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We're writing this at deadline, two weeks before you see it. So we hope what's been news has rather vanished into thin air, a public health problem temporarily turned into a panic.
We're talking about the latest strain of flu, which many in the news media touted as the next pandemic. As of this writing scientists and public health officials are inclined to think it won't be as bad as first feared.
Of course, any strain of the flu can be dangerous. That's why we should take all necessary precautions - be pro-active and prepared, but not panicked. And if, G-d forbid, someone does get sick, seek immediate medical attention.
But we're not here to preach medicine; we're here to see what lesson in Torah, in our Divine Service, we can learn. For as the Baal Shem Tov stated, everything we experience, or even hear about, contains a lesson in our Divine Service.
To protect ourselves against the flu, health officials advise common-sense precautions: wash your hands, stay home if you're sick and listen to your health authorities.
The Torah lesson? Well, the flu is a virus, a foreign substance that "takes over" and starts substituting itself for our own, genuine DNA. It starts in the respiratory system and then gets into the bloodstream.
For the Jewish people, Torah and mitzvot (commandments) are the very air we breathe, our lifeblood. So we need to take the same spiritual precautions:
Wash our hands. We should do that literally, as the Torah prescribes: before eating bread we have a special way to wash our hands and when waking in the morning there is also a unique way that we wash our hands. But we should also wash them figuratively - "wash our hands" of spiritually unhealthy influences, thoughts that constrict our Jewish awareness - making it hard to "breathe Judaism." We should also "wash our hands" of desires for things that "infect" and "heat" us, that divert our energy and enthusiasm from things Jewish to things unnecessary, even spiritually harmful.
If we're sick - stay home. If the pressures and perversions of the world get to be too much - stay home, that is, stay involved in things Jewish - go to synagogue more often, join an Adult Education class, make Shabbat in your home a bit more Shabbat-like, do something kosher.
And if you're not sure how to institute these measures - check not with your local health official, but with your local Chabad emissary.
And one more lesson: If the flu can spread through casual contact, or no contact at all - if one person can influence, make sick, another, by transmitting such a small thing as a virus, how much more so can a mitzva influence, make well and inspire, another - how much more spiritual well-being can be transmitted by even the smallest mitzva.
And if rumors of virulence can spread so quickly, with such a powerful effect that the whole world goes on alert, how much more so can words of Torah spread quickly - instantaneously, through all means of electronic communication - and affect the whole world. Yes, how much more so can words of Torah transform the world into a dwelling-place for G-d, when, in the era of Redemption, there will be no sickness of any kind - may it happen speedily in our day!
May you be healthy in body and spirit, physically and Jewishly!
This week we read two Torah portions, Behar and Bechukotai. The opening verse of Bechukotai, "If you will walk in my statutes," is explained to mean that a Jew must labor hard in his study of Torah.
A question is asked: Why does the Torah connect the commandment to study Torah diligently with G-d's statutes? The answer is found when we take a closer look at the Hebrew word for "statutes" itself.
The phrase "In my statutes," "Bechukotai," comes from the Hebrew word meaning "to engrave."
There are two ways in which letters may be written. One way is with ink applied to parchment (or any other material); another way is to inscribe them in stone. When letters are written, the ink and the parchment remain two separate entities, even though the act of writing unites them, to a certain degree, on the same page. Nonetheless, the letters do not become part and parcel of the material on which they are written.
When letters are carved into stone, by contrast, the letters and the stone are inseparable. Each letter comes into being at the exact moment it is inscribed and can never be erased or obliterated.
The Torah commands us to learn Torah in a manner of "inscription."
A Jew who studies Torah must be so connected to what he is learning that he and Torah unite and form a single entity, just like an engraved letter does not exist prior to its inscription and can never be erased. We must learn Torah so diligently that its holy words become permanently chiseled into our souls.
The Chasidic work, Likutei Torah, explains that the literal translation of "Im bechukotai teileichu" is "If in My statutes you will walk." When a Jew studies Torah in a manner of "engraving," he merits a reward - that he "will walk." G-d promises that if we truly apply ourselves to learning Torah we will never be immobile and stationary, but will progress and ascend ever upward, perpetually increasing our understanding and connection to G-d. A Jew whose soul is united with the Torah is thus ensured that he will always rise up the ladder of spiritual achievement.
Adapted by Maayan Chai from Likutei Sichot, Vol. 3
Margaret Mead and Split Hooves
by Tzvi Jacobs
Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist, gave a lecture to a packed auditorium at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She chronicled her years living with tribes in the remote jungles of the Phillipines and Africa, and described some of their accepted practices that would be illegal even in California. Sitting at this fascinating lecture in the mid-1970s, many questions ran through my head. Do cannibals feel guilty about eating non-kosher meat? Do they tell their children they must marry someone Jewish? Perhaps I could muster the courage to raise my voice and ask a question to this wise woman. Not those questions, of course, but the question behind those questions. After all, if truth is relative, or in other words, determined by whomever you happen to be related to, then why not think for yourself and make your own rules?
I timidly raised my arm. "Who wrote the Bible - the one that is called the Five Books of Moses?"
The grandmotherly-looking speaker smiled. "A bunch of cattle grazing men in the desert wrote those books. Every religion and culture has its mythology." Although the college was run by the Southern Episcopalian diocese, it was a very liberal church and no one objected to such an answer; most people laughed with her. It was also the answer that I was looking to hear, to justify my new found freedoms.
Emulating the free life of Tarzan somehow works better on the screen, especially for a skinny, asthmatic boy from South Carolina. Heartache and the empty feelings of a life devoid of meaning and purpose were real pains. After seven years of trying to repress these idealistic cravings of a naive youth, my friend Daniel easily convinced me to spend four weeks one summer at the yeshiva for beginners in Morristown, New Jersey, under the inspiring wings of Rabbi Avrohom Lipskier. Even though I had been a regular guest at Daniel's apartment for the past nine months and had even gone with him to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I still was not convinced that the Torah was the Truth. In all honesty, I had doubts even about the existence of a Supreme Being. After all, I had spent many years getting a secular education where I was taught that life was not created but evolved.
I came to the yeshiva program as a skeptical spectator, armed with a journal and pens. Every day and night, I recorded masterful moves of logic in the Talmud, meaningful insights into the Torah revealed in the Lubavitcher Rebbe's talks, novel ideas of understanding the soul recorded in the book called Tanya, the learning was pleasurable and a balm to my spirit - but who said these gems, despite their brilliance, were more than the product of incredible human intellect? Where is the concrete proof that a Supreme Being exists? And who can prove that He/She instructed us to do anything?
I recorded more and more in my journal. It helped me hold myself back, lest I be swayed by the sweet waters of Chasidic teachings without any logical proofs. The yeshiva spent Shabbat in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The Rebbe spoke about the types of animals that either chew the cud or have split hooves: the camel, rock badger, hare, and pig. There are no others. No other types of animals have ever been found. "How did those cattle-grazers sitting in the desert know that there are only four types?" I asked myself.
It was if the Rebbe heard me think my question. "For those that need proofs, this is a proof that the Torah is the word of G-d."
Here's another proof, the Rebbe said. The Torah says that kosher sea creatures must have scales and fins. The rabbis of the Talmud asked, "Why does the Torah say scales and fins? Every sea creature with scales also has fins. The Torah should just say scales."
To this day, every sea creature with scales also has fins. Were the authors of the Talmud also deep-sea divers? Did they stop at every port and look at every fish? Did they discover the Americas way before Columbus? Did the cattle-grazing authors travel the world to gaze at the hooves and check out the cuds of every animal? A skeptic I had to admit and maybe Ms. Mead would have too, the Torah was way beyond the knowledge of ancient man. From then on, the wisdom of Torah, especially the deep Chasidic teachings of Torah, have been my guide in my struggles to free myself from the overgrown snarls as we escape from the jungles of exile.
The Aleph-Bais Trip on the Aleph-Bais Ship
A toy ship, a pack of Aleph-Bais (Hebrew alphabet) cards, and a load of imagination combine to create an adventure on the high seas! This rhyming book for young children is written by Chani Altein and delightfully illustrated by Baruch Becker. The pages are laminated for durability. Published by HaChai Publishing.
Whispers Between Worlds
This newly released book from Kehot Publications is intended to make the experience more meaningful of visiting the grave of a tzadik (righteous person). The book contains an adaptation of a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the anniversary of the passing of the previous Rebbe. It also has a translation of a Chasidic discourse explaining the significance of visiting the grave of a tzadik. Lastly, it contains the portion of the Jewish mystical text Zohar that is included in the special "Maaneh Lashon" booklet to be read at the gravesite of the righteous.
25 Teves, 5741 (1981)
With regard to your question, ... if the ultimate purpose of existence is that of performing G-d's mitzvos [commandments], what then is the goal and meaning of the life of a Jew who from a young age on is unable to perform any of the mitzvos because of physical or intellectual limitations:
The answer to this question must be found in connection to a more general and encompassing question, your question being only one of it aspects.
You must bear in mind that according to the Torah itself it is impossible for all Jews as individuals to perform all 613 commandments. Aside from those commandments that can only be performed in Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] and during the time that the Holy Temple was extant, there are other commandments that apply only to a Kohen [priest], while yet others generally cannot be performed by a Kohen.
However, in light of the fact that all the Jewish people are a single entity, similar to a single body, each individual who performs his or her obligations according to the capacity he or she was endowed with by G-d, becomes a partner to the totality of all Jewish efforts and achievements.
A similar principle applies to mankind in general. Each and every individual is to contribute to the common achievements of mankind, although each individual's capacity is inherently limited, whether he is a simple farmer who produces food or a scientist or an inventor of farming machinery, and the like.
A person who excels in his individual area of endeavor will generally be limited, or even useless, in another area. Who is authorized to state which is more important, which individual contributes the most? Only a harmonious partnership and the use of all human resources will contribute to the overall good of society.
With regard to the individual, all that needs to be said - as our Sages have indeed stressed - is that G-d does not demand from any individual anything that is beyond his or her capabilities. A person cannot ask why G-d provided some individuals with greater capacities than others.
Getting back to the subject of our correspondence - the needs of special children (or as they are termed, "retarded," or "suffering from arrested development," as I have already mentioned many times about this):
It must be made clear that while they are limited in specific areas (and who of us is not?), there is no reason or justification for lumping them all in one equal category of "limited" or "retarded."
Human experience is replete with examples of people who were severely restricted in many areas and nevertheless afterwards excelled, making tremendous, even extraordinary, contributions to society in other areas.
I am absolutely convinced that if a system would be instituted to test the special aptitudes of these special children of ours at an early age, and appropriate classes would be established in order to enable them to develop these aptitudes, the results would be manifestly gratifying, if not truly astonishing.
It goes without saying that such an educational system would greatly enhance the self-confidence and general development of these children, not to mention the fact that this would enable them to make meaningful contributions to society as well. ...
From Healthy in Body, Mind and Soul, compiled and translated by Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg, published by Sichos in English
Enroll your child in a Torah Summer Camp
The Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke many times about the unique learning opportunity for Jewish children afforded by the months of summer vacation. Without the pressures of tests, homework, etc., children enrolled in camps permeated with a Torah atmosphere eagerly learn about their heritage and are instilled with pride in being Jewish. Creative methods are used to make Judaism came alive. The soul is nourished as the body and mind are strengthened through sports, crafts, etc. If you don't have camp-age children help sponsor a child in a Torah camp. Call your local Chabad-Lubavitch Center for more information.
In memory of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg and the other kedoshim of Mumbai
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
We find the following difference of opinion between the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud concerning Shabbat.
The Babylonian Talmud states that if the Jews keep two Sabbaths, we will be immediately redeemed. In the Jerusalem Talmud it states that if the Jewish people keeps one Sabbath we will immediately be redeemed.
Which one is it? How can these two opinions be reconciled?
The Messianic Era is likened to the Sabbath, and is, in fact, called, "The day which is entirely Shabbat and rest for eternity."
There are various forms of rest.
We can refrain from heavy physical labor, thereby giving our bodies their much needed rest.
We can also have a less physical, but more spiritual type of rest which also rejuvenates the body, a rest which includes t he cessation of the worries and cares of the mundane world and the intensified immersion into spiritual matters.
Thus, when we observe Shabbat, we are actually observing both physical and spiritual rest.
With this in mind, we can reconcile the seeming difference of opinion between the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. If the entire Jewish nation keeps both aspects of Shabbat on one Sabbath, we will immediately be redeemed.
We can hasten the attainment of this goal by experiencing Shabbat this very week.
Indulge yourself this Shabbat in a truly restful and rejuvenating (and re-Jewvenating) experience. Observe and celebrate Shabbat in all its beauty and simplicity.
This Shabbat, let us all join together with one common goal - to bring the Redemption for all humankind.
When you come into the land that I give you (Lev. 25:2)
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once commented that it wasn't until he had actually visited the Land of Israel that he understood why the Torah uses the present tense when referring to the Holy Land, e.g., "that I give you": When a Jew merits to live in Israel, his gratitude to G-d is fresh and new each day, as if the land had just been given to him.
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants (Lev. 25:10)
Why does the Torah state that liberty is to be proclaimed to all of Israel's "inhabitants" in the Jubilee year, when in reality it is only the Jewish indentured servants who are freed? The answer is found in the Gemara (Tractate Kidushin 20): "He who acquires a Hebrew servant acquires a master over himself." By Jewish law, a master is obligated to maintain his servant in a high degree of dignity and comfort. Accordingly, both master and servant are relieved of their "servitude" in the Jubilee year.
And if your brother has become poor, and his means fail with you, then you shall strengthen him (Lev. 25:35)
To help another Jew who is stuck in the mire, a person must be willing to "immerse himself in mud up to the neck" in order to drag the other person out.
(Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin)
In the 1700s and 1800s in Russia, the Russian Czars implemented a law whereby young boys were conscripted into the Russian army for Russification through schooling and serving in the army for up to 25 years. There they were taught to be proud Russian Orthodox Christian soldiers and devote their lives to their homeland.
Amongst the Jewish conscripts, there were some boys who managed to hold on to their Judaism despite the tortures, beatings and psychological pressure. But they were few. The majority either died or converted.
Eli Leib Itzkovitz was among the majority. At the age of 12 he was conscripted. He was weak, alone and scared. The priest seemed so warm and friendly when he spoke about the church (and so frightening when he spoke about those who didn't accept the Christian god), that Eli converted eagerly.
Eli changed his name to Sasha and moved up in the army's social strata. Fifteen years later he was on his way to becoming an officer. Because of their outstanding devotion, he and a few other soldiers were given a ten day leave.
One of the soldiers mentioned that he was going to visit his family and the others agreed that it was a fine idea. Suddenly a flash of his mother's eyes, his father's voice and his home passed through Eli's mind. Of course the army was his "real" home and Russia and the Czar were his parents. But after all, he had another week with no plans and all the others were going home, why not him?
After a 10 hour train ride, Eli stood in front of his old house and knocked on the door. A woman answered. Could this be his mother? He hardly recognized her and she certainly did not recognize him. She treated him like a visiting Russian soldier, inviting him in and preparing a cup of tea.
She told him that her husband had passed away from cholera and her only son had been snatched into the army 15 years ago. Now she was alone. Eli's heart winced to think he would never see his father again. It had been a long time; he had spent more of his life in the army than he had at home. But somewhere deep inside him, the child was still alive. Finally, Eli looked into his mother's eyes and said quietly. "Mother, it's me! I'm Eli!"
When they calmed down and dried their eyes, Eli told his mother about the army and all that he had done in the last 15 years, including that he had been baptized. "Judaism is a thing of the past," he told her. "The commandments are old." He repeated much of the dogma he had been taught by the priest.
Eli's mother begged him to be a Jew. She told him of his father's devotion, about Abraham and the thousands of years of Jewish self-sacrifice for the Torah. But it was no use, so she changed the subject.
Eli stayed with her for a week. When it was time for him to return to his based, she begged him, "Please, I don't want to lose you again. I don't want you to get killed. In the town of Liadi there is a great rabbi by the name of Rebbe Shneur Zalman. Go to him, give him this note and ask for a blessing."
Eli wanted to refuse but one look in his mother's pleading eyes melted his heart. An few hours later he was standing in the Rebbe's house at the end of a line of people. The Chasidim had orders that soldiers don't have to wait and he was whisked to the front of the line.
The door to the Rebbe's room opened. As Eli entered, a feeling of fear and awe enveloped him that he had never before experienced. It took him completely by surprise. He looked into the Rebbe's eyes and felt the Rebbe's piercing glance on him. He handed the Rebbe the his mother's note. The Rebbe asked him a few questions about himself and the army and finally said, "May the Alm-ghty give you success in all that you do."
Eli got up the courage and asked the Rebbe for a coin he could carry with him for good luck and protection, but the Rebbe answered, "G-d will protect you without a coin and give you understanding to choose the proper path."
As Eli left the Rebbe's house he felt different, he felt re-attached to something alive and infinite that he had lost. The next day when he returned to his base a notice was posted on the door of the mess hall that by order of the Czar anyone who wanted to return to the religion of his parents could do so.
Eli immediately reported to his superior officer. He requested to change his name back to Eli Leib and to be registered as a Jew. Within moments a priest and several officers called him into a private conversation. Eli had been an outstanding soldier with a bright future and they didn't want to lose him. They gave him all the reasons possible for remaining a gentile and not becoming a Jew. The priest explained how he would be damned, would forfeit everlasting bliss and would miss the redemption. The officers reminded him that he stood to lose his rank in the army as well as his friends and his future. But Eli had had looked into the Rebbe's eyes. He waited for them to finish and then spoke.
Eli said quietly but firmly, "The first Jew, Abraham was alone; the entire world was against him, but I'm with him." Then he turned to the priest and said, "I can't debate you, but I'm sure the Rebbe of Liadi knows all your arguments and nevertheless I'm sure he also is on Abraham's side."
Eli was demoted to private and his benefits were erased. When his term in the army finished, he returned to his mother and the first blessing of the Rebbe, that G-d would give him success in everything he did, materialized: he found a good job and a wonderful wife. He lived to see three generations of offspring. And at least once a year he would gather his family together and repeat the story of how just seeing the face of the Rebbe implanted in him the desire and strength to live as a Jew.
"G-d spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai... the land shall rest a Sabbath to the L-rd" (Lev. 25:1, 2). Why the juxtaposition of Mt. Sinai with the commandment of the Sabbatical year? Chasidic teachings explain that the Sinai Desert symbolizes the "wilderness of the nations"-the time of exile; the Sabbatical year refers to the Messianic era. The two concepts are juxtaposed to teach us that when a Jew keeps the imminent Redemption in his consciousness, he can actually have a foretaste of the Messianic era. Human nature is such that when we anticipate a great event, the very knowledge that it is about to occur makes us joyful.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)