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"I still remember some of the amazing lessons I learned from the elder Torah scroll as we stood quietly in the ark at the eastern wall of the synagogue.
"Having been free to roam over plain and valley just a few years before as the hide of a kosher animal, I had a hard time adjusting to what I considered the restricted life of a Torah scroll.
"I was the upstart Torah scroll--born and bred in America. Not only was I made in America, but even the scribe who wrote me was born and trained here. So you can understand why at first I didn't really subscribe to the whole humble and modest lifestyle that we Torah scrolls lived. I didn't feel like I belonged with the other half-dozen scrolls in the ark--a few survivors of the Holocaust, another scroll straight from one of the ultra-Orthodox sections in Israel, and another of unknown but strictly kosher and ancient origins.
"'Why can't we just hang out in the synagogue, like the prayerbooks?' I asked one of the elder scrolls. I explained to him that I wasn't used to all of these restrictive coverings. First there was the regal but-oh-so-hot-on-summer-days velvet that totally covered my skin--except on Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat when I was uncovered and unrolled in order to be read.
"Then there was the big ark itself that I and the other Torah scrolls were placed in. 'I feel like a prisoner in the ark,' I told the kindly scroll.
"I complained incessantly that the only time we had fun was on Simchat Torah when we were all taken out on the town. Well, not really on the town but at least around the synagogue where everyone sang and danced with us. But even then--even at the height of our rejoicing--we were still covered up.
"Little by little, the elderly scroll took me under his wing. He gently explained that even for a scroll proudly 'made in America' there was something called tzniut--one of those impossible to translate words (though I'm an expert in Hebrew), often rendered "modesty," but meaning a whole lot more.
"'The first tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them were given amidst fanfare, fuss and noise,' the elderly scroll whispered. 'And those tablets were broken. But the second set, given quietly, humbly and unpre-tentiously, remain eternally with the Jewish people. Why, even now they exist, secreted away with other treasures from the Holy Temples under the Temple Mount where the Third Temple will assuredly and very soon be built.'
"The scroll also gave me examples from everyday life and they made sense to me. He told me that the most precious items are kept under lock and key. Not as a punishment but in deference to their value. Vaults in banks overflow with people's jewels that sit there much of the time--rather than being worn. Original paintings by famous artists are carefully watched and monitered because they are priceless. They, too, never go `out on the town.' Little by little, I began to see my velvet coverings as royal cloaks. I acknowledged the ark was my castle and even my refuge.
"That which is precious is not flaunted, not unnecessarily exposed, for in so doing it is often cheapened, the scroll would remind me. I remember the old scroll stating one day, 'People don't go around sharing and exposing that which they truly care about. For some, it is their innermost thoughts. For others it is their bank accounts--though they'll share everything else. And if you really care about yourself, if you really value yourself,' the old scroll told me, `you will take pride in the fact that most of the time you are covered, hidden, out of public view.'
"It's been a long time since I've been out in the public eye like this. It sort of goes against my grain by now to stand here and sermonize--especially since that's the rabbi's job. But in honor of Shavuot, the day when all of the Jewish people received the Torah from G-d on Mount Sinai--which by the way was a very humble and modest mountain--I decided to share with you the intimate thoughts of just one little Torah scroll, proud to be Made in America, and even prouder that my preciousness to the Jewish people and to myself is symbolized by my multi-layered coverings."
Throughout the thousands of years of Jewish history, countless men, women and children have willingly given up their lives rather than deny their Jewishness. Not only scholars and learned Jews went to the auto-da-f‚ with the "Shema" on their lips; simple and untutored Jews also chose to die sanctifying G-d's name without hesitation.
This irrational willingness to give up one's life for the sake of G-d seems odd in light of the dictum which states that "nothing can stand in the way of repentance." With the sword at their throats, who could have faulted our ancestors had they agreed to bow down to whatever idol worship was being forced upon them? Why didn't they save their lives by uttering some meaningless phrase or performing some other seemingly insignificant gesture demanded by their tormentors? Could they not have later fully repented and returned to G-d?
This question may be answered by understanding the special nature of the Jewish soul and the relationship it enjoys with G-d. That inner spark of Jewishness, described in Chasidut as "an actual part of G-d above," exists on a plane above time and space. It cannot bear to be severed from its Source for even a moment; the threat of separation from G-d is always utter and absolute. The willingness to give up one's life rather than lose that connection is a consequence of the soul's very nature.
This concept is well illustrated in this week's Torah portion, Bamidbar, in which G-d commands that a census be taken of the Jews. Rashi, the great Torah commentator, notes that because of the great love G-d has for His people, "He counts them at every moment."
This comment must be interpreted beyond its literal meaning, for since the exodus from Egypt, there have only been nine censuses of our people. The tenth census will be taken after the Final Redemption. What then, does it mean that G-d counts the Jews "at every moment"?
The act of counting reduces the objects being counted to their common denominator; both great and small are counted as one. The common denominator among all Jews, without regard for educational status, societal standing or wealth, is the Jewish soul, which exists in every Jew to the same extent and renders all Jews equal.
G-d unceasingly "counts" His children and holds each of them dear, all the time. This love is so overwhelming that the Jew cannot endure being cut off from it for even a moment, even with the knowledge that his later repentance has the power to restore the relationship to what it had been. It is G-d's perpetual "counting" of His children which reveals the innate power of the Jewish soul.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik
The following is excerpted from the book Man of Faith in the Modern World (Ktav Publishing), based on lectures of Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, o.b.m., who passed away last month. The incident described was recounted by Rabbi Soloveitchik as his own, personal experience:
The old Rabbi walks into the classroom crowded with students who are young enough to be his grandchildren. He enters as an old man with a wrinkled face, his eyes reflecting the fatigue and sadness of old age.
The Rabbi is seated and sees before him rows of young, beaming faces, clear eyes radiating the joy of being young. For a moment, the Rabbi is gripped with pessimism, with tremors of uncertainty. He asks himself, "Can there be a dialogue between an old teacher and young students, between a Rabbi in his Indian summer and students enjoying the spring of their lives?" The Rabbi starts the class in Talmud, uncertain as to how it will proceed.
Suddenly, the door opens and an old man, much older than the Rabbi, enters. He is the grandfather of the Rabbi, Reb Chaim Brisker (1853-1918). It would be most difficult to study Talmud with students who are trained in the sciences and mathematics, were it not for his method, which is very modern and equals, if not surpasses, most contemporary forms of logic, metaphysics, or philosophy.
The door opens again and another old man comes in. He is older than Reb Chaim, for he lived in the seventeenth century. His name is Reb Shabtai Cohen, known as the Shach, who must be present when civil law is discussed. Many more visitors arrive, some from the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, and others harking back to antiquity--Rabbenu Tam, Rashi, Rambam, Rabad, Rashba, Rabbi Akiva, and others. These scholarly giants of the past are bidden to take their seats.
The Rabbi introduces the guests to his pupils, and the dialogue commences. The Rambam states a halacha; the Rabad disagrees sharply, as is his wont. Some students interrupt to defend the Rambam, and they express themselves harshly against the Rabad, as young people are apt to do. The Rabbi softly corrects the students and suggests more restrained tones. The Rashba smiles gently. The Rabbi tries to analyze what the students meant, and other students intercede. Rabbenu Tam is called upon to express his opinion, and, suddenly, a symposium of generations comes into existence. Young students debate earlier generations with an air of daring familiarity, and a crescendo of discussion ensues.
All speak one language; all pursue one goal; all are committed to a common vision and all operate within the same categories. A mesora collegiality is achieved, a friendship, a comradeship of old and young, spanning antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modern times. This joining of the generations, this merger of identities will ultimately bring about the redemption of the Jewish people. It will fulfill the words of the last of the Hebrew prophets, Malachi, "And he [Elijah] shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers" (3:24). The Messianic realization will witness the great dialogue of the generations.
After a two or three-hour class, the Rebbe emerges from the chamber young and rejuvenated. He has defeated age. The students look exhausted. In the mesora experience--giving over from generation to generation--years play no role. Hands, however parchment-dry and wrinkled, embrace warm and supple hands in a commonalty, bridging the gap which separates the generations.
Thus, the "old ones" of the past continue their great dialogue of the generations, ensuring an enduring commitment to the mesora--this is the secret that will lead to the Messianic Redemption.
THE NECHOMA GREISMAN ANTHOLOGY
Nechoma Greisman--a young woman with a feeling heart, a lively mind, a buoyant personality and an unaffected manner--passed away suddenly just hours after the birth of her tenth child, leaving thousands in the Lubavitch community, in the worldwide Teshuva movement, and in Jewry at large with a real sense of personal loss.
The Nechoma Greisman Anthology contains a selection of Nechoma's candid thoughts on the challenges confronting an idealistic emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, shlita; articles she wrote and classes she gave on such questions as role definition, marital harmony, family planning, and child rearing; detailed, down-to-earth advice on housekeeping; good-humored and nonjudg-mental observations on human nature and on interpersonal relations; insightful letters written by her and about her. Reading this book leaves you feeling one inch humbler, yet one inch taller.
WITH LIGHT AND WITH MIGHT
This volume contains an English translation of two classic Chasidic works of Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn of Lubavitch. The first discourse celebrates the might of spiritual light, which reaches out to illuminate a dark world. The second discourse celebrates the light that is generated when an individual musters the self-sacrificing might to "go out to the battles of the House of David," and to prepare himself and his environment for the coming of Moshiach.
Y'Mei Breishit is an historical biography of the year 1950-1951 beginning immediately after the passing of the Previous Rebbe until the official acceptance of leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement one year later by the Rebbe, shlita. The book, written in Hebrew, is based on diaries, letters and notes of chasidim who were studying in or living near Lubavitch Headquarters at that time. It also contains many newspaper articles and photographs from throughout the first year.
All of these books can be obtained from Kehot Publication Society, 770 Eastern Pkwy, Brooklyn, NY 11213, (718) 778-0226
UNITY AND PEACE
From the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
The preparations for receiving the Torah, and the "receptacle" for it, are peace and unity, as our Sages explain in the Mechilta (quoted in the works of the great commentator, Rashi) in reference to the words "And Israel encamped there facing the mountain" (Ex. 19:2)--in the singular, as one man, i.e., "all Israel, like one man, with one heart." The Yalkut expresses the same thought in this way: "The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to give the Torah to the Jewish people immediately upon leaving Egypt, but they were divided and disunited. When they came to Sinai, they were all united into one unity. Said G-d, 'The Torah is all peace; I shall give it to the peace-loving nation.'"
Such peace and unity must be directed toward the purpose of Torah and mitzvot, as indicated in the words of the Torah quoted above: "And Israel encamped there facing the mountain" (i.e. for the purpose of receiving the Torah and mitzvot, cf. Rashbam).
Unity and peace are powerful enough, even where misused in the quest of unworthy objectives, as was the case with the Tower of Babel episode. How-ever, such unity cannot be long-lived, and this is not the way to bring G-d's blessings. But in the case of the Torah--G-d's Torah, and mitzvot--G-d's mitzvot--peace and unity are the means by which to attain unity with G-d; such unity can be attained only through the Torah and mitzvot. This feeling of unity must express itself in mutual love and in efforts to unite with the rest of our people through the study of our one Torah and the observance of its precepts.
In this connection I wish to make the following suggestions:
During the forthcoming days, until the Festival of Shavuot, every one of us should explain to those whom we can influence, that it is the duty of every Jewish man, woman and child to practice ahavat Yisrael--loving your fellow Jew--especially at this time, over and above the duty to practice it daily (as the founder of Chabad Chasidut included in the prayer book which he arranged for all: It is right to say before the prayer, "I herewith accept upon myself the positive mitzva of 'love your fellow as yourself.'").
It is necessary to explain further that ahavat Yisrael is the preparation for the Giving and Receiving of the Torah and to disseminate and explain the words of the Founder of Chabad that "Love your fellow as yourself" is a receptacle for "You shall love G-d your G-d."
Thus, love of G-d, love of the Torah and love of the Jewish people all become one.
The Maggid of Mezritch, explained the words of the Mishna: "Know, what is above--(from) you," to the effect that everything coming from Above is dependent on you, and each good deed may tip the scale.
This is especially so in the case of a good deed done in the cause of peace and ahavat Yisrael, which the Baal Shem Tov made an integral part of the foundation of Chasidut, since in this way, the individual Jew becomes united with all the people of Israel.
This, then, is the true preparation for receiving the Torah; for the Torah was given for the purpose of bringing peace into the world--the big world, and the small world (i.e., man), bringing peace and unity between man and his Maker.
Let every one, and especially those who speak publicly, disseminate these thoughts far and wide.
In this way may we be certain that all of us, in the midst of all our people, will merit--in the words of my father-in-law of saintly memory--to receive the Torah "inwardly and with joy."
Moses was the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, who spoke to G-d face to face. The son of Amram and Yocheved, he was put into the Nile River as a result of the evil decree against baby boys, and rescued by Pharaoh's daughter, Batya, who raised him as her own son in the royal palace. Known as the humblest of men, Moshe was chosen by G-d to be the redeemer of His people because of the indefatigable love he showed toward them. Moshe was sent to instruct Pharaoh to obey G-d's command and release the enslaved Jews. After the exodus Moshe led the Jews through the desert for forty years until they received the Torah at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
This coming Tuesday night through Thursday night is the holiday of Shavuot, celebrating when G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai.
Three people in Jewish history are particularly associated with Shavuot: Moshe, King David and the Baal Shem Tov. And these three great leaders were also intimately connected with Moshiach and the Redemption.
As the one through whom the Torah was given to the Jewish people, Moshe is intimately connected with Shavuot. The Torah, in some places, is even referred to as "The Torah of Moshe"--Torat Moshe. Moshiach will be so like Moshe in his leadership qualities, humility and Torah scholarship that our Sages even stated, "Moshe is the first redeemer and the last redeemer.
Shavuot is the birthday and anniversary of the passing of King David. One of the functions of Moshiach is that he will restore the Davidic dynasty, for Moshiach will be a descendant of King David, a human king.
Finally, we come to the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov, too, passed away on Shavuot, on the second day of the holiday. In a famous letter to his brother-in-law, the Baal Shem Tov described a spiritual "journey" when he visited the chamber of Moshiach. He asked Moshiach, "Master, when will you come?"
Moshiach replied, "When your wellsprings--your teachings--will spread forth to the outside."
The Baal Shem Tov's teachings--Chasidut--were recorded and expounded upon by his various disciples. They are a foretaste of the new and deeper revelations of Torah that we are promised will be revealed and taught by Moshiach, himself.
This year on Shavuot, when all Jews, young and old, gather in our synagogues to reexperience the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, let us also reconnect with the essence of the holiday and cry out for the ultimate revelation of the Torah and G-d through Moshiach.
The Haftorah on the second day of Shavuot is from Habakuk. The following story is about the prophet Habakuk.
The prophet Habakuk lived in the Land of Israel. One evening when he and his fellow-workers had finished their work in the fields and were eating their supper, a spirit of prophecy came upon Habakuk. He saw an angel before him who told him that G-d desired that Habakuk bring a portion of his meal to the Prophet Daniel, who was in a lions' den in Babylon.
The angel took him and flew off with him, landing him a few moments later right in the very midst of the lions' den. There sat Daniel with the lions sprawling at his feet, like loyal watchdogs guarding a beloved master!
The two prophets settled down to their evening meal, happy in their chance of having a scholarly discussion. The lions did not disturb them despite their own hunger, but instead walked about the den circling Daniel and Habakuk as they ate, talked and blessed the Alm-ghty for his mercies and miracles. Daniel told Habakuk how he came to be in the lions' den:
"When King Darius of Media had appointed me as his personal counsellor," began Daniel, "all his courtiers became inflamed with jealousy. It did not interest them that I had already acted as counsellor to the previous Babylonian king, and that my appointment, therefore, was not a matter of favoritism, but because of my suitability. All they could feel was resentment that I was chosen and not they. So, they decided to get rid of me.
"But try as they would, they could find no crime to charge me with, and so they conspired to convince the king to enact some new law which would make me suspect.
"King Darius had until then always shown the greatest respect to our Jewish faith, and this, too, annoyed his courtiers very much. The king, who himself told me all this later, said he had not suspected a thing when his courtiers came to him with an air of extreme loyalty and asked him to give his seal to an important new law. The new edict read: 'Every citizen of the land should publicly acknowledge the king as the highest authority, and that only to him must every kind of request be made or prayer be said.'"
"I can see their plot against you now," said Habakuk. "Yes," continued Daniel, "after the king had passed this last law his courtiers watched every move I made! Naturally I was not going to allow any manmade law to interfere with my prayers three times a day. These courtiers pounced upon me one day and dragged me before the king, accusing me of praying to someone other than to the king. They immediately demanded the maximum penalty for this offense--that I be thrown alive into the lions' den. This harsh punishment would serve as an example to anyone who would dare to break the new law in the future.
"King Darius, who was really not evil, but had been misled and drawn into this new law without giving it proper thought and consideration, was horrified when he saw the results of his thoughtlessness. He regarded me as a friend and honored advisor, and now he was being expected to have me mercilessly thrown to hungry lions. But, having put his royal seal to the decree, he had no choice but to carry out the law.
"Yet, I did not lose hope," concluded Daniel, his eyes shining with great faith in G-d. "I prayed to the Alm-ghty that he show these heathens that He and He alone was, is, and ever will be the One and Only Master of the Universe which He created and controls. I prayed that He spare my life, and not allow the hungry lions to touch me, so that all people would see the miracle and acknowledge G-d's greatness above all mankind.
"Imagine, therefore, the wonder of my enemies when I was thrown into this deep pit from which there is no escape, and instead of the famished beasts pouncing upon me and tearing me to pieces, the lions came gently fawning upon me and kneeling down before me in submission. Then they settled around me in a circle as if to protect me. This wondrous miracle left no possible doubt but that G-d chose to save me from hurt, that He is the Master, and that only what He wills takes place!"
When Daniel finished his story, he and Habakuk bade each other farewell, and the angel took Habakuk and transported him back to his home in the Land of Israel, in the same manner as he had carried him to Daniel.
Later, Habakuk heard, as did the whole world, that King Darius had Daniel removed from the den. At the same time, the King ordered that Daniel's enemies be thrown into the lions' den instead. This time, however, the lions behaved differently. As soon as the courtiers came hurtling down into the lions' den, the beasts pounced upon them and tore them apart, giving a fitting end to such cruel tyrants who wanted to give this horrible punishment to the innocent, G-d-fearing and law-abiding Daniel.
From The Complete Story of Shavuot by Nisan Mindel.
Take the sum of all the congregation of the Children of Israel (Num. 1:2)
Jewish law teaches that once something has been counted it can never be nullified, even if it is only one out of a thousand. G-d likewise counted the Jewish people, so that although they are far outnumbered by the nations of the world, they can never be nullified.
From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel (Num. 1:3)
At the age of twenty a person become responsible for his sins and accountable to the celestial court. At that time the Jew's true struggle and ongoing war with the Evil Inclination just begins.
(The Admor of Gur)
You shall number them according to their armies, you and Aaron (Num. 1:3)
When a census is taken it is generally unnecessary that the poll takers be of high rank or official status. Counting people does not require great skill or intelligence. Yet when G-d wanted His children to be numbered He insisted that Moses, Aaron and the heads of the tribes carry out the task themselves, to teach us how highly G-d esteems the Jews.
The tribe of Zebulon (Num. 2:7)
Every other tribe is mentioned in this section of the Torah with the preface "and." Why is Zebulon different? Zebulon's job was to engage in commerce, in order to support the tribe of Issachar, whose members were primarily involved in the study of Torah. By omitting the word "and" before Zebulon the Torah teaches that this tribe was in no way subservient or of secondary importance to their brothers. One who supports Torah learning is significant in his own right.
In the period immediately before Moshiach, certain people of little faith will not listen to the call of those urging them to prepare for Moshiach. They will argue, "After such a long and bitter exile...how is it possible that we will suddenly be redeemed?" Thus they will not listen to those who attempt to inspire them.
(The Chofetz Chaim--Tzipita L'Yshua)