On the southeastern coast of France, nestled between Monaco to the west and the Italian border to the east, is the beautiful little town of Menton. It's known as the Pearl of France, and for good reason. Situated on the Cote D'Azur, or the French Riviera as the British would come to call it, Menton is a magnificent blend of natural beauty, French culture and Italian architecture (like the rest of the Cote D'Azur, Menton belonged to Italy until 1860).

Now that we got a taste of the Riviera, let's go back over a century to the early 1900's, and slide over 1500 miles east of Menton, deep into what was then the Russian empire, ruled by Czar Nicolas II. There you would find the town of Lubavitch, seat of the Chabad Chassidic movement, which was then under the leadership of Rabbi Sholom Dovber, known as the 'Rebbe Rashab' (the Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Sholom Ber).

While the magic of the Riviera might be easier to put into words, the magic of Lubavitch was no less wondrous, only perhaps harder to describe. Let's give it a few paragraphs nonetheless. 

Upon entering Lubavitch, you would encounter a bustling Russian town, surrounded by lush forests and rivers. It had a substantial Jewish and non Jewish population, and a large town square which on market days hosted vast, open air markets.

In the middle of the town you would find the beating heart of the Jewish community, known as the 'Courtyard'. Upon entering the wooden gate of the courtyard, you would see several wooden structures, and one larger one off to the side. You'd walk in, and encounter several individuals, quietly sitting on benches in different corners of the large synagogue. You can't see their faces, for they're entirely covered by their 'Taleisim', or prayer shawls. It all seems a bit otherworldly and strange. You want to walk right out and perhaps find something more interesting at the market down the road. But something pulls you to stay.

You stay, and just listen. You listen to these people, who are praying in a way you've never heard. They say each word with feeling, sincerity and warmth. One of them starts to quietly sing a wordless tune, and it touches your soul in a way you never knew possible. A gentle, inexplicable light starts to fill you, and you sit there, transfixed.

It's Friday, and you decide to stay for Shabbat. That evening, Friday night, hundreds pack the wooden synagogue at dusk. The sun is setting, you can see the orange sky in the windows, and everyone starts singing more of those beautiful, wordless tunes, one after the other. You look at their faces, they seem very down to earth, yet they're swept away by the overwhelming feeling that fills the room. Suddenly the room becomes completely quiet, a door opens and the Rebbe Rashab walks in. Whatever you may have heard people say of these Chassidim, you know something real when you see it.

He sits at the front of the table and starts to say words of Torah in a gentle sing song. You may not understand the Yiddish he speaks, but your soul drinks it in. In the deepest part of your heart, the part which you hold close and hardly share with anyone, a warm light starts to shine. You feel happy - but not the loud, party type. This is quiet, almost child-like, sincere happiness.

By the time Shabbat is over, you don't want to ever leave this place. The raging outside world seems almost nonexistent. This was the world of Lubavitch, light years away from the Riviera.

But it doesn't end here. In 1912 the Rebbe Rashab, whom we just encountered back in Russia, travels to... Menton! Far from being a secret trip, everyone knows about it, and some of his followers even come along all the way from Russia. After staying near the turquoise waters and beautiful architecture for a few weeks, the Rebbe heads back across Europe to Lubavitch.

The Rebbe says that the spiritual inspiration he found in Menton was so special, that it inspired him to revamp his entire way of teaching Torah. For the next few years, the Rebbe's teachings are all based on the inspiration he found on the Riviera. Much of Chabad Chassidic philosophy, especially the later establishment of Chabad centers across the globe, is proudly based off the inspiration of that trip to Menton.

Which brings us to one of the greatest misunderstandings of Judaism. Sometimes people are a bit scared of Judaism because they want to be free to be themselves, to enjoy life. Here's where the big 'Menton' lesson comes in. Judaism doesn't replace enjoying life, it just enables us to do so.

As an aside, it also crystallizes one's understanding of the forces of evil in our world. When we're in a good place on the inside, our world starts to feel like a beautiful garden, and the evil forces in the world - whether in the Middle East, the Hague or Harvard - start to seem like anomalies of darkness, which should not be taken seriously as legitimate entities. They can and must be fought with light and broken. 

Back to the (infinitely more powerful) positive, the difference between experiencing the gift of our world on its own, vs. experiencing the gift of our world with a heart and mind filled with the light and warmth of Judaism is so different, that it's almost like two different worlds.

Far from shunning the beauty of nature, the thrill of travel or love, or the pulse and dynamics of human society, Judaism acts like a candle and guide, enabling us to enjoy G‑d's world, just as He intended for us to do.

So while Menton sat across a continent from the spiritual oasis of Lubavitch, they really were not so far at all.

Rabbi Avrohom