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A United Response

The recent events in London have brought out the best and worst of our society. It is clear that, as we will read in a couple of weeks in the Hagadda, “in every generation there are those who will arise to attempt to destroy us,” yet at the same time we have seen the best of society too, people risking their lives and refusing to be cowed by terror. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims.

Twenty five years ago the Lubavitcher Rebbe suffered a debilitating stroke that led to his passing. The day before his stroke the Rebbe spoke about the weekly parshah (that year was a leap year and Vayakhel and Pekudai were read separately) and addressed the theme of unity. This was his final public message to the Jewish people and to the wider world:

“… the message of Vayakhel applies to the Jewish people and alludes to their being gathered together to form a single collective entity in the spirit of the mitzvah, "Love your fellow man as yourself." This is possible, because all Jews share a single essence; all are "truly a part of G-d from above."…

“In simple terms, this command means that when a person sees another Jew, he should try to unite with him, for in truth they share a fundamental commonalty. This applies, not only to the Jews in one's immediate community, but to all Jews, even those far removed, indeed, even those in a distant corner of the world. Needless to say, the manner in which these feelings of unity are expressed will differ in terms of the practical means of expression available, but the feelings of oneness are universal in nature.

“Even when the distance is spiritual in nature, i.e., when another Jew does not share one's level of Jewish observance, one should focus on the connection shared and not on the differences. In regards to one's personal conduct, one must emphasize two modes of serving G-d -- striving both to "Turn away from evil and do good." When, however, one relates to another individual, one must channel one's energies solely in the path of "Do good."

The message is clear. A community that cares is a strong community, unified by common goals that transcend geographical and religious boundaries. A community will be strong and resilient. It was a Messianic vision from a Rabbi who cared deeply about the redemption, but it is a vision that we must strive to make into a reality.

From Sinai to Southbank

An international project featuring a rapist discussing his crime on stage has drawn both condemnation and support. The event was held at London's Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre on Tuesday evening saw a woman inviting the man who raped her to discuss the impact of his actions.

At first, I was taken aback when I saw the headlines, but then I realised that this is the week that we read about Moses’ appeal to G-d on behalf of the Jewish people following the Golden Calf.

There is, of course, no way to draw any moral equivalence between the two, and I do not intend to weigh in on the debate as to whether such people can even change and be reformed, or if they have an inbuilt condition. However it is rare that the concept of ‘teshuvah’ is discussed at all in the public domain.

Just a few weeks after the Jewish people were betrothed to G-d on Mount Sinai, committing to the relationship and pronouncing ‘we shall observe the commandments and we shall listen to them’, they already betrayed G-d and started worshipping an idol. The Talmud refers to Shavuot as ‘The Marriage Day,’ yet just forty days later the Jews were already straying.

Moses was on the mountain receiving the Oral Torah when G-d informed him of the making of the Golden Calf, and – without even knowing all the circumstances – Moses immediately started praying to G-d to withhold punishment and pardon their transgression.

The prayers bore fruit and G-d forgave the Jews, allowing us a glimpse into the process of ‘teshuvah’ or ‘return to G-d.’ Despite our many transgressions, the Talmud tells us that the gates of repentance are never closed and we can always return to G-d.

It is a fascinating concept. Although in inter-personal relationships we are expected to recompense in order for our teshuvah to be valid, G-d is willing to wipe out any transgressions against Him for a sincere apology.

At the beginning of the parshah we read about the half shekel tax that was levied on the Jewish people. The purpose of the tax was to ‘atone for their souls’ and Moses struggled to understand how half a shekel could atone for any transgression, let alone for the Golden Calf.

G-d showed Moses an image of a half shekel coin of gold. A coin given without feeling is cold and unremarkable. But a coin given with the warmth and enthusiasm of the soul's essence is fire - live spirituality -and can atone for the gravest sin. This was the coin of fire shown to Moses.

A Jew can never convert out of their religion and the deepest level of their soul can never get tainted. When we take this inherent connection and ‘re-fire’ it, G-d is happy to accept us with open arms.

Happy Purim!

How We Celebrate Purim

Though we dress up in holiday finery, Purim doesn’t feature holiday work restrictions. Nonetheless, all the better if you can take the day off from work and focus on the holiday and its four special mitzvahs:

1. Hear the Megillah
Head to your local Chabad Lubavitch Centre or Synagogue to hear the whole Megillah. The Megillah, a.k.a. “The Book of Esther,” is the scroll that tells the Purim story. Listen to the public reading twice: once on Purim night, and again on Purim day. This year, that’s Saturday night, 11 March and Sunday day, 12 March, 2017. Pay attention—it is crucial to hear every word.

When Haman’s name is mentioned (Chabad custom is that this is only when it is accompanied with an honorific title), you can twirl graggers (noisemakers) or stamp your feet to eradicate his evil name. Tell your kids that Purim is the only time when it is a mitzvah to make noise!

The Megillah is read from a handwritten parchment scroll, using an age-old tune. Contact your local Chabad rabbi if for any reason you can’t make it for the Megillah reading. He’ll do his best to send a Megillah reader to your home or office.

2. Give to the Needy (Matanot Laevyonim)
One of Purim’s primary themes is Jewish unity. Haman tried to kill us all, we were all in danger together, so we celebrate together too. Hence, on Purim day we place special emphasis on caring for the less fortunate.

Give money or food to at least two needy people during the daylight hours of Purim, 12 March. In case you can’t find any needy people, your synagogue will likely be collecting money for this purpose or you can donate online
here. At least, place two coins in a charity box earmarked for the poor.

On Purim, we give a donation to whoever asks; we don’t verify his or her bank balance first. As with the other mitzvahs of Purim, even small children should fulfil this mitzvah.

3. Send Food Gifts to Friends (Mishloach Manot)
On Purim we emphasize the importance of friendship and community by sending gifts of food to friends.

On Purim day, 12 March, send a package containing at least two different ready-to-eat food items and/or beverages (e.g., pastry, fruit, beverage) to at least one Jewish acquaintance during the daylight hours of Purim. Men send to men, and women to women.

It is preferable that the gifts be delivered via a third party. Children, in addition to sending their own gifts of food to their friends, make enthusiastic messengers.

4. Feast!
During the course of Purim day, 12 March, gather your family, maybe invite a guest or two, and celebrate with a festive Purim meal or join a communal meal near you. Traditionally, this meal begins before sundown and lasts well into the evening.

The table should be festively bedecked with a nice tablecloth and candles. Wash for bread or challah, and enjoy a meal featuring meat, wine and plenty of Jewish songs, words of Torah and joyous Purim spirit. Sing, drink, laugh, have fun together.

Special Prayers
On Purim, we include the brief V’al Hanissim section in all the day’s prayers, as well as in the day’s Grace after Meals. This prayer describes the Purim story and thanks G‑d for the “miracles, redemptions, mighty deeds, saving acts and wonders” that He wrought for our ancestors on this day many years ago.

Masquerade!
On Purim, children—and some adventurous adults too—traditionally dress in costumes, an allusion to G‑d’s hand in the Purim miracle, which was disguised by natural events. Make sure your children masquerade as good, cheerful characters, such as Mordechai and Esther.

Dress up your kids before taking them to the Megillah reading. Many synagogues have a masquerade party, along with prizes for the children, during or after the Megillah reading.

A Jew Beyond The Pale

Israel Singer, former Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress recounted a meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe where he informed the Rebbe that he had met a Jewish member of the Politburo who was Jewish called was Lazer Kaganovitch.

“He must be an alter yid,” the Rebbe said.

Kaganovitch who had joined the Politburo in 1930 had been ousted from all leadership roles in 1957 and as he had not been heard from since, was generally assumed to be dead.

Singer told the Rebbe that Kaganovitch was in his 90’s. The editor of a communist Yiddish newspaper had brought Singer to Kaganovitch’s apartment. The Rebbe absorbed the information; “is Kaganovitch doing teshuva” the Rebbe finally asked.

Singer answered that he didn’t think so and that judging by the very nice apartment in which he lived it seemed as if he was still a person highly respected by the communist party.

The Rebbe then said that Kaganovitch “was a big rosha” but added “but you never know maybe he’ll repent. When you go back the next time, you should tell him he should still do teshuva. He still has a chance.”

In the normal course of events, nothing about this exchange should seem surprising. The Rebbe hears of an elderly Jew, a lifelong communist now in his 90’s and encourages Singer to seek to influence the man to accept G-d and Judaism and repent for the bad things he has done. The difference is, “Iron” Lazar Kaganovitch was among the horrific mass murderers of the 20th century. It is likely that Kaganovitch brought about the deaths of more people than any other Jew in history. Kaganovitch had the unique distinction of being the one Jew who always remained on close terms with the anti-Semitic Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin.

In this week’s parshah we read of the donations collected for the Tabernacle, listed first are the gold, silver and copper.

Silver, gold, and copper represent the three types of Jews: Silver represents the perfectly righteous, gold, in contrast, represents those of us who are entrenched in the mundane world but have struggled with its spiritual darkness and won. Copper, on the other hand, represents those of us who live within the mundane but bring no light into it. The Hebrew word for "copper" (nechoshet) comes from the word for "snake" (nachash). Copper is "snake-metal," a substance that recalls the stubborn impudence of the primordial snake's denial of G-d.

Nonetheless, the Torah requires that all three metals be used for the construction of the Tabernacle. This is a lesson both to those who perceive themselves as gold and silver as well as to those who think of themselves as copper. "Gold" and "silver" Jews must realize that to merit the Divine presence they must unite with those on the level of copper.

Precious metals, when polished, are a mirror. Before we discard any Jew we should take a long look at ourselves and wonder where the visceral hatred is coming from. Are we truly doing all we can for Jewish continuity, education and observance that we feel the biggest remaining threat is a fellow Jew who has passed away? As the Rebbe said many times, our job is not to worry about the darkness. We are lamplighters, when we spread the light of Judaism, of Torah and Mitzvot, the darkness will go away.

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