Thursday, April 3, 2014

Ready or Not

זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָע בְּיוֹם טָהֳרָתוֹ וְהוּבָא אֶל הַכֹּהֵן (ויקרא יד, ב)
This shall be the law of the metzora, on the day of his purification: He shall be brought to the kohen. (Vayikra 14:2)
The impurity of a metzora, one who is afflicted with tzora’as, is such that he must be distanced from the entire community, and must remain outside the encampment of the Jewish people (or outside any walled city, when in Israel.) Therefore, when he is ready for purification, the Torah states (14:3) that “the kohen shall go outside the camp” to inspect him and perform the purification ritual. That being the case, what is meant by the above verse which states that “he shall be brought to the kohen”;  it is the kohen who will be going out to him, not vice versa?
The answer to this lies in the Torah’s unique emphasis that “he shall be brought”, and not simply “he will come to the Kohen”. The distancing of the metzora is evidence of his spiritual state, distant and disassociated from anything holy and Jewish. His spiritual distance is such that it is possible that he does not even consciously desire to return to a lifestyle of Judaism and holiness. Nevertheless, even of such a person, “it is certain that he will ultimately repent… because ‘No one banished from Him will remain banished’ (Shmuel II 14:14)”, as explained in Tanya (see Chapter 39).
This is the meaning of the Torah’s statement and guarantee that “He shall be broughtto the kohen”. Even someone, like a metzora, who is in a state that he does not come to the kohen on his own, and the kohen has not yet been able to reach him, G-d will certainly arouse in him a spirit of Teshuva, ”repentance”. Even if he has not sought out this Teshuva by his own recognition of its necessity, G-d will “bring him to the Kohen”, providing the initial arousal to Teshuva, causing the metzora to then follow through with a full and proper internalized Teshuva

Extreme Hiding Places

כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן . . וְנָתַתִּי נֶגַע צָרַעַת בְּבֵית אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶם (ויקרא יד, לד)
When you come to the land of Canaan… and I place a lesion of tzora’as upon a house in the land of your possession. (Vayikra 14:34)
The future occurrence of tzora’as lesions (on the walls of the home) was relayed as positive news. For the Amorites had hidden away treasures of gold inside the walls of their houses throughout the forty years that Yisrael were in the desert. Through the lesion, one will demolish his house and find them. – Rashi
The effects of tzora’as are laden with irony. The initial and obvious effect of tzora’as (on the skin) is the impurity it brings upon the person, which is more severe than any other ritual impurity. One who is afflicted with tzora’as is required by the Torah to leave the encampment of the Jewish people and “dwell isolated” (13:46) – even from others who themselves are impure. Yet, simultaneously, the supernatural occurrence of tzora’as is explained by Maimonides as a G-d-given “sign and wonder prevalent among the Jewish people, to warn them against lashon hora - undesirable speech”, and to inspire repentance from such behavior. Hence, coupled with its severe impurity, tzora’asfacilitates Teshuva, which brings the person to spiritual heights of which our Sages say, “Where penitents stand even the wholly righteous do not stand” (Berachos 34b).
We find a similar paradox in the occurrence of tzora’as on the walls of a particular home. Rashi states that the demolition of a home upon the appearance of tzora’as on its walls was an opportunity to discover the gold hidden in the walls of the home. Paradoxically, the Zohar (vol. 3, 50a) attributes the appearance of tzora’as on a particular home to the presence of an extreme spirit of defilement brought about by the Canaanite idolatry once housed there, which can only be driven away through the house’s complete demolition.
Like the effects of tzora’as mentioned above, these two reasons are not contradictory, but complimentary. It is specifically in the lowliest of situations where the potential lies for the greatest heights to be achieved. This came to plain sight in the tzora’as ridden homes, where the spiritual wealth which lie dormant in the homes where idolatry had the worst effects, became manifest even in physical wealth, golden treasures which were revealed upon the destruction of those very houses.

Skin deep

זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָע בְּיוֹם טָהֳרָתוֹ (ויקרא יד, ב)
This shall be the law of the metzora, on the day of his purification. (Vayikra 14:2)
R’ Yehoshua ben Levi met Eliyahu Hanavi… He asked him: “When will Moshiach come?” — “Go and ask him himself,” was his reply. “Where is he sitting?” – “At the entrance of Rome.” “And by what sign may I recognize him?” — “He is sitting among the poor, suffering from tzora’as…””When will you come, Master?” asked R’ Yehoshua ben Levi (to Moshiach), “Today”, was the reply… (Upon his return,) Eliyahu explained, “Today – if you will hearken to His voice. (Tehilim 95:7)” - Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a
Eliyahu’s assertion that Moshiach experiences physical suffering is explained by Rashi as a reference to the prophet Yeshayahu’s (53:4-5) statement regarding Moshiach, “he bore our illnesses… he was pained because of our transgressions”. What is the significance, however, of Moshiach’s ailment being tzora’as in particular?
It is explained in Likutei Torah (22b), that the fact that tzora’as is an ailment "in the skin of his flesh'' (Vayikra 13:2), indicates that the spiritual blemish causing one to suffer from tzora’as is also only superficial, affecting only the most external layer of the person. In other words, only one whose inner being is free of imperfection, and in whom any "blemish" exists only on the outside, can “merit” the miraculous tzora’as as a Divine reprimand for their peripheral imperfections.
Moshiach is therefore identified as a metzora, demonstrative of the collective state of the Jewish people at the conclusion of the Golus, exile. Having culminated our efforts tointernally perfect all aspects of our lives, both physical and spiritual, we stand readyas we await the redemption (led by Moshiach), with only the final bit of externalperfection remaining to be completed.
Accordingly, it can be explained that although Eliyahu attributed the delay in Moshiach’s actual arrival to the lack of those final touches, “Today - if you will hearken to my voice”, nevertheless, Moshiach’s response that his arrival will be “today” was not hyperbole or a play on words. For judging by the actual character of the collective Jewish self, as it were, we are in a state of tzora’ascompletely perfected on the inside, ready for Moshiach’s imminent arrival.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Chof Zayin Adar

During Napoleon’s campaign to conquer the world, the Rebbes of the time were divided as to whether or not his success would bode well for the Jewish nation. The Alter Rebbe maintained that the success of Napoleon, while improving the material lot of the Jews, would be very detrimental for them spiritually. Therefore, the Alter Rebbe was vehemently opposed to Napoleon, to the extent that he sent his Chassidim to assist the Russian army, including spying on their behalf, etc.
Once, the Alter Rebbe invited the Mitteler Rebbe to join him in learning a piece of Zohar. At that very moment, however, there was a great tumult outside on account of the sightings of French soldiers, who appeared to be overrunning the country. The Mitteler Rebbe turned to the Alter Rebbe in concern, saying, “Father, what happened to your promise to me that the enemy would not succeed?!”
The Alter Rebbe reassured his son, saying, “I swear to you that the army of Napoleon will meet their defeat here.” The Mitteler Rebbe was calmed, and wanted to now learn the Zohar. The Alter Rebbe, however, indicated that it was too late, saying, “For that Zohar you needed to display mesirus nefesh!”
The Mitteler Rebbe recounted the story, remarking that for years he suffered great pain on account of the missed opportunity to learn that Zohar with his father.
There are various levels of emuna. There were, presumably, those Chassidim who would not feel reassured even upon hearing the oath of the Alter Rebbe. They would not feel confident until they actually witnessed Napoleon’s downfall with their own eyes.
However the Alter Rebbe demanded of the Mitteler Rebbe mesirus nefesh, which seems to mean – in the context of the story – an unconditional and unquestioning acceptance of the Alter Rebbe’s words, despite appearances to the contrary.
•     •     •
I remember, immediately following Chof Zayin Adar, how the concern and davening of the Chassidim was peppered with a liberal amount of faith, hope and optimism. Many were speculating about whether we would see the Rebbe by Purim; Yud Aleph Nissan was not even a question in anyone’s mind. At that time, one prominent Chassid went around saying: “They’re talking about Purim and Yud Aleph Nissan; we’ll be lucky if the Rebbe comes out for Rosh Hashanah!”
I remember the shock everyone felt at such heresy. Didn’t we all witness the swift and miraculous recovery of the Rebbe in 5738? Surely we shouldn’t expect any less now! We had seen clearly enough that the Rebbe was not confined to the limitations of natural laws.
Time passed by (those who had committed not to leave the ohel until the Rebbe would be fully recovered reconsidered). We witnessed various triumphs and setbacks, and then, after exactly 2 years, the Rebbe suffered an additional stroke. Yet, the faith of Chassidim was fully intact, as we reminded each other that for the Eibeshter a big miracle and a small miracle were the same.
More time passed, and the unthinkable, Gimmel Tamuz, occurred. And yet, Chassidim continued to believe, to wait, and to eagerly anticipate. Whether we signed up for the blue team or the red team or the orange team, whether we practiced one slogan or the other (and while we diligently fought about them), Chassidim continued to live with the Rebbe, certain beyond doubt about the imminent appearance of Moshiach and that this final nisayon would speedily pass.
Everyone knew that the world needs a Rebbe and that although Hashem is testing us, it couldn’t possibly last very long. The Midrashim and P’sukim began to surface, providing all of the proofs that it was a matter of days or weeks, a few months at the maximum.
And I don’t believe anyone deserved credit for this faith; everyone naturally thought this way, it was inconceivable to think otherwise. This was the outcome of the guidance that the Rebbe had shown us over the years.
Eighteen years have passed since then. Bachurim entering zal now may not have been born by Gimmel Tamuz. Kallos standing under the chuppa were newborn babies on Chof Zayin Adar.
We still maintain our faith. But our definition of “imminent” becomes much vaguer. Initially, everyone shared the conviction that the Rebbe would recover and be nisgaleh right away; that any long term plans were inevitably about events that will be long after the Geula. But after thinking that way year after year after year, it becomes much more challenging to maintain that simple mindset. Of course, Moshiach is coming imminently. But does that mean this month, this year, this decade, during my lifetime?
Seemingly, now it is being demanded of us to practice mesirus nefesh. It’s the kind of mesirus nefesh that is required when your belief is against all odds, where it doesn’t appear natural or rational to just take the Rebbe’s word for it. It is when we are inclined to look for more reassurance, more of a guarantee, a more tangible basis for our belief.
But mesirus nefesh entails putting aside the natural inclination of our intellect and to believe today with the same certainty and conviction as we did in the first days, despite the challenges presented by the ensuing years: to believe today with simple faith that Moshiach is coming imminently, NOW!
• • •
This coming Tuesday, 4 Nissan, my family will be marking the yahrtzait of my father a”h, Reb Refael Menachem Nochum b”r Yitzchok Aizik. Following is a story that he would tell, that relates to the above:
There was once a young man, we’ll call him Jake, who was spending his vacation doing some hiking and mountain-climbing. On one particular trek, he negotiated a mountain-pass without sufficient caution, and he suddenly found himself sliding towards a 5000 ft. drop to the rocks below. Jake had a brief vision of himself as the “Sa’ir La’azozel” as he managed at the last second to grab onto the edge of the cliff and hang on for dear life.
He felt his strength rapidly waning, and he began screaming and shouting with all his might: “Help, help, is there anyone up there, help!”
He was shouting this way for a few minutes (that seemed to him like an eternity), when, suddenly, he heard a deep, booming voice from the heaven right above him, saying: “Yes my son, I am up here for you!”
“Please, help me, please!” Jake called up in desperation.
“Do you believe?” inquired the heavenly voice.
“Yes, I believe,” called Jake. “Please help me.”
“Listen carefully,” said the voice. “If you believe, then remove one of your hands from the edge of the cliff.”
Jake took a deep breath, lowered his left hand, and focused all of his strength into his right hand (that was very slowly beginning to slide), all the while continuing to call: “Please, please, are you up there, please help me.”
“Do you believe?” inquired the heavenly voice, a second time.
“Yes,” responded Jake, “but please help me.”
“Listen to me,” said the voice, “in order to prove your belief, remove your second hand from the edge of the cliff.”
Jake hesitated, looked down at the rocks thousands of feet below him, then slowly returned his first hand to the top of the cliff, and called out: “Help, help, is there anyone else up there!”
Undoubtedly, it is easy to believe when we have something to base it on, or the security of a back-up plan. But, bona fide mesirus nefesh entails believing when we’ve exhausted all grounds for it.
Chof Zayin Adar is, perhaps, a time to strengthen our mesirus nefesh-based emuna. We know all the questions; we understand the doubts of those who doubt. But we received a different training, and this is where it should be visible. Our avoda is to disregard the darkness around us, as well as the one within us, the one in our own intellect, and to work on living with true faith.
This has many implications for our day-to-day life, and the decisions we are involved in. For example: A yungerman is in kollel, contemplating shlichus. Sometimes, he is overwhelmed by his concerns over his future livelihood, and these concerns make the decision to go on shlichus a very challenging one.
Yet, if our mindset was that very imminently we will welcome Moshiach, that sooner rather than later we will greet the Rebbe, then I think the decision would be approached rather differently.
If we view the coming of Moshiach, not as an event in the distant future but as something that we – that’s right we – are about to experience, then that inevitably should start us thinking on a very different track. How do I want Moshiach to find me when he arrives? Taking a vacation? On a ski trip? Or, channeling all of my kochos and my abilities towards fulfilling my mission of making a Dira Lo Yisborach?
I’m not suggesting that it’s easy or simple. Yet, it is surely what we’re all about. We definitely have the ability to carry it out. We just have to focus on it and work on it.
This Shabbos we will read Parshas HaChodesh, when the Yidden were instructed to bring the Korban Pesach in a brazen display of their emuna, and in this z’chus they were ultimately redeemed.
Today as well we have to carry out an emuna revolution, to have mesirus nefesh for emuna, putting any necessary effort to turn our mindset – and subsequent conduct – into one of anticipation, hope, and absolute certainty about the imminent revelation of Moshiach NOW!
Surely in this z’chus we will speedily experience the fulfillment of the promise: “Kimei tzeischa mei’eretz Mitzrayim ar’enu niflaos!”
L’chaim! May we strengthen our unconditional emuna and bitachon, and may the Alm-ghty in turn acknowledge that we have already passed this test with flying colors long ago, and now all that remains is for Him to do His part and actually bring us the revelation of Moshiach Tzidkeinu NOW Teikef U’miyad Mamash!!!

Preventive Medicine

כָּל יְמֵי אֲשֶׁר הַנֶּגַע בּוֹ יִטְמָא טָמֵא הוּא בָּדָד יֵשֵׁב מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה מוֹשָׁבוֹ(ויקרא יג, מו)
All the days the lesion is upon him, he shall remain impure. He is impure; he shall dwell isolated. His dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Vayika 13:46)
When one afflicted with tzora’as enters a house, all of the vessels within it become impure immediately. Said R’ Yehuda: This applies only when he entered with permission.  If he did not enter with permission, everything remains pure until he stays long enough for a candle to be kindled. – Tosefta Negaim 7:11
The Torah’s emphasis that the dwelling of a metzora, one afflicted with tzora’as, must be outside the camp, teaches us that the metzora imparts impurity to the contents of any place he dwells, or even enters.
R’ Yehuda maintains that a home is only considered “themetzora’s dwelling” if the home’s residents allowed him to linger inside. Since the residents or owners may be preoccupied at the moment the metzora enters, R’ Yehuda allows for the time it would take for them to finish lighting a candle before they are deemed compliant with his entry. The commentaries explain that although normally one could light a candle and instruct the metzora to leave simultaneously, the candles referred to here are the Shabbos candles, during the lighting of which one may not interrupt before saying thebracha.
With this in mind, R’ Yehudah’s statement that lighting the Shabbos candles keeps the tzora’as impurity at bay, can also be interpreted homiletically as a comment on the powerful spiritual effects of the lighting of Shabbos candles; this Mitzvah has the ability to fend off the impurity of tzora’as.
How so?
The Talmud (Shabbos 23b) associates the Shabbos candles with shalom bayis, peace inside the home, as their light prevents the members of the household from stumbling over obstacles, and also removes the discomfort of spending Shabbos in darkness. The cause of tzora’as, on the other hand, is attributed by the Talmud (Arachin 16b) to lashon hara, speaking derogatorily of others, “causing rifts between husband and wife or between man and his fellow”. It follows that the antidote for the effects of tzora’as is the kindling of Shabbos candles, the light of which generates shalom bayis.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Rebbe

In the year 1912 in Russia Rebbe Shalom Ber Shneerson was the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim and his son Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Shneerson (who would become the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe after the passing of his father in 1920) was on a train from Paris to Petersburg.

Times in Russia were not easy for the Jews, they never really were, and often he was sent by his father to take long journeys  to help Jews or even save Russian Jewry.

After several hours of travel he left his cabin and went to the dining car for a cup of tea. As he sat down and looked around him he noticed a finely-dressed clean-shaven businessman sitting at a table in the corner eating a fine meal of rabbit meat and drinking French wine with great savor.

The man was obviously an assimilated Jew and the Rebbe winced with each bite the man took. He couldn't bear seeing a Jew act that way. So he turned to his cup of tea and tried to ignore him. Suddenly he heard the man push back his chair, stand up and approach him.

"Excuse me Rabbi" He said. "Excuse me, but are you the son or grandson of Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch?" (fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe)

"Yes", the Rebbe turned to face him and answered, "In fact I am his grandson."

The businessman just stood there speechless. His eyes filled with tears and he made no effort to wipe them away. He trembled slightly as though in shock, ran his hand over his eyes then turned abruptly back to his table, paid the waiter and left the room without finishing his meal.

That evening, hours after this strange episode, the train made a short stop in Frankfort. The Rebbe stepped briefly outside for a breath of fresh air when that same businessman again approached him. But before he could begin to speak he again began to weep uncontrollably until the train whistle forced him to return to his place.

Both episodes perplexed the Rebbe. On one hand the man looked like a nobleman; a large trimmed mustache, elegantly dressed in fine silk clothes. But on the other hand he acted as though he was insane.

The next morning the Rebbe had just finished praying in his cabin when there was a knock on the door. It was one of the porters and he said that a certain passenger would like to know if he could see the Rabbi.

The Rebbe agreed and in a few minutes the same man appeared. He entered, closed the door behind him and said, "Please excuse me my emotional outbursts but….." and suddenly began to again weep uncontrollably. He put his hands over his face and his entire body was shaking with sobs.

The Rebbe didn't know whether to stop him or not but after several minutes the man dried his eyes, looked at the Rebbe furtively and asked him if could borrow his Tefillin.

When the Rebbe answered yes, he again began to weep like a small child saying "Oy!! When was the last time I put on Tefillin!! OY!!"

The man took the Tefillin, removed them from their pouches, kissed them tenderly, put them on as one who was familiar with the commandment and began to pray.

The Rebbe left the man alone to pour out his soul before his Creator. After an hour he came out of the cabin, thanked the Rebbe, asked him if he could borrow a book of Psalms and left to his own cabin without saying another word.

That afternoon, several hours later, the man returned to the Rebbe's room. His face was pale and he looked as though he was undergoing drastic internal changes. He spoke in a weak voice.

"I would like to speak to you if possible. May I?" The Rebbe invited him to sit down; he closed the door and began.

"First, thank you for your Tefillin and book of psalms. And I'm sorry if I was of any inconvenience. My name is Y… I was born into a family of Chabad Chassidim by the name of Monison, although I know I don't look it.

"My childhood was very happy; our house was always filled with guests, Torah and joy. But when I was fifteen I somehow got drawn into a bad crowd of young people and I began to enjoy them.

"My father saw what was happening to me and decided to take me to Lubavitch for the High Holidays and it worked. The first moment I saw the Rebbe it had a deep effect on me. My father even took me in for a private audience. The Rebbe spoke to my father for a few seconds, then turned to me and said

"'The world can be very dangerous, never forget that you are a Jew.'"

"The experience completely changed me. I had absolutely no desire to even see my 'friends'. But gradually the effect wore off. Little by little I became cool to Judaism and warm to what I thought was freedom. I stopped praying, stopped doing the commandments and after a year or so I left my parent's house and moved in with my new 'friends'.

"Several times my father tried to make contact with me but that only aroused my anger. I had made up my mind; I would not live my life according to some book. Six years later I finished university, married an assimilated girl like myself and broke completely with my past. I was free!

"At that time I joined a secret political movement whose goal was to help the needy. There had been several Pogroms (government instigated riots against Jews) at that time, and most of our efforts were directed to helping Jews.

"After several years of this work, we heard that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was to be visiting Petersburg in order to stop the Pogroms at the government level. We decided to let him know of several impending Pogroms that we had heard about.

"We arrived at the hotel where the Rebbe was staying and were met by a large group of Chassidim some of whom remembered me and greeted me warmly. Suddenly the Rebbe opened his door to come out to pray the afternoon prayer. He glanced at me and I immediately knew that he recognized me despite the fact that we had met for just moments over eight years ago. I was speechless

"Later one of the Rebbe's secretaries told us that the Rebbe would like to speak with us and we entered his room.

"His knowledge of the situation in Russia was nothing short of miraculous and the next few months we devoted ourselves totally to helping him in every way. We saw much fruit from our labors and saw how the Rebbe literally prevented tens of pogroms.

"Then one day as we were leaving his room and I was the last one out, the Rebbe called to me and said, "Tell me, when was the last time you put on Tefillin? Please don't lie to me; I know exactly what you have been doing."

"I can't explain it, but I was so stunned I couldn't even open my mouth. I just made some strange gestures and left. Those few words made such an impression on me that that day I looked for a pair of Tefillin and put them on for the first time in years and I even stopped eating non-kosher food.

"After the Rebbe left Petersburg I returned home, told my wife that I decided to return to a Jewish life to which she agreed and I eventually even renewed ties with my father. But I still was working with my friends in our organization and at the end of that year it became known to us that there were to be a series of massive Pogroms in the south of Russia.

"I was chosen to travel to Lubavitch to tell the Rebbe and when I entered his office I could tell he was happy to see me. We spoke for some time but he said that he had to go to the country for his health and we would deal with the problem when he returned in a few days.

"When we met again he told me that he had been at his father's (the third Rebbe the 'Tzemach Tzedik' who is buried in Lubavitch) gravesite and his father told him that there was no real danger but nevertheless we must take steps. The Rebbe then gave me some letters and told me what to do. He was in a good mood as he paused for a moment, smiled and said.

"'It says that Moses, because he helped the Jews, G-d gave him the chips of sapphire from the Tablets that he carved out. You are helping Jews so you too deserve a reward.'

"The Rebbe looked me deeply in the eyes as he continued speaking.

"'When I told you that my father spoke to me at his grave I noticed that you smirked. The reason for this is that you are so involved in the physical that you have no appreciation for spiritual things.'

"The Rebbe then sat with me for over an hour explaining, with many examples and stories, what 'spiritual' means and he concluded with these words:

"'How long can a person live a life of physicality? Fifty years? Fifty five years? Remember who you are and where you come from. You are a son of a Chassid! May G-d protect you and give you true happiness.'

"I didn't really understand what he was getting at because I had already returned to Judaism for almost a year. But I thanked him warmly, took the papers he gave me, set out for Petersburg to give them to officials. On that trip I saw some open miracles.

"First, police stopped the train ordered everyone out and began searching each person for any political papers. I considered throwing the Rebbe's letters away before they got to me but the Rebbe's words made me think differently. And miraculously, when they came to me they just told me to get back on the train. I was the only one they didn't check!

"Then afterwards in Petersburg I got in to see the officials and hand them the papers with no trouble. And to top it all off the Rebbe, or rather his departed father, was right! The situation was not as severe as we thought.

"But despite all this, just like the Rebbe said, I had no appreciation of the spiritual. A few months later the Rebbe became ill and passed away at the age of forty nine and gradually I gravitated to my old friends again.

"Little by little I left HaShem and His Torah and became a very successful businessman. That was thirty years ago. Believe me for the last thirty years I never once even thought about G-d. Now I am retuning from my birthday party, I was fifty five years old yesterday, and my friends made me a gala party in Monte Carlo.

"Then suddenly, like a flash of lightning, when I saw you I remembered the words of your holy grandfather and it touched me to the essence of my soul."

The businessman became a different person. He moved his entire business to a different country and became one of the pillars of the Jewish community there.