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The word "convert" is very unpopular these days. Open any Anglo-Jewish publication and you'll find the term "Jew by Choice" used instead. Whether it's an article about rabbinical seminaries or a discussion of Torah study groups, the writer is determined to let us know that so- and-so is a Jew, not by birth, but out of an act of his or her own choosing.
Why this information belongs in such articles is baffling. Jewish tradition holds that a non-Jew who converts to Judaism is not to be reminded of his past nor should the fact that he is a convert be brought up to others. One should not mention even casually during conversation that the person is a convert, even if it is not being said in any type of derogatory fashion.
Where there is a compelling reason to mention a person's origins, such as in the inspirational stories of great sages like Rabbi Akiva, descended from gentiles, who achieved great scholarship in spite of their late start in life, there can be no more laudatory term than the Hebrew word "Ger" -- convert.
The Talmud talks of a "ger sh'nitga-yer" -- a convert who converts. One might have expected the person to be referred to as "a non-Jew who converts" or a "goy" (meaning one from the 70 nations of the world, not of the Jewish nation) who converts. Referring to the person as a "convert" even before he converts implies that this person had a unique soul and a unique destiny from birth.
The process of conversion (acceptance of the yoke of all the mitzvot in front of a Rabbinical court, circumcision, and immersion in a mikva) reveals that which was latent in the individual even before.
Often we see the term "convert" being used loosely to describe a Jew who grew up in a less traditional home and became more observant later in life. This is really not accurate. Regardless of our religious affiliation, we are all Jews. Use of the word convert improperly implies a separateness which should not exist.
The use of the term "Jews by Choice" rather than converts might also be implying that the rest of the Jewish people, born of Jewish mothers and who did not have to go through the conversion process, are somehow inferior, nebuch, "Jews not by their own Choice!"
The truth is that today every Jew is, in a certain sense, a "Jew by Choice." Though Judaism is not a club which one can join or leave at will -- in the words of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of the Chabad movement, "A Jew neither wishes to, nor can be, separated from G-dliness" -- we nevertheless no longer have the external pressure of anti-Semitism, nor the internal pressures of close-knit communities, to "force" us to live our lives as Jews. Many of us no longer have a rabbi who knows us so well that he notices whether we were at the synagogue that day, or even on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur.
In addition, G-d created a world where every Jew has free choice. We don't get zapped by a bolt of lightning if we fail to do a mitzva. Thus, whatever we do observe, whatever traditions we do keep, we are doing out of choice. Today, more than ever before, Jews are choosing to act Jewish. In that sense we are all Jews by Choice.
Let's all choose to observe one more mitzva or perform another act of kindness so that we hasten the time when the whole world will choose to accept G-d as the ultimate Authority and G-dliness and goodness will pervade the entire world.
This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, contains the mitzva of bikurim, first fruits. The bikurim had to be of the finest fruits that were produced in the land of Israel, the first to mature in a particular season, and they were brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem before their owner was permitted to enjoy the rest of his bounty. By bringing the bikurim, a person expressed his thanks to G-d for His blessings. Unlike other offerings that were burned on the altar, the first fruits were given to the kohen (priest) for his own consumption.
We must always remember that all abundance comes from G-d. Our crops yield fruit not because of our merit or because of our labors, but solely due to G-d's blessing.
The farmer invests a great deal of effort before seeing results. He must plow the earth, sow his seeds, and carefully nurture his saplings. Yet, when all these labors are done, he takes those fruits and elevates them to the realm of holiness. The farmer knows that it is G-d's blessing which causes the tree to bear fruit. Accordingly, the very best of his produce rightly belongs to Him.
The bikurim, having been elevated, are given to the kohen to be eaten as part of his Divine service.
From this we learn that a Jew must serve G-d not only when he prays or learns Torah. A Jew serves G-d throughout the day, even when engaged in as mundane an activity as eating! True, such service involves a great deal of preparation, but the reward is commensurate with the effort.
The principle behind the mitzva of bikurim may be applied even today, when the Jewish people are in exile. This is true even outside the land of Israel and even on a regular weekday!
We do so by acknowledging that all our wealth and possessions come directly from G-d and by utilizing all that G-d has blessed us with for holy purposes. In this manner the Jew can turn even the simplest object into a medium for holiness. When we thank G-d for everything He gives us, all of our actions are transformed into a Divine service.
In the times of the Holy Temple, a blessing was recited when the bikurim were brought asking G-d to allow us to joyfully perform the same mitzva the following year. Likewise, whenever we utilize G-d's gifts according to His dictates, it bring s down Divine blessing so that in the future, too, we will merit to enjoy them with gladness and rejoicing.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot of the Rebbe, vol. 2
Norbert and Brian
by Chana Sharfstein
At the farewell dinner of our Scandinavian tour, all the participants spoke briefly of their experiences during the tour. I had followed the instructions of the Rebbe of saying the Traveler's Prayer daily and collecting tzedaka [charity]. The tzedaka part I found very difficult, but since the Rebbe requested it, I complied. It is amazing, though, what effect giving tzedaka can have on people.
As always, the Rebbe certainly knew that great things could happen from such a seemingly small, insignificant act. Giving tzedaka develops our awareness of others and makes us sensitive toward the needs of our fellow man.
One of the tour members, instead of sharing an experience, expressed a special request. He wanted me to locate a boy he had seen from the Scandinavian community we were visiting, a boy whose name he did not yet know (we later found out it was Brian), and about whom he had no information. Divine Providence would have it that I was staying a few days extra, and thus I had an opportunity to complete some detective work.
The tour member, Norbert, was a Holocaust survivor. Something about the boy touched a chord in his heart. There was something about this sensitive, searching child that reminded him of his own teenage years.
Norbert's life had been good, blessed with a wonderful wife, children and grandchildren. And now, the feeling grew within him to rescue this young man just the way he himself had once been rescued. The dangers of the quiet, peaceful assimilation of Scandinavia could be spiritually destructive.
"Find that young man," Norbert said, "and I will provide him with one year of study at a yeshiva in the United States." His offer included transportation and dormitory expenses.
The group departed for the States, and I began my search. After a few calls, I reached the boy's mother. After introducing myself and explaining the purpose of my call, I was met with complete silence.
No response. "Are you there?" I asked somewhat bewildered. The young woman sounded tearful and overwhelmed with emotion. She explained that this was the answer to a dream, a dream she never even dared to dream. It was an answer from Heaven, she said, from the angels. There was no time to meet, but phone numbers and addresses were exchanged.
Letters and phone calls followed, and plans began to formulate.
It was wonderfully exciting to witness a miraculous dream slowly emerge into reality. The thoughtfulness and consideration of Norbert S. was an example of the highest degree of kindness.
Every year, prior to my departure to Scandinavia, I would have a brief encounter with the Rebbe on the "Dollar Line." He always inspired me with his obvious interest and display of enthusiasm. I always felt with great certainty that my tour would be successful with the blessings of G-d and the specific blessings and instructions from the Rebbe.
At Tishrei time, on the Dollar Line, the Rebbe would always ask me what I had accomplished on the tour. With his special smile, a smile from deep within, he would enthusiastically respond to my report. After his stroke, I wanted very much to share this wonderful story with the Rebbe.
I had intended on being brief. However, since the details had to be included, the letter grew longer and longer. At the end, I asked for a blessing from the Rebbe that Brian's visit to the United States to meet with his sponsor, Norbert, and personnel of yeshivas for interviews be crowned with success.
When the letter was finished, my husband hand-delivered it to 770. It was a Sunday afternoon on a cold, wintry day in February. Only a few hours later I received a phone call from the Rebbe's office. You cannot imagine how astonished I was. The secretary related to me that the Rebbe had displayed great happiness and enthusiasm upon hearing my letter. The Rebbe now requested the Hebrew names of the participants and the Hebrew names of their mothers for blessings.
Brian, who now goes by the name Boruch, arrived in New York during a major snowstorm in February, but he was certain everything would be successfully resolved for he had a personal blessing from the Rebbe. He had never heard of Lubavitch or the Rebbe, but he clutched the key chain with the Rebbe's picture in his fist, feeling the strength of the Rebbe's involvement in his life.
Norbert had arranged for interviews with schools. Obstacles were encountered, problems arose, but these challenges never dampened the mood of high and positive enthusiasm.
Gradually, step by step, the difficulties were overcome. Boruch is now completing his second year of yeshiva high school. He greatly enjoys all his Jewish studies. His mother received a Sabbatical from her position, came to the United States, and is completing her second year of intensified Jewish studies on the adult level. And Boruch's older brother likewise decided to continue his studies here at a college that combines Jewish studies with the secular program.
Norbert's act of kindness has resulted in a major ripple effect involving the future of three individuals. His original compassion and concern for a young boy seated near him in shul, an unknown young person who had difficulty finding the place in the prayerbook, developed into this wondrous situation.
May we all be inspired by this wondrous story to develop our sensitivity and compassion for those around us to make our world a better place, to bring forth the days of Moshiach.
Reprinted from the N'Shei Chabad Newsletter.
Find Reasons to Celebrate!
"'A good-hearted person is always celebrating,' our Sages teach. May we follow this counsel and seek to involve ourselves with the numerous opportunities for celebration that exist, confident that there is no need for concern about all material affairs of this world.
(The Rebbe on 10 Elul, 5751-1991)
ILLUMINATING DAILY LIFE
13th of Elul, 5731 
To the Administration of the Chabad House Buffalo, NY
I was gratified to be informed about the forthcoming dedication of a Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] in the Chabad House, which will take place on the auspicious day of the 18th of Elul, the birthday of the founder of general Chasidut, the Baal Shem Tov, and the birthday also of the founder of Chabad Chasidut, the Alter Rebbe, author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch.
Needless to say, the observance of this double birthday has the central purpose that their way of life, work and teachings should continue to illuminate the daily life of each and every one of us.
Both the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe, who expanded the Chasidic teachings in a systematic way and brought the Chasidic experience to Jews of all backgrounds, made the embodiment of the three loves: love of G-d, love of the Torah and love of Israel, the cornerstone of their system, with emphasis on the fact that the said three loves are completely interlocked and integrated.
This system and way of life quickly began to spread and gain many followers, in an ever growing measure in quantity and quality, from generation to generation to the present day, which has clearly demonstrated how viable and vital it has been for the Jewish people, for the individual as well as for Klal Yisrael [the entire Jewish community].
I have used the expression "illuminated" advisedly, since this does not necessarily mean the creation of new things, but to illuminate existing things which have not been fully appreciated, or which have been altogether overlooked. Thus, the primary contribution of Chasidut is that it illuminates the Torah and mitzvot, and their inner aspects, Pnimiut HaTorah, and shows each and every one of us the way to bring them within our personal daily experience.
The above is particularly important in relation to the young generation, who are still at the threshold of independent life and have untapped resources of energy and dedication to face any challenge, to accept the truth and nothing but the whole truth, rejecting all compromise -- in their search for the genuine article.
As for the teacher and mentor, while he must do his best to help those whom he teaches and guides to make the utmost progress, he also reckons with the capacity of the students. However, since it is the task of each and every Jew to follow the Torah way of life, with dedication and inspiration, as illuminated by the teachings of Chasidut -- it is clear that this task, which has been given every Jew as a duty and privilege by G-d, the Creator and Master of the world, is within the capacity of each and every one, since G-d does not expect the impossible.
May G-d grant that the dedication of the Sefer Torah in the Chabad House should symbolize the dedication of the Sefer Torah in each and every Jewish home in the community, and strengthen adherence to the Torah and mitzvot in the daily life, not only on special occasions or special days, but in accordance with the well-known commandment in Shema..., "And you shall teach them diligently to your children and speak them when you sit in the house or when you walk in the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up."
I send my prayerful wishes to each and every one who is associated with the work of the Chabad House, for hatzlacha [success] in all the above, and in a growing measure and, with the approach of the New Year, to be blessed with a K'tiva vaCha tima Tova, or a good and pleasant year materially and spiritually.
NEW "MOSHIACH" CARD
"7 Laws for the 70 Nations" is the headline on a credit-card size card designed especially for non-Jews. The new card lists the seven universal laws which are incumbent upon all mankind, known also as the "Seven Noachide Laws" on one side and features a picture of the Rebbe on the other side. The card, though created in Israel, was produced in English and will be available through Chabad Lubavtich Centers internationally.
The 18th Annual Jewish Renaissance Fair, sponsored by the Rabbincal College of America in Morristown, New Jersey, takes place on Sunday, Sept. 1 beginning at 11:00 a.m. The interactive family experience features Jewish Food of the World Expo, World of Tomorrow Pavillion, rides and games, make your own shofar, Kosher Cookie Monster, and a live concert with Avrohom Fried, Yoel Sharabi and the Piamentas. Call (201) 267-9404 for more info. Rain date Sept 2.
The 18th of Elul, or "Chai" Elul, is a special date in the Chasidic calendar. The 18th of Elul was the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement, and the birth, 50 years later, of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the branch of Chasidic philosophy known as Chabad. (18 Elul this year is Monday Sept. 2)
Each year, the Rebbe speaks to the children returning from overnight camps. Five years ago, the Rebbe spoke to them on the day before Chai Elul and discussed these two great Chasidic giants.
He explained that both the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Shneur Zalman were renowned for their efforts to teach Jewish children about Judaism. In particular, regarding the Baal Shem Tov, it is always mentioned that before he became well known, he served as a teacher's helper. In this capacity, he would remind the young children in his charge to begin their day thanking G-d that they were, indeed, alive that day. This is accomplished by reciting the "modeh ani" prayer, through which, as the very first act of the day, a Jew acknowledges G-d.
In this manner, a child not only makes a statement of thanks to G-d, he trains himself to feel genuine gratitude for all the good things which G-d has given him. And from that point on, through every moment of the day, a Jewish child increases his appreciation and awareness of G-d's goodness. For indeed, G-d gives graciously and generously.
The Rebbe went on to explain that this is particularly true in the month of Elul, when -- as Rabbi Shneur Zalman teaches -- G-d makes Himself accessible to the Jews as a king in the field. G-d does not tire, but renews constantly all the good which He grants to every child and adult. And in particular, He grants Jewish children success in studying G-d's Torah and fulfilling His mitzvot in a beautiful and conscientious manner, inspired by the love of G-d and the fear of G-d.
Though the above thoughts were addressed to children, they apply equally to all of us. For each one of us has a "child" within.
May we merit, this year once more, to hear a talk from the Rebbe addressed to the children returning from camp; the difference being that this year it will be in Jerusalem.
He [Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa] used to say: "Anyone whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, his wisdom will not endure... "(Ethics 3:10)
Through study a person learns how to do a mitzva. Nevertheless, the final deed is the main thing, for the deed causes an additional measure of spiritual light to infuse the level of wisdom. In this way, a person's wisdom will not merely survive, but also endure.
(Sefer HaMa'amarim 5654)
Ben Zoma said... "Who is rich? He who is happy wit his lot, as it is said: (Psalm 128:2) 'When you eat of the labor of your hands, happy are you, and it shall be well with you' " (Ethics 4:1)
A person's wealth is not measured by the amount of money he has stashed away in boxes and treaure-chests. For no person is wealthy other than in knowledge (See Talmud Nedarim 41a). One who is happy with his lot is a truly wealthy person.
(Maharal of Prague)
Rabbi Meir Said,... "If you neglect the Torah, many causes for neglecting it -- b'teilim -- will present themselves to you." (Ethics 4:12)
The word "b'teilim" can equally mean worthless matters, of no value. This, then, is what our text would signify: If you are invited to join a study group on some aspect of our faith, perhaps your answer is, "I would love to, but I don't have the time , I am too busy, and really, I have not even a moment to myself." In short, you decide to neglect the Torah. If you do that, says Rabbi Meir, "many other valueless, worthless things can be held up against you." For what were you doing last night and the night before? If you are indeed so busy, how can you account for that theater performance, or the hours upon hours before the television set? For that, apparently, you had the time. For that, it would seem, you were not busy.
(Rabbi I. Bunim in Ethics from Sinai)
The year before the birth of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidic philosophy, the Baal Shem Tov knew that a new soul was soon to descend to this world. But who would be privileged to host it he did not know, so he searched for it in the heavenly palaces.
What a soul is in its pristine state Above -- this the Baal Shem Tov knew. How a soul descends into this world and is garbed in materiality -- this he also knew. How fares a new soul -- this he dearly would love to know.
He knew that this new soul was due to descend to this world during that year; he did not know where, or in whom.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman's father, the saintly Reb Baruch, was one of the Baal Shem Tov's circle of hidden tzadikim. But no one knew of Reb Baruch's righteousness -- no one, that is, apart from his wife Rebbetzin Rivka.
When a year had passed since their marriage and they had not been blessed with a child, Reb Baruch and his wife set out during the month of Elul to visit the Baal Shem Tov in order to ask for his blessing. The Baal Shem Tov blessed them and promised them that in the forthcoming year, 5505 (1745), they would be granted a healthy son.
The fact that this child was connected to the new soul that was destined to descend that year was hidden even from the Baal Shem Tov.
On Rosh Hashana of that year, the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov observed a marked difference from his accustomed mode of divine service. His abounding joy could be perceived in his manner of prayer, in the especially cordial tone with which he blessed them, in the Torah teachings at the meal thereafter, in the next day's sounding of the shofar, and in the additional prayer service.
The conclusion of Yom Kippur that year found the Baal Shem Tov in a distinctive state of holy elation, which remained with him until after Simchat Torah. His disciples understood that something wonderful must have transpired that holiday month, something that had brought him such joy that he had departed from his accustomed mode of divine service during the Days of Awe, for joy was now its dominant theme. But eager as they were to discover the reason for this joy, they were left disappointed.
Before Reb Baruch and his wife left Medzibozh, they called on the Baal Shem Tov to receive his farewell blessings. Rebbetzin Rivka, bestirred by spiritual emotion, told the tzadik that when the Almighty fulfilled his blessing and granted her a healthy son, she would dedicate him to the study of Torah and to divine service in the spirit of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov.
Seeing their state of spiritual arousal, the Baal Shem Tov gave them his blessing, and they left town with glad hearts.
On Wednesday morning, on the eighteenth of Elul, the Baal Shem Tov returned from his immersion in the mikva [ritual bath] in extraordinarily buoyant spirits. His disciples were mystified, but none of them ventured to breathe a question. Moreover, the tzadik personally led the prayers to the jovial rhythms of the festival melodies. And when he surprised them by omitting the penitential prayers, they realized that this must be a uniquely festive day.
He then invited them to share his visible joy at a festive meal, where he said: "On Wednesday, 'the day on which the luminaries were suspended in the heavens,' on the Wednesday of the week whose Haftorah opens with the words, 'Arise and shine ,' on this day a new soul has come down, which will light up the world through the revealed levels of the Torah and through Chasidut. It will endure self-sacrifice for the sake of the spiritual path of Chasidut and will succeed in its mission until the coming of Moshiach."
When the Baal Shem Tov received Reb Baruch on Yom Kippur that year, he warned him that he should tell no one that he had had a son, nor should he tell anyone of the child's name. Later, when Reb Baruch was about to leave for home, the Baal Shem Tov gave him detailed instructions as to how the child should be attended to and how he should be taken out to the fields. He warned him solemnly, moreover, that the child should be kept out of public view, and in particular, out of the view of the local gossips.
And three times a day, the Baal Shem Tov remembered the newborn child in his prayers.
On the child's third birthday, Rebbetzin Rivka and her sister-in-law arrived in Medzibozh for the child's third birthday, when it is customary to give the first haircut. As soon as the Baal Shem Tov had given the child his first training in leaving his peyot (side-curls) uncut and had given him his blessing, he urged them to leave immediately and not to discuss between themselves where they had been. Finally, he wished them a good year and a safe journey home.
The little boy kept on asking who was this man who had cut his hair and left him with peyot, and who had blessed him.
"That was a grandfather," replied his mother. Thus, Rabbi Shneur Zalman referred to the Baal Shem Tov in the future, as his spiritual grandfather.
Excerpted from Likutei Dibburim by the Previous Rebbe
At the time of the supreme revelation of the Divine Presence, all of humanity -- even persons so unspiritual as to be described as "flesh" -- will attain a level of perceptiveness that will inspire them to bow down humbly before their Maker.
(Likutei Torah of Rabbi Shneur Zalman)