dew, by contrast, falls "by itself" - independent of our actions. G-d causes the dew to regularly replenish the earth without any effort on our part.
The physical manifestations of rain and dew also express a basic distinction between summer and winter. In the summer, the world receives G-d's blessings without much exertion. In the winter, it is much more difficult to obtain His blessings, and we have to work hard for them. In fact, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe once stated that "The service of G-d is easier in summer than in winter."
But don't worry, G-d makes sure that we have the necessary strength for the coming frigid months. Tishrei, the "chodesh hashevi'i" ("seventh month" when counting from Nisan) is described as "musba" ("satiated and full"), from the same root word as "sheva" ("seven"). Luckily (but of course, there is no such thing as chance in the Divine plan), the month of Tishrei is so chock-full of mitzvot and everything good that it gives us the ability to perform our G-dly service throughout the entire winter.
So don't hesitate to jump in and "get your feet wet." Because rain or shine, it's always the right weather for doing a mitzva.
And Noach went in, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons' wives into the ark (Gen. 7:7)
A person should not content himself with his own entrance into the "ark" - the holy letters of prayer and of Torah, but should always seek to bring others with him as well, not only members of his family but every fellow Jew. Just as G-d helped Noach by closing the door of the ark after all were safely inside, so, too, is every Jew assisted by G-d when he comes to the aid of his fellow man.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And only Noah was left (Gen. 7:23)
Despite the fact that Noah was a righteous person, he was still required to tend to all the animals in the ark and take care of their needs. This was a physically demanding and sometimes dangerous job. Similarly, no matter how high a spiritual level one reaches, he is still obligated to take care of those around him who may need his guidance.
Make a window for the ark (tayva) (Gen. 6:16).
The word "tayva" may be translated "ark" as it must be in the simple sense of this verse, or it can be translated "word." Using the second translation, the Baal Shem Tov explains the verse as follows: Make the words [of your prayer] luminous. For the word used here for window - tzohar - also means "luminous."
And G-d said to Noah, "You, and your entire family--come into the ark - tayva" (Gen. 7:1)
The Baal Shem Tov translates the word tayva here in the same manner as above. Thus, this verse can be understood as a directive to mean, "Come into the words [of prayer].
Go out from the ark (Gen. 8:15).
G-d commanded Noah and his family to go out into the world and make the world a dwelling place for Him.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
At his grandson's circumcision celebration, the great Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810), recounted the following episode:
"This morning I arose very early to prepare myself to perform the brit mila of my dear grandchild. At daybreak I opened the window and saw a penetrating darkness in the heavens. As I wondered about the blackness before my eyes, it was made known to me that this very day a prince of Israel, the holy Tzadik, Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Sassov, had passed away.
"As I mourned for that master of Israel, I heard a voice cry out: 'Make way for Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib!'
"When Rabbi Moshe entered the celestial realms, the Tzadikim (righteous) and Chasidim formed a joyous circle around him. Suddenly, he heard a voice reaching from one end of the world to the other. Intrigued, he began following it until he found himself at the gates of Gehinnom (Purgatory).
"Without waiting for permission, Rabbi Moshe entered Gehinnom. The guards saw him walking back and forth as if looking for somebody. They were certain that he had come there by mistake and they politely asked him to ascend to his proper place in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden).
"Rabbi Moshe said nothing. The guards repeated their request, but he remained silent and did not move. They didn't know whether to drive him out or permit him to remain. They decided to confer with the Heavenly Court, but even it was puzzled. Never had a Tzadik descended into Gehinnom of his own desire. Rabbi Moshe was summoned before the Throne of Glory where he made his request known.
"Rabbi Moshe began, 'Master of the World, You know how great is the mitzva of redeeming captives. I have occupied myself with this mitzva my entire life, and I have never differentiated between wicked captives and righteous captives. All were equally beloved by me, and I had no peace until I had succeeded in freeing them. Now that I have entered the World of Truth, I find that there are many captives here, too. I wish to fulfill this mitzva here, as well.
"'I will not leave Gehinnom until I have fulfilled this mitzva. So dear are Your commandments to me that I have observed them no matter what the place or time or penalty might be. If I cannot bring these wretched souls to freedom, I would rather remain with them in the fires of Gehinnom than to sit with the righteous and bask in the light of the Divine Presence!'
"Rabbi Moshe's words flew before the Throne of Glory, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, uttered the decision: 'Great are the Tzadikim who are ready to relinquish their share in the Gan Eden for the sake of others. Because this mitzva is so noble, let it be calculated how many people Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib redeemed during his lifetime, both they and their children, and their children's children until the end of time. That number he may redeem here, also.'
"The Book of Records was immediately brought, opened and read. The names of all those who had been redeemed by Rabbi Moshe were counted and their children and their children's children. The final figure arrived at was 60,000 souls from Gehinnom to Gan Eden.
"Rabbi Moshe began to walk through Gehinnom, looking into countless pits and caves where he found souls who had suffered for hundreds of years and who had long ago lost all hope of redemption. One by one he gathered them and when he was finished, he found their number to be exactly 60,000. Column after column emerged from Gehinnom, marching with them at their head, until they arrived at Gan Eden.
"When all 60,000 souls had entered, the gates were closed."
After recounting this story, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak named his little grandson Moshe Yehuda Leib and blessed him to grow up to emulate the holy Tzadik, Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib of Sassov.
From The Crown of Creation, by Chana Weisberg, published by Mosaic Press
In this week's Torah reading of Noach, it states: "In the six hundredth year of Noah's life... all the wellsprings of the great deep burst forth and the windows of heaven opened." The Zohar, the fundamental work of Jewish mysticism, explains the esoteric meaning of the verse as follows: In the six hundredth year of the sixth millennium the gates of wisdom above and wellsprings of widsom below will be opened; the world will then be prepared to enter the seventh millennium
(From Reflections of Redemption, by Dovid Yisroel Ber Kaufmann o.b.m., to whom this column is dedicated)