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As we approach Rosh Hashana we realize that it's that time of year again. Time to account for our past deeds, rectify any damage we've done, and figure out how we can improve in the future. In the Jewish vernacular this is known as "teshuva," literally "returning"--returning to one's previously unsullied state. Often it is translated as (ugh) "repentance."
For over a week, starting this Saturday night and continuing until Rosh Hashana, special "penitential" prayers that we say daily help get us in shape for the heavy-duty spiritual workout of Rosh Hashana. And, if that's not enough, the days from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur--known as "The Ten Days of Teshuva"--are set aside for more introspection, repentance, and self-improvement. Even after Yom Kippur, until the eve of Simchat Torah, we still have time for teshuva since the Heavenly Register is not "sealed" until then.
Why the need for teshuva all together? If we hurt someone's feelings or stole something, most of us know that we have to apologize, try to rectify the situation, and even resolve not to do it in the future.
But what does that have to do with returning? And what exactly are we trying to return and to where?
Imagine an article of clothing, the nice, clean shirt you are wearing, for instance. What if you spilled some coffee on it, or brushed into a chalkboard, or your favorite Mont Blanc pen leaked all over it. The type and location of damage your shirt acquired would dictate the method you would use to clean it.
Now imagine that the shirt is your neshama, your soul, the spark of G-dly light and energy in you that gives you life.
When we do mitzvot and follow G-d's commandments, the shirt/soul remains in the clean, pristine state in which we received it. Of course, just regular living puts a crease here or there. But, basically, it stays neat. However, when we neglect a mitzva or transgress--whether a commandment between one person and another or a commandment between a person and G-d--our shirt/soul gets dirty.
The type and location of dirt or grime the soul picks up dictates how we should proceed. The cleaning process is quite logical. Just as you would remove the pen from your pocket as soon as you realize it's leaking, the first step of teshuva is to stop transgressing or start performing the neglected mitzva.
Then, we need to examine the stain and the damage to ascertain how to proceed. Certain transgressions cause bigger or tougher stains than others. And certainly, fre-quency also comes into consideration--like shirt collars repeatedly bombarded with sweat that develop "ring around the collar."
Teshuva for some spiritual stains might require minimal effort, like brushing off chalk powder. Other spiritual dirt could be more like a coffee stain. You'll need to collect some paper towels and water, maybe a little soap and then vigorously rub it. The spot might even be a little uncomfortable until it dries, but with some luck it will look just fine.
The ink is a little trickier, like the repeated transgression or the more serious misdeeds. To return the soul to its former state if it acquired an ink-like stain, requires hard work, time, elbow grease. You would probably want to ask a professional for advice, or at least for some suggestions of what solutions or chemicals to use. Eventually, with time, effort and persistence, you can totally rid the soul of its stain. You can return it to its formerly unsullied state. For, after all, it's not a flaw woven into the cloth, it's something extraneous, something not intrinsically part of the original garment.
This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, contains the curses to be inflicted on the Jewish people if they do not obey G-d. The Torah teaches that "no evil comes from Above." Accordingly, we must conclude that even the most terrible curse contains only good, albeit in a hidden fashion.
Our Sages made two statements on the subject of hidden good: "Everything that G-d does is for the best" and "This is also for the best." The first statement is attributed to Rabbi Akiva, who once set out on a journey with a donkey, a rooster, and a candle. Weary from his travels he reached a town, only to be turned away from all of its inns. Rabbi Akiva had to spend the night out in the open field on the outskirts of town.
That night, a lion appeared and devoured the Rabbi's donkey, a wild cat came along and gobbled up the rooster, and the wind blew out the candle. Rabbi Akiva said, "Everything that G-d does is for the best." In the morning Rabbi Akiva found out that during the night murderous robbers attacked the town, slaughtering all its inhabitants. He then understood that what had befallen him had saved him from a similar fate.
This story illustrates one way of understanding ultimate good which seems to be hidden within its opposite. Although Rabbi Akiva's misfortunes caused him temporary anguish, he was spared further suffering by those very events. The wording itself of "everything G-d does is for the best" implies that whatever happens leads to ultimate good, even if it appears at first that the events themselves are not good.
A second story, about Nachum Ish Gamzu, illustrates another way of reconciling our problem. He was sent by the Sages to appease the Roman Emperor with a chest full of pearls. Along the way, unbeknownst to him, the pearls were stolen and replaced with earth. When the Emperor opened the trubute and saw the dirt he wanted to put the sage to death. Nachum Ish Gamzu said, "This is also for the best."
And indeed it was, for G-d sent Elijah the Prophet in the guise of a minister, who suggested that the dust might be similar to the dust with which Abraham was victorious in his wars. The Emperor sent some to his soldiers on the front who immediately won the battle. In gratitude, the Emperor awarded Nachum Ish Gamzu great riches and high honors.
In this instance, what seemed at first to be misfortune turned out to be advantageous. Not only did nothing bad happen to Nachum Ish Gamzu, but he ended up being given great wealth by the Emperor. Had he brought pearls to the Emperor there was no guarantee that he would have been well received. It was precisely the earth which delighted the Emperor. There was no evil; everything which transpired was good.
Nachum Ish Gamzu, Rabbi Akiva's teacher, was one generation closer to the era of the Holy Temple. Rabbi Akiva lived in a time more properly belonging to the exile. When the Holy Temple stood, the Jews could more easily discern the good contained in everything, even that which at first appears adverse. The exile makes it difficult to see this, and only the good resulting from seemingly bad events is discernable. As we approach the Final Redemption may we soon merit that G-d removes all concealments so that we will be able to truly understand the ultimate good hidden in all of our suffering throughout the ages.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
PARKING LOT BAR MITZVA
by Tzvi Jacobs
This true story happened three years ago, during the Jewish month of Elul (September 1989). I was driving home from a bris in Elizabeth, New Jersey. On the way I stopped at a branch of the bank that I use to make a deposit. I parked in the lot behind the bank. I got out, locked the door and then remembered that the check was in the car. I opened the door, found the check, turned to close the door, and gasped.
Three men surrounded me. They wore tattered jeans and filthy t-shirts. Though it was before noon, they reeked of alcohol. The guy on the left was clutching a whiskey bottle like a hammer. He had a desperate, mean look in his eyes. The guy on my right almost looked friendly, but a little scared and hungry. He was about my size. But the one in the middle--he was big, bad and ugly. He loomed above. He had tattoos up the entire length of his bare arms.
"Got some change?" he said, extending his huge hand towards my neck. Three teeth were missing from his grin. A deep scar ran from his chin to his cheek.
Thoughts raced through my head. Think fast, stay calm. Everything happens for a reason. All is for the good. Only fear G-d. All the Chasidic dictums about life were running through my mind. They made sense in yeshiva.
But now? Now it was Elul, when G-d is supposed to be very accessible, like the King who leaves his palace and is in the fields and streets listening to the requests of the ordinary folks.
"Yes, I have some change for you," I said, while dropping the check back in the car, locking and closing the car door behind me.
Everything happens for a reason.
"Any of you Jewish?" I asked. I knew it was next to impossible.
"Yeh, I'm Jewish," the big guy said.
"You're Jewish?" I said in disbelief. It must be a ploy. "You have a Jewish name?"
"Shmuel Yankel ben Moshe," he said with pride, like a boot soldier responding to his officer. In his eyes I probably looked like a rabbi.
"Did you have a Bar Mitzva?" I asked.
"Yuh. Baruch ata..." The big guy, nee Shmuel Yankel, began singing the Haftorah blessings.
"Why are you asking for a few cents? You should be asking for millions. It's right before Rosh Hashana and you can ask G-d for anything. He's here in the streets with you and me and we can ask Him for anything now. On Rosh Hashana, G-d goes back into His palace and it's not so easy for us to get in, but now He's taking requests. I might have some change, but G-d has millions.
"You know what tefilin are? Put them on, Shmuel Yankel. I'm sure G-d will hear you."
As I spoke I slipped the car key out of my pocket and got my tefilin out. "Put out your arm."
The sleeve was torn off his shirt. That made it easy to slide the tefilin over his arm, past the chorus line of tattoos and rows of little holes.
Those must be needle tracks, I thought.
"Here," I said, as I took off my yarmulka from beneath my hat. "Let me put this on you so you can say the blessing with me." He lowered his head so I could reach it. "Baruch ata..." We said the blessing and then I reached up and put the tefilin on his head. Shmuel Yankel said the Shema and his eyes became wet.
"G-d's right here with you, Shmuel Yankel. Ask Him whatever your heart desires." He was quiet. A tear rolled into the scar groove.
One of his partners was pacing back and forth on the asphalt, like a shark swimming in front of his prey. "Let's go already," the Shark snapped.
"You just wait. I'm praying," Shmuel Yankel said. The Shark backed off like a guppy. The third guy looked with amazement at the whole ceremony. Why was he so interested?
I asked him his name. "Michel," he said with a slurred French accent.
"Are you Jewish, Michel?"
"No, I'm Catholic. My mother was Jewish but she became Catholic. The Nazis killed her parents and a Catholic monastery raised her."
"You're Jewish," I told him. "If your mother was born Jewish, then nothing can take that away. Once a Jew, always a Jew," I said. "Today is like your Bar Mitzva. Put on these tefilin and we'll make a Bar Mitzva celebration."
Michel repeated the blessings for tefilin as best he could. The tefilin sat on his greasy, long, black hair. His eyes sparkled with life, and Michel began to look like a scraggly Jewish boy, like the lost prince who had been dragged through the mucky alleys of medieval Europe, beaten and abused, and now has finally stumbled across his royal home. The King met him in the streets, and Michel recognized his Father.
"We can take them off now," I said. Michel held out his arm and let me unwrap them as if he were a gentle baby.
I had some cake with me from the bris. The four of us split the two slices of cake. "L'Chaim. To life," I said, raising my cake.
My two Jewish friends thanked me. We shook hands and hugged.
"Wait," I said, running after them, "here's some change."
"No, that's all right," Shumel Yankel said as he waved good-bye.
FIVE YEARS OLD
What's informative, illuminating, and five years old? It's the weekly Torah class in Randolf, New Jersey, which is celebrating it's fifth anniversary on Monday, September 14. The class, on the weekly Torah portion, meets at the Chabad House of Randolf and is conducted by Rabbi Israel Gordon from the Rabbinical College of America. Similar classes take place in the nearly 250 Chabad-Lubavitch Centers in the United States and over 1,000 Centers throughout the world. For more information about a class near you, call your local Chabad-Lubavitch Center.
If attendance at last year's High Holiday services was any indication, the officers of the Chabad Russian Synagogue in West Hollywood are expecting a full house this year. Last year, 1,400 Russian Jews came on Yom Kippur to the synagogue at their then new location. Because renovation had just been completed three weeks previously, the synagogue did not yet have occupancy permits. The fire department and city officials, however, allowed the synagogue to remain open because of the significance of the day, and cordoned off traffic to accommodate the crowd which overflowed onto the sidewalk and street. The fire department organized shifts and allowed 600 worshippers in at a time
THE BALANCE SHEET
Translated from a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
These days at the end of the outgoing year, and on the eve of the new year (may it bring blessings to us all), call for self-evaluation in respect to the year about to end. In the light of this self-appraisal, one is called upon to make the necessary resolutions for the coming year.
Such a "balance sheet" can be valid only if the evaluation of the full extent of one's powers and opportunities was a correct one. Only then can one truly regret, to a commensurate degree, the missed opportunities and resolve to utilize one's capacities to the fullest extent from now on.
The period of time before and during Rosh Hashana is not only a period which demands spiritual stock-taking in general, but also one which requires a profound inner appreciation of the tremendous capacities which one possesses, both as a human being, the crown of Creation and as a Jew, to whom the Creator has given His Divine Law of Life (Torat Chayim). For Rosh Hashana is the day when Man was created.
When Adam was created, the Creator immediately apprised him of his powers and told him what his purpose in life would be: "Replenish the earth, and conquer it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28)
Man was given the power to conquer the whole world and to rule over it, on land, sea and in the air; this was his task.
How was this "world conquest" to be attained, and what is the purpose and true meaning of it? This is what our Sages tell us and teach us in this regard: When G-d created Adam, his soul (his Divine image) permeated and irradiated his whole being. By virtue of this he became ruler over the entire Creation. All the creatures gathered to serve him and to crown him as their creator. But Adam, pointing out their error, said to them: "Let us all come and worship G-d, our Maker!"
The "world conquest," which was given to humanity as his task and mission in life, is to elevate the whole of nature, including the beasts and animals, to the service of true humanity, humanity permeated and illuminated by the Divine image, by the soul which is a veritable part of G-d above, so that the whole of Creation will realize that G-d is our Maker.
Needless to say, before a person sets out to conquer the world, he must first conquer himself, through the subjugation of the "earthly" and "beastly" in his own nature. This is attained through actions which are strictly in accord with the directives of the Torah, the Law of Life--the practical guide in everyday living, so that the material becomes permeated and illuminated with the light of the One G-d.
G-d created one person, and on this single person on earth He imposed the said duty and task. Herein lies the profound, yet clear directive, namely, that one person--each and every person--is potentially capable of "conquering the world."
If a person does not fulfill his task, and does not utilize his inestimable Divine powers, it is not merely a personal loss and failure, but something that affects the destiny of the whole world.
In these days of introspection, we are duty-bound to reflect that each and every one of us--through carrying out the instructions of the Creator of the World which are contained in His Torah--has the capacity of conquering worlds. Everyone must, therefore, ask himself how much has he accomplished in this direction, and to what extent has he failed, so that he can make the proper resolutions for the coming year.
G-d, Who looks into the heart, on seeing the determination behind these good resolutions, will send His blessing for their realization in the fullest measure, in joy and gladness of heart and affluence, materially and spiritually.
Why do we eat an apple dipped in honey on Rosh Hashana?
One of the many reasons we eat an apple is that it has three qualities: taste, appearance, and fragrance. Likewise, a Jew asks G-d for the three major gifts in life: worthy children, longevity, and adequate sustenance. We dip the apple in honey to allude to our hope that our fate will be sweet in the coming year. Also, devash ("honey" in Hebrew) has the numerical value of 306 which is the same numerical value as "Father of Mercy."
The bikurim were a unique expression of thanks to G-d, showing an awareness that the blessings which we receive emanate from Him. To emphasize our gratitude for these blessings, we are enjoined to give the first and the best produce as an offering to G-d. Furthermore, we make a public statement of thanks before G-d in the Holy Temple.
The concept of expressing thanks to G-d is one of the fundamental principles of Jewish life. We begin each day with an expression of thanks when we say the prayer, Modeh Ani, in which we gratefully acknowledge G-d's return of our souls. This first act upon awakening is the foundation for all of our subsequent conduct which includes many blessings and expressions of thanks.
The importance of thanking G-d is further emphasized by the Baal Shem Tov's teaching that the creation of the world is renewed every moment. This reflects the unbounded nature of G-d's kindness. The comprehension of this idea should arouse our unbounded and deep-felt gratitude, for we realize how everything is dependent on G-d's kindness at every moment.
All facets of our lives are bikurim to be offered to G-d. Thus, we should not think that our commitment to G-d involves only "Jewish things." Instead, every aspect of our conduct should be permeated with holiness and should be carried out as befits a person who is in the presence of G-d.
All of our thoughts, words, or acts are bikurim, a first fruit offering to G-d. They should therefore be the best we have to offer.
By living our lives in a manner of bikurim, not only do we thankfully acknowledge G-d's kindness, we also cause everything in our lives to be sanctified and holy.
Rabbi Shmuel Butman
The royal kitchens in the Czar's palace were humming with activity. The chefs had been ordered to prepare a lavish meal to be served at the reception honoring the visiting king, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, the Czar's relative. On the menu was a favorite delicacy--stuffed derma. A tender calf was selected and the preparation of the dish was meticulously supervised.
The chef's efforts were crowned with success, and the visiting Kaiser could not praise the dish enough. "I would like the recipe for that extraordinary cuisine," Kaiser Wilhelm told the Czar. "My mouth is watering just at the thought of my cooks serving this dish."
The Czar ordered the chief chef to prepare a detailed list of ingredients and instructions. Kaiser Wilhelm left Russia still singing the praises of the delicious meal. Upon his arrival in Germany, he immediately summoned his chef. "Here is an outstanding recipe," he said, handing him the paper. "I would like you to prepare this dish for dinner." The chef took great pains to follow the instructions, and soon the dish was ready to be served. The Kaiser sat in eager anticipation as the doors of the kitchen flew open. However, as the stuffed derma was set on the table, he could not conceal his displeasure. "Goodness me!" he exclaimed, bringing his hand to his nose. "What an unpleasant stench coming from the food!" The platter was quickly removed from the table.
Quite disappointed, Kaiser Wilhelm wrote to the Czar, demanding to know why his chefs could not produce that same delicacy, despite their strict adherence to the recipe. The Czar called for his chef, asking, "Do you have any idea why those cooks were unsuccessful?"
The chef knitted his brow for a moment, then suddenly he burst out laughing. "It's quite simple. I hadn't included in my instructions, that the intestines be turned inside out and washed thoroughly before being spiced and stuffed. That seemed to be so obvious, unnecessary to mention. Evidently, it wasn't so obvious to the German chefs."
Thus, we must know that a true teshuva--repentence is achieved only by "turning one's heart inside out" and cleansing it of all one's sins.
(From My Father's Shabbos Table, Rabbi Y. Chitrick)
There was once a poor farmer's widow who had many hungry children, but no food to feed them. One day she found an egg, and overjoyed, she ran to her children and told them that their troubles were finally over. "I will take this egg and ask our neighbors if I can put it under one of their sitting hens until it hatches. But we won't eat the chicken. We'll set her on her own eggs until they hatch, and they will have many more eggs which will hatch into many more chickens. When we have enough of them, we'll sell them and buy a cow, and she'll have calves. Then, we'll be able to sell some of the calves and buy a field. Then, we'll have a field, and cows, and chickens and eggs and milk, and we'll never be in want again.
She was so excited by her vision of the future, that she accidentally dropped the egg. It broke, and with it went all her hopes and dreams.
The moral of this story was explained by Rabbi Chaim of Sanz who said: "We are all like the poor woman in this story. When the days of teshuva are here we make all kinds of wonderful resolutions. We will do this and do that, we will reform all of our undesirable traits and rectify all of our misdeeds. And yet, as the time goes by, we somehow fail to make the moves that would set our good resolutions into motion, and we are the same people as we were before. Therefore, we must do everything to ensure that we carry out our resolutions to do teshuva when the opportunity is before us.
And it shall come to pass, when you come into the land which the L-rd your G-d is giving you (Deut. 26:1)
The Jews' entrance into the land of Israel is symbolic of the soul's descent into the body and its being forced to live in the physical world. The Midrash teaches that the words "and it shall come to pass" are always used to denote something of great joy. Though the G-dly soul is saddened when it temporarily leaves its place under G-d's throne to dwell in a Jewish body for a certain number of years, it is a joyous occurrence, since the descent is to elevate the corporeal world through doing mitzvot.
Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field (Deut. 28:3)
A city has certain advantages over rural life, among them the pleasure of others' company and the availability of places of Torah and learning. Rural life also has its advantages, such as a more relaxed life style, fresher air, and warmer relationships between neighbors. G-d's blessing is that we should be equally blessed in both locales.
You will become mad from the sight of your eyes (Deut. 28:34)
"The sight of your eyes" means "your leaders"--those who serve as "the eyes of the congregation." This is therefore one of the harshest curses, that the Jews will recoil in shock and horror when they behold who their leaders are...
(Rabbi Shimon Sofer)
And there will you offer yourselves for sale to your enemies, for bondsmen (Deut. 28:68)
You will be forced to sell yourselves to your enemies, who are themselves enslaved. "A slave who attains power" is the harshest ruler.
"L'Chaim!" declared a chasid at a gathering. "May we merit the coming of Moshiach!"
Another chasid remarked, "You should include another wish: May we merit to serve G-d properly. Just imagine what would happen if Moshiach came now. We would be overcome with shame and would be too embarrassed to greet him. Thus, we should include a request to serve G-d properly so that we may become worthy of facing the Redeemer."
(From My Father's Shabbos Table by Rabbi Y. Chitrick)