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Friday, July 20, 2012

Deep Clean

As a teacher, I am sometimes faced with a student who uses an inappropriate word or tells an inappropriate story. Rather than berate the child or send him out of the room, I like to look the student straight in the eye. “I am offended”, I tell them, “that you would say that word in front of me”.

I have found that this method works best, because it communicates a deep truth. I really am offended.

As human beings and as Jews, we need to work to create a persona that discourages vulgarity, violence, and meaningless hatred. We are taught that by perfecting ourselves we can affect even our involuntary actions, making them holy as well.

The Torah in Parshas Masei describes the apportioning of land to the various tribes. The tribe of Levi will not receive land among their brethren. Instead, they were given forty-two random cities sprinkled throughout Israel.

These forty-cities cities have additional significance as well. When a person kills unintentionally the courts do not sentence him or her to death but the relatives of the deceased can avenge his blood by killing the murderer. The murderer protects himself run to a designated Ir Miklat - a city of refuge. In addition to the six designated cities of refuge, there were also forty-two other safe cities for these quasi murderers – the cities of the Levites. This is starnge. Not only did the Leviim have to be guests in the land of their brothers, we also send them our murderers as neighbors. What is going on?

I believe that we can find the answer by examining the root of accidental murders. The Gemara tells us that the first Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because of Idol worship, illicit relationships and intentional murder. It remained destroyed for seventy years. The second Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed two thousand years ago because of hatred – Sinas Chinam - and it remains destroyed to this very day. The Vilna Gaon explains that while the sins of the first temple seem worse, they were only outward sins. Deep inside there was a spark of mutual respect and unity. On the other hand, the hatred that existed at the time of the second Bais Hamikdosh was a problem whose source lies deep within our souls.

When someone kills accidentally and runs to an Ir Miklat, he or she is not being punished for any conscious action. They are being punished for the fact that a terrible tragedy happened through them.

For example, The Chofetz Chayim says that if someone is careful never to listen to Lashon Hora (slander), Hashem will make sure that they never hear Lashon Hora - even involuntarily. This works on two levels: One (accurate) understanding of this is that Hashem will miraculously protect us from Lashon Hora. Another understanding is based on a practical reality: If people know that I am not the type of person who likes Lashon Hora they will not be able to bring themselves to tell it to me. They will bring it elsewhere.

While we can never quite understand how and why things happen, the Torah is very clear on the issue of murder - “Megalgelim Zechus al Yedei Zakai v’chov al yedei chayav” - Hashem doesn’t cause bad things to come from a good person. If someone causes a death, even accidentally, some fault lies with the killer: On an esoteric level Hashem caused this tragedy to happen through him because he does not have enough respect for the life of a fellow human being.  Practically, perhaps it was a lack of respect for the lives of others that caused him to be careless in the first place. He is not a murderer but he must stop everything and examine himself deeply.  Outwardly he may come across as the most refined and perfected human being, but somewhere deep inside there is something within him that does not value human life.

We send the accidental murderer to the Ir Miklat for a prolonged vacation with ideal role models. The Leviim of the Ir Miklat represented the highest levels of human life. They were the Jewish people’s role models and they devoted their entire lives to the Bais Hamikdosh and to studying and teaching the Torah. As role models they could not let a day go by without examining themselves deeply and making a Cheshbon Hanefesh. The “murderer” went there to learn what it means to be a perfected human being. Among the Leviim, he could learn to examine himself deeply and remove the lack of respect for life that exists somewhere within him.

As Tisha B’av approaches, we can all do some deep cleansing. We can awaken a deep respect for other people within our souls. We can become the type of people that never hear Lashon Hora – because everyone knows that we aren’t interested. We just love people too much. We can replace senseless hatred with a deep sense of respect and celebrate Tisha B’av in Yerushayim with the coming of Moshiach.

On Parshas Matos: http://www.torahlab.org/calendar/article/the_land_of_love/

Posted on 07/20 at 03:49 AM • Permalink
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Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Focus Factor (Parshas Pinchas)

All of Israel stood by without acting as Zimri sinned with Kazbi. Only Pinchas had the presence of mind to take action and kill them. On the surface it was an act of violence, but ultimately it was a step toward peace and, for Pinchas, a moment that qualified him to become a Kohein and eventually the Kohein Gadol.

It is important to understand that Pinchas was not just a zealot with an uncontrollable temper. The Talmud tells us that he consulted with Moshe and Aharon before he acted. He was prepared to leave things in the hands of the elders. He acted as he did only because he was given the “Go-ahead”. Pinchas had no previous history of violence and, as a point of fact, many years later, when he was approached by 400,000 warriors and asked to lead the battle against the tribes of Reuvein and Gad he didn’t jump to wage war. He spoke with the tribes and came to an understanding.

Pinchas knew that in every situation a person needs to focus on the will of Hashem and act accordingly. Pinchas’s bond with Hashem was not because he shishkebabed people; his bond was formed because he was able to maintain focus and carry out Hashem’s will.

Rav Shimon Schwab explains that this is the role of a Kohein. He needs to be entirely devoted to G-d. Non-kohanim and even regular Kohanim have the luxury of a few mishegasim and distractions. The Kohein Gadol in the Holy of Holies needs to be totally focused on G-d.

When Pinchas showed that he was driven by Hashem’s desire to the exclusion of everything else he merited to become a Kohein. He achieved an unbreakable connection with Hashem and a covenant that would last forever.

It is interesting that the Shulchan Aruch does not quote the laws that motivated Pinchas to act. When Pinchas killed Kazbi he was backed by halacha, yet it is not the type of halacha that we can emulate easily and wantonly. We cannot go around killing people who are evil, but we can emulate Pinchas in other ways.

The name of the Midianite woman who Pinchas killed was Kazbi. The Baal Shem Tov point out that Kazbi is actually the Hebrew word for falsehood. Like Pinchas, we need to kill the falsehood in our lives by taking time to identify and focus on what is important. If we can do that, we will remain attached to Hashem forever. Pinchas did it and achieved a relationship with HaShem that lasted far beyond his actions.

We live in a world full of Falsehood, Mishegasim, Shtusim, and Narishkeit. The only way for us to survive is by identifying G-d’s desire and making it our own. By doing so for even a moment we can, like Pinchas, form an everlasting and priceless bond with Hashem.

The Talmud tells us that this world is like a wedding. Sometimes we go to a wedding and there are so many people running the show. There are parents, musicians, photographers, party planners, and caterers who are making themselves heard and telling people what to do.

We need to recognize that the centerpieces of the wedding are the bride and the groom and that we were gathered, not for the music or the food or the flowers, but to celebrate the eternal bonding of two special neshamos.

This week is the first of a set of three Haftaros foreshadowing the impending destruction that we will mourn on Tisha B’av. We read from the beginning of the book of Yirmiyahu how Hashem tells Yirmiyahu to warn the Jews that times will rough. They will be punished for straying from the path set by the Torah.  At the same time Yirmiyahu is told to remind the Jewish people that all is not lost.  G-d will never leave them: “I remember the kindness and closeness of your youth, the love from the days when we were bride and groom. I remember how you followed me into to the desert, a land where there was no vegetation or source of life.”

As terribly as we behave and as firmly as Hashem punishes us, we will never lose the bond, the connection, and the covenant that we formed in our early days.

It is particularly inspiring to note that when G-d describes our faithful leap into the wilderness he speaks in the singular. Every one of us has the ability to form a lasting bond with Hashem. Even if we show just one moment of sacrifice, Hashem will remember that moment and maintain His personal bond and covenant with us forever.

(Based in part on a talk by Rabbi Nota Koslowitz, ZTL, of Lakewood, NJ)

Posted on 07/15 at 04:18 PM • Permalink
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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What Makes You Tick? (Balak)

The story of Bilaam is very puzzling. Bilaam was a prophet, a wise man, and a teller of the future, yet he is seems to be the most clueless character in this week’s parsha.

From the beginning of the Parsha, when Balak asked Bilaam to to curse the Jews, it seems clear that Hashem will not allow the curse to take place.  Bilaam doesn’t get this. We find him speaking with Hashem that night patiently and clearly explaining the purpose of the visit to Hashem and hoping that it will work out. When Hashem finally allows Bilaam to go forth with Balak’s men, he still thought that the Jew’s would be cursed. His donkey knew that wouldn’t happen, Balak ecentually realized that it wouldn’t happen, but Bilaam remained oblivious. What happened to the man who claimed to “know the thoughts of Hashem”?

At one point in the parsha, Bilaam goes outside and saddles his donkey. The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 55:8) points out that this was very unusual. People of Bilaam’s stature did not usually saddle their own donkeys. It was only because Bilaam was so enthusiastic about cursing the Jewish people that he went out and did it himself. The Medrash brings this to illustrate that hatred has the ability to warp one’s mind. Bilaam saw all of the same things we did – maybe more - but he was unable to perceive them because of his strong hatred. He was blind to reality.

Pirkei Avos tells us that Jealousy, Lust, and honor remove a person from the world. They have the power to completely distract us and blind us to everything going on around us.

Even when it was clear that he would fail, Bilaam kept on trying new places, new strategies and new subjects.

Bilaam was not completely crazy. In the Haftorah we mention that the Jews deserved to be cursed. His hatred and enthusiasm actually did have the power and potential to ruin us as a people. The only thing that saved us was our own love and enthusiasm for the will of Hashem. Many years before Bilaam got up early to saddle his donkey, our grandfather Avraham got up early to saddle his. The Medrash explains that it was Avraham’s love and enthusiasm for the will of Hashem that was able to outshine the Bilaam’s enthusiastic hatred.

Bilaam himself attested to this when he said “Behold a nation rises like a lion cub”. The Targum explains that this refers to the Jewish people rising to say shema and put on tefillin and tzitzis and to do the will of Hashem.

It is very important that we, as people, take a step back and figure out what gets us excited and what makes us tick. If we are motivated by something impure we are in danger of becoming completely oblivious to the world around us examine our true motivations and intentions.

On the other hand, if we are motivated by that which is right and by the desire to help others, to become better people, and to fulfill Hashem’s will we will be successful. Hashem guides a person in the way that he truly wishes to travel.

Posted on 07/10 at 02:31 AM • Permalink
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Friday, July 06, 2012

Still Travelling - Why Bilaam’s Curse Didn’t Work

Bilaam and Balak did not see eye to eye. Bilaam had a simple problem; he needed someone to get rid of the Jews. He did some research and found that the way to do it was by cursing them and that the best person to curse them would be Bilaam. He sent messengers to Bilaam and gave him an offer that he should not have been able to refuse. Bilaam refused.

Although Bilaam later decided to follow along with Balak’s plan, it backfired and was doomed to failure. It is worth understanding what it was that scared Balak.

Rav Moshe Feinstein points out a small but significant difference in Bilaam’s perception of the Jews vs. Balak’s perception of the Jews. Balak characterized the Jews as a “Nation who had left Egypt”; Bilaam characterized them as “a nation leaving Egypt”.

Balak knew about everything that Hashem had done for the Jews in Mitzrayim, but he was not fazed. He didn’t even mention the miracles in Mitzrayim and at the Yam Suf. He was only concerned with the current status of the Jews: a nation that was grabbing all of the lands that it passed through. “And Balak saw all that the Jews had done to the Emori”.

Bilaam understood that the Jews were different. They were on the warpath and winning only because they were on their way out of Mitzrayim. Later, when he explained why he could not curse the Jews he reiterated, “the G-d who is taking them out of Mitzrayim is strong as a bull”. Leaving Mitzrayim is an ongoing event.

There are two aspects to keeping Shabbos. In the first Luchos we are told to remember Shabbos itself. Shabbos is the day on which Hashem rested. In the second Luchos we are commanded to keep Shabbos and to remember that we were slaves in Mitzrayim and that Hashem took us out.

On the one hand we need to remember the creation of the world and the fact that Hashem created us in six days. On the other hand we need to remember that we are on a journey and that we have already come far. Shabbos is a time for us to rest and remember that we are on a journey and to reflect on how far we have come and that we can proceed.

Life is full of ups and downs. We start books and projects and then we lose our resolve before we finish them. Reb Chaim Shmuelvitz gave a piece of advice to yeshiva Bochurim experiencing ups and downs: When you get back to learning always start from where you left off. Never, ever, start again from the beginning.

Balak believed that our strength was dependent on Prayer and Curses. Bilaam realized that our success was based on the fact that the present is only one small part of our Journey.

Posted on 07/06 at 08:38 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Like a Rolling Stone - Lessons From Miriam’s Well

When Miriam was very young, she predicted that her brother Moshe would grow up to be a great person. Even after he was thrown into the Nile, Miriam stayed behind hidden in the reeds to see what would happen to him and see if there was anything she could do to help. As a reward for staying behind at the water, Miriam was given the “Well of Miriam”.

Rashi explains that that the Well of Miriam was actually a stone. It rolled with the Jewish people in their travels and miraculously gave water. During the all of the time that the Jewish people were travelling in the desert they were able to stay hydrated only because of this well of Miriam. When Miriam passed away, the well stopped giving water. When the Jewish people came to Moshe and complained about the lack of water, Moshe turned to Hashem who gave him very precise instructions. Moshe was to bring a stick, talk to the stone, Nd command it to give forth water. Moshe gathered the people and got the stone to start supplying water again, but instead of talking to the stone he hit it.

Moshe was criticized harshly for hitting the stone. It was one of the reasons why he was not allowed to enter the land of Israel. Many reasons are given for this criticism, but I would like to add my own two cents:

Miriam’s well was a reward for her kindness to her brother Moshe. It is very significant that the reward for her kindness was the opportunity to do more kindness. She could have been blessed with long years, health, a new car, or respect. Instead she was rewarded with a well that would keep the Jewish people hydrated in the desert.

Miriam understood that the greatest reward for kindness is kindness itself. When we fulfill the will of Hashem we are doing what we were created and designed to do. There is no better feeling than that.

We find a similar idea when Miriam (together with her mother Yocheved) defied Pharaoh’s orders to abort all of the Jewish children. Their reward for saving the Jewish children was that the Jewish children continued to multiply. The act itself was enough reward. They didn’t need anything else.

When Miriam passed away it was important that this lesson be preserved. Hashem told Moshe to speak to the stone and have it burst forth with water. There is no ‘stone heaven’ and the stone had nothing to gain by giving the water. By listening to the word of Hashem the stone would be giving forth water only because that was the will of its creator. This was to be an important lesson to the Jewish people. They were not to look for reward and punishment, but to act because their creator required it.

When Moshe hit the stone, he lost an important part of that message. Now, the stone gave water because it had been hit. It was reacting to reward and punishment, but not to its ultimate role in this world. The Jewish people still learned an important lesson, but not the lesson of serving Hashem for it’s own sake with no regard for immediate gratification or consequence. (Sources: Taanis 9a and Rabbeinu Bechayei as cited in “Teachings” by Rabbi A. Brander)

Posted on 07/05 at 03:44 AM • Permalink
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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Rabi Akiva

The following are two shiurim that I recently gave on Rabi Akiva and his life.

Part One: A Drop at a Time

It is always worthwhile to spend a few minutes telling the story of Rabi Akiva. Many of us know the story of Rabi Akiva, but many people do not. Besides, there is always something new to add.

Rabi Akiva’s father-in-law was a very wealthy man called Kalba Savua. Kalba Savua literally means “Satiated Dog”. Dogs are notoriously hungry, but even someone as hungry as a dog would be full when he left Kalba Savua’s house. He was that generous.

Kalba Savua had a daughter named Rachel who decided to marry one of Kalba Savua’s shepherds. According to many accounts, Akiva did not even know how to read and write. Rachel insisted that Akiva would go to yeshiva and learn, but Kalba Savua was opposed to the match and vowed that the couple would not benefit from even a penny of his wealth.

Rachel married Akiva and Akiva went to study Torah. He began at the lowest grades and worked his way up. In twelve years he was not only a scholar, but the teacher of 12,000 students. After twenty-four years he had an entourage of at least 24,000. He returned home and Rachel tried to approach him. She was dressed like a beggar and the students tried to push her away. Rabi Akiva stopped them and declared that all the Torah that he had and all the Torah that they had learned from him was due to her encouragement and self-sacrifice. (He bought her a special crown of gold with a picture of Yerushalayim and he gave her great honor for the rest of her days.)

In the meantime, Kalba Savua had also arranged a meeting with Rabi Akiva, not realizing that this was the same Akiva who he had shunned so many years ago. He tearfully described how he had estranged his daughter because she had married an ignoramus and begged for a way out of the vow. Rabi Akiva asked if he would have made the vow, had he understood that Akiva would one day become a great sage. Kalba Savua assured him that he never would have made the vow if he had known that Akiva was to learn even one verse in Torah. Rabi Akiva introduced himself and explained to Kalba Savua that his vow had been based on an error. The vow was invalidated and they lived “happily ever after”.

We need to understand what it was about Rabi Akiva that helped him succeed. Kalba Savua did not believe that he would master even one verse, yet Rabi Akiva claimed that he had been on the way to becoming a great Torah scholar. What are we missing?

The Medrash tells us that Rachel and Akiva were once walking near a stream. They came across a stone with a hole bored through it. It is not easy to make a hoe in a stone, but this hole had been made by water. Drop after drop after drop had dripped on the stone, and over hundreds, maybe thousands, of years the water had bored a hole in the stone. Rabi Akiva looked at the stone and made a “Kal V’chomer’. If the water, which was soft, could pierce the stone, which was hard – certainly the string and sharp words of Torah would be able to pierce his heart and help him understand. He left the next day t study Torah.

Rabi Akiva didn’t see a waterfall or a hydro-slicer piercing the stone. That would not have convinced him. Rabi Akiva saw drop after drop of water. Each drop had no visible effect at all on the stone, yet after thousands of years it was clear that each drop had made a dent, however tiny. Akiva realized that every step that he took, however tiny, would bring him closer to becoming Rabi Akiva. He alone, together with Rachel, took those invisible steps and became the leader of the Jewish people.

Today is the thirty-fifth day of the Omer. The Ramban writes in this week’s Parsha that the Omer is a period of Chol hamoed between Pesach and Shavuos. It is our chance to prepare to “renew our vows” and receive the Torah all over again on Shavuos. Sefirah is all about making tiny changes, and refining the way we accept the Torah. We can learn from Rabi Akiva that it is never too late to start. Whether we are forty years old or three weeks away for Shavuos, it is never too late to begin making tiny changes in ourselves. We may not see immediate results, but we see from Rabi Akiva that ultimately those tiny invisible steps can make a really big difference.

(Based in part on an article by Rabbi Yaacov Haber at Torahlab.org)

Part Two: Real Loss

The Gemara in Yevamos tells us about the funeral of Rabi Elazar. The Gemara describes how Rabi Akiva cried inconsolably at the funeral. He even hit himself in agony to the point that blood dripped from his arms. He said “I have questions that will never be answered now and there are questions that will never be asked”.

Tosfos asks how the great Rabi Akiva could have wounded himself in agony, but Rav Shalom Schwadron asks an even more basic question: How does this story fit in with anything we know about Rabi Akiva?

The Gemara at the end of Makos tells about how Rabi Akiva and his colleagues encountered the ruins Beis Hamikdash. As they passed, they saw a fox walk out of the Kodesh Hakodashim (the Holy of Holies). The sages cried to see an animal emerge unscathed from the holiest spot in the world, but Rabi Akiva laughed. He explained that he was thinking about the prophecies of Jerusalem’s rebuilding. Once the fulfillment of the prophecy of destruction had been fulfilled, he was confident that the prophecy of rebuilding would be realized as well.

Much later, when Rabi Akiva was tortured to death by the Romans, he did not lose his composure. He said, “All my life I have been waiting for the moment when I could truly love Hashem with all of my being.”
We just finished a period of mourning for the students of Rabi Akiva. The Gemara tells us that on the very day that his students stopped dying, he began to gather new students and teach them Torah.

This was Rabi Akiva: he could start learning at the age of forty even as everyone, except his wife, believed that he had no hope. He remained composed during the death of his students, the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and his own tortuous death, yet he seems to have been overcome with uncontrollable grief at the funeral of Rabi Elazar.

Rav Shalom Schwadron explains that Rabi Akiva was able to make peace with everything. He was even able to make peace with the death of of Rabi Elazar. Rabi Akiva mourned so strongly because he realized that nobody would ever be able to repace the Torah of Rabi Elazar. Rabi Elazar was one of the last great students of Bais Shammai. He stood alone when everyone else went according to the majority rule of Bais Hillel.

Later, he debated with the sages in the case of the “Tanur shel Achinai” (Baba Metzia, 59b). Rabbi Elazar ruled that such an oven is Tahor (pure), but the majority of the sages ruled that it was Tameh (impure).

Rabbi Elazar refused to give in and was eventually excommunicated. He passed away while in excommunication.

Rabi Akiva realized that Rabi Elazar’ Torah was irreplaceable. He had a direct line from Shammai that was lost forever. It was true that he was excommunicated and that the Halacha did not follow him. Still, Rabi Akiva mourned the loss of the unique contribution of Rabi Elazar.

At the end of Shemona Esrei we all say “V’sein Chelkeinu B’sorasecha”. We ask Hashem to give us our personal portion of the Torah: the Torah that we are able to understand and explain in a way that nobody else can. Our job is to share our unique contribution with the world. If we do, we have fulfilled our purpose and the world will be a better place; if we do not, there is no greater tragedy.

During these days of Sefira we mourn the passing of Rabi Akiva’s students. Rabi Akiva said that they were punished because they did not respect one another’s Torah.

Like Rabi Akiva recognizing the loss of Rabi Elazar, we need to recognize the contribution that every person makes to our understanding of the Torah. Perhaps more importantly, we need to recognize that we have our own contribution. Rabi Akiva taught us that we can remain hopeful while the Bais Hamikdash is being burnt, but there is no greater tragedy than a person who does not contribute his two cents to our understanding of the Torah. 

(Based in part on Lev Shalom by Rav Shalom Schwadron)

Posted on 05/15 at 03:12 AM • Permalink
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Friday, May 04, 2012

Reb Simcha (Acharei Mos)

Many people will remember Rav Simcha Schustal as one of the most pleasant and joyful people that they have encountered. I will remember him yelling at his Chavrusa.

It happened on the day that Rav Simcha disagreed with Rav Shach’s approach to a Gemara. The teenaged bochur who was his chavrusa was quoting Rav Shach’s Avi Ezri, but Rav Simcha refused to give in. Rav Simcha stood up and got in the young man’s face. He backed the boy against the wall. He questioned his logic. He debated his reasoning. He broke a sweat and, possibly, broke the sound barrier.

Later in the afternoon, the teenaged bochur came across a newer edition of Rav Shach’s Avi Ezri. It seems that Rav Shach had eventually retracted from his position. Rav Simcha had been right.

That was Rav Simcha Schustal: He smiled, he was kind, and he was easygoing. He was respectful of all people and he never said a hurtful word. He was also extraordinarily strong on his principals and shockingly unyielding in his opinions.

Whether he was disagreeing with Rav Shach on a Rambam or staying out of the limelight by taking an unpopular stance, Rav Simcha managed to be both respectful and opinionated. He would apologize profusely to his study partners while not budging an inch on the proper interpretation of the Gemara.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin (68a) finds Rabi Akiva mourning the loss of Rabi Elazar. The Talmud tells us that he wept to the point of self-flagellation. He hit himself in agony until blood dripped to the ground.

Is this the Rabi Akiva that we know? Is this the Rabi Akiva that was able to laugh as he watched a fox enter the ruins of the Holy of Holies? Is the Rabi Akiva who was able to profess his love for Hashem even as the Romans tore his flesh with hot pieces of iron?

Tosfos explains that even Rabi Akiva knew when to cry. Rabi Elazar had been a man who held strong opinions and was singularly unwavering in his beliefs. Rabi Akiva cried because Rabi Elazar’s unique stance had been lost forever. Important questions would remain unasked and and unanswered. Rabi Elazar’s Torah would never be replaced.

Rabi Akiva could see the silver lining in every tragedy, but he could not smile at the loss of Rabi Elazar’s Torah. (Of course, self-flagellation is never recommended).

The Ibn Ezra (Devarim 29:18) writes that we often often resist change because we rely on the merit of righteous people to outweigh our sins. We figure that the world will survive because there are enough righteous people around. When a righteous person passes away, we are forced to step up to the plate and generate our own merit. Their death forces us to take responsibility for our actions.This is one of the reasons why the death of the righteous atonement for the actions of the living.

In Parshas Acharei Mos, the death of the sons of Aharon is followed by a rendering of the laws of Yom Kippur. The Medrash derives from this juxtaposition that the death of any righteous person should force us to observe a personal Yom Kippur. Our losses force us to reassess who we are, who we can be, and the role that we are obligated to fill.

We need to develop the Rav Simcha Schustal that lies within each one of us.

(Based in part on the Lev Shalom, by Rav Shalom Schwadron)

Posted on 05/04 at 04:52 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Shattered Vessels

She reminded me of Savta Simcha, the Mary Poppins of Jewish children’s literature. She was an eccentric type of figure with floppy hats and bags full of mysterious objects. She was always full of wisdom and you never knew where she was going or where she would show up next.

She did not like to accept help from anybody. Nobody knew where she lived. We would meet her in the most random places and would often see her taking long treks across Norfolk in all sorts of weather. She loved to speak in Hebrew and always had something to say about an upcoming Yom Tov or event. We didn’t really know who she was.

Last month, Simcha passed away. I attended her Shloshim and learned that Simcha had so much more history and depth than any of us had ever imagined. Her children and grandchildren had loved her dearly and they looked just like me and my children. A slideshow showed photographs of her childhood and young adult life in Istanbul which were both fascinating and typical. Her Turkish grandfather wore a fez that looked just like the fez worn by my Turkish ancestors. Her family gatherings looked just like ours do. Simcha was not just an eccentric woman. She was a very special woman with a family who worked valiantly to care of her and ancestors who made her the determined person she was.

Simcha led a colorful life. As a teenager during World War II, Simcha risked the streets to find food for her hidden family. As a teacher, Simcha helped found a Jewish school in Istanbul. As an Israeli soldier, she found dangerous weapons concealed under the clothes of a terrorist masquerading as a pregnant woman. Later, Simcha served as a translator for important Turkish officials. She knew eight languages and had plenty to say. Even the Lubavitcher Rebbe knew that he was in for a long conversation when she came to see him.

At the Pesach Seder, we have the custom of pouring some wine out of our cups with the mention of each of the ten plagues. It is our small ode to the humanity of the Egyptians and the indignities that they suffered. Kabbalistically, the drops of wine are poured into a broken vessel to signify that what took place in Egypt was nothing less than utter destruction of humanity. In Istanbul the custom was to turn away as the wine was poured into the broken vessel, and every year Simcha would admonish those at her seder around her not to look at the broken vessel. It was too scary, too powerful and too awful to deal with.

Simcha herself was a shattered vessel. She was a brilliant and heroic woman with an illustrious history and accomplished children who loved her. Unfortunately, we were unable to see that in the woman that we knew.

The Kabbalists teach us that shattered vessels have the greatest potential for holiness. Our natural inclination is to turn away in fear and discomfort, but perhaps the time has come to turn back toward the next shattered vessel that we see and give him or her a closer look.

I wish I had.

Posted on 04/26 at 05:16 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Freedom

After a week of celebrating freedom it is worthwhile to take a few moments to examine the idea of freedom and how it can have an impact on our lives beyond Pesach.

The Gemara in Pesachim tells a story about Rav Nachman and his slave named Daru. At the seder Rav Nachaman asked Daru how he would react if his master set him free and gave him thousands of dollars in gold and silver. Daru said that he would jump for joy and praise his master. Rav Nachman said “with your words we have fulfilled the obligation of asking the Mah Nishtana”. He skipped Mah Nishtana and continued the seder with “Avadim Hayinu”

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Drush 12, 1929) asks a very simple question. How was Daru’s statement about freedom a fulfillment of Mah Nishtana? If anything, it was a fulfillment of Avadim Hayinu? Daru’s statement was explaining why we celebrate, not asking why things are different.

Rav Moshe quotes another Gemara about Daru. In Bava Kama Rav Nachman writes that if he were to lose Daru he would incur absolutely no financial loss because Daru was not worth his food and board. Daru’s only skill was dancing at parties and people who dance at parties do not make enough money to support themselves. Daru was lucky to be a slave because otherwise he would have starved to death.

When Daru was jumping for joy but he had no idea what he was getting himself into. He was dependent upon Rav Nachman to support him. Even with the thousands of dollars in gold that he would receive, he would eventually run out of money and find himself with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep.

When the Jewish people left Mizrayim the Matzah was the one thing that didn’t work out. Everyone who deserved to leave left, the Egyptians were unable to touch us, and we got to keep some of the Egyptian’s wealth. The matzah was the only ‘fluke’ - our bread did not have time to rise. Instead of finally eating normal food, we were forced to eat the same flat bread of poverty that we had eaten for hundreds of miserable years as slaves in Mitzrayim. At the seder the son looks around him and sees “only Matzah”. We seem to have been holding onto that “Matzah” of imperfection for thousands of years. Nothing works out perfectly. We may be ‘free’, but we are always running, rushing, not getting things right, and trying something new. Nothing is permanent. We are like Daru, celebrating and dancing around when we are not free at all.

Daru is ‘exhibit A’ of the Mah Nishtana. He thinks he is free, but he is really going to starve to death. We ask the same questions of ourselves: Are we really truly free? Are we really so happy? We get excited about things from time to time, but do they have lasting value? Do we really live in a perfect world with perfect lives, or are we like Daru – jumping for joy when we are really starving to death?

The answer to the Mah Nishtana is that we are free. We may not be truly independent or in a great situation, but we are still celebrating.  We are celebrating the fact that no matter what situation we are in, we have the ability to hook up with something larger than ourselves and bigger the entire world that we live in.

Before Yetzias Mitzrayim, people looked at the Jewish people as a slave nation. We had no aspirations or hope of ever becoming anything else. By leaving Mitzrayim we gave ourselves goals as individuals and as a nation. We became so free that we became people that could never be enslaved again. There has been plenty of persecution, suffering, and abuse throughout the years, but nobody can truly enslave the Jewish nation. We possess a neshama and a mission that simply cannot be subdued or neutralized. Hashem has made us free.

Another way to put it is to say that we have achieved the freedom to rise above it all. It is the freedom from the feeling of jealousy that we feel when someone gets something that we deserve. It is freedom from the irritation that we know we shouldn’t be feeling around certain people. We want to be free from our addictions, free from bad moods, and free from laziness. We want to break out and get on with our lives. The bracha of Pesach is the true Cheirus that we can imagine and attain each and every year.

The seventh day of Pesach symbolizes the final step of our freedom. Until the sea split the Jewish people were not yet convinced that they had made the right choice. In the back of their heads they still saw the Egyptians running after them. It was only after they saw the Egyptians washed up on the shore of the sea that they were able to breath a sigh of relief and get started on the rest of their lives.

Posted on 04/18 at 08:16 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Final Five

It was that time of year again. College basketball was in full swing and my normally attentive students were filling out brackets under their desks. Exhibiting an age-appropriate lack of proportion, it was clear that there was nothing more important to these boys than forecasting the outcome of basketball’s March Madness. The Holy Grail was predicting the Final Four teams that would play in the upcoming championship.

Everyone had their opinions as to which teams would be in the Final Four and everyone was prepared to argue passionately for their predictions. Inevitably, this led to an increased volume in heated whispering and note passing during class.

After a day or two of March Madness, I decided that I had seen enough. I was not going to deal with this breach in discipline any longer. On my ride to school the next morning I spent a few minutes listening to ESPN and, with the help of “Mike & Joe in the Morning”, I was able to make my educated guesses as to the outcome of the college basketball season. When I arrived in school I confidently and decisively posted my “Final Four” predictions on the wall outside my classroom.

When class began, I made clear to my eight graders that March Madness had been settled. I had formed my opinion and there was nothing further to discuss. Any further speculation about college basketball would be seen as a personal affront and any ‘bracket’s found in the classroom would be mercilessly confiscated.

My boys reacted with respectfully masked derision. Apparently, my ‘picks’ were seeded terribly low and my understanding of college basketball left something to be desired. Nonetheless, my students recognized a strict teacher when they saw one and were able to buckle down and get back into the intricacies of Aseih Doch Lo Saseh and Lav She’ein bo Maaseh. Basketball conversations were relegated to recess and lunchtime.

I received my first phone call a few evenings later. “Rebbe”, an amazed voice said, “Connecticut just won their division in a major upset. How did you know?”

I explained to the caller that everything is written in the Torah. I also made a mental note to listen to ESPN on my way into school the next day.

Sure enough, as the season progressed, more and more of my farfetched predictions were realized. My students couldn’t hide their admiration. I milked the success for all it was worth and found myself following college basketball with increasing anxiety. My credentials as a prophet and the world’s coolest rebbe were at a stake. I would arrive in school each morning to a flurry of questions about the previous night’s game. Would Louisiana make it? Would ODU really lose every game? Did the Navy team have a chance?

I tried my best to smile wisely while remaining tight-lipped. I said nothing, but stood confidently and patiently behind my original predictions.

That season was a real victory for Sender Haber and the Torah. The students kept basketball out of the classroom and I gained a level of respect that put me in the same league as the rebbe who hit the legendary game winning home run. Virtually all of my predictions were realized and my students were so proud of their rebbe that they forgot how misguided their own expectations had been.

The episode of the Final Four and the hype surrounding it taught me an important lesson. I had picked my teams blindly and held onto them stubbornly in the hope that I would strike gold. We do this all the time. We invest our energy, our resources and our pride in dubiously selected projects and ideals. We do it with horses, with stocks, with careers, and with the way that we prioritize our lives. We are never quite sure that we are right, but we make choices and cling to them stubbornly. Sometimes we win; often we lose.

Is there a way to know what is truly important? Is there a way to know what is truly worth picking and clinging to through thick and thin and good and bad?

The answer is in the very last mishna of Pirkei Avos:

“Hashem has five acquisitions in this world: Torah, Heaven & earth, Avraham, the Jewish People, and the Beis Hamikdash”.

Hashem’s top five picks - His Final Five - are Torah, Heaven & earth, Avraham, the Jewish People, and the Holy Temple. G-d is completely invested in these the five ideas and He is confident that they will never lose value. If we stick with G-d’s top five investments, we are guaranteed to win. If we ignore them and put our priorities elsewhere we will have no guarantees. Even as the markets fluctuate and the world changes, G-d’s five picks are always guaranteed to win.

Never again have I been able to predict the Final Four as deftly as I did that first season. Prophecy was a gift that Hashem chose to give me for just one year. I will keep on trying each March, but from now on I will know that the main thing is to concentrate on Hashem’s top five picks.

Hopefully, I can inspire my students to do the same by teaching them Torah, enforcing strict discipline, and listening to ESPN every once in a while.

Posted on 03/04 at 07:33 AM • Permalink
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Monday, February 27, 2012

Oh, How I Love Your Torah

“Oh, how I love Your Torah. I speak of it all day”.

“Mah Ahavti Sorasecha. Kol Hayom Hi Sichasi”. (Psalms 119)

When King David said those words, he wasn’t referring to a class that he had taught, a psalm he had written, or a ruling that he had given. King David was referring to all of his conversations and thoughts during every hour of every day.

King David’s life revolved around Torah. If the Torah liked it – King David liked it; if the Torah did not like it – King David stayed away.

In King David’s life there was nothing more important or more beloved than Torah.

King David’s love of Torah has echoed throughout our existence. The Talmud in Menachos (18a) tells us that the holy tanna Rav Elazar shed tears when he saw the love that his student, Rav Yosef Habavli, had for Torah. “Torah scholars are fortunate”, he exclaimed, “Simply because the words of Torah are so dear to them”.

Rav Elazar understood the value of incorporating a love of Torah into every decision that we make. He saw in his student the epitome of the words of King David. He loved the Torah and everything in his life revolved around it.

Last week, I attended a wedding with my five year old son. As the band sang the words of Rav Elazar, I broke away from the circle and grabbed the right hand of one of the greatest Torah scholars alive today. He was too old to dance, but too engrossed in the happiness to walk away.  My son took the man’s left hand and slowly we formed our own little circle. We sang the words of King David and Rav Elazar to honor the greatness of Torah and the life of a man whose greatest joy is the study of Torah.

“Oh, how I love your Torah”, we sang, “I speak about it all day”.

As we held on tight to ‘our own’ Talmid Chacham, our voices and tears blended with those of tens of dedicated Torah scholars in the main circle. I closed my eyes and prayed that this moment would have its effect on me. I begged Hashem to give me the strength to live a life whose every decision is based on His desire. I prayed for a life with no distractions, no detours, and no misplaced priorities. I prayed that my son would learn to love the Torah as much as King David did. And I prayed that he would grow up with the knowledge that he had danced for and held the hand of a man who loved the Torah because his very life revolved around it.

The Talmud (Taanis 31) tells us that in the future G-d will surround Himself with Torah scholars. They will form a circle and dance exuberantly in the knowledge that they chose well. They will glow with the contentment of men who have lived a life that revolved around the Torah.

“Ashreichem talmidei chachamim, shedivrei torah chavivim aleichem b’yoser”

“Torah scholars are fortunate, simply because the words of Torah are so very dear to them”.

Posted on 02/27 at 03:55 AM • Permalink
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Friday, February 24, 2012

Toras Chaim to Honor Sender and Chamie Haber

Shalom U’vracha,

I hope this finds you well.

The Toras Chaim elementary school of Virginia has chosen to honor my wife and I with the Harbotzas Torah Award for ten years of Jewish education in our community.

The Norfolk community has been a wonderful home to our family and we are both flattered by the honor, and thrilled by the opportunity, to help an institution where both of us teach and all three of our children go to school each day.

Toras Chaim, also in its tenth year, is a school of about one hundred students that is dedicated to giving Jewish children a well-rounded education in an environment that is consistent with our Torah values.

Our teachers, rabbeim, and morahs are all ‘top-notch’ and our leadership is knowledgeable, professional and dedicated. We have a close relationship with Torah Umesorah (The National Association of Jewish Day Schools) and some of the country’s greatest Halachic authorities on our advisory board.

The parents of Toras Chaim work with tremendous mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice) to help the school meet its budget. They volunteer and give of their resources above and beyond the call of duty. Still, we have no choice but to rely on outside help, from Norfolk and beyond, to keep the school going.

Please take advantage of this opportunity to support Torah growth in a community of dedicated Jews with limited resources. Help these students receive the education they deserve which will help them grow up to be fine Bnei Torah, Bnos Yisroel, and contributing members of the Jewish people.

If you have received an invitation in the mail, please take a moment to take a look at the ad blank. Anything that you can do to help Toras Chaim will be appreciated by us, the entire Norfolk community, and one day, by the entire nation of Israel. If you have not received an invitation but would like to attend, make a donation, or buy a 1/4 page ad for $54, please contact the school at nberman@verizon.net

Also, please note that the (extended) ad deadline is this Motzai Shabbos. Ads for a special addendum will be accepted after the deadline.

Thank you in advance,

Sender Haber

NB For my blog on terumah, please see

http://www.torahlab.org/outoftheloop/best_supporting_actor

Posted on 02/24 at 07:54 PM • Permalink
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Friday, February 10, 2012

Yisro’s Perspective

Yisro’s first encounter with Moshe was as a judge in his capital murder trial. After the international tribunal sentenced Moshe to death for killing the Egyptian, Yisro returned home to Midyan only to find that Moshe had fled to Midyan as well.

Although he was considered the “Kohein” of Midyan, Yisro was not well liked by the locals. He was a spiritual seeker who had studied and rejected their form of idolatry. They hated him. When Yisro’s daughters were accosted at the well, the only person to help them was Moshe.

Yisro invited Moshe to his home. Rather than send him back to Egypt to die, Yisro put Moshe in a dungeon where he was secretly fed by Tziporah for ten years. After ten years, Yisro allowed Moshe and Tziporah to get engaged. He allowed the marriage on the condition that their first born son would be a priest to idolatry. Yisro did not allow Moshe to give his son a Bris Milah as long as they were in Midyan.

When Moshe retuned to Egypt to free the Jewish people he sent his wife and two sons back to Yisro. As Moshe debated Pharaoh, inspired the Jewish people and engineered the Exodus, Yisro and his family were far away and uninvolved in the city of Midyan.

Much later, when the Jews were finally travelling through the desert, Yisro decided to pay Moshe a visit. He came to the Jewish camp and identified himself, but the people on the outskirts of the camp would not let him in. He was not considered a friend of the Jewish people.

In desperation, Yisro shot arrows with messages into the Jewish camp. The first one said: “I am Your Father-in-law Yisro and I have come”, the second said “I have brought your wife”, and the third, “I have brought her two children as well”.

Moshe read the messages and decided to come out personally to greet Yisro. He was joined by Aharon and Nadav and Avihu and large entourage of Jewish people.  Moshe kissed and greeted his Father-in-law and invited him into his tent where he told him the stories of the past few months. Rashi explains that Moshe’s goal was to inspire Yisro and bring him closer to Hashem.

What caused Yisro to finally come and see Moshe? There is an argument in the Gemara. Some say that Yisro heard about the splitting of the sea and the victory against Amalek. Others say that he heard about the giving of the Torah.

The Ramban points out that the Jews were camped at the time near Har Ha’elokim (Har Sinai).  We know that Moshe chanced on the burning bush at Har Ha’elokim when he was tending Yisro’s flock, so Midyan and Har Ha’elokim were fairly close to one another. It is not unlikely that Yisro travelled back and forth between Midyan and the Jewish encampment. It is conceivable that Yisro actually came twice: once upon hearing about the splitting of the sea and the war against Amalek, and again after the giving of the Torah.

II

The Medrash tells us that Yisro was not allowed to be present at the giving of the Torah because he had not been a slave in Egypt. The Jews had toiled with bricks and mortar while Yisro sat peacefully at home. He could not come now after the suffering was over to experience the joy of the giving of the Torah.

Moshe sent Yisro home. When the Torah was given, Yisro was not present but he felt the earth in Midyan shake. Together with other world leaders, he ran to Bilaam to find out exactly what was happening. Bilaam explained to the leaders that although the earth was shaking and G-d had appeared to the Jews, the world would not be destroyed. They had nothing to worry about. The world leaders were convinced that they would not be harmed and returned to their homes. Only Yisro could not return home. He was so impressed by the giving of the Torah that he returned immediately to the Jewish camp and became a Jew.

Rav Moshe Feinstein explains (Drashos 18) that the world leaders could not relate to the Torah because they could not understand why the Jews had accepted the Torah. The Jews had not been under duress or threatened with destruction, yet they agreed to keep 613 mitzvos. Only Yisro understood that the covenant of Har Sinai was the result of a very special relationship between Hashem and His people. Yisro was inspired by this relationship and it moved him to join the Jewish Nation.

III

One of the oddest aspects of Yisro’s relationship with the Jewish people was the advice that he gave to Moshe. After completely ignoring Moshe through the most tumultuous time of his life, Yisro had the confidence to tell Moshe that he was not teaching Torah properly.

Rather than allowing Moshe to remain as the sole transmitter of the Torah, Yisro set up a hierarchy of judges and decreed that only the most difficult of questions be brought to Moshe.

Initially, the Jewish people had not used the Yisro plan. They had insisted on going to Moshe with every single question. This is because the most important event in their life and the goal in all of their suffering was the giving of the Torah. They wanted nothing more than to draw out this process by continuing to learn from Moshe. They wanted more Matan Torah.

Yisro knew that the Jewish people did not need to depend on the process of Matan Torah. He was there because had been inspired just by hearing the stories and observing the relationship that the Jewish people had with Hashem. He was understood and admired the greatness of the Jewish people who had received the Torah from Hashem. It could be said that the Jewish people based their spirituality on Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), while Yisro was inspired by the Kabbolas Hatorah (the receiving of the Torah).

Yisro was able to point out that to the Jewish people that they had gained more than just knowledge at Har Sinai. They had actually received the Torah and that Torah was now within them. They each had a personal obligation to understand it and teach it. It was possible to judge a case and decide a halacha without consulting Moshe Rabbeinu.

IV

On Yom Kippur we compare Hashem to a glass blower who works patiently with a piece of glass. He develops a concept in his mind and guides the lump of glass in and out of the fire. He shapes it until it is perfect.

At any moment the glass blower could decide to stop working and leave the glass in its less than perfect state. He could even choose to give up in frustration and allow the glass to shatter. It is only a patient and dedicated glass blower who is able to see his concept through until the end. He heats and reheats and shapes and reshapes until the piece is perfect.

Yisro watched from the sidelines as Hashem worked patiently with the Jewish people. Sometimes He was shaping them and sometimes He seemed to be melting them back into shapelessness. He would make them larger and then allow them to contract. He would blow into them from of Himself and He would watch as they took shape. He made them hot and cold, magnificent and ugly. Finally, at Har Sinai, Hashem made the Jewish people into perfect pieces of art.

Yisro was able to look on from the outside and see the beautiful finished product. When the Jewish people felt like they were still a work in progress, being blown and shaped and guided and formed, Yisro was able to tell them that they looked beautiful and that they had finally absorbed the Torah and made it their own. They had absorbed Hashem’s Torah into their minds and souls.

V

We need to make our own Kabbolas Hatorah. Cultivating a relationship with Hahsem and receiving the Torah comes through hard work and, inevitably, through suffering. Hashem shapes us and molds us through our experiences and educates us through our learning. After hard work and years of connecting to Hashem, we have the ability to become walking Sifrei torah and to form a relationship with Hashem that is so strong that His will is our will and our will is His will. We can be given the gift of thinking our own Torah thoughts and of leading a life that is truly shaped by the Torah.

The giving at the Torah at Har Sinai was the most intimate bond that Hashem ever formed with a nation. The Jewish people were so used to the process of growth that they were not able to fully recognize its culmination. The nations of the world were also unable to recognize the greatness of the covenant because they simply had no appreciation for it.

It took an outsider and a spiritual seeker like Yisro to recognize our relationship for what it was.

Posted on 02/10 at 05:13 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Game Changer

I

The Jewish people complained to Moshe. He had come to help them, but he had only succeeded in making things worse. Before Moshe came, the Jewish slaves had been supplied with enough straw to fulfill their brick making quotas. Now they had to find their own straw. Moshe had damaged their reputations and increased their suffering.

Moshe turned to Hashem and complained, “Why have you caused this nation to suffer? Why did you send me?

Hashem assured Moshe that He would help the Jewish people. He added: “I have appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaacov with the name of ‘Kel Shakai’. I did not make my name of YHVH known to them”.

The name YHVH represents the idea that Hashem was, is and will always be. He is the cause of everything, He is with us at all times, and He will always be with us.  The forefathers did not need this reassurance because they understood that Hashem had a plan. In many cases, the forefathers saw their problems resolved in their own lifetimes. Avraham and Sarah bore Yitzchak and Avraham even lived to see Yishmael do Teshuva. Yitzchak survived the Akeidah and presumably had nachas from his children. Yaacov spent the last seventeen years of his life living peacefully and surrounded by all of his children. Throughout their ordeals, the forefathers remained holy, faithful and deserving of Hashem’s favor.

Moshe recognized that the suffering in Mitzrayim had impacted the Jews on a very deep level. There was no end in sight and the Jews could not even think about freedom. The Egyptians had succeeded in taking over their entire lives. They were losing their national identity and soon they would not deserve to be saved.

Hashem reassured Moshe with his name of YHVH that He would continue to be with the Jewish regardless of how downtrodden and unholy they might be.

Hashem taught Moshe that His love and His plans for our glorious future can transcend and defy all logic and fairness. Hashem is with us and he will see us through to the end.

II

There are still a number of puzzling questions that need to be answered:

Firstly, why does Hashem say that He did not make His name of YHVH known to the forefathers? This name was not a new revelation; we find it throughout the book of Bereishis. The Jewish people used it when they cursed Moshe at the end of Parshas Shemos, and Moshe himself used it in this very conversation. In what context was the name YHVH not used in previous generations?

Secondly, The Torah records that Hashem was ‘angy’ when Moshe, in apparent humility and thoughtfulness, suggested that his older brother Aharon lead the Jewish people. Yet, when Moshe accused Hashem of sending him to cause harm to the Jewish people, the Torah does not record any anger. Why is there no anger?

Third, according to the Medrash Hashem compared Moshe to the forefathers and mourned the loss of greater generations. Moshe had questioned Hashem’s plan where the forefathers had never questioned Him. Yet, we find that the forefathers did question Hashem. When Hashem promised the land of Israel to Avraham, he asked: ‘Bameh Eidah?” “How do I know?” Why was Moshe considered to be the first to question Hashem?

Finally, although the doubts of Avraham and Moshe were similar, the consequences that they were dealt were completely different. Avraham’s punishment was that his children were exiled for four hundred years while Moshe’s punishment was that he would not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel. Why the difference?

III

Many of these difficulties can be resolved by examining a single word. Hashem said that he “did not make His name of YHVH known to the forefathers”. What is the idea of Hashem making his name known?

In Hashem’s conversation with Avraham we also find the word ‘know: Avraham asks, “How will I know (that my children will inherit the land)?” and Hashem responds “You will surely know for your children will be slaves in a land that is not theirs or four hundred years”.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Drashos 11) explains that when Hashem first told Avraham that he would be given the land of Israel, Avraham was dismayed. Avraham had prayed to prevent the downfall of Sedom and he was not excited about the idea of conquering and expelling seven nations and thirty-one kings from the land of Canaan. He asked the question “How will I know?” using the word ‘know’ in the biblical sense: “How can I make peace with this? How can I appreciate this? How can this relate to me?”

Hashem responded to Avraham by explaining that there is a natural progression in world history. Trends change, nations change, beliefs change, and lands change. Just as the world has progressed past idolatry and slavery, there have been and will be many progressions throughout history. Hashem assured Avraham that there would be no sudden expulsion of the Canaanite people. Rather, the Canaanite society would disintegrate and deteriorate over time. They would succumb naturally to the Jewish invaders. Such is the way of the world and it was to remain that way until Moshe came along.

IV

Moshe grew up in Mitzrayim in the palace of Pharaoh. His fellow Jews were oppressed and suppressed but they showed no interest in dissent or rebellion against Pharaoh. It was only Moshe who came in from the outside who protested the treatment of the Jews and even killed a Mitzri. The Jews complained about Moshe’s involvement and harassed him to the point that he was forced to abandon his protest and flee to Midyan. When Hashem appeared to Moshe and sent him back to Mitzrayim, Moshe understood that the time was finally right for conditions to improve. He took his family and his belongings and returned to Mitzrayim.

Moshe knew that the process of freedom would take time, but he believed that the Pharaoh and the Jewish people were ready to start talking about freedom. Soon, Moshe found out that he was a lone voice. Pharaoh refused to take him seriously and the Jews cursed him for getting involved. Moshe realized that if history was to progress at a natural pace, the Jews would not live to see the end of the story. His complaint to Hashem was not about a lack of G-dliness in this world, but about the slow pace of change. He saw that the Jews did not have the stamina to take much more and that they had lost all desire to be free.

Moshe begged Hashem for a game changer.

Hashem responded by abandoning the natural process and rushing the Jewish people to freedom. The ensuing story of the Ten Makkos and of Yetzias Mitzrayim was a story of Shock and Awe. Rather than wait, as Avraham had requested, Hashem shocked Pharaoh and the Jewish people into change. Within a year, Pharaoh was begging the Jews to go and the Jews were free of bondage.

The quick change came at an expense. Attitude did not have time to catch up to reality. Pharaoh immediately regretted letting the Jews out, and the Jews begged to return to Egypt. We needed forty years of wandering in the desert just to shake off our slave mentality and prepare ourselves to enter the land of Israel. Even after we entered the land of Israel, our freedom was not eternal. It lasted only 410 years.

We had needed more time, but Moshe had realized that there was no more time.

Rav Moshe explains that when the final Geulah (redemption) comes to the world, we will be ready for it. As we say in Aleinu, the whole world will be perfected through the name of “Shakai” and the freedom will last forever. We constantly beg that Hashem to rush our redemption, but we know that He will rush it in a way that will not cost us our freedom.

V

When Moshe was a child he made a choice between a Diamond and a coal. He knew that the diamond was more valuable, but he picked up the coal instead. The angel who guided his hand taught him that sometimes the short term choice is the best choice. Opting for the coal saved his life, and the speech impediment that it caused was a constant reminder that sometimes we need to be impatient. We need to give up on the historic process and introduce a game changer.

As we consider the world around us, we need to envision the diamond and the coal. The diamond looks boring but has long term value but the coal can sometimes hold more excitement and more hope.

Rav Moshe observed that the world is almost ready for Moshiach. Most of the ingredients are in place and it is just the details that are missing.
Jealousy, lust, and the need for honor cause people to act in ways that they don’t believe in. Poverty, pressure, and societal norms cause us to do crazy things. Still, we can look beyond the insanity and know that we are almost ready.

In the Ha Lachma we declare that, by rights, nobody should remain hungry or needy. Unfortunately we are enslaved and in exile. We do witness hunger and hatred.  We hope that next year we will be redeemed and our true colors will show.

When we tell the story of Pesach, we are told to begin with the bad and end with praise. We may not have a perfect ending yet, but we can praise Hashem and appreciate who we are and how far we have come.

On a personal level, we can teach ourselves to be patient with the historic process, but to be willing to introduce a game changer when necessary.

We can sit back and let things progress naturally, or we can use our unique abilities to effect some badly needed change.

We can be the ones to bring the world one step closer to perfection.

Posted on 01/19 at 06:19 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, January 12, 2012

What If He Were Your Brother?

Rav Mendel Weinbach once approached Rav Michel Twerski with a dilemma. As the Rosh Yeshiva of one of the premier “Baal Teshuva” Yeshivos in the world, Rav Weinbach was often asked to accept students who had been born Orthodox but were not flourishing in the Yeshiva world. He wondered if he should veer from his mission of teaching newcomers to Judaism in order to teach the equally important, but very different, “Kids at Risk”.

As a fly on the wall during this discussion, I was intrigued. How do individuals and yeshivos determine their priorities? What is the proper way to deal with issues of resources, responsibility, and philosophy? Did Rabbi Weinbach and his yeshiva have an obligation to get involved with one demographic at the expense of another? Was he allowed? Was it proper to lump newcomers to Judaism with those who appeared to be on the way out? 

Reb Michel responded with characteristic humility and matter-of-factness:

“There are so many issues involved”, he acknowledged, “and one could debate about these issues for days. But these questions are often personal. What are you going to do if it is you nephew or your neighbor or your friend’s child who needs help? Are you going to refuse them? How can you say no?”

Rav Weinbach’s emotion-laden question and Rav Michel’s non-answer bring to mind a wonderful woman that my parents hired many years ago to be our cleaning lady and babysitter. The woman spent many hours with us and made life easier for my mother. She taught us not to fill up on apple juice, not to talk to strangers, and not to write in phone books.  Although she was not Jewish, she loved to sing along with Megama and quoted the bible with regularity.

One day, our beloved babysitter asked my father if he would meet with her son. He was a nice boy, but he was about to go to prison for murder. I don’t have a clear recollection of the son, but I do remember feeling very bad for him. I knew that he had done something very bad, but all my mind could process was that the nice lady’s son was going to jail.

The incident happened when I was very young, but I think about it often. Murderers have mothers too. Having mothers doesn’t (necessarily) make them better people or less deserving of punishment, but it does put things into perspective.

Next time somebody asks you for help or does something wrong, don’t jump to the logical conclusion. Imagine for a moment that he is your son or your brother.
Imagine that you would do anything in the world for him and that you want only the best for him. Only after we formed that picture in our minds, may we begin to think logically and to do what is right.

I often tell my elementary school students that teaching is not a popularity contest. I don’t base my decisions on what will make my students happy. At the same time, I try to make every decision out of love and respect for the student. Yosef Hatzadik was justified in speaking harshly and callously to his brothers, but only because he burst into tears immediately afterward.

When the Chazon Ish advised that a student be expelled from Yeshiva he would follow up by arranging to study regularly with the boy. I have seen similar policies adopted by contemporary roshei yeshiva and I have seen it work. A student who is a bad influence knows that he needs to leave. He also knows whether he is being disciplined out of love or out contempt.

In Parshas Shemos, when Pharaoh was told that Hashem had commanded that he let the Jews go, he didn’t argue or debate. He just denied Hashem’s existence. “Mi Hashem? I never heard of him and I don’t care about him”.

Like Pharaoh, we often assuage our guilt by not thinking about the subject of our criticism and callousness. The worst thing that we can do to a person is to deny his or her existence.

Before we refuse to help somebody or choose to write them off, we need to acknowledge that they are real people. We need to imagine that they are our neighbor, our friend, and our brother. We need to approach all logical conclusions with reluctance and regret. Sometimes we need to act calloused, but we may not be unfeeling. Sometimes, when the situation demands it, we need to transcend logic and act out of love.

We need to act like brothers.

Posted on 01/12 at 06:22 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 senderhaber@gmail.com