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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 05:19 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 03:38 PM • Permalink
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Friday, April 14, 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 04/14 at 11:00 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, October 09, 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 10/09 at 11:55 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, June 30, 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 06/30 at 10:01 PM • 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 03:59 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.

שִׁבְעָה דְבָרִים בַּגֹּלֶם וְשִׁבְעָה בֶּחָכָם. חָכָם אֵינוֹ מְדַבֵּר בִּפְנֵי מִי שֶׁהוּא גָדוֹל מִמֶּנּוּ בְּחָכְמָה וּבְמִנְיָן, וְאֵינוֹ נִכְנָס לְתוֹךְ דִּבְרֵי חֲבֵרוֹ, וְאֵינוֹ נִבְהָל לְהָשִׁיב, שׁוֹאֵל כָּעִנְיָן וּמֵשִׁיב כַּהֲלָכָה, וְאוֹמֵר עַל רִאשׁוֹן רִאשׁוֹן וְעַל אַחֲרוֹן אַחֲרוֹן, וְעַל מַה שֶּׁלֹּא שָׁמַע, אוֹמֵר לֹא שָׁמַעְתִּי, וּמוֹדֶה עַל הָאֱמֶת. וְחִלּוּפֵיהֶן בַּגֹּלֶם:
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:

כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֛ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה ה אֱלֹק֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם׃
(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:
וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ עֲבָדִ֛ים הָיִ֥ינוּ לְפַרְעֹ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵ֧נוּ ה מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה׃ וַיִּתֵּ֣ן ה אוֹתֹ֣ת וּ֠מֹפְתִים גְּדֹלִ֨ים וְרָעִ֧ים ׀ בְּמִצְרַ֛יִם בְּפַרְעֹ֥ה וּבְכָל־בֵּית֖וֹ לְעֵינֵֽינוּ׃ וְאוֹתָ֖נוּ הוֹצִ֣יא מִשָּׁ֑ם לְמַ֙עַן֙ הָבִ֣יא אֹתָ֔נוּ לָ֤תֶת לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֵֽינוּ׃ וַיְצַוֵּ֣נוּ ה לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַחֻקִּ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה לְיִרְאָ֖ה אֶת־ה אֱלֹק֑ינוּ לְט֥וֹב לָ֙נוּ֙ כָּל־הַיָּמִ֔ים לְחַיֹּתֵ֖נוּ כְּהַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃ וּצְדָקָ֖ה תִּֽהְיֶה־לָּ֑נוּ כִּֽי־נִשְׁמֹ֨ר לַעֲשׂ֜וֹת אֶת־כָּל־הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֗את לִפְנֵ֛י ה אֱלֹק֖ינוּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּֽנוּ׃
(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.
וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמוֹר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן:
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 05:34 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 06:45 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 04:51 PM • Permalink
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Friday, February 12, 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 02/12 at 08:14 PM • 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 05:55 PM • Permalink
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Friday, January 01, 2016

Frogs (Vo’eira)

The frogs seem to be an odd part of the story of the Exodus. Water turning to blood, wild animals, blackouts, death and disease seem pretty standard, but frogs are cute. One year my wife ordered one hundred frogs from oriental trading had my kids throw them at me throughout the seder. That was annoying. Still, it is hard to relate to frogs as real punishment for the Egyptians.

The Medrash tells us that more than the presence of the frogs, people were annoyed by their croaking. They would grate on everyone’s nerves; The Egyptians couldn’t deal with this. The Medrash tell us that first there was one big frog, but when they hit it turned into two, then four then eight then sixteen, then thirty two and so on and so forth.

They lost their self control. They kept on hitting the frog.

I think that this plague was directed specifically at Pharaoh. The frogs went to his house first before branching out to other homes. Pharaoh had a very shallow idea of God. He thought he was G-d. The Noam Elimelech writes that he was so shallow in his thoughts that Moshe had to actually represent G-d to Pharaoh. He really couldn’t conceive of a G-d that was beyond his understanding.

The frogs brought out the humanity in Pharaoh. He simply couldn’t deal with them. They annoyed him and he snapped. When the waters turned to blood, Pharaoh stayed strong. He made no official recorded statements. When it came to the frogs he was in frenzy. Get rid of these frogs. He didn’t complain about another plague until all the way at the end of the Parsha.

Pharaoh was learning a lesson about humanity and a lesson about G-d. G-d doesn’t get annoyed, his doesn’t lose His temper, and he doesn’t act irrationally. G-d is called a Kadosh because he is above all that.

This is a lesson for us as well. We need to do our best to act G-dly and rise above the fray. At the same time, we need to remember that only G-d is truly above it all and making the most rational decisions. The rest of us are just human.

Posted on 01/01 at 04:38 PM • Permalink
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Why Didn’t the Bush Burn? (Shemos)

Hashem appeared to Moshe in the Bush because a Bush is a lowly shrub. It symbolizes humility.

The Torah tells us that the Angel of Hashem appeared as a fire burning in the bush, but the bush was not consumed.

Moshe said, “Let me turn for a minute and take a look. Why isn’t the Bush consumed?”

What was the answer? We are accustomed to thinking that the Bush turned out to be a heavenly fire and therefore did not follow the rules of regular fire, but the Noam Elimelech writes and interesting idea.

One would think that a holy fire would wipe out something as unholy as a bush. One would think that holy activities would bring us to a level purity where the mundane world cannot enter.

It seems unfair when we are davening and the most random of thoughts comes in, or when we spend an hour studying Torah just to lose our tempers five minutes later. Moshe was bothered with the question: Why doesn’t the bush burn? Why don’t we ever seem totally free of our Yetzer Hora.

The answer is simple. The bush doesn’t burn. We always remain somewhat worldly. We never become angels. Maybe this is so that we elevate our worldliness and use it to serve Hashem, maybe it is to keep us challenged, but the fact remains. The Bush just simply doesn’t burn.

Hashem didn’t really answer Moshe’s question, but he did tell him to take off his shoes. The very first command Hashem gave Moshe. By taking off his shoes Moshe understood that he needed to feel every thorn and thistle on the ground if he was to truly help the Jewish people and grow as an individual.

We keep waiting for the holiness to root out and consume everything else, but it will never happen. This was the lesson of the burning bush.

Posted on 01/01 at 04:34 PM • Permalink
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Friday, December 18, 2015


So much of the parsha centers on Yosef, but I think it is important for us to think about Yehudah as well.

The Parsha begins with a showdown between Yehudah and Yosef. Besides for the immediate issue of Binyamin, there was a natural friction between the two of them. Yehudah was the king of Israel, yet Yosef was the apparent leader. He had all of the keys and all of the charm. In the dreams they were all bowing to him. Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were having an argument that would last for centuries. Eventually, we would be split between the Kingdoms of Yehudah and Ephraim.

Yosef was an Ish Matzliach. He had a difficult life, but everything that he put his hands on was blessed. All of his endeavors were successful.

Yehudah did not have that same mazal. Yehudah walked around for years knowing that he was the one who told the brothers to sell Yosef. He had two children, Er and Onan, who both died. Then he had the difficult story with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Finally, last week, he took responsibility for Binyamin, and Binyamin was caught. Everything seemed to go wrong.

The Torah discusses plowing and reaping. There is a big difference:  When you plow the field, you don’t see anything. It looks like a lot of dirt and mud. If someone comes and sees you plowing, he might think you’re not doing anything at all. But when someone is harvesting, you can see something happening. You can pick an apple or an orange and eat it for lunch.

The plowing is less rewarding and also more important. It is the one who did the plowing that put in the effort so that whatever would be planted there would grow.

The Zohar writes that Yosef is the harvester but Yehudah plows. In Vayigash, Yosef appeared to be getting his way in a very shortsighted way. He arrested Binyamin for simple possession of the goblet, but Yehudah had an entire story to tell. He told Yosef that he cannot make a decision based on the goblet alone.

Yehudah must be very frustrated. He had finally convinced Yaacov to let him take Binyamin and here this went wrong as well. He was about to lose his portion in the world to come. It was only later that it emerged that everything had worked perfectly. Yosef had become a leader in Mitzrayim because of Yehudah’s sale. Now, he was overwhelmed to tears and revealed himself thanks to Binyamin’s presence.

Everything worked out in the end. Yehuda was right and, in fact, he was sent by Yaacov to establish a place of Torah in Goshen before everyone else arrived. Yehudah had a sense for the long term success of Klal Yisroel.

A few years ago there was a Television show in Norway broadcasting a seven hour train ride. More than a million people watched, so they did another with a one week boat ride. More than half of Norway, including the Prime Minister, watched the show. Now they are working on knitting shows, bird-watching, and fishing. It took them three hours to catch the first fish. It is extremely boring, but people are getting very into it. There was one man who watched the entire train ride from start to finish. At the end, he stood up to get his luggage before he remembered that he was actually in his living room. There were studies done on why people are attracted to this kind of television, and the answer is fascinating. Television and radio nowadays is so fast paced, there is no waiting time at all between one event and another. It holds our attention but it is not natural, because life happens in real time.

This is the difference between Plowing and Reaping. Reaping gets us immediately satisfied, but plowing is equally important. It just takes time. And that is the natural reality of most things we do.

Yehudah was not a man of immediate successes, but he was responsible for saving Yosef, for bringing us to Mitzrayim and for leading the Jewish people.

The Pasuk in Amos (9:13) says, “Venigash Choresh Bekotzer” – “the one who plows the field and the one who reaps the harvest will get together when Moshiach comes”.
Yehudah and Yosef will come together at the end of days. At that time our efforts will meet our successes and everything will become clear. Ha’zor-im B’dimah; B’rinah Yiktzoru.

Posted on 12/18 at 07:24 PM • Permalink
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Friday, December 11, 2015

Stampede! (Chanukah)

There was once a group of researchers who went to North Africa and planted tomatoes. They felt really good about themselves for pioneering a new source of food and revenue for the natives. Indeed, the tomatoes were beautiful. Just as the tomatoes were about to ripen completely, the scientists were shocked to notice a herd of elephants come through and stampede the tomatoes. There was absolutely nothing they could do. They quickly realized that unless they were to spend all their projected income on repelling elephants, tomato crops would never flourish in Africa.

They also realized that the natives had known this all along. The scientists thought they knew better and were unwilling to listen.

King David said: “Rabas Tzraruni M’neurai”. Usually translated as “Many things have oppressed me from my youth”, it can also be translated as “The way that I developed has oppressed m from my youth”. The Jewish people have been oppressed because of our collective insistence on relying on G-d. It is our oldest form of defense since Avraham jumped in to a fiery furnace and it is what the Yevanim tried to take away from us. They wanted us to write “We have no portion with the G-d of the Jews”, but that is so intrinsic to who and what we are.

When we face adversity we need to go back to the basics. We need to trust our Emunah. The Greeks had many things to offer us, but without Hashem we have nothing.

Everything that the Greeks were selling could only be accepting in the context of enhancing what we already have. We need to cultivate our relationship with hashem before we get excited about the tomatoes. We might find that they can’t even last in our unique environment.  Not everything that works for the Greeks will work for us.

The Gemara tells us (23b) that Shabbos candles take precedence over Chanukah candles. We learn this from the pasuk “Tiznach M’shalom Nafshi”. The Gemara says that since the Shabbos candles are there for Shalom, we are obligated to take care of them first.

Shabbos Candles are not actually more important than Chanuka Candles. It is Shalom in the home that is more important than Chanuka. Reb Moshe Feinstein rules that nowadays Chanukah candles do not take precedence over Shabbos candles. We are not concerned about Shalom because we have electric lights.

Thank G-d, we can all afford to keep our houses well lit and to light Chanuka candles, but I believe that there is a very simple lesson here. We need to work on what we have before we work on what other people are trying to throw at us. The idea of Neiros Chanukah is Pirsumei Nissa, publicizing the miracle, but step number one is to make sure that we have Shalom right here in our neshamos and in our homes. Once we have taken care of ourseves, we can start accepting new ideas and, finally, fulfill our obligation of publicizing what we have to the entire world.

Posted on 12/11 at 04:16 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