Tag Archives: knowledge

Being Light in the Darkness

light_from_withinHe explains there that tzaddikim are classified in two general categories. The first is that of the “complete tzaddik,” also known as the “ tzaddik who possesses (only) good.” Such a tzaddik has succeeded in completely transforming the evil of his animal soul to good and holiness. A tzaddik of the second category, that of the “incomplete tzaddik,” or the “ tzaddik who possesses evil,” is one who has not yet completely converted his animal soul to good; he still retains a vestige of its native evil. This remaining fragment of evil, however, is completely nullified within the far greater proportion of good.

from “Today’s Tanya Lesson”
Likutei Amarim, Chapter 11
Lessons in Tanya
Chabad.org

A certain individual was condemned to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi as a hypocrite. “He has such a high opinion of himself,” the rebbe was told, “and has assumed all sorts of pious customs and practices. He acts like a real holy fellow. But it’s all superficial: on the inside, his character is as coarse and unrefined as ever.”

“Well,” said the rebbe, “in that case, may he meet the end that the Talmud predicts for such people.”

The informers were taken aback. They had merely desired to “warn” the rebbe about this individual. But now, what sort of calamity had the chassidic master called down upon him?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman explained: At the end of Tractate Pe’ah, the Talmud discusses the criteria for a pauper to be eligible to receive charity. The section concludes with the warning: “One who is not in need, but takes . . . one who is not lame or blind but makes himself as such, will not die of old age until he is indeed as such.”

“In the same vein,” concluded the rebbe, “one who makes of himself more than he is in matters of righteousness and piety ‘will not die of old age until he is indeed as such.’ Acting like a better person will eventually make him a better person.”

“Make Believe”
Translated/adapted by Rabbi Yanki Tauber
in “Once Upon a Chassid” (Kehot, 1994)
Chabad.org

“The mind is everything. What you think you become.”

-Gautama Siddharta

Setting the mystic aspects of the quotes above to one side, I have to say that I know all this. I’m supposed to know all this. But knowledge and insight aren’t the same as integrated wisdom. What’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

“Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.”

-Sandra Carey

This is hardly the first time I’ve pursued such a question, but it means something more or at least something different then what it did before. I’m not sure I want to tell you the whole story yet, but part of it has to do with a recent encounter both with a friend and with God. But before getting on to that, I suppose I should review my own previously stated understanding of knowledge and wisdom.

There is knowledge and then there is wisdom. Studying will provide knowledge and knowledge, in and of itself, isn’t always “good” or “bad”, but sometimes it is “relevant” and “irrelevant”. Wisdom tells us how or if that knowledge can be applied to us. The “path of wonder the Torah takes to come into our world” is not a path that Christians can readily follow and even if somehow we can, it’s not a path we are always called to walk. As Rabbi Freeman points out, “Every wise person prefaces his pursuit of wisdom by acknowledging, ‘This I will not be able to explain. This will remain in wonder.’”

what-you-thinkI suppose putting all that together and using Rabbi Tauber’s commentary as a guide, to gain wisdom, we must behave out of our knowledge of what is good, desirable, and pious, even if it’s not who we really are or what we can readily pursue, until it becomes integrated into the very fabric of our being. Then we may become wise and not just a “bucket” containing information.

Then we will become who we really are.

I’ve been standing on a threshold for a long time. Not that I’m a total facade, but I know I’m not the person I’m supposed to be, and probably not the person most people reading this blog believe me to be.

The quote from Siddharta can be condensed down into the simple phrase, “you are what you think.” But despite the Bible’s proscription to gain control of our very thoughts (2 Corinthians 10:5) it’s not all that easy to manage what we think about habitually. There’s a reason that anxiety and anxiety control meditations are a tremendous part of the medical and psychopharmaceutical fields today.

But our thoughts and worries are also addressed in abundance in other realms as well.

The reason you have a business is to reconnect all these fragments back to their Creator. And the gauge of your success is your attitude.

If you see yourself as a victim of circumstance, of competitors, markets and trends, that your bread is in the hands of flesh and blood . . .

. . . then your world is still something separate from your G‑d.

But if you have the confidence that He is always with you in whatever you do, and the only one who has the power to change your destiny is you yourself through your own acts of goodness . . .

. . . then your earth is tied to the heavens, and since in the heavens nothing is lacking, so too it shall be in your world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Attitude”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Rabbi Freeman’s commentary on the Rebbe’s advice deals specifically with earning a livelihood, which is very important of course, but what about things that are even more basic?

We all have a constant flow of thoughts and mental pictures in our minds.

These mental creations have a tremendous impact on how we feel, what we say and how we say it, and what we do and don’t do.

People who are self-confident have very different mental pictures and thoughts than people who lack self-confidence. People who feel very insecure feel that way because of what they say to themselves and what they picture about the past and the future. When they upgrade their self-talk and their mental images, they experience life very differently.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #680, Your Mind Impacts Every Experience”
Aish.com

blind2Supposedly, it’s not really what happens to you that matters, but the story that you tell yourself about what happens to you. Three people can undergo the same experience, the first can tell himself that things are a disaster and he’ll never recover, the second can say that it’s an interesting experience, but he won’t let it change him, and the third can say that it was an enlightening experience and that it will impact him for the better…

…regardless of what the experience happens to be.

That’s kind of simplistic since there are events that would overwhelm just about anyone, either with uplifting joy or abject sorrow. But over time, once the person adjusts to the emotional impact, they can tell themselves a story, sometimes telling it in different ways, until whatever the event is can be seen in a useful and positive light.

Obviously, things that happen to us that are good aren’t that hard to adapt to a positive story, but in the news lately, we’ve seen things happen that can only lead to tremendous pain.

You and I can face immense hardships and sorrow in our lives, and yet we see others who have suffered much worse and continued to go on, sometimes achieving true greatness.

In 1944, Simon Wiesenthal barely escaped death at the Janwska concentration camp. Wiesenthal had been imprisoned in a total of 12 concentration camps, and at the time of his liberation from Mauthausen in May 1945, his six-foot frame weighed just 99 pounds. Nearly all of Wiesenthal’s close relatives were murdered by the Nazis, and after the war he worked for the U.S. Army gathering documentation for Nazi war crimes trials. Wiesenthal continued this work privately, and became known as the “Nazi hunter” whose research led to capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, and dozens of other war criminals including Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer responsible for the arrest of Anne Frank. Wiesenthal said: “When history looks back I want people to know the Nazis weren’t able to kill millions of people and get away with it.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which operates the Museums of Tolerance, is named in his honor. In 1981, the Center’s film, “Genocide,” won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. Wiesenthal died at age 96 in Vienna and was buried in Herzliya, Israel.

Tevet 13
This Day in Jewish History
Aish.com

This isn’t to minimize difficult experiences for the rest of us who didn’t have to endure the Holocaust, but it shows us that it’s possible to survive and even to achieve great things after suffering terribly. Others besides Simon Wiesenthal survived the camps and continued to have a life for decades afterward, but perhaps not all of the survivors told themselves the same “story” about what it all meant to them. It would be understandable to give up, to surrender to depression or rage after such an experience, and no one would fail to have compassion, but the story Simon Wiesenthal told himself lead to a different path.

light-has-dawnedCertainly, this can be the path to holiness and a closer relationship with God, but there must also be a story that leads to a better relationship with yourself. Ultimately, I believe that both paths and both goals yield the same result, but what happens when you are injured and even devastated. You find yourself sitting in a very dark place, feeling yourself sink lower, hovering at the edge of the endlessly deepening abyss. How do you find your path when everything you are, particularly your thoughts and feelings, lead downward into the waiting embrace of oblivion?

Where a lantern is placed, those who seek light gather around – for light attracts.

Likutei Sichot, Vol. 10, p. 294.
from “Today’s Day”
Monday, Tevet 13, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

Knowledge is like consuming the writings of the great sages, and it illuminates like a lantern or a small candle shining in the darkness. Wisdom is letting your thoughts and feelings not just experience the light, but absorb and become the light.

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.

-Basho, Matsuo

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)

Instead of sinking down and becoming the darkness, you can rise up with the sparks and become light, even if you continue to be surrounded by darkness.

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Looking Through a Dark Window

The Alter Rebbe explained in the previous chapter that the light of the Shechinah, an illumination utterly transcending the realm of the world, must have a “garment” which enables it to radiate there. The “garment” of the Shechinah is Torah.

…As explained earlier, for this reason the Torah is able to act as a “garment” that does not become nullified in the light of the Shechinah which garbs itself in it — since its source is higher than the Shechinah. However, in order for Torah to act as a concealing “garment” it must descend lower than the level of the Shechinah, thereby enabling the light of the Shechinah to be received by created beings.

However, as Torah descended into the Ten Commandments engraved on the Tablets, it did not do so in a manner that would make it similar to other physical things. Rather, as will soon be explained, it remained on a level which is higher than the previously mentioned upper Worlds.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, beginning of Chapter 53
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
Edited by Uri Kaploun
Chabad.org

OK, so you’re not into Kabbalah or other mystic experiences and the Tanya as a source of information is completely lost to you. Hang in there, you can still learn something from today’s “meditation.” What is Rabbi Zalman saying? Here’s another point of view.

Torah is the interface between the Infinite and creation. On the outside, it speaks the language of humankind. On the inside, its depth is without end.

Grasp either end and you have nothing. Grasp both and you have G-d Himself.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Interface”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I hope my quote from Rabbi Freeman’s interpretation of the Rebbe helped you because it did a lot for me. It’s saying what I’ve said before and what I’ve believed for quite some time. It’s saying that everything we use to try to connect to God is an interface and not a direct connection. Let me explain.

If you’re reading this, you’re using some sort of a computer. It could be a PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone, whatever. Most people relate to their computer they way they relate to their car. They don’t really know how it works, they just turn it on and expect it to work. But when you turn your computer on and use it, your aren’t really directly interacting with the computer hardware or software. You are using a graphical user interface (GUI) to execute commands that are passed on to the computer via the operating system. It’s more complicated than that, and you are actually working through several layers of abstraction every time you read an email, surf the web, create a document, or whatever other activities you perform to get things done on your device.

In the end, you get your work completed, but you haven’t really “touched” the raw “guts” of the computer. You’ve used an interface to work with the computer it make what you want to do happen on your terms. Using an interface means you don’t have to learn how to speak the computer’s “language.”

On various Christian blogs I sometimes see statements such as “let’s go directly to the Word rather than relying on human understanding” and “let the Holy Spirit interpret Scripture and not the knowledge of men.”

Huh?

How are you going to do that? Folks who say such things act as if they have direct and unfiltered access to the original, raw meaning and context of the Bible, as if they were standing right there while Matthew, John, Paul, and scores of others were putting pen to paper, listening to these men explain (in plain, 21st century English no less) what they were thinking and what they really meant as they created their books and letters.

We know we don’t have that kind of insight available to us. We realize that the Bible was written over a period of thousands of years by dozens of writers using variations of languages most of us don’t understand. We realize that the Bible was written within a foreign and ancient national, cultural, and ethnic context that is completely alien to us. And yet we behave as if all of that doesn’t matter.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking something like this:

…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. –1 Corinthians 2:11-13 (ESV)

You’re thinking that the Holy Spirit, which you possess if you have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior over your life, will automatically interpret what the Bible is saying to you as you are reading it.

Well, maybe you’re not thinking exactly those thoughts, but that’s as close as I can come to understanding what we Christians expect to happen when we read the Bible and attempt to comprehend its content. We seem to believe that whatever we come up with by way of an interpretation must be from the Holy Spirit just by virtue of the fact that we’re Christians.

But what if the Holy Spirit doesn’t act like an automatic pilot and just routinely guide us to the correct conclusions every time we pick up a Bible and read a few verses? What if other stuff gets in the way?

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. –1 John 4:1-3 (ESV)

Seems simple enough until you try to do it. If you come up with a particular interpretation of the Bible and you believe you arrived at your understanding through the Spirit, do you just call out, “Hey Spirit! Do you confess that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God?” The Spirit would have to say “yes” or “no” before you could determine the validity of your Bible interpretation. Does that happen to you very often?

How about this?

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. –Acts 17:10-11 (ESV)

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. –1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 (ESV)

Paul advocates for asking lots of questions. Don’t take anything at face value. Test even the spirits. Lots of false prophets are selling their wares out there, especially on the Internet.

But it also says to “not quench the Spirit” which I suppose means not to toss the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t be so skeptical that you close the door to spiritual learning and interpretation. Just don’t believe everything your hear or feel, either.

The Bible doesn’t put it into so many words, but I believe that one of the big factors inhibiting our understanding of the Word of God is our own emotional and intellectual wants, needs, and desires. Once we’ve made up our mind about something the Bible says, we believe that is that. The Spirit has spoken. This is how it is. But is what we believe about our interpretation the way it is as defined by God’s Spirit, or just the way we want things to be because it “feels right” to us?

I don’t have an absolute answer for you, but this is one of the great challenges and mysteries about understanding God and our purpose in life using supernatural means. We have to constantly pay attention to what we believe and why we believe it and not take anything for granted.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. –1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)

Even at his best, Paul says that we can only see “in a mirror dimly” but only later “face to face” the things of God. Once we become too sure about our own theology and our own doctrine and stop asking the tough questions we can’t always find answers to, we start having a problem. We start worshiping our own self-assured “image of God” as we’ve created Him in our hearts and minds, and not the unknowable, unfathomable, insurmountable, infinite, unique One God. We have to “grab” both ends of the Bible, so to speak; the spiritual end and the material end. We have to rely on the Spirit and we have to use our understanding and education. Even then, we aren’t absolutely sure of what we’re doing.

“It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.”

-H.L. Mencken, American journalist and essayist

The Bible, sermons, lessons, even prayer, are only interfaces; the “garments” God must put on to allow us to even dimly view His existence, as through a mirror darkly. Keep searching the darkness. Look for the light.

Notice! By the time you read this, I’ll have left home and be traveling to the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) 2012 Shavuot Conference in Hudson, WI. Part of what that means is I’ll have limited access to the Internet. I’ll still be posting “meditations” every morning except for Shabbat and Shavuot (Sunday) but I won’t be able to respond to comments and emails, at least not very effectively. I also probably won’t be able to post links to my meditations on Facebook, Google+ and twitter like I usually do. Please feel free to comment but realize I may be slow in getting back to you, which includes approving first-time comments. God be willing, I’ll be back home very late on Monday night. Thanks for your patience.

Light and the Lucid Crystal

Inner lightWhen a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.

The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it. What happens when a man loses himself completely in the Divine Life within him? This perfection is only for those who are called the saints – for those rather who are the saints and who live in the light of God alone. For the ones who are called saints by human opinion on earth may very well be devils, and their light may very well be darkness. For as far as the light of God is concerned, we are owls. It blinds us and as soon as it strikes us we are in darkness. People who look like saints to us are very often not so, and those who do not look like saints very often are.

-Thomas Merton
Part Two, Chapter One, “With a Great Price,” pg 186
The Seven Storey Mountain

This explains a lot. It explains how people who have no faith in God in any manner and no apparent external moral compass (at least from a religious person’s point of view) can still do good and great things for others and uphold noble causes. It also explains how some “religious people,” even though they seem to have faith in God and to uphold the teachings of His prophets and apostles, can harbor evil thoughts and feelings for others and say and do heinous things, all supposedly in the name of God.

Merton further illustrates that a person who is perfect in his or her nature because he or she was made in God’s image and who allows themselves to accept and reflect and refract the light of God as does a crystal, can be perfected beyond human standards and be elevated in a relationship with God and man. This is what it is to be holy.

I was struck with these passages in Merton’s book and remembering this was written when he was a young Trappist monk, I was astonished at how closely some of his ideas and images paralleled those of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, as I often quote them from the interpretation of Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. These quotes, of course, are an extension of Chasidic and even Kabbalistic thought and belief, which seems an even stranger comparison for me to make to the observations and reflections of a Catholic monk writing his autobiography in the 1940s.

I wonder if men from such different cultural and religious backgrounds aren’t on some level joined together by the light of God?

But if this unlikely and wonderful parallel between two men of such divergent faiths exists, how much more tragic that there are so many others in the religious and spiritual arena (and particularly in the blogosphere) who claim the title “saint” or “prophet” but who Merton would definitely classify as “devil?”

When it comes to accepting God’s own authority about things that cannot possibly be known in any other way except as revealed by His authority, people consider it insanity to incline their ears and listen. Things that cannot be known in any other way, they will not accept from this source. And yet they will meekly and passively accept the most appalling of lies from newspapers when they scarcely need to crane their necks to see the truth in front of them, over the top of the sheet they are holding in their hands.

For example, the very thought of an imprimatur on the front of a book – the approbation of a bishop, allowing the book to be printed on the grounds that it contains safe doctrine – is something that drives some people almost out of their minds with indignation.

-Merton, pg 187

I’m not a big fan of censorship and I’m probably one of those people who would be driven out of my mind with indignation if someone should hand me a book that was declared “safe” by the Catholic church. But in reading these sentences and the ones that followed, I began to draw a comparison to what Merton could not possibly have anticipated – the proliferation of information on the world wide web.

The Internet isn’t filtered and in my humble opinion, it never should be, but the danger in this is that anyone who can create a website or blog (and this includes everyone nowadays) will create a website or blog, and they’ll spew their opinions all over the Internet so that anyone with web access can find them and read them.

If you are reasonably well educated from other sources, (such as books and reliable teachers) you can probably make your way through the maze of good content and bad, but there are so many would-be “saints” in the world who unknowingly fall into the teachings of a “devil” out of sheer ignorance.

I was once teaching a class at a congregation and was confronted with a strange thought by one of the students. In the course of the conversation, she said the oddest thing. I believe we were talking about the Tetragrammaton; the most holy and unpronounceable name of God, which many people express as “YHWH,” and she said that the reason the Jewish people were exiled was that they refused to reveal the pronunciation of “the Name” to the world and thus, lost all knowledge of the pronunciation as an additional punishment.

What?

Yes, that sounds crazy to me, too.

I don’t remember all of the details and I probably wouldn’t publish them if I did, but apparently, there was some sort of “teacher” on the Internet who was spreading this kind of information. She gave me the URL to his site and I looked him up.

Oh my!

There were years and years and years worth of articles on his site (I really don’t remember his name) and it would have been impossible to go through all of his stuff. I searched for the information on the “Sacred Name” but didn’t find it. I looked through some random web articles and some of it was relatively sane and a lot of it wasn’t. The guy seemed like he was intelligent and even educated, but his conclusions were highly suspect.

With that memory fully recalled and in reading Merton’s book, I’m beginning to develop a new respect for the “imprimatur” concept. Not in terms of consuming data that is only acceptable to the Catholic church, but with the idea of separating the “wheat from the chafe” relative to sound versus unsound religious “research”. If I want to buy a book, I can always go to Amazon and read the reviews to get some sort of idea if the book is any good or not (although sometimes even that litmus test fails). For random craziness on the web, there often is not litmus test except keeping yourself educated with valid sources and knowing when something looks suspicious.

Even with that, some otherwise reliable and well-educated blog authors can become overly-enamored with their own self-importance, just because they get a lot of attention and some local notoriety. The curse of even marginally “famous” believers is that the temptation to forget that God is the focus can be really strong.

I occasionally get “spammed” by folks who tell me that they’ve got a direct line to the Holy Spirit of God who whispers in their ears and helps them not rely on their own intellectual prowess. That kind of makes it hard for me to say that God should be our final litmus test on information when any sort of supernatural revelation is, by its very nature, totally subjective. We can say that revelations of the Spirit should only be considered on the up and up if they jive with Scripture, but interpretation of Scripture is also extremely variable, depending on who you read, who you talk to, and who you believe. Seems like a vicious circle.

Ultimately, we each take some sort of stand and say that “this religion” or “this denomination” or “this sect” or “this viewpoint” is what we consider foundational, and we proceed from that point. None of us have it completely “right” but then perhaps none of us have it completely “wrong” either. In the intellectual “holy wars” on the web, regardless of our differing opinions, we can still rely on the words of the Master that are not ambiguous:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. –Mark 12:28-34 (ESV)

I am also reminded of the Prophet Micah:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8 (ESV)

And although not a prophet as we understand the term, Thomas Merton managed to crystallize something important:

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it.

If we open ourselves to Him, we are the breath of God. When we love others, then we are breathing, then we are alive.

Develop your awe of heaven and you will diminish your fear of human beings.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
to a Jewish activist in a dangerous Arab land
Chabad.org