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A glittering flame is the soul of man

A few weeks back our family was invited to stay by friends in their luxury home in Midtown for a Shabbat. I planned to drive my family to the house then return to park the car at home before catching a train back. Unfortunately for me, three years in Manhattan still hasn’t taught me that a plan such as this requires a time span of at least three hours plus. Arriving at my friend’s house an hour before Shabbat wasn’t the greatest idea, I soon realized, after I had dropped off the family and found myself sitting in a traffic jam that closely resembled a parking lot. Left with no other choice, I hastily parked in a local garage before racing back to their house… only to discover that Shevy had no matches with which to light her candles. I flew out the house; entered the first door I saw (which turned out to be a gym), and, through pants and heaves, asked a guy on a treadmill for matches. He thankfully obliged and Shevy was able to light her candles with only seconds to spare.

Confident that things had settled down, I went to shul and returned to join my family for the Shabbat meal. It was during the first course that I accidently knocked a plate of food against the candles. They tipped over and within seconds the food was aflame! Talk about drama. The Jewish law of pikuach nefesh flew into my head as I hastily extinguished the blaze, an action generally forbidden on Shabbat, but permitted (and even obligatory) in this case, as its purpose was to avoid a potential tragedy and possible loss of human life.

This week’s parsha of Beha’alotcha details the daily lighting of the Menorah in the Temple. A flame is among the most intriguing phenomena in this world. Its incessant flickering grants it a mysterious quality that can only be defined as a frantic bid to return to its source (Judaism explains that the origin of fire is found “under the orb of the moon”). The wick of the candle is the flame’s only deterrent of its goal, ensuring it remains down below, where it belongs. But the flame constantly struggles against this force, desiring to cleave to its source and become nullified within it.

Traditionally, the soul of man is compared to a glittering flame: “ki ner hashem nishmat adam” the Talmud tell us. The similarity is seen in the soul’s inherent desire to connect with G-d, to cleave to its source above, thus transcending this material world, while at the same time wishing to remain inside a physical body. (As a point of interest, the soul’s flickering nature can clearly be seen in the classic Jewish worshipper who sways back and forth while in the throws of prayer.)

The easiest and most practical way the soul establishes a connection with G-d is through the performance of mitzvot, such as lighting Shabbat candles. Sometimes, however, the bond can only be formed by committing what would ordinarily be considered a sin. G-d treasures human life above all else, and therefore He gave us a mitzvah to disregard the regular Torah law in a situation where adhering to it may lead to loss of life.* Therefore extinguishing the candles on Shabbat becomes a wonderful mitzvah and a perfect opportunity for the soul to connect with G-d. I personally managed to connect with G-d in this manner on a separate occasion, when Shevy went into labor with our son Mendel on a Friday night. I found myself on Shabbat morning in a taxi with my tallit on the way to the hospital. It was the only time I remember riding in a car on Shabbat and fulfilling a mitzvah…

All this leads to an interesting point to ponder: if G-d can thrust aside His prized Torah for the sake of safeguarding our very mortal existence, surely we owe it to Him to live our lives not as empty shells, but as refined beings, souls in bodies that work toward an acknowledgement and an acceptance of the Divine will.

*Lest one err in taking this as a given, it should be noted that there are three times when this rule does not apply: in a situation where one is demanded to kill another, or to worship a foreign deity, or to commit adultery at the cost of his life, he is obligated to forfeit his life rather than perpetrate any of these heinous crimes.

Saving one life is equivalent to saving the world!

It seems that our community is just as excited as the ten Israeli soldiers for their upcoming trip to New York. Unfortunately, while applying for visas this week, one soldier was rejected with a callous dismissal. “There are too many injured American soldiers roaming around in New York”, he was told. Yogev L, a Givati officer will please G-d be replacing him.

The tale of Yogev’s injuries is a chilling one. In the middle of a short military break at home; he received notification to return immediately to the base to assist in the capture of a group of terrorists in Shechem. Arriving at the Ariel juncture fully armed yet attired in civilian clothing, Yogev awaited the arrival of his officer. Just then, a vehicle containing two terrorists sped into the juncture and stopped near two Israeli girls, forcing them into the vehicle. Yogev engaged the terrorists, allowing the girls to make good their escape. Unfortunately his heroic actions earned him a shooting at point blank range, with three bullets piercing his stomach and another two aimed at his right leg. Paramedics from an ambulance that was providentially parked on the other side of the road treated the critically injured Yogev before transporting him to the Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikva where he underwent several operations. Israeli military intelligence was able to locate the two offending terrorists and entered Shechem the same night of the attempted kidnapping and subsequent assault, capturing the two of them.

G-d commands Moshe in this week’s parshah of Bamidbar to count Bnei Yisrael. Rashi explains that G-d desired an exact tally of His nation because they were so precious to Him. Each individual soul is a treasure unto itself, a valuable jewel whose presence must constantly be determined. The counting represents a fundamental belief of Judaism, the idea that human life is of infinite value. 

It was the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s custom to stand outside the door of his office on Sunday afternoons, greeting the thousands of individuals who came to seek his blessing, handing each a dollar to deposit in tzedaka. The ritual would take hours and hours, with endless lines of people stretching for many blocks.

On one occasion, an elderly woman wondered how the Rebbe, in his late eighties, had the strength to stand for so long on a regular basis. Addressing her question to the Rebbe, he famously replied, “When one counts diamonds, he does not tire…”

The value of life is so absolute that G-d hinted to it in the creation of Adam, the very first person. The Talmud explains that unlike the animals around him, Adam was created as the sole representative of his species, thus he alone amounted to the entire human population of the world. Through this detail, Torah wishes to convey the message that each individual is so priceless that destroying a single life is comparable to destroying the entire world. Likewise, saving a single life is equated to saving the entire world.

On that day, not only did Yogev rescue two lives, he ultimately ensured the survival of two entire worlds. Let us hope we never find ourselves in such trying situations, rather may our simple kindnesses and thoughtful deeds suffice in our quest to see each individual for what he truly is: a rare gem to be admired and prized above all else.

Does G-d listen to my prayers?

This past Friday I texted a member of our shul who is also a dear friend of mine, inviting him to attend services on Shabbos. I even added an extra lure of our delicious Persian kiddush. Two minutes later I received a very sharp response, "No thank you. I am never coming back to shul and please don't invite me again." Slightly bewildered, I wondered if perhaps I had offended him or hurt his feelings. After all, I'm no stranger to hostile comments and unfriendly behavior, because as a Chabad rabbi I often encounter Upper East Siders who claim to manage quite well with no rabbi. The text message reminded me of several similar experiences, particularly one that occurred three years ago, as I moved to the neighborhood, when a woman pointedly told me, "Rabbi, I've lived here way longer than you. Not only do you move across the street from me and start inviting me and my friends to all your parties, but you then have the audacity to charge me $18 to join the Purim bash!

A second text message suddenly interrupted my "reminiscing". "And you should know Rabbi" my friend wrote, "It's got nothing to do with you. You are a good man, this is between me and G-d." I must admit I breathed a sigh of relief – at least it had nothing to with me. So he has an issue with G-d? G-d can handle it! I replied to him immediately. "G-d loves you!"

Interestingly enough, this guy was the second person who had told me that same week they would not be returning to shul on account of their disappointment in G-d. Each one felt that G-d was not paying attention to their personal issues, their pain and suffering and thus found it pointless to bother praying in shul each week...

This past Sunday we celebrated Lag Ba'omer, the anniversary of the death of the great sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. One of the Rabbi's students once left the academy and returned a wealthy man. His former friends, seeing the man's success, grew very envious. Here they were studying Torah day and night and they are poverty stricken and their friend who left the academy became a wealthy man. Rabbi Shimon led his disciples to a valley and commanded it “Valley Valley, fill yourself with golden coins” The valley filled with golden coins and he turned to his pupils and told them, "Each of you may take what he wishes. But know that whatever you take now will be deducted form your portion in the world to come." Upon hearing this, each student turned his back on the gold and walked away.

Many times we look to our friends who seem to have it all, while we struggle in every area. Just today one of my dear congregants was complaining to me –actually shouting -- how life is so unfair. But from the story of Rabbi Shimon we can be rest assured that nothing we go through or do is unaccounted for. The world we inhabit is alma deshikra -- a world of concealment and deception. Only one thing is for certain and it's written in this week's parsha of Bechukotai. "im bechukotai teleichu, venatati gishmaeichem be'itam". G-d promises to reward those who perform good deeds. Often the reward is not granted immediately, and sometimes it may even take years, perhaps even in the world to come, but G-d never forgets, He never remains in debt. Every move we make, every challenge that is thrown our way serves a purpose and has meaning. G-d is standing in the wings of the stage, monitoring our performance and rewarding us in turn.

May we all see only revealed good in our lives now and always...

Should my friend stop coming to shul? Of course not! G-d is there listening to his prayers. Sometimes we do not understand his answer. But He loves us dearly as if we were His only child!

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