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Parshat - Chukat

This Monday will be the 12th day of Tamuz.  This day is celebrated by Chassidim, as well as anyone who understands the great significance of this day, as a day that revolutionized Judaism.  When I write words like this, I am fully conscious that people often roll their eyes at the “hyperbole.”  Everything is a revolution and every celebration is earth shaking.  But let me explain why this is not hyperbole at all.  The time was at the height of the soviet union’s strength.  The Communist had declared war on religion, and the “Yevsektzia” – the Jewish section of the Communist movement, populated mostly by Jews who knew the ins and outs of the Jewish community, were out to obliterate any form of Jewish practice or teaching.  Although the law officially allowed freedom of religion, in practice anyone attempting to observe, and especially to teach, Judaism was arrested and either sent to Siberia to hard labor camps or executed by the Communist butchers.

In that setting most Jews had given up on any thoughts of observing Torah or teaching their children.  It was just too dangerous, and an entire generation of Jews was being raised in the Atheist environment of Communism.  Almost all the Jewish leaders escaped from Russia.  In that bitter, dark world, one man stood up and insisted that the light of Torah will not be extinguished.  He gathered a group of heroes around him who committed to give their lives to ensure that children would be raised in the Jewish way regardless of the dangers.  Like our great leaders before him, he risked his life, along with his followers, to establish clandestine schools and Yeshivot, underground synagogues and Mikvahs, and an entire infrastructure of Jewish life.  As the teachers and adherents to Judaism were arrested, new ones took their place.  This leader was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The Yevsektzia caught up with him and arrested him, and initially sentenced him to death.  The Rebbe went to his arrest with the absolute resolve never to allow the monsters to break his spirit, and there are many stories that show how he kept his resolve.  Through a great miracle, his sentence was commuted to exile, and a few days later he was freed, on the 12th day of Tamuz in the year 1928.  His release from prison was much more than a miracle for an individual, or even a major event for a great leader.  The news of the Rebbe’s release, in addition to bringing great relief to all his followers, energized the Jewish community and showed them that Communism was not invincible.  The Rebbe had said that only the body can be exiled, but the soul is not affected by the darkness of the world, and that nobody can stop a Jew’s connection to Hashem, his words were miraculously shown to be true. 

It is safe to say that if not for the miracle of the Rebbe’s release, any effort to keep Judaism alive in Eastern Europe would have ceased.  His liberation revived the spirits of the entire network of Chassidic heroes and kept the embers of Torah burning under the thumb of the Communist machine.  And as soon as communism fell, the underground came above ground and we see today the incredible strength of the movement that never allowed itself to be extinguished. 

There is also the mystical aspect of the liberation.  The Torah teaches us that evil is like darkness.  Darkness has no real lasting existence; it is the absence of light.  The way to dispel darkness is to bring light.  The great Divine miracle brought a light to the world that made it a little easier for those who were dedicated to keeping the light burning.  Once again we have seen in our generation an incredibly powerful force of darkness disintegrate, as Torah and Jewish practice flourishes.

Chabad communities around the world will be holding celebrations for this day.  I invite you to join us at the Chabad Center on Monday night at 9 pm.

Parshat - Shelach

After the story of the 12 spies who visited the land of Canaan, came back and (ten of them) gave a bad report, and caused the Jews to be stranded in the desert for 40 years, the Torah (in this week’s Parsha, Shlach) gives us several Mitzvot, including the Mitzvah of Challah.   The word Challah is usually associated with the (most commonly) braided bread that we eat on Shabbat and holidays, but this Mitzvah refers to something more. The translation of the word Challah is “loaf.” During the time when the Temple stood, in the land of Israel, anyone who baked bread was obligated to give a “Challah” – loaf of bread to a kohen (a member of the priestly family, the descendants of Aharon). The written Torah does not state a size or weight for the loaf, but the Sages established a standard amount of 1/24th of the dough for a private baker, and 1/48th of the dough for a commercial baker. The loaf is ideally separated as dough before it is baked, and the Torah tells us that it should be “the first of the dough,” meaning it is set aside for the kohen before we take any for ourselves.

After the Temple was destroyed, in order that we not forget about this Mitzvah, the Sages established an obligation to separate Challah from our dough wherever we may be, in Israel or in the rest of the world. However, the Rabbinic Mitzvah was set up a little differently. In order to eat the Challah, which is sacred food, the kohen had to be in a state of Tahara – loosely translated as ritual purity. The Challah itself also had to be in a state of Tahara, and any challah that became Tamei (ritually impure) had to be burned.   Since today we are all in a state of Tumah - loosely translated as ritual impurity - and cannot eat the sacred bread of Challah, and the Challah always has to be burned. The Sages therefore did not enforce the standardized amounts I mentioned above. We take a small amount of dough and burn or destroy it.

This beautiful Mitzvah that shows our recognition of Hashem’s blessings as the source of our food, is an obligation for both men and women. However, the Torah gave women the prerogative on this Mitzvah, as with Shabbat candle lighting and the laws of Mikvah and Family Purity, and typically women are the ones who separate the Challah. There is a special blessing made before the Challah separation, thanking Hashem for the Mitzvah to separate Challah. There is a minimum amount of dough that requires the Mitzvah to be fulfilled. If dough is made with more than 3 lbs. 11 oz. of flour, then there is the full obligation to separate Challah with the blessing. If the dough contains less than that amount but more than 2 lbs. 11 ozs., Challah is separated without a blessing, and challah is not separated if the dough is smaller than that.

A Jewish bakery also must separate Challah, and many people buy commercial Challah for Shabbat. There are many women, however, who make a point of baking their own Challah, in order to fulfill this great Mitzvah. The Mitzvah of Challah is a part of the greater Mitzvah of sanctifying our food and making sure it is appropriate to eat according to the laws of the Torah. What we ingest has an impact on our bodies and our souls. Just as good food is necessary for our bodies to function well, food that is prepared according to the laws of Kashrut enhance our soul’s ability to express itself fully and enables us to fulfill our mission of making the physical world a home for Hashem.

There are many more details of this Mitzvah, and I encourage you to study more about it. You can start here. May we soon merit the rebuilding of the Holy Temple and once again share our bread with the kohanim.

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