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  • Rabbi Mordechai Lipskier

What a little sand and water can do

Chodesh Elul

The wicked King Nikolai tore Jewish boys away from their parents and communities to serve in his army. Detached from anything Jewish from as young as six years old, these cantonists grew up ignorant of what it means to live like a Jew. Nevertheless, they yearned for a connection to Hashem and Yiddishkeit. In 5603 (1843), the Tzemach Tzedek was summoned to Petersburg to attend a meeting on behalf of the Jews in Russia. The nearby port city of Kronshtadt was a military stronghold and when the cantonists there heard that the Rebbe was in Petersburg, they asked that he be allowed to visit them. Miraculously, their request was approved. “Rebbe,” they said to the Tzemach Tzedek when he arrived, “we worked hard to clean and polish our buttons in your honor. Now we ask you to clean and polish our neshamos.” In answer to their request, the Rebbe said a maamar especially tailored to their level of understanding. Afterwards the Tzemach Tzedek explained: Just like buttons are polished using sand and water, so too the neshamah can be polished in this way. The sand is words of Tehillim [which many cantonists knew by heart] and the water is tears.”

One of the cantonists objected. “When we go out to conquer a city, we don’t go out in tears but rather in a march of victory and joy!” The Tzemach Tzedek accepted his objection and agreed that, indeed, the battle to conquer the yetzer hara should be done through joy. And from that point forward the Chabad Rebbeim adopted this attitude in avodas Hashem.[1] Chai Elul is the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov. One of the fundamental teachings of the Baal Shem Tov is that since everything that happens is orchestrated directly by Hashem, and not chas v’shalom by chance, we can and must learn a lesson in our avodas Hashem from everything we see or hear. That being said, after Queen Elizabeth’s death I heard that one of her famous quotes is a commitment she made when she was just 21 years old. “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” A commitment she lived up to all her life. How fortunate we, l’havdil, are to be chosen by Hashem as His servants. Our entire life, may it be long and healthy, is given to us for one purpose: to serve Him. Living with this mindset gives us purpose, direction, and drive. It should also be a source of joy. In this week’s sedra we are told that the reason a Yid would be deserving of curses, R”l, is merely on account of “you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with happiness and with gladness of heart.” Why might a Yid lose his joy in serving Hashem? Because he forgets the reason he was created! When we reflect on how lucky we are to be chosen by Hashem; how every moment in our day, every thought, spoken word or action of ours is cherished by Hashem; it will lift our spirits. And when we approach our service with joy, we’ll surely be victorious and receive Hashem’s blessings in abundance. Gut Shabbos and a Ksiva V'Chasima Tova, Rabbi Mordechai Lipskier [1] Sicha of leil Simchas Torah 5727 (1976).

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