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Saturday, April 04, 2020

Shabbos Hagadol 5780 - A Very Narrow Bridge


It is documented that for at least nine hundred years it has been the custom of Jews to congregate in shul on the afternoon of the Shabbos before Pesach to hear the Rabbi speak.

But that is not why this Shabbos is called Shabbos Hagadol – The Great Shabbos. The Shulchan Aruch writes that this Shabbos is called Shabbos Hagadol because of the miracle that happened on it. Shabbos was four days before Pesach on the tenth of Nissan. On that day each Jewish family brought home a sheep and tied it to their bedpost. The miracle was that we had the confidence to do this and the miracle was that the Egyptians didn’t stop us. They worshiped sheep and they hated us, but somehow we managed to each go outside and choose our sheep for the Seder.

The truth is that any time you brought a sheep as a sacrifice, the sheep had to be procured a few days in advance. It had to observed and examined to make sure that it was healthy and kosher to bring as a gift to G-d. But the Pesach sheep was more stringent in an interesting way.

If I decided to bring a sheep as a sin offering or peace offering, I could go to the market and buy a few sheep. I could watch them and examine them for a few days and then – on the day of the sacrifice – I could choose one to use as my Korban. For Pesach, we are given no leeway. Four days before the Pesach Seder we had to know specifically with whom we would be eating the Seder and specifically which sheep we would be eating.

A lot of decisions were made on Shabbos Hagadol because whatever Seder plans we made were locked in and unchangeable.

I’d like to discuss why the Torah insisted on us becoming so decisive particularly about pesach, but first I’d like to discuss the Corona virus for a moment.


I am not wearing rose colored glasses. I can’t give a shiur on how great it is that we are all quarantined because people are lonely, people are suffering, and people are sick.

I can tell you that this has happened before. We have Responsa that address it. It happened during wars, during plagues, and during other dangerous times in our history. When it was anti-semites trying to close down our shuls and yeshivos, we’ve always fought to our last breath. But in a case where we ourselves shut down our shuls and yeshivos, we are simply following halacha in a very difficult way.

The Torah refers to Matza as “Ugos Matzos” – Cakes of Matza. The word Ugos is actually an acronym for Torah, Avoda, and Gemilus Chasadim. Torah, prayer, and kindness. These three items have always been the pillars of our existence as a people. Avraham embodied Kindness, opening his tent in the desert to anyone who wanted food or drink. Yitzchak embodied prayer, all the stories we know about him involve sacrifices, blessings, and prayer. And Yaacov was a dweller of tents – he embodied the study of Torah.

When it came time for the Jewish people to re-establish themselves in the land of Israel with the rebuilding of the Second Temple, there was a group of scholars and prophets known as the Anshei Knesses HaGedola.

Shimon Hatzadik was the last surviving member of this group and he reminded us of these three pillars, Torah, Avoda, and Gemilas Chasadim.

When Nechemia was given permission to rebuild to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem he brought a group of people to Jerusalem to reestablish a Jewish presence. The leader of Jewry at the time – Ezra Hasofer – was noticeably missing. This is very strange. He was the head of the Anshei Keneses Hagedola and he should have been the first to return to Zion. If he had, he would have been the ideal Kohein Gadol – the High Priest in the newly established Temple.

But Ezra stayed in Iraq because his teacher Baruch ben Neriah was too old to travel. Ezra understood that while Nechemiah went to Jerusalem to work on the Pillar of Prayer in rebuilding the Temple, he had to stay behind to work on the Pillar of Torah which would be equally as important. And when Ezra finally did join Nechemia in Israel, their first message to the people was one of Gemilus Chasadim, of kindness.

On that first Rosh Hashana back in Israel they encouraged everyone to give Mishloach Manos – gifts to one another. At that time, they also ordained that the Torah should be read together as a community three times a week. Synagogues and communities as we know them were formed. Because Ezra understood that by coming together to pray, to study Torah, and to help one another the Jewish people would survive.

That’s why these past few weeks have been so difficult. We are a socially connected people and we were designed that way. It’s been our survival through the ages, and it will be our key to survival once all this is over.

So where does that leave us right now?

First, I want to mention an idea attributed to Rav Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk who lived in Teveria during an outbreak of disease about two hundred years ago. They too were limited in their ability to gather together or even leave their homes in service of Hashem. His message was to quote the verse “I am Hashem who dwells among them – even in their impurity”. In other words, he didn’t try to idealize the situation. Instead, he chose to use it as an opportunity to remember that Hashem is with us in every situation – ideal or not.

My second point is to let you know how proud I am of the Jewish people and our community. Three thousand years of incubation in our shuls and yeshivos has worked. We know that, because when we all retreat to our homes, it is with the Torah, the Prayer, and the kindness that we have cultivated and made a part of our DNA. We haven’t stopped learning, we haven’t stopped davening, and – incredibly – we haven’t stopped thinking about and assisting each other. It’s not just because of Zoom and Whatsapp. It’s because we truly care.


But let’s talk about the challenges of quarantine. Many of us are exercising muscles that we didn’t know we had. They are muscles of patience, of kindness, of faith, and of perseverance. We are imbuing the walls of ours houses with unprecedented volumes of prayer and Torah study.

We are all growing, but at the same time we are limited. So many of our avenues of connection to Hashem are closed. I did not choose the Rabbinate as a career so that I could daven by my bookshelf at home and talk to a tape recorder twice a day. Since the day I moved to Norfolk, one of my priorities has been to make sure that the shul never missed a day with Shacharis, Mincha and Maariv. I thought that was a big part of my role in life, but - at least for the next few weeks – it isn’t.

I’ve been thinking about Rav Nachman of Breslov a lot. He writes some famous words in Likutei Moharan that are worth reading in their source:

?????, ??????? ???????????? ???????????????, ????????? ?????? ?????????? ?????? ?????? ?????? ????? ??? ????????????? ???????????? ???????????, ??????? ????????????? ??????????????? ???????????????? ???????? ???????????? ?????? ?????????, ?????????? ???????????, ??? ?????????, ?????? ?????? ????? ?????, ??? ?????????.

“You should know”, he writes, “that every move and every change that we make in our lives is preserved and collected and put into a special place. And when, Chas Veshalom, we are in a tight spot or under duress all of those actions and all of that work that we’ve done comes back to us to guide us and give us strength.”

?????, ?????????? ??????? ??????? ??? ??????? ??? ????? ?????, ?????????? ?????????? – ??????? ?????????? ??????:

“And you should further know” – he continues – “that a person needs to cross a very very narrow bridge. But the main thing, is not to be afraid.”

Many of us know the song, but let’s think about this seriously. We aren’t talking about a ‘bridge over troubled water’ that gives us a feeling of confidence and safety. We are talking about a bridge in Breslov in the Ukraine.

The ones we wouldn’t walk over if you gave us $1000. The ones that are so shaky and rickety that you need to balance on a beam while holding onto a rope and hope that either the beam or the rope stays intact long enough for you get across. It’s a very, very, narrow bridge.

And that’s where we are right now. We were all on paths to our future, our careers, our personal development and our relationship with Hashem, and suddenly that path got very narrow. The way we looked at Prayer, at Torah, and at helping others, isn’t really working. But it isn’t gone either. Our Torah opportunities became narrower, our outlets for prayer are more limited and our opportunities for kindness aren’t what they used to be.

Our job now is to use everything that we’ve worked on our entire lives to find the narrow path we’ve been given and to put one foot in front of the other and make it across.


Maybe that’s what our grandparents had to do in Egypt. On the one hand, we were going free. We were given those “Ugos Matzos” - the Torah, Prayer, and kindness that would help us survive for millennia. On the other hand, we were given a very narrow path. Pick the sheep you are going to use and that’s the only one you’ll have. Pick the people you are going to have the Seder with and don’t add anybody else, and when the night of that very first Seder came, we were told to choose a house and enter it and not leave until the plague was over and it was our turn to move on to better and more varied experiences.

We need to find our very narrow bridge this Pesach and embrace it, value it, and walk across it with confidence.

In this merit we will all emerge healthy and stronger to once again come together as a community devoted to Torah, Prayer, and caring for one another. If not here in Norfolk, then together in Jerusalem where the lamb we eat will be a lamb that was slaughtered in the courtyard of the Temple and roasted in our new homes in a world that is full of health, and holiness, and knowledge of Hashem.
Before closing, I’d like to address a few practical considerations for this Pesach:

Selling Chametz: With Hashem’s help, I will be selling Chametz this year and have a backup plan if one of the involved parties is unable to participate. You can appoint me as an agent in selling your Chametz by emailing or faxing the form or by dropping it off in my mailbox or at shul before Monday. I strongly encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity to sell Chametz. Rooms and closets that are sold do not need to be checked, saving a lot of energy in these stressful times. Products can be sold so that they will be immediately available after Pesach with out needing to rush to the store. Please don’t hesitate to call with any questions.

Burning Chametz: We will not be having a communal Chametz burning this year. I recommend you sell most of your Chametz and put the remainder in the garbage, which I will sell for you as well. Keep the ten pieces from
Bedikas Chametz and burn them in your home. If this isn’t practical, you can destroy the ten pieces of chametz by bringing them to your restroom and flushing them away.

Eggs and Milk: Many people have a custom to buy all of their eggs before Pesach. The truth is that the reasons for this custom no longer applies and therefore – particularly this year – it is ok to buy eggs on Chol Hamoed. Milk is a bit more of an issue. Halachically, milk does need to be bottled before Pesach and it is worthwhile to return to the store several times so that you can stay within the posted limits but also have enough milk. According to my research, milk from Pet Dairy is generally processed several days before it hits the stores so you can buy Pet Dairy milk on the Sunday of Chol Hamoed. Milk does not need special Kosher for Pesach supervision.

Siyum: If you are a first-born and required to fast, you can break your fast by making a siyum on a volume of Talmud or Tanach. Since not everyone can make a siyum and it is not responsible to attend one, I recommend – for this year only – that you attend a siyum by phone. I will be making a siyum at 8:30 am Wednesday morning on Zoom. If you are a first-born and would like to call in or are looking for a later siyum, please be in touch.

Tevilas Keilim: Our Mikvah is currently closed to dishes. If you have new metal or glassware that needs to be dipped in the Mikva, I recommend using either the ocean or a lake, like the lake at Mt. Trashmore. Another option is to have me sell the dishes when I sell your Chametz. That will allow you to borrow the dishes from the non-Jewish purchaser and use them over Pesach.

Prayers: On Shabbos, we have been reading the Parsha from a Chumash at home in lieu of the Torah Reading at shul. This is not necessary over Yom Tov, although it is certainly a nice thing to do.

Hallel: The custom of the shul is to say Hallel at Maariv on the first night of Pesach. This custom does not apply when davening at home. All other Hallels should be recited.

Yizkor: In a situation like this year, Yizkor can and should be said at home by anyone who would have said it in shul.

Guests: The most difficult part of the Seder this year will be when we raise our broken Matzah and invite everyone who is hungry or lonely to join us. Many of us will be saying this while feeling intense loneliness; those who aren’t lonely will have broken hearts thinking of those we uninvited or turned away. Let’s make a goal of lifting up that Matzah knowing that in the days leading up to Pesach we have taken a moment to lift up the phone to call at least one person who will be on their own.

The very word Mitzrayim means narrow and we are living in very narrow times. Our options are limited and our choices are few. But we left Egypt because we care about one another and with that merit we will once again join together with strength and health and happiness.

Please, have a beautiful Yom Tov and do your best to enjoy all the gifts that Hashem has given us.

Be well.


Posted on 04/04 at 02:34 AM • Permalink
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Monday, April 15, 2019

The Wicked Son’s Problem

The wicked son wants to know “What is this work to you?”, because he removed himself from the Klal - the Jewish people - he has denied the main thing. We blunt his teeth and tell him “Hashem did this for me when I left Egypt”. If he were there he would not have been redeemed.

I’d like to try to understand the attitude of the Wicked son and our response.

The Torah tells us that when the final plague struck, it struck even the Egyptian slaves. Why? They were slaves and had no part in setting the policies of Egypt, enslaving the Jews or benefiting from their work. They just sat by millstones all day and milled. Why were they punished?

Rashi explains that it was because they heard about the enslavement of the Jews and they were happy with their misfortune.

This is odd. Pharaoh lived and many Egyptians survived, but these slaves did not because they were happy. They didn’t’ do anything wrong. They couldn’t. But they were happy.

The Maharal explains that the one thing that these slaves had in their control was their happiness. They heard the story of another people who were enslaved just like they were, and they sided with the oppressors. This was true evil, and for this they were punished.

On a more positive note, we know that Hashem rewards us for good things far more than he punishes for bad. If there is a punishment for being happy with someone’s misfortune, imagine the reward for being happy with someone’s happiness or sad in their mourning.

This is something we lose sometimes. Reb Simcha Zisel Broide was known to say that our generation has trouble being happy for others.

Many years ago my father was asked by a woman to help her nullify a vow. She had been in Auschwitz and almost starved to death. She vowed that when she left she would never throw out a crumb. Every crumb was a diamond. And she stuck to it. But now she was older and her grandchildren were leaving crumbs around the house. She couldn’t possibly save every crumb.
She continued to explain that she had a ‘pesach’ - a way out of the vow. The vow had been made under false pretenses, because when she was in Auschwitz she never dreamed that she would one be an old lady with grandchildren running around the house.

We live in amazing times. It used to be a celebration when one boy would go away to yeshiva and come back eager to sit in shul and learn and teach. Every new baby was a big deal and every wedding was huge. But we get used to it.

We need to remind ourselves that we are no less happy just because we are used to something. This is still a great moment for the community, for the parents, for the bride and for the groom. I always tell the undertakers at H.D. Oliver that I hope to meet them at happier occasions, but of course we won’t. They spend every day at a funeral. That shouldn’t make it any less sad and tragic.

This is part of the Mitzvah of V’ahavta L’reiacha Kamocha. We need to be happy and sad with others as if we ourselves are experiencing their joy or sorrow. In fact, we should be experiencing their joy and sorrow along with them.

The Baal Shem Tov famously stated that when someone sees something bad in their friend, this is a sign that he has a similar fault within himself. It is like looking in a mirror.

The Netziv once pointed out that this isn’t just a chassidic idea, it is a Tosefta in Shavuos. He quotes in the Hamek Davar on Parshas Vayikra (CH. 5) ‘ V’nefesh Ki secheta V’shama Kol Alah v’hu eid oh ra’ah oh yada”. The Tosefta observes: “Ein Adam Mischayeiv aleh im kein chata”. A person doesn’t become a witness to a sin unless he has a bit of that sin in him.

This was the problem with the Egyptian slaves. They saw the Egyptian slave masters and they agreed with them, they related to them. Our job is to be able to understand that everything that we see has a piece of us in it.

The great Kabbalist, Rav Moshe Cordevaro writes in his Tomer Devorah:
“All Jews are related one to the other, for their souls are united and in each soul there is a portion of all the others. ... When one Jew sins, he or she wrongs not only his or her own soul but the portion which all the others possess in him. ...And since all Jews are related to each other it is only right that a man desire his neighbor’s well-being, that he eye benevolently the good fortune of his neighbor and that his neighbor’s honor be as dear to him as his own; for he and his neighbor are one. This is why we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourself. It is proper that a man desire the well-being of his neighbor and that he speak no evil of him nor desire that evil befall him. Just as the Holy One, Blessed is He, desires neither our disgrace nor our suffering because we are His relatives [and carry a piece of G-dliness in our souls], so too, a man should not desire to witness evil befalling his neighbor nor see his neighbor suffer or disgraced. And these things should cause him the same pain as if he were the victim. The same applies to his neighbor’s good fortune.”

Unity is the recognition that all of our souls are connected and that if we look far enough you will see that we are actually all one big soul. Our physical beings act in ways that are annoying, wrong, and even bad at times. But the recognition needs to remain that deep inside - where it counts most - we are one.


Once we understand this idea laterally, we need to understand it historically as well. We are connected not only to the people around us, but to the people before us. Our collective souls were freed from Egypt. If our neighbor is happy then we are happy and if our great-great-grandmother was freed from slavery, then we were freed from slavery.

This is the MItzvah of Pesach. We need to hear about the miracles that happened to our forefathers and see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt. We are all part of one nation, both historically and currently. If we can hook into that Simcha, we can be a part of all of the Mitzvos and the miracles of the night. We are a great nation we are all in this together

The wicked son wants to know “What is this work to you”, and because he removed himself from the Klal he has denied the main thing. He doesn’t see himself as connected at all to the Jewish Nation with its joys, it’s sorrows, and it’s obligations. In separating himself he denies everything.  We blunt this teeth and tell him “ Hashem did this for me when I left Egypt. If he were there he would not have been redeemed.

The idea of blunting teeth is found as a curse in the book of Yirmiyahu (30:29). “?? ???? ???? ???? ?????? ?????” - The one who eat unripe grapes with have weakened teeth.

I found a similar language in the fourth chapter of Negaim. The Sages said that a certain type of Tzaraas would be impure, but “Rav Yuhoshua Keha”  - Rav Yehoshua was blunted. Obviously, Rav Yehoshua was not a Rasha. Why was he blunted? The Rambam explains that Rav Yehoshua was unclear of his position. The Chachamim said that the Nega was impure and he was unsure.

Our goal here is to weaken the position of the Rasha. We say, maybe you are right - this is all work to you and it is meaningless - but then you are on your own. If you can look at the happiness of a our nation and not include yourself, you are just hurting yourself.

In this case he was Kofer B’ikar - he denied a basic tenet of Judaism. That is a scary thought. Part of keeping the Torah is being a part of the Klal.

This brings us to my final point, and that is the MItzvah we have at the seder to teach our children.

Last week, I had an opportunity to spend time with Rav Yiizchak Ezrachi and he shared the following concept.

There is a special bracha to be made when passing a spot where a miracle happened to a person or to his forefathers. The Betzel Hachochma is of the opinion that this bracha should be said by holocaust survivors and their children when visiting concentration camps, but it can be said for any sort of miracle.

Very few people get to make this blessing, but on Pesach we all invoke Hashem’s name and thank Him for Redeeming us and our forefathers from Egypt.

The only reason we are allowed to praise Hashem in first person is because we are a part of the salvation that we received as a nation. Our connection the the miracle works because we tell this story every year - father to son. We inherit the miracle and the joy that comes with it. Every time a father tells his son the story he is joining that group of people who were redeemed and by extension the son is as well.

Rav Ezrachi told a story of a boy who was invited to his Rosh Yeshiva for the Seder. SInce he knew that he was more knowledgeable than his father and less knowledgeable than his Rosh Yeshiva, so he figured he would gain more from the Rosh Yeshiva.

Rav Ezrachi disagreed: If the father has an obligation to include his son in the story, it is guaranteed that Hashem will give him the tools needed to tell the story. It doesn’t matter if the father is otherwise ignorant or less versed in Torah than his son. This is the ongoing formation of the Jewish people and there is a guarantee from heaven that the father will be able to teach his son and inspire him to be a part of the Klal who is celebrating tonight.

In Sefer Shoftim we find that Gido’n was visited by an angel and became the leader of the Jewish people after his seder with his father. His father was a documented ignoramus, but he was able to get the message across. The next day, an inspired Gid’on saw an angel, became a prophet and went on to lead the Jewish people.


The Chortkover Rebbi was once about to make Kiddush when he saw someone desecrating Shabbos. He couldn’t make Kiddush, until he realized that his was exactly what he was missing - Kiddush.

This is the opportunity of Pesach. We are given the opportunity to be the catalyst for Kaddesh - to bring holiness and a connection to ourselves and everyone around us.

Let’s go into Pesach by realizing that we are part of a greater nation. That applies to the generations before us and to the people around us. And we aren’t just part, we are one. Everything that we see should speak to our essence. Their happiness should make us happy and their sadness should make us sad. When they succeed we can have nachas and when they fail we can wonder how we can improve.

If we can’t do that, we are moving into Rasha territory. But if we can do it, we are given Siyata Dishmaya in which every parent has the ability to not only feel the happiness of being included but also to have the tools to include the next generation.



Posted on 04/15 at 12:04 AM • Permalink
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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Two Calves – Ki Sisa

I’ve been thinking about the second set of Luchos. Why were they necessary? We don’t have them today and they don’t seem that integral to the Jewish people. As a matter of fact, the idea of a symbol that we can gather around and pray toward seems almost wrong in the light of the incident with the Golden Calf.

The Haftorah tells us the story of the faceoff between Eliyahu Hanavi and the Prophets of the Baal. Two calves were chosen for slaughter and one of them was very upset. He ran to Eliyahu because he did not want to be the idolatrous offering. Eliyahu said: Go ahead. Your job is also important. You are showing the world that the Prophets of the Baal can’t bring a fire down to consume you.

Rashi writes that the Altar used by Eliyahu was the same one used by Shaul when he brought inllicit sacrifices from the shhep of Amalek who should have been killed. Shaul lost the Kingship for this action.

There is such a fine line between good and bad, evil and righteousness.

It’s not even a line. It is the difference between making ourselves in G-d’s image or making G-d in our image.

There is also another form of idolatry. KI Bamah Nechsav hu.

We are built in the image of Hashem. When Hillel bathed he would declare that he is respecting G-d because we are made in his image. We are supposed to take initiative and throw our originality and desires into things, but it is irresponsible not to keep in mind where we came from and who we are.

The golden calf took place when the Jewish people gave up on their spiritual journey and instead embraced the idolatry of everyone else.

When we repented from Idolatry we were given the Luchos and the Mishkan built around it. We were no longer creating a G-d for ourselves; we were using the word of Hashem as the basis for our image, our sanctuary, and our growth.

Posted on 02/20 at 07:53 AM • Permalink
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Friday, September 28, 2018

Hoshanos on Shabbos

On Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos, we say a special Hoshana from Rabbi Menachem ben Machir who lived about 1000 years ago. He is also the author of some of the Kinos and the ‘Reshus’ for the Chassan Torah on Simchas Torah. In the first couplet of the Hoshana we ask Hashem to forgive us and save us on Shabbos just as he saved Adam, the first man, on Shabbos. In the second couplet we ask Hashem to save us just as He saved the Jewish people in Mitzrayim by allowing us to rest on Shabbos.

The Medrash Shocher Tov (92:1) notes that when Adam ate from the Tree of knowledge he should have died. After all, Hashem had said: “on the day that you eat from the tree you will die”. Adam ate from the tree on Friday afternoon and Shabbos began before the death sentence had been carried out. The day of Shabbos stood before Hashem and complained that if Adam were to die, Shabbos would always be remembered as the day on which death came to the world. Hashem agreed and mankind was allowed to survive.

The very word Shabbos shares the root of Teshuva (repentance). Shabbos is a day on which we return to Hashem. The teshuva of Shabbos is specifically not through confessions and regrets, but rather by stopping for a moment to allow ourselves to rest. We use Shabbos to remind ourselves who we are and why we’ve been rushing all week.

One might say that Shabbos is our weekly reminder of where we are really holding. On Yom Kippur, we celebrate Shabbos Shabbason and we observe each Shabbos in an attempt to strip away the many distractions in our life and spend the day with Hashem.

A little bit later in human history Adam encountered his son Kayin who had committed the world’s first murder. When Kayin told Adam that his repentance had been accepted, Adam sang ‘Mizmor Shir L’yom Hashabbos”.

The Nesivos Shalom explains that when Kayin was given the curse of roaming the earth he complained to Hashem. How could he possibly survive the curse of ‘na v’nad tihyeh B’aretz’, that he would be homeless and wandering? How could he survive without being grounded somewhere and connected to something? In response, Hashem gave kayin an ‘os’, a sign. We usually understand the sign to be some sort of physical mark, but the Nesivos Shalom writes that the sign was Shabbos. By coming back to his roots and remaining grounded and focused every Shabbos, kayin was able to survive (see Bereishis Rabbah 22:13).
The same thing happened in Egypt.  The Jewish people were losing it, we had no sense of identity and no sense of focus, but Moshe saved us by convincing Pharaoh to let them rest every seventh day. (Shemos Rabba 1:28)

I was recently talking with someone who was helping me out. I commented on how gracious he was being. The young man told me in all seriousness that he had an ulterior motive. “I try to get as many mitzvos as possible in right after Yom Kippur”, he said, “Because in my experience I won’t be doing too many good things by the time the year is over”. That is an honest, but unfortunate arrangement to have with G-d.

Imagine a Rowboat that is tied to a pier. You can row and row all day with all of your strength, but the rowboat will only go as far as the rope will allow it. We are the same way with Yom Kippur, how much can we accomplish if all of our best moments are on Yom Kippur? How long can Yom Kippur last? How far can we really grow before the holiness of Yom Kippur wears off?

This is where Shabbos comes in. By revisiting ourselves and who we have discovered ourselves to be each and every week, we can untie that rope and allow the spiritual high of Yom Kippur to stay with us and allow us to grow long after Yom Kippur is over.

Posted on 09/28 at 08:22 PM • Permalink
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Friday, August 17, 2018

The Decapitated Calf

The Torah tells us (21-1) about a dead man who was found outside the city. The elders of the city and the kohanim need to go out to a valley and slaughter a calf and promise that they didn’t kill the man.

It seems a little bit unfair. Obviously, the village elders didn’t kill him. But the Sifri explains that the elders are saying that they saw to it that he left town with enough bread and water to keep him alive.’ And even so, they still need to beg for forgiveness.

But is that the elder’s responsibility for not giving him food? And why do they need to ask forgiveness when they did give food? Rav Yaacov Naiman, based on the Alter of Kelm explains that the issue here is emotional. By giving someone food, we are making sure that they feel important. That would have caused him to be more careful to avoid the type of danger that got them killed.

This isn’t about games. It isn’t about telling someone that he or she is important. This is about actually thinking that someone is important. And that is the responsibility of the elders. If they had respected every person to the point where all guests were naturally escorted out and cared for, then none of this tragedy would have happened.

Rav Leib Chasman makes a frightening point. The entire mitzvah here is only when we don’t know who the murdered is. If we do know, we don’t need to remind ourselves to care about people.

Shouldn’t it be the opposite?! One of us is a murderer. That should give us pause.

Rav Chasman writes that is exactly the point. Of course if one of us murdered, G-d forbid, we would all be rethinking our educational system and our way of life. We would all be making changes. But when there are no names attached – a stranger died, nobody knows who did it. It is so easy to shrug things off. That is where we need to go out of the city and conduct a whole ceremony to remind ourselves that this is our problem.

That is what we all need to do right now. Find something that totally isn’t our problem, and feel bad about it. Don’t make a person feel important. Teach yourself that the person truly is important.

Posted on 08/17 at 08:19 PM • Permalink
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Friday, June 30, 2017

Stay the Course

The Jewish people complained to Moshe that they had no water and Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu to speak to a rock. Moshe, we are told, did not do exactly as he was commanded, rather than speaking to the rock he hit the rock.

Why didn’t Moshe speak to the rock as commanded? After all, Hashem had said ‘vedibartem el haselah” “speak to the rock”?

Rashi explains that Moshe did try speaking to the rock. He spoke to the rock in front of all of those complaining Israelites – but nothing happened. Moshe had to reconsider. This was an awful moment. The Jews were complaining and threatening to go back to Mitzrayim. He was trying to convince them otherwise, and it wasn’t working.

Moshe decided that when Hashem said to speak to the rock he had meant to speak with it in rock language. After all, you can’t have an effect on a rock by speaking to it. He took his staff – which Hashem had told him to bring – and hit the nearest rock. Sure enough, water came out.

Imagine that you are trying to get soda out of a soda machine. You put in your money but nothing comes out. You might start by calling the number on the machine and davening softly, but eventually you will just give in and kick the machine. We all do it.

Rav Elimelech Resnick of the Mir Yeshiva explains that Moshe Rabbeinu should never have given in. Hashem said, “I am punishing you because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me”. Moshe should have stuck with the word of G-d.

Someone once came to Rav Elyashiv and quoted the Gemara that says that a person who has bad middos can’t learn Torah properly. He explained that he knew a Torah scholar with bad Middos and suggested an alternate explanation of the Gemara.

Rav Elyashiv said: You may have the wrong understanding of a Torah scholar or the wrong understanding of Middos, but the Gemara is right. You can’ just find an alternate explanation because the one you know of doesn’t seem to be working. You need to have a little more Emunah, a little more faith.

I was once in the kosher section of Farm Fresh. There was a woman walking up and down the aisles was clearly not Jewish and not a regular Kosher eater. I didn’t know if she was looking for Gefilte Fish or Kishke or just the proper way to spell Keneidel. When she became aware of the rabbi in her midst she approached me for help.

She was looking for hamentachen. There were none in Farm Fresh, but I helpfully suggested that she make some on her own. I told her to use an upside down glass to cut the dough into circles and to put jelly in the middle of each circle. She looked at me like I was crazy. “No”, she said, “they are supposed to be fruit filled triangles; not jelly filled circles”. I tried to explain, but she walked away.

I tried to think about why it bothered me so much that this woman was going to make her hamentachen wrong. She was making them for a church group in the middle of June. Why was I being so frum about them?

I realized that it was probably because I felt like I had the true tradition in Hamentachen. The process and methodology that I shared with her came from my mother and presumably my grandmother and great-grandmother. We’ve been making hamentachen for thousands of years and will not take kindly to some woman in Farm Fresh reinventing the wheel (or the triangle).

Hamentachen are not very important, but so much of our tradition is. We have mitzvos and words of wisdom that have come from hashed, changed the world and withstood the test of time. Sometimes we get discouraged and frustrated, even embarrassed. We need to think of Moshe talking to the rock with all of the Jewish people grumbling. Nothing was happening but he should have stayed the course and continued talking.

We need to remember not to lose faith and to remain strong in following the ways of Hashem. We also need to thank Hashem for making it work and helping us out even when we falter.

Good Shabbos.

Posted on 06/30 at 06:38 PM • Permalink
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Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Bond of All Mothers (Shir Hashirim)

In Shir Hashirim, the girls of Jerusalem are encouraged to go out and see the crown that King Shlomo’s mother made for him on the day of his wedding.

According to the Medrash, King Shlomo’s mother never made him a crown. This crown is a reference to the Mishkan which we – the Jewish people - created for Hashem.

During the time of the Roman empire, the Caesar once decreed that it was illegal to keep Shabbos, to marry, or to circumcise. Rav Shimon bar Yochai and Rav Elazar ben Rav Yosi travelled Rome to meet with the Caesar. When they arrived, the Caesar’s daughter had gone insane and the Caesar had already sent for Rav Shimon Bar Yochai to come and cure her. Sure enough Rav Shimon Bar Yochai whispered something into the princess’s ear and she was cured of her illness. Out of gratitude, the Caesar allowed Rav Shimon Bar Yochai into the royal archives where he promptly located the anti-Semitic edicts and ripped them up.

The Talmud tells us that originally Rav Yosi did not want to allow his son Rav Elazar to accompany Rav Shimon Bar Yochai on the trip. He said, ‘you wouldn’t dare ask my father to allow me on the trip’, to which Rav Shimon Bar Yochai responded that nobody would have dared to ask his father – Yochai – either. In the end Rav Shimon bar Yochai promised Rav Yosi that his son would not be harmed. At one point on the trip Rav Elazar acted disrespectfully but Rav Shimon bar Yochai could not punish him because of his promise

The Medrash on Shir Hashirim writes that Rav Shimon bar Yochai asked Rav Elazar if perhaps his father had an explanation of the ‘crown that King Shlomo’s mother made for him’. Rav Elazar explained that the word ‘Umah’ or nation, can also be read as ‘Ima’ – mother. We refer to our relationship with Hashem as that of a daughter or a sister, but our relationship with Hashem can also be like that of a mother. This was manifested in the Mishkan where Hashem allowed us to create a dwelling place for Him and make requests of Him. This was the ‘crown’ that we made for G-d.

Rav Shimon bar Yochai kissed Rav Elazar and said, ‘it was worthwhile to be here in Rome just to hear that explanation of the verse.

It seems to me that Rav Shimon bar Yochai was very disturbed by the Caesar’s willingness to tear up a decree just for his daughter. Perhaps he was also struck by the concern that Rav Yosi had for his son. How could it be that human beings will do anything for their children and yet Hashem had allowed us to become so downtrodden and so persecuted under the Romans.

Rav Elazar bar Yosi’s explanation was perfect. It is true that when we sin we seem to lose even out ‘daughter’ status, but when we improve our actions our relationship with Hashem can rise to that of a sister or even a mother. A daughter expects her mother to ask anything of her an we have a right to do the same.

These were the words that comforted Rav Shimon bar Yochai.

Sources: Rashi on Shir Hashirim, Meilah 17b, Shavuos 35b

Posted on 04/15 at 02:00 AM • Permalink
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Monday, October 10, 2016

How Should We Spend Our Day? A Shabbos Shuva Drosha


Let’s assume for a moment that most of us don’t spend our entire day studying and praying. We have professions, homes, cars, families, and all sorts of things to keep us busy. What should our approach be to those other parts of our life? Are they our purpose for existing and the reason Hashem put us here in the world, or are they necessary evils that we can’t get away with like getting a tooth pulled? Do we work to support our families and give tzedaka, or is the work itself something in which we should strive for excellence and take pride? Where does answering a client’s emails and returning phone calls fit in to our spiritual life?

On the surface it would seem that we should be holy people and that our ideal lives - given opportunity and discipline would be sent in prayer, Torah study, or at the very least volunteering for something. Most people talk about retirement as an ideal which seems to point to the feeling that we’d rather not be working.  Rav Aharon Kotler (Parshas Bechukosai) writes that we were put here in this world to work hard on Torah and he worked very hard to teach his students that nothing but Torah really matters.

On the other hand, even Rav Aharon Kotler agrees that we needed to be born. We were holy neshamos even before we ever came here but the Torah wasn’t given to angels. We were specifically sent here to this physical and mundane world to work hard on Torah.  Arguably, everything that we do is part of that hard work that is evidently needed to acquire the Torah.

The Gemara in Shabbos 152b writes records the following parable: “This may be compared to a mortal king who distributed royal apparel to his servants. The wise among them folded it up and laid it away in a chest, whereas the fools among them went and did their work in them. After a time the king demanded his garments: the wise among them returned them to him immaculate, [but] the fools among them returned them soiled. The king was pleased with the wise but angry with the fools.” The idea here is that those who use their clothes are silly because they aren’t saving themselves for G-d. This is odd. Are we not supposed to use our bodies here in this earth?

The Secular Approach

There are Three Possible approaches to this question, the first is very secular. It focuses on the idea that the body and psyche Hashem has given us needs to have worldly goals and accomplishments in order to survive. A Special Forces admiral put this very well in a famous address that he gave:

“Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the bed.

It was a simple task — mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

Naval Adm. William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command

The Mitzvah Approach

The second approach can be based on the Alter of Slobodka. He points out that the Ten commandments move very quickly from the esoteric to the mundane. We begin with “I am the L-ord your G-d who took you out of Egypt” but quickly move to lying, stealing, murder and jealousy. Obviously, he says, the point of the Torah is to permeate every single part of our world. When we immerse ourselves in our work we aren’t turning our backs on the Torah, we are applying the Torah. There is absolutely no category of life where Torah cannot be applied. This is echoed in Shabbos 88b where Moshe argues that the Torah was clearly not written for angels but for people who run regular lives.

The Mesilas Yesharim

As a third approach I’d like to go out on a limb for a moment and make two assumptions. The first is that we are all doing what we are supposed to do. None of us missed our calling. We wake up every morning without a big choice about how and where we will spend our day. People are depending on us and we have commitments to honor. Let’s assume that we are exactly where Hashem wants us to be. I don’t know that that is true – maybe we made some wrong turns in our lives - but we will work with that assumption.

The second assumption is that somehow everything we do is Mitzvah-related. This means to say that we are helping people have a place to live, put food on their tables, have cars that move, be truthful, do teshuva, whatever it is that you do in your profession. Certainly if you don’t have a profession and take care of your household and your families the mitzvos are innumerable. Even if you spend all of your waking hours taking care of your own well-being, you are engaged in a Mitzvah.

The Mesilas Yesharim writes that man was not created for this world, but rather for the world to come. This world is just a place to get packed up and ready for the world to come. The next world is where all the pleasure and fulfillment is. The Mesilas Yesharim writes that this is a major principal of Judaism and needs to guide us in every decision we make.
On the other hand, the Nesivos Shalom argues – in the tradition of chassidus – that that is not an absolute fact. We do have a mission in this world as well. More significantly, we can actually taste in this world some of the same things that are available in the next world. The prime example of this is Shabbos, which is described as ‘Mei’ein Olam Habah”, something similar to the World-to-come. There is a purpose in our presence in this world beyond our mission to prepare for the next world.

The Mesilas Yesharim continues that a person needs to spend his or her entire life trying to come close to Hashem. Every action should make him or her more spiritual. It seems like the Mesilas Yesharim agrees with the concept that there is an element of purpose right here on this earth, even if the main purpose of our existence is the next world.

The Mesilas Yesharim’s own words describe a “Chovas Adam B’olamo”, a person’s obligation in his world. Every person in history has been placed into a very specific world with unique roles and families and challenges and inspirations. We have an obligation right here on earth and it is a role that nobody else can play for us. That’s not a situation we back into because we need to make a living or stay healthy or keep busy, that’s something we were sent here to do. The Chasiddim and Perushim argued to what extent our mission in this world can be an end in and of itself, but the concept of having a role in this world appears to be universal.

Another way of looking at this is based on the idea in the Talmud (Eruvin 54a) that each one of the Mitzvaos corresponds to one of our limbs. If we ignore a mitzvah, we ignore that limb. This seems self-contradictory, we don’t need limbs in heaven, we need Mitzvos. Why would we do a Mitzvah to sanctify a limb? Again, it seems clear that we were created and put into this world and into physical bodies for an express purpose and that purpose should not and may not be squandered.

Torah vs. Mitzvah

Let’s rephrase the original question: What takes precedence, Torah Study or a Mitzvah? If a person finishes davening in the morning and could either sit down, lock out the whole world and study Torah or he/she could do a mitzvah, which should they choose? Should they help get the kids off to school or help one of their clients or clean the windows in the shul, or should they learn? On the one hand, Talmud Torah K’naged Kulam – Torah study is equal to all other mitzvos both in reward and in value. The Jewish people and the world needs Torah; on the other hand there are mitzvos to be done and we need to do them.

The Halacha is clear that if it is a Mitzvah that cannot be done by others, like carpool, a person should stop learning in order to do it. For the future, they could organize their lives in a way that they will have time carved out for Torah study and perhaps have someone else drive carpool, but at that moment it is the Mitzvah that takes precedence over Torah.

The Tanya

The challenge of triaging Torah vs. Mitzvos and which takes precedence parallels the previous question of whether there is an intrinsic value to this world that would cause me to abandon the greatest mitzvah – Torah Study – for a lesser mitzvah that is only important because of the transient world we are in.

The Tanya in chapter thirty-seven writes very beautifully that Torah may be the highest Mitzvah, but it does not negate the fact that we have a job to do. That’s why Hashem put us here. If He sent us a mitzvah that nobody else can do, that is a clear message that our purpose here in this world is to do that Mitzvah. If I am davening on Rosh Hashana and someone interrupts my davening with a medical emergency or a question about getting the AC turned on or a question about their cholent that only I can answer, then that cholent is now my mission here in this world. Again, we might want to arrange our lives and our time in such a way that we will have time to concentrate on Torah and Tefila without interruption, but the Tanya sees nothing depressing about a person who is totally and completely immersed in this world. That is where hashem put him. (The Baal Hatanya did agree that it is possible for a person to make a wrong turn or two in their life and end up not fulfilling their ultimate role. For our purposes, we are working with the assumption that we are all on the right life path or at least close to it.


Does everyone agree with the Baal Hatanya? Can the students of the Vilna Gaon agree with the concept that sometimes a Mitzva will be more integral to our role than Torah, or is Torah always the way to go and everything else just ‘allowed’, almost a necessary evil?

The truth is that this concept is a Mishna in Pirkei Avos “Lo Hamedrash Ikar elah Hamaaseh” – it is not the study that is the main thing but the action”. That makes sense. You can’t spend your whole life learning about returning lost objects but never return a lost object. In fact, the Vlna Gaon commenting on that Mishna quotes the Gemara in Brachos (17), which bases this concept on the verse “Sechel Tov Lechol Oseihem“ or “Mitzvos makes sense when they are actually performed.

In other words, even according to the Vilna Gaon, Torah may be the primary mitzvah and a person should ideally spend every waking moment studying Torah but that is clearly not how the world is designed.

Again the Chassidim and Non-chassidim are basically agreeing that we have mission in this world but arguing to what extent our activities in this world can be an end in and of themselves.

The Maharal writes something similar and words it in a very interesting way. He makes the point that A mitzvah is an obligation, while Torah is the best thing in the world. Perhaps we would appreciate the best role in this world, but often Hashem gives us a different role and that becomes our obligation in this world. He compares it to bread and wine. Wine is better, but we live on bread.

The Nefesh Hachayim – the primary student of the Vilna Gaon – writes the same thing with a different analogy (Ruach Chaim 2): When we study Torah we are like sons of Hashem; when we do the Mitzvos we are like his servants. We aren’t given a choice about the Mitzvos and we love to fulfill them in our role as servants of Hashem. Still, wherever possible there is a constant overarching state of existence in which we are

Hashem’s children. This is reflected in Halacha. we make a bracha on Torah in the morning and it last all day. Tefilla and other Mitzvos are limited to set times. In other words, we are always connected to Hashem spiritually with temporary distractions thrown at us in which to honor Hashem physically.


The practical takeout is the following: Do something worthwhile with your life.

The Mishna is very critical of someone who make a living off something that doesn’t help the world, like gambling or betting on horses. Each of us has an obligation to figure out how the way we spend our day is constructive to the world. We need to recognize that the responsibilities that we are surrounded by at home, at work, and at the doctor’s office, are all part of the world where Hashem has very deliberately placed each one of us. While we may have a recurring urge on strike and lock ourselves in a room with a Tehillim, that is usually not G-d’s plan for us. We need to embrace everything that we do with an understanding that it is the reason why Hashem has put us in the world.

There is a famous Mishna in Pirkei Avos that if three people eat together and do not share Torah their table is considered disgusting, even idolatrous. Even in our physical existence of eating and drinking we need to realize that it is all part of our mission in this world from Hashem. In the case of the meal we demonstrate our awareness of that mission by sharing Torah, or – according to the Bartenura – at least ending the meal with benching.

A number of weeks ago I was invited to a meeting. The structure of the meeting was such that it was attended by three Jewish members of the clergy and about five professionals who were not Jewish. There was a free lunch. Most of those present ate the lunch but one person didn’t eat, probably because there was nowhere to wash. I was conflicted for a moment but decided that I was hungry and not willing to forgo the free lunch. I discreetly excused myself from the room, washed down the hall, managed to avoid talking on my way back and enjoyed a tuna wrap, an egg salad wrap, a fruit salad, and some iced tea. After such a great lunch I really had to bench, so when everybody else left I went to wash Mayim Acharonim. When I returned to the room to find two of the professionals who had been in the meeting were cleaning up. I thanked them for lunch and explained to them that I would be sitting down for a few minutes, reciting the grace after meals to thank G-d for the food. About a paragraph into benching I realized that the atmosphere in the room had changed completely. The two people I had just met with had stopped cleaning up. They were standing behind me, one on my right and one on my left. Their hands were clasped and their heads were bowed and they were listening to every word of the benching. They stayed that way until I finished the final bracha and then they turned to me with tears and said, “thank you rabbi. We are so sorry we didn’t think to that earlier”.

Here they were meeting with rabbis about an issue of Jewish concern, of course they should be thanking G-d!

That benching was more effective than the entire meeting. It made Judaism more genuine. Next time they are asked by a rabbi to be more attentive to Jewish Law and Jewish sensitivities, they’ll be thinking of the Rabbi who snuck back in to thank G-d for his meal.

Of course there is no way that I would have left that building without benching. That’s a given. But I didn’t have to eat. My friend didn’t. But it was precisely because I was hungry, because I was driven to engage in this world – to eat a tuna wrap and drink iced tea – that I was able to make a very G-dly impact.

Don’t go back to your workplaces and start benching out loud. Don’t start singing pesukim to your kids as you pack them off to school or undertake to end every email with a Torah thought. Those are nice things, but
we can do better. Realize that every time you go to work, drive carpool, or send an email, it is an integral part of our role in this world as servants of Hashem. It may not be the fine wine of pure Torah study, but it is the meat and potatoes of why G-d put us here.

Gmar Chasima Tova!

Posted on 10/10 at 02:55 AM • Permalink
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Friday, July 01, 2016


The Jewish people could be pardoned for spying on the land of Israel. It was a regular military tactic and an example of good planning. Their problem was the way that they looked at the land. They forgot about Hashem’s promise and they forgot that the conquest was not completely in their hands. When Yehoshua and Kaleiv tried to remind them, they were stoned. Nobody wanted to look at things differently or to see things from another angle.

It is interesting that both Yehoshua and Kaleiv stayed strong in their opposition to the Meraglim but they stayed strong in different ways.

Yehoshua recieved a blessing from Moshe and a ‘yud’ added to his name. Kaleiv visited Chevron and prayed at the graves of our ancestors.

The Chofetz Chaim explains that there are two different approaches that a person can take when going against the flow. Some people argue and debate and make a lot of noise voicing their opposition. This is good because it keeps them strong, but bad because they and others can get hurt. Other people stay quiet and try to keep themselves strong. This is a lot safer, but it is very risky. Attitudes of those around us eventually rub off on us and penetrate deep into our souls.

Yehoshua belonged to the first group. From the beginning, he denounced the spies and their attitudes. He stayed strong, but Moshe was concerned for his physical well-being. He gave him a blessing that he would be saved from harm at the hands of the spies. According to the Chasam Sofer, the ‘yud’ itself connotes the self confidence and assertiveness that Yehoshua had in opposing the spies. The Aruch write that they knew that this was the result of a blessing and mocked him for it, calling him “Reish Ketiah”. Still, he held his ground and the spies were unable to affect him spiritually or physically.

Kaleiv took a different approach. He went along with the spies and did not say a word. When he finally got up to defend Moshe people stopped to listen. They thought that he was on their side.

Kaleiv realized early in the trip that he would need special help from G-d to stay strong. He went to Chevron and prayed to recharge and rejuvenate his soul. This worked as well.

The Chafetz Chaim writes that both approaches are legitimate. Some of us make a lot of noise and some of us are more subtle, but both Yehoshua and Kaleiv could not have done what they did without the blessing from Moshe and the prayers in Chevron. We can’t do anything without G-d.

The spies forgot that they had G-d and they died in the desert. Yehoshua and Kaleiv relied on G-d and they merited to usher the Jewish people into the land.

Posted on 07/01 at 01:01 AM • Permalink
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Friday, May 06, 2016

Consultation (Acharei Mos)

After the death of Aharon’s two sons Moshe came and told Aharon that he should not enter the Kodesh Hakodashim.

Rav Yosi Haglili confirms that the sons of Aharon had been killed as a punishment for their entry.

Something seems wrong here. If the sons were punished for bringing a strange fire or for being intoxicated, one could argue that they had been warned. But here there was no hint at all that the brothers were not allowed to enter the holy of Holies. Why the punishment?

One could argue that we are dealing with cause and effect – that the holiness of the space caused them to expire - but that does not seem to be the approach of Rav Yosi Haglili.

I think the answer lies in a Medrash Rabba. The Medrash teaches that Aharon’s sons actually committed four sins: They entered the Holy of Holies, they brought a strange fire, they brought the wrong sacrifice, and … they did not consult with one another.

Some cleverly seek to explain this last transgression of not consulting with one another based on the rule that only one person may enter the Kodesh Hakodashim at a given time. Since Nadav and Avihu didn’t collaborate they ended up coming simultaneously, breaking this rule and becoming liable for death.

I think the explanation may be much simpler.

Whenever we embark upon something holy, exciting, and new, we need to humble ourselves and check with somebody else. There is an arrogance to saying, “there is one spot on earth that is holier than any other and I am going to be the first one to enter it”. It may come from a good place and it may even be a good sentiment, but Nadav and Avihu should have at the very least conferred with one another before taking the step.

The Torah is acquired B’chavrusa and B’Eitzah – through companionship and advice.

Perhaps the brothers were punished for entering because they should have consulted with someone else first. Maybe they would have come up with a different idea. Maybe they would have realized that only Aharon should go in, and only on Yom Kippur, and only for a minute.

This was Moshe’s message to Aharon at the beginning of this week’s Parsha. “Your sons cannot be excused for entering the Kodesh Hakodashim on their own. You didn’t enter. You waited to discuss it with me. Now I am here as your brother to tell you that it is a good idea. This is how you should enter the Holy of Holies…”

Posted on 05/06 at 06:59 AM • Permalink
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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Pesach: Are Miracles Good?


In about a week, we will fulfill the Mitzvah to relive and retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt.

Actually, we are obligated to remember the Exodus every single day and every week. We mention Yetzias Mitzrayim in Shema and in Kiddush. On Pesach, Rav Chaim Soleveichik writes that there are three added components to the mitzvah that make up a large part of the seder: We need to have a Question and Answer Format, we need to start with the bad and end with praise, and we need to mention Pesach, Matzah and Maror. We do this by asking the Mah Nistana, by answering with the stories of our physical and spiritual emancipation, and by discussing the items on the Seder plate.

There is a fourth distinction as well. Throughout the year we mention our Exodus from Egypt but we do not necessarily mention that it happened through miracles and wonders. We left Egypt like a child leaves school or prisoner is freed from jail, or perhaps like our grandparents left Europe. It is something to be thankful for but not necessarily miraculous. It just happened with the help of G-d, and we are glad that it did.

On Pesach it is not enough to just mention that we were slaves and are now free, we mention the fact that it happened miraculously. We speak about the Plagues and clear involvement of G-d’s strong hand and outstretched arm in the miracles and amazing wonders that took place.

This is reflected in the wording of the Rambam and in the Seder itself. We need to mention the miracles.


The Seder is all about order, as is much of Judaism. The story is told that when Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm,  wanted to find how his son Rav Nochum Zev was doing, he made a surprise visit to his room in yeshiva to see how neat it was. If someone had seder – if they were organized – he assumed that they were progressing well in other areas of their life as well.

The Maharal writes that Seder is a sign of Chochma, of wisdom.

In Pirkei Avos we describe seven attributes of a Chocham.

???????? ???????? ????????? ?????????? ????????. ????? ?????? ???????? ???????? ??? ??????? ?????? ????????? ?????????? ???????????, ???????? ??????? ??????? ???????? ???????, ???????? ??????? ?????????, ??????? ?????????? ????????? ??????????, ???????? ??? ???????? ???????? ????? ???????? ????????, ????? ??? ???????? ??????, ?????? ??? ???????????, ???????? ??? ???????. ?????????????? ?????????:
Seven things are [found] in an unformed person and seven in a wise man. A wise man does not speak in front of someone who is greater than him; does not interrupt the words of his fellow; is not impulsive in answering; asks to the point and answers as is proper; speaks to the first [point] first and the last [point] last; and about that which he has not heard [anything], says, “I have not heard [anything]”; and he concedes to the truth. And their opposites [are the case] with an unformed person.

None of these have anything to do with knowledge. They are about Seder. They are about listening and clarifying.

The greatest Seder is the way Hashem runs the world. The words ‘Seder’ and ‘Teva’ – nature – are synonymous . G-d could run the world in any way he wants, but he chooses to run it with Seder, with the laws of nature. Jiffy Lube used to advertise – “If you want a well-oiled machine, bring it to the place that runs like one”. G-d’s universe is a well-oiled machine.

Thus Chochma, Nature, and Seder are all interrelated and they are all reflected in the seder of Pesach, which is perhaps the most organized and choreographed meal that we have all year. Yet Yetzias Mitzrayim is anything but Seder. When we left Egypt, G-d suspended all of the rules of nature. The river turned to blood, the sun stopped shining, and our enemies started to drop dead. Miracles are the antithesis of Seder.

Which do we want in our lives? On the one hand, we are not allowed to rely on miracles. We need to be of this world. At the same time, the whole idea of Pesach is about making the miracles real, seeing ourselves as if we left Egypt reminding ourselves that G-d can and does do anything to take care of us.

The Chocham

The Hagada did not invent the Chocham – the wise son. The Torah tells us in Ve’eschanan that we will have a son who will ask us:

?????????????????? ??????? ?????? ??????? ???? ???????? ????????????? ?????????????????? ??????? ??????? ? ?????????? ?????????
(20) When thy son asks you in time to come, saying: ‘What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which the LORD our God has commanded you? 
The Torah suggests that we answer:
???????????? ????????? ????????? ????????? ?????????? ????????????? ??????????????? ? ????????????? ??????? ????????? ?????????? ? ??????? ??????????? ?????????? ????????? ? ????????????? ??????????? ???????????????? ????????????? ??????????? ???????? ???????? ????????? ??????? ???????? ?????? ??????? ???????????? ??????? ?????????? ?????????????? ????????????? ? ?????????? ??????????????????? ????????? ?????????? ????? ?????????? ??????? ??????? ??????????????? ????????????? ??????????? ???????? ?????????? ????????????????? ??????????????? ?????????? ???????????????????? ???????? ???????? ? ?????????? ?????????? ??????????
(21) then thou shalt say unto thy son: ‘We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. (22) And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his house, before our eyes. (23) And He brought us out from thence, that He might bring us in, to give us the land which He swore unto our fathers. (24) And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is at this day. (25) And it shall be righteousness unto us, if we observe to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as He hath commanded us.’
The Hagada also quotes the question of the Chocham, but quotes a little bit of a different answer.
????? ?????? ?????? ??? ??????????? ????????: ???? ??????????? ????? ???????? ???????????:
And accordingly you will say to him, as per the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, “We may not eat an afikoman after the Pesach sacrifice.”

The Nature of Miracles

Jews do not celebrate miracles. We thank Hashem for miracles but we do not have holidays to mark the Manna, Miriam’s well, or the sun standing still for Yehoshua.

We also don’t celebrate miracle workers. Even if a person would levitate six feet off the ground while predicting the future, his words would have no religious significance. If he tried to erase even one word of the Torah he would be excommunicated and possibly sentenced to death.

As Jews we celebrate milestones in our history as a people and we celebrate people who have exhibited strong faith in Hashem, love of Torah, and love of fellow Jews. Much of Christianity parted ways with Judaism when they began putting more emphasis on miracle workers and became less interested in the will of Hashem.

The Yaaros Devash writes that G-d’s ability to perform miracles is far less impressive than His ability to make the world work within the laws of nature, which can be defined as a constant and consistent miracle. The fact that G-d’s presence can be felt and manifest itself in this physical world is a much greater theological feat than a simple miracle.

Seeing the Chochma of G-d in the Seder and Teva of this world is far more impressive than a miracle. The Maharal writes that this is why we don’t spend a lot of time discussing the Merkava and the Creation . It’s not just that they are hard to understand, they are actually below Hashem’s dignity.

This idea is reflected in Jewish Law. There are two events that took place on the tenth of Nissan. One was the preparation of the Pesach lamb which was on the Shabbos before Pesach. The second was the splitting of the Yardein, which was on a weekday. The Taz writes that we mark the Shabbos before Pesach rather than the tenth of Nissa, to make clear that we are celebrating the Koban Pesach and not the splitting of the Yarden.

The splitting of the Yarden was a momentous event. Not only was it a miracle and our ticket into Israel, it also served to ‘melt the hearts’ of all of our enemies making (most of) them fearful of us and much easier to conquer. Still, Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that we aren’t proud that Hashem did a miracle for us. It would have been better if we could have accomplished all that within the regular rules of nature.

When we hear about someone ill getting better, that is a ‘big simcha’, when someone is just plain healthy, that is ‘simcha’. We prefer regular Simchos to big Simchos and we prefer natural lives to miraculous ones.

The Gemara in Shabbos tells a story about a man who had no money and was able to feed his children through a miracle. Abayei exclaimed, “How disgusting is this person for whom a miracle was performed”.

There have been people who constantly live above nature, the most notable being Rav Chanina ben Dosa, but those are exceptions. For those people miracles are their nature. And even Rav Chanina ben Dosa prayed to have a miraculous gift taken back because he knew that it was of the next world and should remain there.

There is an expression in the Gemara that “Chacham adif Minavi” . The Maharal explains that it refers to this very concept. A person who is wise and organized in the ways of this world is better than a person who is capable of prophecy. All prophets were both but their Chochma was more important than their Nevuah.

The Mesillas Yesharim writes that we were put into this world, specifically in the midst of some very ung-dly things, to fight our battles and become completed and developed human beings. We clearly were not created to escape this world and live supernaturally. For that we did not need to be born.

Back to The Seder

The Chocham in our Hagada presumably has the seven attributes of a Chocham. Unlike the other three sons, he was probably listening the first time his father explained the reason for the Seder. After witnessing and watching all of the Eidos, Chukim, and Mishpatim, he asks an intelligent question. His does not ask what we are doing or why, that was already answered. His question is why everything is reduced to laws and instructions. Why can’t we just live supernaturally like we did when Hashem took us out of Egypt?

We answer by reinforcing the laws. We explain that the miracles were necessary then for the shock and awe that we experienced. The miracles woke us up, got us out of there, and reminded us of G-d’s existence.

But life is not about miracles. It is about Eidos, Chukim, Umishpatim. About living in this world. About doing Hashem will when we don’t understand it and understanding His will when we can. It is about finishing every single week of work by testifying to the world and to Hashem and to ourselves that this is G-d’s world and that we were put here to sanctify it and to develop as human beings.

The son of the Chofetz Chaim was once asked to describe some miracles that his father had performed. He said, my father didn’t tell G-d what to do. G-d told him what to do . And that is how we need to live our lives.


Our unique obligation on Pesach is to speak about the miracles of our exodus. This obligation is reflected in the verses, in the Mishna and Hagada, in the Rambam, and in the Maharal and Reb Moshe.

But the miracles that we discuss are not in the context of something we can expect or even hope to experience every day. Jewish people are only here because of miracles, but our day to day existence is through the constant miracles of nature, the rules which we are not supposed to break. We need to live our lives with a blend of Bitachon and Hishtadlus and serve Hashem in this world.

When we look for inspiring people and inspiration in general, we can’t look for miracles and people who have found ways to overcome this world. We need to look for ways that people have mastered the art of living this world in a G-dly way with all of its up and downs and twists and turns. If we look through history, the Tzadikim were not usually the ones who had miraculous, pain free lives. They did not ever get everything they wanted or prayed for. But they were immensely satisfied in their own lives and they were perfect examples of how Hashem wants us to develop ourselves in this world.

There was an editorial written by two Nobel Prize winners in 1996. It was called Heart Attacks: Gone with the Century. And it was supposed to be true. There was a sharp decline in the risk of heart disease throughout much of the ‘70s and ‘80s and into the ‘90s. That was because doctors were able to pinpoint the causes of Heart disease and develop medication to reduce cholesterol and procedures to fix broken and congested hearts. One miracle after another.

And then something scary happened. Despite the miraculous advances in medicine, heart disease stopped going down. It stabilized and now it’s just not going down anymore. It’s actually going up. That is because people – as a whole - stopped developing good habits. Americans don’t exercise and we eat the wrong foods. As a nation, the miraculous medicine got us nowhere because we couldn’t change our habits.

This is the danger of miracles. They are lifesaving, we need them, and we thank Hashem for them every day, but ultimately we need to be working on ourselves. On our own hearts and our own souls.

We are taught that we were redeemed in Nissan and that our future redemption will be in Nissan. Let’s hope that this Nissan will once again be a year of miracles as we truly relive Yetzias Mitzrayim at the Seder.

But let’s also hope that we can make those miracles an inspiration to live a miracle free life of Seder and Chochama throughout the year.

Chag Kasher Vesameiach.

Uploads on the Hagada:

Hagada Companion (56 pages)

Hilchos Haseder (43 pages)

Sugyos Haseder (Part I, 22 pages)

More posts on Pesach:

Posted on 04/20 at 08:34 AM • Permalink
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Friday, April 08, 2016

Just Be Quiet

Rav Shmuel Hanagid lived just about 1000 years ago. He was a huge Torah scholar and was considered to be the most influential jew in Spain.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky quotes an incident in which Rav Shmuel Hanagid was walking with a Berber king of Spain named Habbus al-Muzzafer. As they were walking, a man called out and cursed Rav Shmuel. The king – being a good friend -ordered Rav Shmuel to have the man’s tongue cut out.

Rav Shmuel responded by sending gifts to the fellow who had cursed him. He began cultivating a relationship and soon they were friends with mutual respect for each other.

Some time later, the king and Rav Shmuel were walking again and met the same man. He spoke in greeting and the king was furious: “Didn’t I order you to cut out his tongue?”

“I did”, was Rav Shmuel’s reply, “I took out his bad tongue and put in a good one”.

The fact is that so much of what we do is governed by our tongues. It determines who we are. Human beings are distinguished from all other beings in that we can talk. G-d breathed his ‘Ruach’ into us and made us a ‘Ruach Mimalela”, a creature that could talk.

It is that spirit that enables us to talk also makes us holy or impure. We can be sanctified more than any other creation because we have the spirit of Hashem within us and we can become more impure than any other being when that ruach of Hashem leaves us. It happens when a person passes away, but it also happens by degrees whenever we choose to misuse the gifts that Hashem has given us as human beings.

Part of the sanctity that we reach through speech is to remain silent. People feel like they need to comment on everything, usually in a very concerned way, but often their subjects just aren’t interested in talking. I get approached by so many people who say: “Wasn’t it obvious that I didn’t want to have that conversation?” I tell them that it comes from a place of concern, but they are right. Sometimes it is obvious. We need to preserve our human dignity and their by taking someone’s lead. Most people don’t want to discuss their troubles with every single person who takes an interest in them.

In Parshas Tazria the leper who is being punished for inappropriate speech is forced to go into isolation. Sometimes we think too much about others and need some time to become more retrospective and put into situations where there is nobody to quiz and question and prod but our very own selves.

Posted on 04/08 at 09:45 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, March 03, 2016

Shekalim - Do We Have a 50% Ceiling?

None of us are perfect. We are born half good and half bad. That is part of being human. There will always be a part of us that is insensitive, egotistic, and irrational. There is another half as well that is full of holiness, giving, and yearning.

We will never completely eradicate one half or the other. The Bnei Yisoschar points out that Shekel has the same numerical value as Nefesh. When we donated a half-shekel toward the building of the Mishkan, we were giving our soul - but only the good half.

Moshe had trouble with this. How could we suffice with just one half? How could the Mishkan be built with our half-shekel? Don’t we need to bring the whole thing? Don’t we want to be perfect?

Hashem responded by showing Moshe the half-shekel he was referring to. He removed it from under his Heavenly throne and it was on fire. He explained that this was the Shekel he sought.

Rav Dessler explains that it is inevitable that our bad half will exist, but we can overcome it by lighting our good half on fire. If we have a burning desire to do good and to be good, it will not matter that we are not quite perfect.

None of is perfect on our own, but by passionately putting our halves together we can build an edifice in which Hashem will dwell. 

Rav Saadiah Gaon writes that each of us is only half a neshama. Our husband or wife is the other half. Perhaps this is one way to understand it. By putting our good halves together, complimenting and learning from one another, we can truly become one perfect whole.

Posted on 03/03 at 08:51 PM • Permalink
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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Hold Up

The Torah portion that we just read discussed the building of the Mishkan. The Mishkan was the dwelling place for G-d in this world. If as G-d could have a house here on earth this parsha tells us what it would look like. The Torah goes to great lengths to describe to the Jewish people exactly how the Mishkan should be built and how it should look. This is a sort of Jewish Feng Shui (fung shway). It is a lesson in how to make G-d belong in our homes and in our lives. If we can understand the architecture of the Mishkan we can understand something about how G-d relates to this world and to us.

The supporting beams of the Mishkan were a series of very large pillars, called Krashim. The Torah describes the placement of the Krashim in the very human terms of “Isha El Achosa” like sisters standing beside one another.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that this world is one big Mishkan and that human beings have the role of the Krashim. Just as the tapestries of the Mishkan depended on the Krashim – the pillars to form an actual structure, G-d leaves it to us to make the world into a G-dly place. Just as the Krashim give shape to the Mishkan, G-d gives us a job to give shape to this world and turn it into a holy structure – a place where He can dwell.

We are here in this world as ambassadors of G-d. We should represent G-d in everything that we do and to everyone that we meet. We can make this world more G-dly with every nice word that we say and every time we keep our mouths shut. If we can do this then we are truly Krashim pillars of this world that can hold this world up.

Often, great people are also great nonconformists. These are the people who have courage and can beat to their own drum; but these people can only become truly great if they never forget their role as supporting actors. We should have courage and we can do our own thing but we must always doing the will of Hashem and representing Hashem to everyone around us.

Unfortunately, we do not need to look very far to find examples of talented people who have completely ruined their lives and talents by forgetting that there is more to life than themselves. The Baal Shem Tov writes that if we can remember to bring G-d with us in everything we do then we are making a Kesher – a connection. Otherwise all we have is Sheker – falsehood and superficiality. How long can it last?

Posted on 02/13 at 12:14 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, January 28, 2016

From Every Mountain Top

We read two songs last week. The first was sung by all of the Jewish people on the banks of the Yam Suf; the second was sung two hundred years later by Devorah and Barak at the top of Mount Tavor in Israel.

Har Tavor is one of the highest mountains in the Middle East and it was one of the front runners as the site of the giving of the Torah. In the end, G-d chose Har Sinai and the Torah was given on her although she was not the tallest and not the widest and not the most beautiful. The Medrash tells us that Mount Tavor was given a consolation prize: One day Devorah would sing her song on Har Tavor. Further, the Pesikta writes that the Third temple will, in some way be built on Har Tavor.

Mount Tavor is cited throughout scripture as a tall and majestic mountain. Naftali was praised for owning this piece of Real Estate; Zevulun complained that he had nothing like Har Tavor in his portion of Israel. It is a beautiful piece of our Holy Land. It was also a very strategic mountain in wars that took place throughout history from the Romans through the crusades. It was the location of one of the bonfires that were lit to let people know the date of Rosh Chodesh.  But what is the particular connection between Mount Tavor and the song of the sea and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai?

I think the answer can be seen in Devora’s song. Devora began her song by pointing out that the Jewish people had wandered a little too far from Har Sinai. No longer were they a humble nation that had just a few weeks ago been slaves and a people that had nothing to lose. Now they were a people with territories and victories and a seat in the UN. Devorah criticized some of the tribes for being more concerned about their own territories than about the entire people of Israel. She criticized them for getting involved with and influenced by the local religions.

Devorah’s message to the people in leading the charge on Har Tavor and the song afterwards was that the Land of Israel was no different. True, Hashem chose to give the Torah on a mountain that was humble and plain and in the middle of a desert, but the same Torah exists on the beautiful, tall, and strategic Har Tavor. We are just as bound to Hashem’s word and just as dependent on His blessing.

This is an important lesson. We learn Torah, we keep Torah, and we sacrifice for Torah when it is our lifeline and the shining light in our lives. But what happens when our lives get more complicated, busier, and more expensive? Devorah taught us that the same Torah exists.

This is true for the Jewish People as well. We don’t grow out of the Torah. The same Torah who’s survival we fought for after World War II tells us to continue to cherish each soul today. The same Torah that inspired us to found schools decades ago also tells us to support them today, the same Torah that makes us feel responsible for making sure that there is a minyan in shul, also tells us to be there when we “aren’t needed”, and the same Torah that taught us so much when we were younger has something new to say to us every in every decade.

Just as we sang when crossed the Yam Suf to accept the Torah at humble Har Sinai, we will continue sing as we turn to Hashem and His Torah in every stage and every phase of our lives.

Posted on 01/28 at 09:55 PM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

Rabbi Sender Haber is the Rabbi of the B'nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk, VA. He is well known throughout Hampton Roads, having arrived over twelve years ago as one of the original four members of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel. In that capacity, Rabbi Haber was involved in community wide programming, teaching, and outreach. He has inspired many Jews to expand their Jewish identity and increase their love of Torah and commitment to its observance. Everyone who knows Rabbi Haber is touched by his breadth of Torah knowledge and his ability to convey the wisdom of the ages in such a way as to make those esoteric writings accessible to persons of all levels of experience and a variety of backgrounds.

Rabbi Haber has served in a number of capacities during his years in Norfolk. Since 2003 Rabbi Haber has been a teacher of Jewish Studies at Toras Chaim Day School in Portsmouth, teaching boys and girls of all ages, with a focus on Gemara, Halacha, and Chumash. He has also taught at Yeshivas Aish Kodesh and Bina High School in Norfolk, and served as Assistant Rabbi of B’nai Israel for 6 years. He also serves as the Rabbi of the “Lost Tribe,” Tidewater’s Jewish Motorcycle group! While handling all of these responsibilities, he has continued to participate in numerous Chavrusos (one-on-one learning partnerships) covering a wide range of topics and writings.

Rabbi Haber and his wife Chamie have been married for thirteen years. They have four children, Minna (9), Moshe (6), Ely (4), and Akiva Meir, born in August of 2012. They both come from rabbinic families steeped in Torah, Kiruv and Chesed. Rabbi Haber received his Rabbinic Ordination (Yoreh Yoreh) from Rabbi Sender Rosenbloom and Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander of the Jerusalem Beth Din. He was awarded a Teaching Certificate by Torah Umesorah Association for Jewish Day Schools in 2004 and again in 2009. In addition, Rabbi Haber has spent over a decade studying Talmud, Jewish Law, and ethics in some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivos including Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, NJ and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at