Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Butterfly

One day a small opening appeared on a cocoon.

A man sat and watched for the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through the little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gone as far as it could and could go no further.

So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of cocoon. The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.

The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time.  Neither happened!  In fact the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.

What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were G-d's way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into the wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our life. If G-d allowed us to go through life without any obstacles, it would cripple us.  We would not be as strong as what we could have been.  We could never fly.

I asked for Strength.. And G-d gave me difficulties to make me strong.
I asked for Wisdom.. And G-d gave me Problems to solve.
I asked for Prosperity.. And G-d gave me Brain and Brawn to work.
I asked for Courage.. And G-d gave me Danger to overcome.
I asked for Love.. And G-d gave me Troubled People to help.
I asked for Favors.. And G-d gave me Opportunities.

I received nothing I wanted. I received everything I needed.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Language of the Heart

Parashat VaYigash

Bereishit 44:18 "...May your servant say something into the ear of my master."

With these words Yehudah began his request to Yosef. He wanted to ask for amnesty, and therefore he wanted to speak directly to Yosef and not through an interperter. However, it would seem that they did not know each other's speech. Beforehand, all the conversations between them were communicated through an interperter. How, then, did Yehudah expect to make himself understood to Yosef without an interperter?

The Gaon of Brisk said that this question recalls a story about the Chofetz Chaim who once appeared before the Prime Minister of Poland to request cancellation of a decree from the Polish Ministry of Education which was very troubling to all the Torah leaders at the time. The words of the Chofetz Chaim flowed from his warm and pure heart as he spoke to the gentile Prime Minister in Yiddish. In the midst of speaking the Chofetz Chaim became very emotional and he began to cry.

One of those who accompanied the Chofetz Chaim arose to translate, but the Prime Minister signalled him to be quiet and said, "It is not necessary. Although I did not understand a word, he has convinced me because these words came from his heart."

The language of the heart is understood in every language. It does not need elaboration or translation. It was with this language that Yehudah wanted to convince Yosef.

-Ma'alot Hamidot

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brit Milah - Parashat VaYigash

Bereishit 45:12 Behold your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benyamin, that it is my mouth that is speaking to you.

In this week's parsha (Torah reading) we learn how Yosef (Joseph) revealed himself to his brothers. Rashi explains that Yosef proved to his brothers that it was truly him by showing them that he was circumcised and spoke lishon hakodesh (Hebrew). Rashi derives this interpretation from the words of the verse. The phrase "behold your eyes see" refer to something physical that can be seen. This is the brit milah. The next words, "that it is my mouth that is speaking" refers to speech alluding to lishon hakodesh.

The commentators explain that although Yosef instituted circumcision for all of Egypt, only the children of Yaakov performed an additional detail in milah (circumcision) called piriah. Yosef revealed that his circumcision was complete including the pariah. Similarly, with regard to lishon hakodesh although some Egyptians knew the Hebrew language only the children of Yaakov understood the holy nature of the language. This added dimension of holiness is what Yosef conveyed to his brothers.

It is customary that the first Friday night after the birth of a baby boy we celebrate. The name of this celebration is called a "shalom zachor." The commentators give various reasons for this celebration. Let us briefly review some of them.

The Terumas Hadeshen explains that we give thanks to Hashem (G-D) for the child and mother who have survived the dangerous ordeal of pregnancy and birth. This is what the Gemarah (Bava Kama 80) calls "the salvation of the child." The Tur notes the words of Chazal (our sages of blessed memory) "when a male comes to the world peace comes to the world." We celebrate the additional dimension of peace that has come to the world with this child. Indeed, this is why the celebration is called shalom zachar, which is translated as the "peace of the male." Another reason given is to comfort the child whose pure soul has left the spiritual world and has come to a world of darkness. Similarly, Chazal teach us that when the child is in the mother's womb it studies Torah with an angel. Immediately before it leaves, the angel strikes the child causing it to forget all that it has learned. The child is sad because it has forgotten the Torah. We come together at the shalom zachor in order to comfort the child.

Let us now suggest another reason. When Yosef attempted to reintroduce himself to his brothers and prove that he was their brother he did two things. First he showed them that he was a circumcised and second, spoke with them in lishon hakodesh. Likewise, when a child is born, in order for it to be part of the Jewish people it must undergo these two procedures. The first thing is the circumcision that takes place on the eighth day. The second is speaking in the holy language. This is fulfilled by coming together at the shalom zachor and speaking words of Torah in honor of the child. In truth this could be accomplished on any day of the week, however, Shabbat has the special nature that all its speech is holy. The verse says concerning Shabbat "You shall honor it by not pursuing your affairs and speaking words" (Yeshayahu 48:13). Chazal derive from the last words of this verse "vedaber davar," i.e., "and speaking words" that our speech on Shabbat is not to be the same as our speech during the week. On Shabbat we may only speak holy words relating to Torah and prayer and must refrain from all mundane talk. When we come together on the first Shabbat and speak words in honor of the new child we act like Yosef who reintroduced himself to his brothers with "holy language." The holiness of Shabbat enhances the holiness of speech.

It is noteworthy that the custom is to eat lentils at a shalom zachor. One of the reasons is that the child is in a state of mourning after having left the spiritual world and has forgotten the Torah that he studied in his mother's womb. A lentil is round and has no mouth just as mourner is silent due to his pain. We may similarly suggest that we eat lentils to allude to the verse "it is my mouth that is speaking to you." The Torah records Yosef's speech in lishon hakodesh with the words "it is my mouth." Similarly, we eat lentils that have no mouth to signify that at the shalom zachor we open up the mouth with holy words.

-Hadrash Ve-Haiyan

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chanukah and Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev

Several years ago I was in a shiur about Channuka. The rabbi was telling the crowd of about 150 how the Romans wanted to kill the Jews but the Greeks were really trying to assimilate us.

"You…, young man…" he said, pointing at me.

"Me?" I replied.

"Yes, you. What's your name?"


"and Lee, what's your family name?"

"Glassman" I responded.

"Tell me Lee Glassman, do you have a middle name?"

"Yes sir, it's `Yates.'"

"Yates?...vee kumptze Yates?"

"Well, I'm from Scranton, Pennsylvania and my mother actually named me Levi Yitzchak, but she didn't think that name would go over so well in a mining town so she took the lamed and made it `Lee' and she took the yud and made it `Yates.""

"Nice. Hmm….'Levi Yitzchak'? You know we have a pretty famous rabbi with that name?"

"Yes sir," I replied. "I'm named for my great-grandfather and he was named for his…, who was from Berditchev."

"Just a minute…" he exclaimed, "you're from `The Berdichev'?"

"Yes sir."

"Ladies and gentlemen, here we have a young man named for one of the most famous and wonderful rabbis of the Jewish people and he walks around the streets of Jerusalem calling himself…..'Lee Yates!' …….. Somewhere…., Antiochus is smiling."

And on that note he bid us all a chag sameach and stepped down from the podium.

Last night my daughter Kim and I were just exiting a furniture store when we noticed the staff gathering quickly to light the menorah. We stopped out of respect for the lighting and, while speeding through the brachot and "hanairot halalu" after lighting 3 candles, just as he was about to light the next candle, the shamas went out. The lighter's hand moved a centimeter toward one of the lit candles to catch the flame and re-light his shamas when he realized the words he had just that exact moment come to:

"haneirot halalu kadosh hem…these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them…"

He nodded to himself, pulled out his cigarette lighter, relit the shamas and continued lighting the menorah without a word or so much as a glance to anyone.

As we walked from the store, Kim turned to me with tears in her eyes and said…"Look at this country you brought us to!"

And somewhere, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev is smiling.

Lee Glassman, Jerusalem

-Jerusalem Diaries II: What's Really Happening in Israel by Judy Lash Balint (Xulon) is available for purchase from or by calling 1-866-909-BOOK (2665)  To subscribe to Jerusalem Diaries, send an email to:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

King David's Chanukah Song

Tehillim - Psalm 30

A psalm - a song for the inauguration of the Temple  - by David (Tehillim 30:1)

Because Psalm 30 begins with a mention of inaugurating the First Temple, it is no surprise that this is the additional psalm that has been chosen to be read during the days of Chanukah - a time when we celebrate the re-dedication of the Second Temple. Yet its connection with the holiday runs even deeper.

During Chanukah, we are commanded to offer words of praise and thanks to G-d. We fulfill this mitzvah by saying Hallel (Tehillim 113 -118) and a special prayer called Al Hanisim. Yet even though King David lived some 1,000 years before the Chanukah miracles, when he composed his "Chanukah song" he did just what was later commanded: for 13 verses, Psalm 30 is an exuberant song of praise and thanks.

I will exalt you, HaShem, because you drew me up; You didn't let my enemies rejoice over me.  HaShem, my G-d, I cried out to You - and You healed me. (30:2, 3)

During King David's lifetime, he was often surrounded by enemies and beset by many physical dangers. Psalm 30, however, is not about a physical hurt or threat. In this psalm King David is talking about being in psychological danger; he is praising G-d for not allowing him to remain in the darkness of a deep depression:

HaShem, You have raised up my soul from the Sheol; You have preserved me from my descent into the pit…(30: 4)

…In the evening, a person lies down weeping, and in the morning - joy! (30: 6)

But Psalm 30 is not just an "ode to joy" - it also provides the secret to how to get out of a state of depression:

To You, HaShem, I would call, and to my G-d I would appeal (30:9)…

…Hear, HaShem, and favor me, HaShem, be a helper for me (30:11).

When we call out to G-d - when we allow ourselves to believe that help can come and healing is possible - we're already beginning to pull ourselves out of the pit of despair. Suddenly we can envision being in a different, more joyous state of mind:

You have changed my lament into dancing for me; You opened up my sackcloth and girded me with happiness (30:12).

Most of us let our emotions rule over our lives: when we're happy we sing; when we're sad, our soul is silent. King David, however, is telling us to try another way:

So that my soul will sing to you and not be silent, HaShem, my G-d, forever will I thank you (30:13).

First, thank G-d, King David tells us. Trust that salvation will come - even when all still looks bleak - and utter words of thanks. You will then discover that your words will have a positive effect on your emotional state. By consciously taking the initiative and giving "thanks to his holy Name," your soul is guaranteed to respond. Instead of brooding in stony silence, your heart will open up and begin to sing.

This teaching is also the essence of Chanukah.

Imagine the scene: Judea was overrun by a foreign power, people were being slaughtered every day, the Temple had been desecrated. If ever there was a time of darkness - a time when people lay down upon their beds weeping - this was it.

Yet one morning the people woke up and, despite the terrible odds, they began to fight back. By taking the initiative - and calling upon G-d to help do the rest - the Chashmoneans (Maccabees) created an opening for miracles to happen.

The miracles did, indeed, happen but the victorious Chashmoneans did not establish the Chanukah holiday immediately. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b): "The next year they established and made these days into a holiday, for saying songs of praise and thanks."

Why did they wait a year? Because they wanted to be sure that the same light that had glowed so brightly with the first flush of victory would still be apparent even after the initial excitement had died down. When they saw, the following Kislev, that they still felt a strong urge to praise and thank G-d, they knew that the light of Chanukah would shine forever. They knew that every year - at this same time of year - the Jewish people would be inspired to echo the words of King David, and say:

HaShem, my G-d, forever will I thank you (30:13).

-Decoupage for the Soul

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Dream Interpreter - Parashat MiKetz

"Pharoh said to Yosef, "I've had a dream, but there is no-one to interpret it. But, I've heard it is said about you with certainty that you listen to a dream, (understand it, and are able to) interpet it." Bereishit 41:15

And then there was the time that there lived an extremely hospitable man, Reb Yankel, who greatly enjoyed providing comfortable lodgings and delicious meals to the poor people passing through his village. If that wasn't enough, he also sent his guest away with a generous amount of money to help them on their way. Unfortunately, Reb Yankel had one glaring character flaw. That is, he would always applaud himself for his generosity and ask others, "Wasn't that great of me?"

Word of Reb Yankel's great generosity and also his boastfulness reached the Baal Shem Tov. Realizing that Reb Yankel's conceit greatly reduced the worthiness of the wonderful mitzvah of honoring guests, the Baal Shem Tov sent his student Reb Zev Kotses on a mission to rectify the situation.

"Reb Zev," said the Baal Shem Tov, "just go to Reb Yankel's and act as if you are a wandering beggar. Accept his hospitality and the right thing will happen. And if he wishes, please bring him to me.

Just before Shabbos, Reb Zev wandered into Reb Yankel's little village. It wasn't too long before he was provided comfortable lodging and hospitality for Shabbos at Reb Yankel's home.

After Reb Zev was settled, Reb Yankel inquired, "Don't you think I'm a remarkable host?"

Reb Zev answered, "We'll see."

After a delicious Shabbos meal, with plenty of L'Chaims (drinks of alcohol), talks of Torah and singing, all of the guests went to sleep in a large room set aside for that purpose. Reb Yankel had the custom of sleeping in the room among his guests. After Reb Yankel had fallen asleep, Reb Zev reached over and touched his hand.

Just then, Reb Yankel had an intense dream. In the dream, a King came to visit him. He treated the King with his usual generosity. While they were eating and talking, the King suddenly slumped over and died. The King's attendants grabbed Reb Yankel and locked him in the King's prison on the charge of poisoning the King.
The situation looked bleak, when suddenly a fire broke out in the prison and Reb Yankel escaped. He traveled for many days and finally ended up in a remote village where he became the water carrier. Being that this village had many wells and several streams, Reb Yankel could barely make a living. Then one day, he fell while carrying two pales of water across his back. He broke both of his legs and was in such intense pain that he couldn't move. Suddenly, he remembered how he had once been a rich man and began to cry.

Just then, Reb Yankel awoke with a start. When he realized he was safe and comfortable in his own bed, he nearly fainted. When he saw Reb Zev staring in his eyes, he blurted out, "Oh my Heavens! I just had such a vivid, scary dream."

Reb Zev said, "If you want to, tell me about it."

After Reb Yankel told him the entire dream, he asked, "What do you think it means?"

Reb Zev answered, "I'm not sure, but I think my rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov could interpret it for you."

So as soon as Shabbos was over, they traveled together to Medzibush.

Reb Yankel met the Baal Shem Tov and told him all the details of his dream. When Reb Yankel asked for an interpretation, the Baal Shem Tov explained, "When G·d comes to you in the form of guest, He can't remain in your presence because of your pride. So He allows His servants to threaten and punish you. But before anything really bad happens, He allows you to escape because of the merit of your mitzvah of hospitality. Nevertheless, because of your conceit, spiritually you are like an extremely poor, suffering man."

When the Baal Shem Tov finished, Reb Yankel cried out, "Oh Rebbe, please help me!"

With the help and instruction from the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Yankel was aroused to repent. He returned to his home free of his pride and he continued to do the great mitzvah of hospitality.

And so it was.

-Freely adapted by Tzvi Meir HaCohane (Howard M. Cohn, Patent Attorney) from a story in HISGALUS TZADIKIM as translated in STORES OF THE BAAL SHEM TOV by Y. Y. Klapholtz.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Yosef - The Blessed River

"Behold, out of the River there emerged seven cows, of pleasing appearance and healthy flesh, and they were grazing in the marshland." (Bereishit 41:2)

The Zohar discusses Pharaoh's dream, in which he saw seven fat cows emerging from the river, which were swallowed by seven emaciated cows.  He then saw seven sheaves of full healthy stalks of wheat which were swallowed up by seven sheaves of withered and emaciated wheat.

The only image in Pharaoh's dream that is not interpreted by Yosef is the river. The river is taken to mean the Nile, which was the source of sustenance for all of Egypt.

What is the meaning of the river in Pharaoh's dream?

It is the river from which all of the levels below are blessed, because this river is drawn down and goes forth to irrigate and nourish them all - Yosef is the river for whom all of Egypt was blessed.

(In Kabbalah, the river that sustains all of the lower levels is the attribute of Yosef - the sefira of yesod of the world of Atzilut, which draws down the waters of the world of Atzilut into Beriya.)

The Jewish people came down to Egypt to elevate the holy sparks that fell into the physical world when the world of Tohu shattered. This is what was being shown to Yosef in Pharaoh's dreams.


The Miracle of Chanukah - Who Knows Eight?

The number 'eight' calls us to see miracles in the order of nature

 The miracle of Chanukah, that the lights of the Menorah lasted for eight days, is not accidental, but intrinsic.
The number eight represents G-d's transcendence above and beyond this world.

Who Knows Eight?

By Avraham Sutton

That the overt miracle of Chanukah, the lighting of the Menorah, lasted for eight days, is not accidental, but intrinsic. The Torah informs us that G-d created the world in six days and ceased working on the seventh, the Shabbat. The number six can thus be said to represent the natural world that was created in six days (time) with its six spatial directions (east-west, north-south, up-down). The number seven represents G-d's immanence, the hidden presence of the Divine at the heart and core of this world. In other words, seven is the very soul of six, permeating it, instilling it with (transcendent) holiness, and elevating it to its perfection. The next number, eight, represents G-d's transcendence above and beyond this world. Like all miracles, Chanukah happened from the level of "eight", that which is beyond natural law. However, being the last miracle of its kind until the coming of Mashiach, Chanuka had to embody "eight" in a unique, special way. It had to breathe "eight". This oil represents…the Jew's potential to awaken from the deepest slumber of exile

In Hebrew, the word shemonah (eight) has the same exact letters as hashemen (the oil), neshama (soul), and mishna (transmitted teaching). As recorded in the Talmud, the Syrian-Greeks had entered the Temple and sullied all its oil. This oil represents the deepest level of the Jewish soul. It represents the Jew's potential to awaken from the deepest slumber of exile, to come to life even (and perhaps especially) under the most trying circumstances. Only one jar of pure oil was found, sealed with the seal of the Kohen Gadol (high priest), the holiest Jew, who embodied the level of "eight" by virtue of the eight special garments he wore when serving in the Temple.

The siddur informs us that it was Mattityahu the Chashmonai (Mattithiah the Hasmonean) and his sons who rallied the Jews to defend the Torah and fight against the Greeks. The name Chashmonai has two components, the letter chet, the eighth letter of the aleph-bet, followed by the word for oil, shemen. Thus, the Cha-shemonai family embodied the power of Eight. Eight beckons us to transcend the constrictions of time and space

"Eight" beckons us to transcend the constrictions of time and space, to see through a world that disguises G-dliness and threatens to engulf our souls in materiality. "Eight" calls us to see miracles in the order of nature, in confusing events of our individual and collective lives, in the hidden pathways of Divine Providence that guide us.

"Eight" can rouse us from our collective slumber. By reminding us of the time when G-d did indeed overtly "interfere" with and "alter" the "natural" course of history, it quickens our anticipation of the revelation of G-d's salvation that we await in our time.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Shabbat Shalom & Chanukah Sameach

A Good and Sweet Shabbat!
May this Festival of Lights 
bring blessings upon you and all your loved ones 

and may the 
Lights of Chanukah usher in the Light of Mashiach!

Rambam's Letter - A Chanukah Message - Letter for Our Times

With so much tragedy confronting the Jewish Nation on a daily basis we search for an answer!  Over 800 years ago, the Rambam wrote an answer to such a question. We ask everyone to spend a few moments dwelling on the words the Rambam sent to the Jews of Yemen. 

The Jews of that time were subject to unspeakable cruelty that spared no one.  So too in our times we again as a Nation are being subjected to an incredible test of both faith and survival. May these words help give us the strength to overcome yet another difficult period in the history of Klal Yisrael as we await the birth pangs of the final redemption.

Rambam’s Letter to Yemen

Know, my brothers, that G-d has led us on a hard path with this nation of Yishmael, which does so much to torment us and create laws to persecute us. There has not stood against Yisrael a nation more evil, none that has done so much to cast us down, subjugate us and treat us with hatred.  We who suffer what a person cannot bear have accustomed ourselves, both great and small, to tolerate their subjugation. But with all this, we suffer their evil outbreaks all the time. As much as we bear it in order to be with them in peace, they incite against us war and the sword. And how much more, if we foolishly irritate them, then we are giving ourselves over to death.

The Creator of the world will in his compassion, remember us. He will gather the exiles of his portion to gaze at the sweetness of G-d and visit His Beit Hamikdash. He will bring us out of the valley of the shadow of death. He will remove the veil from our eyes and the darkness of our hearts, and establish for us the verse, “The nation that walks in darkness saw great light, light shall dwell upon those who dwell in a land of the shadow of death.” (Yeshayahu 9:1)

May he bring darkness in his wrath and anger upon all those who are against us, and may he illuminate our darkness, as he had promised: “Behold, the darkness shall cover the land and clouds over the nations, and you shall Hashem shine.” (Yeshayahu 60.2)

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon was referring to the persecution campaign of  the Yemenite government. In our times virtually every Arab nation and most of the member countries of the United Nations have condemned Yisrael in defending itself and seeking peace much as our forefathers have always done before us.  R’ Moshe zt’l gave the Jews the following answer and we can apply this answer even more so today.

Such activities should not decrease one’s faith in G-d, in his Torah and in Moshe His servant. There is no doubt that these are the birth pains of the Mashiach that our Sages prayed that they not be forced to experience. That some Jews have assimilated and converted, and others have not. This has already been predicted by Daniel. He was told by G-d that when the exile would be long and we would suffer many sorrows, many people would be weakened in their religiosity. Doubt would enter their hearts and they would be led astray.

After this, Daniel explained that the wise men who would stand up to the sorrows and remain faithful to G-d and to his servant Moshe would suffer even more, until doubt would enter the heart of some of them as well, and they too would be led astray. Only a small number would remain pure.  We see how much sorrow came upon the Jewish Nation in the Holocaust and the long spiritual desert that was cast upon the Nation in the former Soviet Union, after virtually a majority of both our spiritual and physical past were cut away from us, leaving just a minority of Jews to serve Hashem Yitborach.

The Rambam continues on in his letter exalting all to listen carefully to what he told them:

Teach this letter to the young people and the children, in order to strengthen your faith and be strong in the truth: We have the true Torah that was given to us by the greatest of all prophets, with which G-d separated us from all peoples-not because we were fit for it, but out of his love for us. He has made us special by giving us Mitzvot and laws, so that our superiority is clear insofar as we have the Torah. We were promised by G-d via Yeshayahu that whoever tries to overcome our Torah, whether by force or by argument, will be vanquished: “Every weapon made against you will not succeed, and whatever tongue rises against you shall be condemned.” (Yeshayahu 54:17)

The desire of the Nazarene and Mohammed was to make their religions similar to the Torah of Hashem. But the difference between our Torah and the teachings that are similar to it is like the difference between a living man who speaks and a statue. This state of affairs was also revealed by G-d via Daniel.

There has never been a time that did not have a new persecution and trouble; and afterwards, G-d has always removed it.

Know, my brothers, that the evil Nevechadnezzer forced everyone to serve idols. Only Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah were saved from this decree. Yet afterwards, G-d destroyed Nevechadnezzer and his law, and the truth returned to its place.


The same occurred during the second Beit Hamikdash, when the evil Greeks pronounced terrible decrees of persecution against the Jews in order to wipe out the knowledge of Torah. They forced Jews to desecrate Shabbat, not circumcise their children and to write on their clothing and carve on the horns of their cows that they have no portion in the G-d of Yisrael. This continued for fifty-two years. And then G-d destroyed their kingdom and the laws altogether.

G-d already told Yaakov Avinu that even though other nations may subjugate the Jews, the Jews will always remain. He promised that He will not reject us all, even if we rebel and transgress His Mitzvot.  Rely on these verses, my brothers. Do not be frightened by the constant persecutions and power of our enemies, and by the weakness of our people. This is all meant to test and to purify us, until only the pious, G-d fearing Jews are left.

Therefore, my brothers, all Jews spread across the world, you must encourage each other-the great encouraging the small, the leaders encouraging the masses. Agree without any question that G-d is uniquely One, that Moshe is the greatest of all prophets, that the Torah from beginning to end is the word of G-d to Moshe, that it will never be exchanged, and that no other religion will ever be given by G-d. Remember the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and teach it to your children. This is the basis of our Religion.

Stand fast in your commitment and your faith, my brothers. Strengthen your hearts and hope to G-d.

- Art by Zalman Kleinman

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chanukah - Our Inner Lamp

When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils that were in it. When the Maccabees entered the Temple, they searched for pure oil in order to light the Temple Menorah (lamp), but they found only one container of pure olive oil which had been laid aside in a hidden place with the seal of the "Kohen Gadol" - High Priest. There was, however, only enough oil to light the Menorah for one day. A miracle occurred, and the oil gave light for eight days! This gave the people the opportunity to prepare and bring to the Temple a fresh supply of pure olive oil. The following year, the sages fixed and established these eight days as a festival of praise and thankgiving which became known as Chanukah. (Shabbat 21b)

"Thereafter, Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified the site of Your holiness and kindled lights in the Courtyards of Your Sanctuary; and they established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great Name" (Al Hanisim)

Our Inner Lamp:

"The lamp of the Compassionate One is the neshama of the human being, which searches one's inner chambers." (Mishlei 20:23)

Our neshamah is a spiritual entity - the higher soul which is a spark of the Divine essence. Why then does the Compassionate One send the neshamah into this physical world? According to the above verse, each neshamah is a "lamp" which contains the Divine light. If the Compassionate One sends each of our neshamot into this physical world, then this indicates that this world is meant to be filled with the Divine light. In fact, at the very dawn of the creation of this world, the first Divine proclamation is "Let there be light!" (Bereishit 1:3)

The world, however, is a big place. Where, then, should each neshamah begin the task of bringing the Divine light into this physical world? As the above verse indicates, the task begins "in one's inner chambers" - the organs within our body. The Hebrew term for "inner chambers" which appears in the verse is, "chadrei baten" - which literally means, "the chambers of the stomach." The stomach and the related inner organs of digestion represent our physical senses and drives. And the life force of these physical senses and drives is the nefesh - the lower part of the human soul. We begin the task of illuminating the physical world by having the neshamah guide the life force of the nefesh to a higher, altruistic purpose. The neshamah is to become the "rebbe" - Torah teacher and guide - to the nefesh. For without the guiding light of the neshamah, the nefesh becomes devoted to the selfish goal of self-gratification, and selfishness is the greatest darkness. A great Chassidic Rebbe, known as "Chidushei Ha-Rim," finds an allusion to this form of darkness in the following biblical passage concerning one of the ten plagues which struck our Egyptian oppressors:

"Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heavens, and there was a thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt for a three-day period. No one could see his brother..." (Shemot 10:22, 23)

The Rebbe writes: "The worst darkness is when a person does not want to see his suffering brother and to extend to him support" (Mayana Shel Torah).

Our neshamah begins the task of illuminating our inner world by searching all the chambers of our physical being to ensure that they are not enveloped by the darkness of selfish gratification. Through the light of the neshamah, they are to be consecrated for a higher, altruistic purpose - one which enable each of us to truly "see" our brother and sister.

If we allow our neshamah to illuminate our inner world, then the light within will spread to the outer world. We will then merit the fulfillment of the following messianic prophecy:

"Arise! Shine! for your light has come...Nations will walk by your light and sovereigns by the brilliance of your glow." (Yeshayahu 60: 1, 3)

In this spirit, we light the lamps or candles of the Chanukah Menorah in a place where the light can be seen by others. (See note 1 below.)

The main way we share this light, however, is not through "preaching" or "missionizing"; we share this light through serving as an ethical and spiritual example. This is why the Prophet emphasizes, "Nations will walk by your light." As Yigal Allon, the late Defense Minister of Israel, once said, "Before we can be a light to others, we first have to be a light to ourselves."

- Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dear Heavenly Father

Dear Heavenly Father,

I wish to say the things I've never said of my impressions as your child, these thoughts are running through my head...

As far back as I can remember you guarded and watched over me each week as I eagerly awaited Shabbos, I saw the candles burning bright.

But there's still one thing I don't understand, why must your children be taken away, why must they be killed so soon?

Their earthly parents are stricken with grief because their children blew up before their eyes.  Your instruments are inhumane beings who have no care in the world.

They indiscriminately blow up babies, young children, parents and grandparents.  They are the same as every other nation who just want to destroy us.

Their jealousy overrides their common sense, their brains are filled with hate messages.  They think of themselves as martyrs awaiting their prize in heaven.

But what about the survivors, who keep the land from being overtaken?  They live in Yisrael, our homeland awaiting Mashiach's cry.

Here are the ones who move with life, holding the memories deep inside their hearts.  They withstand criticism from the world and their brothers alike.

The world sympathizes with the "Palestinians" plight, urging us to give them land.  While our soldiers, who are only young men, must see the devastation before their eyes.

The pools of blood shed by their brothers, the corpses that lay dead in the street.  Why do they deserve to see this horror, what have they done wrong?

(The soldiers are the ones who protect us, they care about all our lives.  They don't need to be ridiculed, they need your strength and support.)

Oh Almighty, hurry with the salvation for Your nation, for we are the Children of Yaakov, the Treasures of Avraham.

I know we can do our part on the home front too, take upon ourselves to say a Perek of Tehillim, or a mitzvah... renewing Your Light in the sacred Land of Tziyon!

(I hope that from reading this letter and the news reports, you take upon yourself something personal so Our Heavenly Father will listen to our voice.)

May HaKodesh, Baruch Hu, bring Mashiach speedily in our days...


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Sword of The Mashiach

Among Reb Nachman's best-known disciples was Reb Shmuel Isaac.  Like Reb Nachman, he had great prophetic powers.  Not only could he see into the future, but he also had visions in which he ascended into Paradise.  Several of these visions were recorded in a small notebook that was lost after his death.  Only one of Reb Shmuel's visions was preserved.

In this vision Reb Shmuel found himself walking at night through a snow-covered forest.  There he saw a light glowing far off, as distant as a star, and with nothing else to guide him, he followed it.  He made his way through the dark forest, ignoring the icy wind and the howling of wolves.  He kept his eyes fixed on the distant light, certain that it held his salvation.

At last, deep in the forest, Reb Shmuel came to a clearing in the shape of a circle.  That clearing was filled with light, and when Reb Shmuel came closer, he saw that a ladder of light rose up there.  Reb Shmuel looked at it in amazement, certain that it was none other than that seen by Ya'akov in his dream.  But while Ya'akov had seen angels ascending and descending that ladder, Reb Shmuel saw none.

He stood at the base of it and peered up into the sky.  He saw how the ladder ascended as far as he could see, into the very heavens.  And at the top of the ladder he saw the light that had guided him to this place, the heavenly star that drew him ever closer.  And he knew that he would have to ascend that ladder, wherever it would take him.

When Reb Shmuel stepped on the first rung, he found that it somehow held him, though it consisted only of light.  Indeed, the ladder felt very secure, as if it were anchored in the most solid of foundations.  Then Reb Shmuel lost his fear and climbed from rung to rung, determined to reach that distant light.

Reb Shmuel climbed until he finally reached the top of the ladder.  There he saw that the source of that light was a magnificent palace.  Outside that palace grew a tree with branches that seemed to reach into every corner of heaven, and in the branches he saw a golden nest, with a golden dove in it.  The song of that dove filled the air, and it was so beautiful that he felt like weeping.  Then Reb Shmuel realized that he had ascended to the very place of the Mashiach, and that the bird he saw was none other than the golden dove of the Mashiach, whose heavenly song is immortal.

When Reb Shmuel realized that it was the light of the Mashiach's palace that had guided him there, he was overwhelmed.  And he was drawn to that incredible palace like a moth to a flame.  he came to its door and saw that it consisted of black flames burning on white, and he drew in his breath and walked through that door, knowing full well that it might be impossible to turn back.  Inside he found a chamber of awesome beauty, and while he marveled at its uniqueness, he suddenly saw that a gateway had opened leading to another chamber, and from there to yet another, and so from room to room and from story to story.  Thus he found that every entrance led to the next, and everything was connected to everything else with the profoundest wisdom and beauty.

Reb Shmuel moved from room to room in that fiery palace until he came to a door with a flame that burned much brighter than any other.  And somehow he knew that he had come to the end of his quest, that behind that door he would find the Mashiach, who had guided him to that place.

Gathering all his courage, Reb Shmuel stepped through that fiery door into the inner chamber.  There he was blinded by a brilliant light that filled every corner of the room.  Shielding his eyes, reb Shmuel could make out an old man with a white beard seated on a throne before him.  He was holding a sword, and Reb Shmuel saw that his face was the source of the light that filled the room.  Then he knew with certainty that the old man must be the Mashiach, who has waited all these years for his time to come.

"Do you see this sword?" the Mashiach asked.  Reb Shmuel nodded that he did, for he was speechless.  "With this sword I shall conquer the world!"

Bewildered, Reb Shmuel could not comprehend what the old man meant.  Then the Mashaich said: "Go to your rebbe.  He will explain everything to you."

At that moment Reb Shmuel's vision ended, and he found himself standing before the House of Study in Bratslav.  In great confusion he entered, knowing that his only hope was to ask Reb Nachman to explain his vision.  As he stepped inside, he saw that Reb Nachman was teaching a lesson.  And the first words Reb Shmuel heard Reb Nachman say were:  "And the sword of the Mashiach is prayer!"

-Eastern Europe: Nineteenth Century

"Some with chariots, and some with horses, but we, in the name of Hashem, our G-d, will call out (Tehillim 20:8)"

We all should learn how to skillfully use the Sword of Mashiach.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Worthy Companion

Rabbi Yehoshua was very pious and learned in the Law.  Once, in a dream, a voice spoke to him:

"Rejoice, Yehoshua, because you and Nenes, the butcher, will sit side by side in Paradise and your reward will be the same."

When Rabbi Yehoshua awoke he cried, "Woe is me!  Even since childhood I have devoted myself to the service of HaShem, studied the Torah without end and illumined the minds of eighty disciples.  Now see the reward I will be getting for all my good deeds!  It seems I'm no better than Nenes, the butcher!"

He then sent for his disciples and said to them, "I will not enter the House of Study with you until I find Nenes the butcher and learn from him what it is that he has done to deserve being my companion in Paradise."

From town to town Rabbi Yehoshua went with his disciples in search of Nenes the butcher, but no one had ever heard of him.  At last, after much wandering, they came to a village where Nenes lived.  Rabbi Yehoshua then began to make inquiries about him.

"O learned Rabbi!" the townfolk asked him.  "How is it that a man of your eminence should be asking after such an ignoramus and insignificant person?"

But Rabbi Yehoshua persisted:  "Tell me what kind of man is he?"

"Don't ask us, Rabbi," they replied.  "You'll see for yourself."

So they sent for the butcher, saying, "Rabbi Yehoshua is here and would like to see you."

Nenes was astonished.

"Who am I," he exclaimed, "that a great man like Rabbi Yehoshua should wish to see me?  I'm afraid you've come to make sport of me!  I will not go with you!"

Chagrined, the townfolk returned to Rabbi Yehoshua and said, "O Light of Yisra'el!  Light of our eyes and crown of our head!  why have you sent us to such a boor?  He has refused to come with us."

"I will not go from here," cried Rabbi Yehoshua, "until I have seen Nenes, the butcher!  In fact, I will go to him myself."

When the butcher caught sight of Rabbi Yehoshua he became frightened.

"O Crown of Yisra'el!" he exclaimed.  "Why do you wish to see me?"

"I wish to put to you some questions," answered Rabbi Yehoshua.  "Tell me, what good have you done in your life?"

"I am an ordinary butcher.  I have a father and a mother who are old and weak.  I've given up all my pleasures to attend to their needs.  I wash and dress them and prepare their food with my own hands."

When Rabbi Yehoshua heard these words he bent down and kissed the butcher on the forhead, saying, "My son - blessed are you and blessed is your good fortune!  How happy am I to have the distinction of being your companion in Paradise!"


- Adapted from the Midrash
- Art by Zvi Ribak

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Water Carrier

The Water Carrier of Sokolov

When Reb Mendele of Sokolov was still a young man, he set out on a personal search. He wanted to learn the secret of how to be a "real Jew." As he traveled from shtetl to shtetl, he met many pious and compassionate folk along the way - but always something was lacking.

By the time he arrived in the village of Sokolov, the hour was already late. Reb Mendele was tired from the many miles he had walked that day, and so his one thought was to find a place to lodge. However, when he happened to pass by a dilapidated hut located on the outskirts of the town, something made him stop and linger.

Reb Mendele peered through the window, and inside the hut he saw a poor Jew bent over a worn volume of Psalms. The man seemed to glow as he uttered the holy words.

Several hours passed and still Reb Mendele stood transfixed at the window. During all that time, the man never once raised his gaze from his Book of Psalms, and Reb Mendele had no desire to disturb him. Finally, however, sleep got the better of him and Reb Mendele went to find a place where he could spend the night.

Although he wasn't exactly sure of the reason why, Reb Mendele decided to stay in Sokolov. Weeks passed and then months. Reb Mendele became acquainted with Sokolov's community, but his thoughts kept returning to the poor Jew he had seen through the window on that first night.

He was not surprised, therefore, to find that his feet would often follow his thoughts. Each time Reb Mendele returned to that broken-down hut, the scene inside was the same. The poor man sat bent over his Book of Psalms, and never once lifted his gaze from the page.

By now Reb Mendele knew the identity of the man, who was a water carrier by the name of Moshele. They had never spoken, however, and so one night Reb Mendele decided to find out more about him.

Reb Mendele went to Moshele's home and tried to engage the water carrier in conversation, but without much success.

"How are you, Reb Moshele?" Reb Mendele asked.

"Thank G-d," Moshele replied.

"And your family?" asked Reb Mendele.

"Thank G-d," was the reply.

"How's business?" Reb Mendele said, in a last attempt.

"Thank G-d," said Moshele, and with that conversation came to an end.

Reb Mendele tried several more times to speak to Moshele, yet he never heard more than the words "Thank G-d" from the water carrier's lips.

More time passed and Reb Mendele was now the Rebbe of Sokolov. With his many duties, he did not have much time to think about Moshele the water carrier - yet Reb Mendele never completely forgot about the man. Even though he was now a "rebbe," Reb Mendele would still sometimes take a walk to the outskirts of Sokolov to enjoy the sight of this pious Jew uttering the words of Psalms with heartfelt sincerity.

Reb Mendele was therefore surprised when one night he saw a very different scene transpiring inside the dilapidated dwelling of the water carrier.

Moshele was obviously celebrating some happy occasion, because the town's water carriers, tailors, cobblers and other artisans were all inside singing and dancing with him. As Reb Mendele peered through the window he could see there were many joyous faces in that crowd, yet there was one face that glowed with an especially holy light - the face of Moshele the water carrier.

Reb Mendele felt he must know the reason for this tremendous joy, and so he went inside. The singing and dancing came to an abrupt halt as soon as the workmen realized that the Rebbe of Soklov had joined them. Reb Mendele assured the men that he did not wish to interfere with their celebration, but he was curious to know the reason for their happiness.

There was silence in the room.

"Go on, Moshele," one of the water carriers called out. "Tell the Rebbe your story."

Despite the urging of his friends, Moshele continued to stand in silence for a few more minutes. Then he lifted his gaze from the floor and looked Reb Mendele straight in the eye.

"Why are you here, Rebbe?" Moshele asked quietly.

"I would like to know the reason for this celebration," Reb Mendele replied, "so I, too, can share in your joy."

Moshele then invited the rebbe to sit because, as the water carrier explained, it was a long story that he had to tell.

"Years before you came to this town, Rebbe," Moshele began, "my mother and father passed away. I grew up in the streets and I wouldn't have known how to distinguish the letters alef from beit, if it wasn't for the kindness of an old man who took pity on me. He taught me how to read the Book of Psalms, and that's how we would spend many a long winter night - huddled around the light of a single candle as we chanted together psalm after psalm.

"When the time came, I married a beautiful girl," Moshele continued, "and G-d blessed us with many beautiful children. I was not blessed, however, with a good livelihood."

Moshele then went on to tell Reb Mendele about how the years of hunger and illness had taken its toll on his family.

"We often go to bed hungry," Moshele said simply. "I can't sleep when I'm hungry, so I stay up all night and recite psalms. They are the only prayers I know."

Moshele paused in the telling of his tale, as if uncertain as to whether or not he should go on. At Reb Mendele's quiet urging, the water carrier once again began to speak.

"One night last week," said Moshele, "I just couldn't take it any more. I ran to the synagogue and flung myself before the holy Ark. 'Dear G-d,' I cried out, 'my wife and children are starving. Please have pity on them and send me some money so I can ease their pain.'

"Two days later," Moshele continued, "I was making my usual rounds. When you work as a water carrier, Rebbe, the weight of the yoke makes you keep your eyes fixed to the ground. Usually you don't see too much down there, except dirt and things people have thrown away. But on that day, just as I was passing the synagogue, I couldn't believe my eyes. There on the ground were 1,000 rubles.

"I couldn't believe my good fortune," said the water carrier. "I lifted up my eyes to G-d and with a heart full of joy I thanked Him for answering my prayers - and so quickly, too!"

Moshele then told Reb Mendele about how his first instinct was to run and tell everyone about the great miracle that had happened. Then another voice inside him cautioned him to remain silent. Moshele decided to listen to this voice and keep his secret for two days. If no one claimed the money in that time, he could then be certain the money was rightfully his.

When Moshele returned home, his wife and children were as sad as always. How he longed to show them the 1,000 rubles and let them know that soon their worries - and their hunger - would be over. But he held his peace, and after a simple meal of a slice of black bread and a few boiled potatoes he went to synagogue to daven Ma'ariv - the Evening Prayer Service.

When he got to the synagogue, the place was in an uproar. Everywhere Moshele turned, people were crying and moaning.

"What's happened?" Moshele asked one of his fellow water carriers.

"It's Chana," the water carrier sobbed.

"Gevalt, has there been another tragedy in the family?" Moshele asked.

Just the week before, Chana's husband, who had been a water carrier, had suddenly died. The other water carriers, including Moshele, had tramped from door to door to raise money to help Chana and her children. Their efforts were rewarded and they raised an impressive sum of money for the widow and orphans: 1,000 rubles.

"Chana has lost the money," the water carrier said to Moshele. "She's frantic. We can't go knocking on doors again for her, and she hasn't got a penny to buy even a loaf of bread."

Moshele paused for a moment in his telling of the story, and it was clear that he was reluctant to go on. It was only when the others in the room urged him to continue, that he once again began to speak.

"When I heard these words, Rebbe," Moshele said to Reb Mendele, "the ground gave way under my feet. I ran out of the synagogue and ran blindly, crazily, until I reached a field. There, in my anger, I poured out my heart to G-d.

"'Why did you have to give me Chana's money?' I asked G-d. 'You own the entire world, couldn't You have helped me without taking food out of the mouths of widows and orphans? Is this the way You answer my prayers?'"

But on that dark night, in that lonely field, there was no sound except the anguished cry of Moshele's angry sobs. Seeing that he was not going to get an answer to his questions, Moshele returned home with a heavy heart. He was so broken by what had happened that he couldn't get out of bed the next day. But even though he stayed in bed, he could find no rest. Every time he heard one of his children cry for food, he was once again filled with bitter, angry tears and his whole body shook with pain.

The afternoon was coming to a close. Moshele had not davened Ma'ariv the night before and he had not davened Shacharis that morning. Now it was time for Mincha, the afternoon prayer, and a small voice called out to him.

"What's this, Moshele?" called the voice. "You’re going to let a whole day pass by without talking to your Maker?"

"I'm mad at Him," Moshele said to the little voice.

"You're mad at Him for what He has done to you, or are you mad at yourself for what you have done to Chana?" the voice replied.

At that moment, it was as if a heavy weight had been lifted from Moshele's shoulders. Moshele knew exactly what he had to do, and so he jumped out of bed and ran out the door. He didn't stop running until he reached Chana's house and placed all the money he had found on her table.

Chana's eyes were so full of tears of sadness and worry that at first she couldn't see what Moshele had done. When she realized that the money, her 1,000 rubles, had been returned to her, she sobbed some more - only now she was crying for joy. Soon all her children were crowded around the table, and the little hut was filled with the sounds of their laughter and singing.

"Rebbe, as I watched them all laughing and singing," Moshele said, "I knew in my heart that G-d was trying to tell me something. I knew that I was never going to be a rich man. I was always going to be just Moshele the water carrier and life was always going to be a struggle for me. But at that moment, I also knew something else.

"Poor as I am, I still have plenty of reason to be happy," Moshele said quietly, "because I am still able to do G-d's will and act like a mench. So that's why my friends have made a party in my honor. We're celebrating how good it feels to act like a real Jew."

Reb Mendele never forgot that night - or Moshele the water carrier. After Moshele passed away, the Sokolover Rebbe would repeat every year, on the water carrier's yahrzeit, this story about the joy of being a "real Jew".


The Power of Tehillim

Breaking All Barriers

The Tzemach Tzedek said, "If you only knew the power of verses of Tehillim (Psalms) and their effect on the highest Heavens, you would recite them constantly."

The explanation of the matter is as follows.

Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla wrote, that a person praying is like someone traveling through perilous territory: one's prayer has to pass from earth to Heaven through spiritual legions and hordes, some full of mercy and lovingkindness, others (beneath them) impure creatures who seek to detract and do harm. Some are for peace and some are for war, some warrant good and others evil, some are for life and others death. If a person is worthy, no harm comes to one's prayers; and if one is not worthy, the destructive spiritual forces along the way will be numerous and formidable.

Therefore, David HaMelech, peace be upon him, initiated Tehillim (Psalms) to clear the way so that one's prayers can ascend unimpeded. In particular, these psalms are called Zemirot, and are recited during Shacharit (the daily morning service), prior to the Shema and Shemoneh Esrei. As it is written, "Your laws are a 'source of strength (zemirot) to me wherever I dwell (Tehillim 119:54)."

Thus the Tzemach Tzedek concludes, "Know that zemirot of Tehillim shatter all barriers, they ascend higher and still higher with no interference; they prostrate themselves in supplication before the Master of all worlds, and they effect and accomplish with kindness and compassion."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Give Thanksgiving to G-d

 Hodu LaShem Ki Tov, Ki LeOlam Chasdo! 

Tehillim 118:1  Give thanks to HaShem for He is good, for His lovingkindness endures forever.

King David composed the present psalm in thanksgiving for the future acts of deliverance on behalf of the Jewish people.  Thus he both begins and ends it with "Give thanks to HaShem" (cf. v. 118:29). This conveys the importance of the present psalm and the things mentioned in it.

The psalm pertains to the Says of Mashiach, David prepared it for Jews in exile to chant in the future.

"For His loving kindness endures forever."  Unlike kindness of a human being, whose time span is limited, the loving kindness of the Almighty will never terminate.

What is the intention of "For His lovingkindness endures forever"  It is that the Holy One acts with lovingkindness towards Yisrael, not for one year, nor for two years, but "forever."

The Torah is called "lovingkindness," and it will never be taken away from Yisrael.  For G-d has given the Torah as "an inheritance of the assembly of Yaakov" (Devarim 33:4)

Therefore, "Let Yisrael say: 'For His lovingkindness endures forever!'

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Several times my daughter had telephoned to say, "Mother, you must come see the daffodils before they are over." I wanted to go, but it was a two-hour drive from Laguna to Lake Arrowhead.  "I will come next Tuesday" I promised, a little reluctantly, on her third call.

Next Tuesday dawned cold and rainy.  Still, I had promised, and so I drove there.

When I finally walked into Carolyn's house and hugged and greeted my grandchildren, I said, "Forget the daffodils, Carolyn!  The road is invisible in the clouds and fog, and there is nothing in the world except you and these children that I want to see bad enough to drive another inch!"  My daughter smiled calmly and said, "We drive in this all the time, Mother."

"Well, you won't get me back on the road until it clears, and then I'm heading for home!" I assured her.

"I was hoping you'd take me over to the garage to pick up my car."

"How far will we have to drive?"

"Just a few blocks," Carolyn said.  "I'll drive.  I'm used to this."

After several minutes, I had to ask, "Where are we going?  This isn't the way to the garage!"

"We're going to my garage the long way," Carolyn smiled, "by way of the daffodils."

"Carolyn," I said sternly, "please turn around."

"It's all right, Mother, I promise.  You will never forgive yourself if you miss this experience."

After about twenty minutes, we turned onto a small gravel road and I saw a hand- lettered sign that read, "Daffodil Garden." We got out of the car and each took a child's hand, and I followed Carolyn down the path.   Then, we turned a corner of the path, and I looked up and gasped.  Before me lay the most glorious sight.

It looked as though someone had taken a great vat of gold and poured it down over the mountain peak and slopes.  The flowers were planted in majestic, swirling patterns-great ribbons and swaths of deep orange, white, lemon yellow, salmon pink, saffron, and butter yellow.  Each different-colored variety was planted as a group so that it swirled and flowed like its own river with its own unique hue.  There were five acres of flowers.  "But who has done this?" I asked Carolyn.

"It's just one woman," Carolyn answered.  "She lives on the property.    That's her home." Carolyn pointed to a well-kept A-frame house that looked small and modest in the midst of all that glory.  We walked up to the house.

On the patio, we saw a poster.  "Answers to the Questions I Know You Are Asking" was the headline.
The first answer was a simple one."50,000 bulbs," it read.
The second answer was, "One at a time, by one woman.  Two hands, two feet, and very little brain."
The third answer was, "Began in 1958."

There it was.  The Daffodil Principle.  For me, that moment was a life-changing experience.  I thought of this woman whom I had never met, who, more than forty years before, had begun-one bulb at a time-to bring her vision of beauty and joy to an obscure mountain top.  Still, just planting one bulb at a time, year after year, had changed the world.

This unknown woman had forever changed the world in which she lived.
She had created something of ineffable (indescribable) magnificence, beauty,and inspiration.

The principle her daffodil garden taught is one of the greatest principles of celebration.  That is, learning to move toward our goals and desires one step at a time-often just one baby-step at a time-and learning to love the doing, learning to use the accumu- lation of time.  When we multiply tiny pieces of time with small increments of daily effort, we too will find we can accomplish magnificent things.  We can change the world.

"It makes me sad in a way," I admitted to Carolyn.  "What might I have accomplished if I had thought of a wonderful goal thirty-five or forty years ago and had worked away at it 'one bulb at a time' through all those years.
Just think what I might have been able to achieve!"

My daughter summed up the message of the day in her usual direct way.
"Start tomorrow," she said.

It's so pointless to think of the lost hours of yesterdays.  The way to make learning a lesson of celebration instead of a cause for regret is to only ask, "How can I put this to use today?" unknown........

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Parashat VaYetze - The Ladder

Parashat VaYetze
Bereishit 28:10 - 32:3
Haftarah Hoshea 12:13 - 14:10

The Ladder

Bereishit 28:10 Ya'akov left Be'er Sheva and went toward Charan.  11 He reached the place and spent the night there because the sun had set.  He took some of the stones of that place, and arranged them around his head, and lay down [to sleep] in that place.  12 He dreamed, and behold a ladder stood on earth and its head was in heaven; and behold angels of Elo-him were ascending and descending on it.

The ladder that Yaakov saw was also symbolic of Yisrael's future.  G-d thus disclosed to Yaakov the entire future of the Jewish nation.

The ladder symbolizes the Great Altar [that stood in the Holy Temple in Yerushalayim].  Although it "stood on the ground," its "head was in heaven."  The fragrance of the sacrifices would ascend on high, and G-d would cherish them very much.  The "angels of G-d were ascending and descending" allude to the kohen (priest) who would offer the sacrifices [climbing to the top of the altar, and going down again].  (Bereishit Rabbah; Zohar Chadash)

The ladder also symbolized the revelation at Sinai, and the fact that the Torah would be brought down from heaven there.  The numerical value of the Hebrew word for "ladder," sulam is 130 - the same as that for Sinai.  The "angels" allude to Moshe and Aharon, who "ascended" to heaven and "descended" with the Torah.  They are properly referred to as "angels of G-d" since prophets are also called angels.  [The Hebrew word for angel, malach also means messenger.] (Tanchuma, VaYishlach.  Cf. BaMidbar 20:16)

Also alluded to here is the exile of the Yisraelim (Israelites) and the destruction of the Holy Temple.  The Jews would suffer very much in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, who would make an idol sixty cubits high and six cubits wide (Dani'el 3:1).  [The letters of sulam, meaning "ladder" are the same as those of semel, meaning "statue" or "idol." ]  The "angels" were Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, who "descended" into the fiery furnace, and "ascended" unscathed. (Bereishit Rabbah)

Yaakov's vision also teaches that the world is like a ladder, where some people "ascend" while others "descend."  Some people become wealthy and attain status, while others become poor. (Ibid.)

G-d also showed Yaakov that although he was lying on the bare ground, without even a pillow for his head, in the end, his "head would reach to the heavens."

G-d also showed Yaakov the form of the Holy Temple as it was built by Melech Shlomo.  He then showed it destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again.  Finally, He showed Yaakov how it would be rebuilt in the Messianic age, and then last forever.

Yaakov was also shown all the guardian angels of the great empires.  The angel of the Babylonian Empire climbed up 70 rungs and then went down.  The angel of the Persian Empire climbed 52 rungs and descended.  The Greek Empire's angel climbed 180 rungs before it fell.  The angel was able to climb a rung for each year that its empire would endure; then it would descend to indicate that the empire would fall.

Yaakov then saw the angel of Edom (Rome, western civilization) climbing the ladder, and he could not count how many rungs it climbed.  He did not see it come down again.  Very startled, he said, "But that is terrible.  The civilization will last forever."  "Do not fear, Yaakov," replied G-d.  "Although Edom's angel will climb until he is near the Throne of Glory, I will cast him down too.  But you too will have to climb the ladder."  Ya'akov was terrified.  "What good is it to climb the ladder and to go down again like these angels?"  "I promise you," said G-d, "that you will ascend and never descend."  Still, Yaakov was insecure and he did not want to climb the ladder.  It was then decreed that his descendants would go into exile four times, one for each of the empires that he saw. (Pirkei rabbi Eliezer; Tanchuma; Ramban; Yalkut Shimoni)

In general, Yaakov saw the entire future in this dream.  He saw the angels of each nation "ascending" and "descending." (Bachya) 

This was Ya'akov's dream.


Yalkut MeAm Lo'ez, Rabbi Yaakov Culi, Vol. Bereishit 3a

Thanksgiving Recipe - Jewish Style!

Streusel-Topped Pumpkin Pie


1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1/4 tsp. salt
1 16 oz. can pumpkin
1 12 oz. can evaporated milk
2 eggs, slightly beaten


1 8oz carton frozen whipped topping, thawed
1 tsp. grated orange peel
9-inch pie crust

1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp. flour
2 Tbsp. margarine, softened
1/2 cup black walnuts

Heat oven to 425 degrees.  In a large bowl, combine all filling ingredients; beat until well blended.  Pour into pie crust.  Bake for 15 minutes.

Reduce oven to 350 degrees and continue baking for 15 minutes.  In a small bowl, combine all streusel ingredients.  Sprinkle streusel over pumpkin filling.

Bake an additional 15 to 20 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.  Cool.

In a small bowl, gently fold whipped topping and orange peel together.  Serve over cooled pie.  Refrigerate any remaining pie.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Maimonides - Rambam

For He Shall Never Be Moved;
The righteous shall be held in everlasting remembrance
Tehillim 112:6

Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon

Also known as Maimonides and known by the acronym of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, RaMBaM. Was one of the most influential figures in Jewish history.

He was born in Spain shortly before the fanatical Muslim Almohades came to power there. To avoid persecution by the Muslim sect, Maimonides fled with his family, first to Morocco, later to Israel, and finally to Egypt. He apparently hoped to continue his studies for several years more, but when his brother David, a jewelry merchant, perished in the Indian Ocean with much of the family's fortune, he had to begin earning money. He probably started practicing medicine at this time.

His Mishneh Torah and Guide to the Perplexed are seminal  works in the areas of Jewish law and philosphy respectively. The Mishneh Torah later served as the model for the Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth century code of Jewish law that is still regarded as authoritative by Orthodox Jews. He was also a physician, astronomer, linguist, and talmudist.

When he died, Egyptian Jews observed three full days of mourning, and applied to his death the biblical verse "The ark of HaShem has been taken" (1Shmuel 4:11).  To this day, Maimonides and the French Jewish sage Rashi are the most widely studied Jewish scholars.

Yeshiva students generally focus on the Mishneh Torah, and his Book of Commandments (Sefer ha Mitzvot) a compilation of the Torah's 613 commandments. Maimonides also formulated a credo of Judaism expressed in Thirteen Articles of Faith, a popular reworking of which (the Yigdal prayer) appears in most Jewish prayerbooks. Among other things, this credo affirms belief in the oneness of G-d, the divine origins of the Torah, and the afterlife. Its twelfth statement of faith — “I believe with complete emunah (faith) in the coming of the Mashiach, and even though he may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come!” — was often among the last words said by Jews being marched into Nazi gas chambers.

Maimonides was one of the few Jewish thinkers whose teachings also influenced the non Jewish world; much of his philosophical writings in the Guide were about G-d and other theological issues of general, not exclusively Jewish, interest.   “Maimonides is the most influential Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, and quite possibly of all time” (Time magazine, December 23, 1985). 

As a popular Jewish expression of the Middle Ages declares: “From Moses [of the Torah] to Moses [Maimonides] there was none like Moses.”


- Jewish Literacy, Joseph Telushkin



Photograph by Photographer Kim Romain.
See her work at: Hinman Avenue Studios
(Listen to an audio clip re Havdalah - if you do not have RealPlayer, you can download it for free at )

Havdalah is the ritual using wine, multi-wick candle, and spices to mark the end of the Shabbat (and holidays) from the beginning of the rest of the week. It acknowledges the distinction between the holy and normative or the sacred and profane in time.

Havdalah consists of four benedictions: over wine, spices, light, and the distinction between the sacred and the profane, between light and darkness, between Yisrael and the nations, between the seventh day and the six workdays.

In Talmudic literature, great importance is attached to the Havdalah: future salvation as well as material blessings are promised to those who recite the Havdalah over the wine cup:

"He who resides in Yisrael, he who teaches his children Torah, and he who recites the Havdalah at the conclusion of the Shabbat will enter the Olam Habah (World to Come)" (Berachot 33a).

Birkat Havdalah:
Baruch atah Hashem Elo-heinu Melech ha-olam bore' peri ha-gafen
Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.
Baruch atah Hashem Elo-heinu Melech ha-olam bore' minei vesamim
Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates species of fragrance.
Baruch atah Hashem Elo-heinu Melech ha-olam bore' m'orei ha-esh
Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates the illuminations of the fire.
Baruch atah Hashem Elo-heinu Melech ha-olam ha-mavdil bein kodesh lechol] bein or lechoshech bein Yisrael la-amim bein yom hashevi'i lesheshet yemei ha-ma'aseh Baruch atah Hashem ha-mavdil bein kodesh lechol
Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who separates between holy and secular], between light and darkness, between Yisrael and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who separates between holy and secular.

The mnemonic device YaBNeH [Yayin-wine, Besamim-spices, Neir-light, Havdalah-separation/distinction) has been given for remembering the order for Havdalah of Shabbat to weekday (Berachot 52a; also OH, 296:1).  Between Shabbat and festival the mnemonic device is YaKNeHaZ (Yayin, Kiddush, Neir, Havdalah, and Zeman) and for Yom Kippur to weekday it is YeNaH (Yayin, Neir, and Havdalah) (Sefer Hamanhig, par. 76).

Each benediction, pronounced with a symbolic act, has specific significance:

Yayin:  Wine is used as a symbol of joy and celebration.  The Talmud comments, "A person in whose house wine is not poured like water has not attained the state of blessedness." (Eruv 65a)  It is customary to pour the wine into a cup so that it overflows, to depict Divine blessing... symbolic of the overflowing blessing expected in the coming week.  The wine is also used to douse the Havdalah candle, to indicate that the candle was lit to comply with the spedific precept of Havdalah.  The custom of dipping the finger in the wine of the Havdalah and passing it over the eyes alludes to Tehillim 19:9, where G-d's commands are described as "enlightening the eyes."  These usages are not applicable whenever the Havdalah is recited as part of the Kiddush for festivals.  In addition to the Havdalah over wine, there is another Havdalah inserted in the fourth benediction of the Shemoneh Esreh.  In the Sefardic tradition it is customary to put a drop of wine behind the ears, in back of the neck, or over the eyes, and in the pockets as a sign of good fortune for the coming week. (TSLC, pp. 228, 239)

Basamim.  According to Maimonides [Rambam], the symbolic use of fragrant spices is to cheer the soul which is saddened at the departure of the Shabbat.  We inhale the aroma of the spices because during the Shabbat man is given a neshama yeteirah ("an additional soul"). (Ta'an. 27b; Bez. 16a)  At the end of the Shabbat the neshama yeteirah, which is about to leave, grieves, and the smelling of the spices offers comfort to make up for the loss.  When a festival follows immediately after the Shabbat the spices are omitted, because the soul then rejoices with the incoming festival.  At the conclusion of any festival, spices are not used because the neshama yeteyrah comes on the Shabbat only.  Ashkenazim use a combination of cloves and bay leaves for besamim, as well as other pickling spices.  In the Syrian synagogue they may use rosewater.  In Moroccan communities a myrtle-branch (hadas), rosewater, or various spices are used.  Spices or lemon, and, during the summer months, myrtle twigs or mint are often used in Judeo-Spanish communities. (TSLC, pp. 228, 238, 245)   According to the Zohar one should use a myrtle twig when making the blessing for besamim. (Cf. Otz Hat, vol. 2, Seder Havdalah)  A sign for this practice is the two adjacent phrases in the verse in Sefer Yeshayahu:  "Every one that keeps the Shabbat and does not profane it" (Yeshayahu 56:6) and "Instead of the nettle shall the myrtle tree come up" (Yeshayahu 55:13).  Thus the blessing for besamim varies in the Sefardic rite:  if it comes from a tree, then the formula for the blessing is "Who creates the spice trees"; if it is a type of herb, then one says, "Who creates the herbs of spice"; and if it is neither from trees or herbs, or when in doubt, the formula is "Who creates diverse spices."

Ha-Esh [Neir].  A twisted candle of several wicks is used , because the phrase m'orei ha-esh (the illuminations of the fire) is in the plural.  Also, the plural form used when making the blessing over light refers to the different colors contained in the flame: red, white, bluish green. (Ber. 52b; also MB, 298:2)  The blessing of light is to commemorate Adam's awareness of being able to kindle a light.  He was born on the sixth day of Creation and darkness never descended on earth until the following night.  When he saw the sun go down for the first time on Saturday night, he was terrified.  G-d gave him the intelligence to take two stones and strike them together.  In this manner did man first discover fire.  When Adam saw the flame, he exclaimed with gratitude, "Blessed be He, the Creator of light!" (Kol Bo; also Pes. 54a and Bereishit Rabbah 11:2)  According to a Talmudic legend, fire was one of the things G-d had left uncreated when Shabbat set in; but after the close of the Shabbat, G-d endowed man with divine wisdom.  "Man then took two stones, and by rubbing them together produced fire..." (Pesachim 53b).  While pronouncing the benediction over the light it is customary to gaze at the fingernails or palms of the hand.  Looking at the nails, in their unceasing growth, is a symbol of the prosperity which, is hoped, the week will bring. (Kol Bo; also Tur in the name of Hai Gaon)  The palms of the hand are looked at because the lines of the hand signify something by which to be blessed. (MB, 298:8)  Also, the reflection of the light on the fingernails causes the shadow to appear on the palm of the hand, thus indicating the distinction "between light and darkness."

Customarily, Havdalah should be said while sitting, however, the practice is to stand (Otz Hat, vol. 2, p. 868; cf. Baer, Sidd Avod Yis. p. 311) as one accompanies the departure of the Shabbat, that is, to be compared to escorting a king when he departs. (MB, 296:27)

Women are obligated in Havdalah as they are obligated in Kiddush. (MB, 296:34)   Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, known as the Sheloh from the initials of his chief work Sheni Luchot ha-Brit (The Two Tablets of the Covenant) (1), says that women do not drink of the wine of the Havdalah, in allusion to the guilt incurred by Chavah when she gave some of the forbidden fruit to Adam, which is said to have been the juice of grapes.

When making Kiddush in the synagogue on Friday night, it is customary to do so before Aleinu, whereas on Saturday night Havdalah is made after Aleinu.  The reason for this procedure is that we are hasty to usher in the Shabbat with Kiddush, but making Havdalah after Aleinu prolongs the Shabbat. (Sefer Matamim - Warsaw, 1889, Sabbath, par. 184)

The concept of Havdalah is ordained by the Torah as part of the general mitzvah to "Remember the Shabbat," the implication being that its differentiation from other days must be verbalized (Rambam - Hilchot Shabbat 29:1).

With the departure of the holy Shabbat and the onset of the work week, it is essential to be conscious of the differences between sanctity and secularity.  In explaining why the first mention of the separation is made in the Shemoneh Esreh blessing for wisdom, the Sages explain:  "If there is no wisdom, how can one differentiate?"  Clearly, then, to distinguish is a function of intelligent reasoning.  It is incumbent, therefore upon each Jew to be conscious of the sharp difference between the holiness he has just been experiencing and the sharply lower level of spirituality by which he is about to descend.

Havdalah is traditionally when three stars are visible in the sky, appoximately 20 minutes after nightfall.

Because they loath to lose their extra soul (neshama yeteirah), many Chasidim put off the Havdalah ceremony as long as possible, sometimes until long past midnight.  [There are even instances of those who extended the Shabbat until Wednesday, when they began preparing for the coming Shabbat!]  Some interpret this 'second soul' as identified with the Shabbat Queen, the Shechinah, who is welcomed every Shabbat.  Technically speaking, the arrival of the end of the Shabbat is defined by the ability to recognize three stars, as stated in Mishnah Brachot 1:1.  It is at this precise time that a Mitnaged would say Havdalah, but many Chasidim ignored the stars and continued to study Torah for several more hours, unwilling to let go of the spirit of the Shabbat that they so loved.

(1) The Sheloh, or Sheni Luchot ha-Brit, has been described as a profoundly ethical but unsystematic work of Kabbalistic tendencies on Jewish laws and customs.  Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz was born in Prague and died in Eretz Yisra'el (1565-1630).  He served as rabbi in various communities in Poland, Germany, and Bohemia.


Siddur - Nusach Ashkenazi, p. 618-621
Gabriel's Place - Jewish Mystical Tales, The Three Stars, p. 227, Howard Schwartz
Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer - Havdalah, p. 169-171, Macy Nulman
Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts - Havdalah, p. 153-154, Philip Birnbaum