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Thursday, October 11, 2012

How Far Can We Grow?

On Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos, we say a special Hoshana from Rabbi Menachem ben Machir who lived about 1000 years ago. He is also the author of some of the Kinos that we say on Tisha B’av and of the ‘Reshus’ for the Chassan Torah on Simchas Torah.

In the first couplet of the Hoshana we ask Hashem to forgive us and save us on Shabbos just as he saved Adam, the first man, on Shabbos. In the second couplet we ask Hashem to save us just as He saved the Jewish people in Mitzrayim by allowing us to rest on Shabbos.

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

Hashem agreed and mankind was allowed to survive.

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

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

A little bit later in human history Adam encountered his son Kayin. Kayin had just committed the world’s first murder. When Kayin told Adam that his repentance had been accepted, Adam sang ‘Mizmor Shir L’yom Hashabbos”. The Nesivos Shalom explains that when Kayin was given the curse of roaming the earth he complained to Hashem. How could he possibly survive the curse of ‘na v’nad tihyeh b’aretz’, that he would be homeless and wandering? How could he survive without being grounded somewhere and connected to something? In response, Hashem gave kayin an ‘os’, a sign. We usually understand the sign to be some sort of physical mark, but the Nesivos Shalom writes that the sign was Shabbos. By coming back to his roots and remaining grounded and focused every Shabbos, kayin was able to survive (see Bereishis Rabbah 22:13).

The same thing happened in Egypt. The Jewish people were losing it, we had no sense of identity and no sense of focus, but Moshe saved us by convincing Pharaoh to let them rest every seventh day. (Shemos Rabba 1:28)

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

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

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

Posted on 10/11 at 04:45 AM • Permalink
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Friday, October 05, 2012

Step Outside

After going the various steps of Teshuva, the Rambam explains the ways of a Baal Teshuva. He writes that a Baal Teshuva should be involved in constant prayer, Tzedaka and ensuring that past Aveiros will not be repeated. A Baal Teshuva should also change his or her name as if to say ‘I am a different person’. And a Baal Teshuva should consider galus, because Galus is conducive to humility.

Based on this idea, the Yalkut Shimoni writes that the reason why Succos is in Tishrei and not after Pesach is because it is possible that our decree after Yom Kippur was to be exiled. By leaving our homes to enter our Sukkah’s it as we were exiled to Babylon. 

On the surface this makes a lot of sense, after all we are leaving our homes to be in a wooden shack. Even the most fancy Sukka is prey to the elements because there is no roof, yet the Sukka remains intact and dry only by the grace of G-d.

However, upon further thought, this is strange. It is a Mitzvah to decorate the Sukkah. It is forbidden to bring earthenware pots and pans into the Sukkah because it does not look nice. If the idea here is Galus, One would imagine that exile would mandate that we have Spartan lodgings without all of the creature comforts. Yet the Gemara tells us time and time again, teishvu k’ein Taduru, treat it as you would your home.

Reb Sheinberg takes very practical approach to answer this question. He explains that the idea is to leave our “dwellings of permanence” and work with something different, something new. Sukkos is a time to begin anew and assess everything that we do. Of course, Just rethinking whether we really like our dining room set or insulation may not change our lives, but once we get into the habit of leaving our Diras Keva, our “state of permanence”, we will have a tool to use for life.

Perhaps we can take this idea one step further: although our main purpose in this world is to prepare for the next world, we are also capable of bringing holiness into the world we live in. 

On Succos we are given a great opportunity. The Mitzvah of sukkah does not apply to just eating and drinking; everything we do should be done in the Sukkah. Everything we do becomes a Mitzvah. That is why, unlike Pesach, we make a leisheiv Besucca daily. According to many, even just walking into the Sukkah is a mitzvah and worthy of a bracha. This is our training ground for incorporating Hashem in our lives for the remainder of the year and forever.

Reb Ahron Kotler writes that we spend Rosh Hashana and the ten days following declaring G-d’s kingship in the world and the great kindness and benevolence that he affords us. After Neilah we are excited and ready to rejoice in the presence of G-d. We want all of our actions to be reflective of this feeling of closeness. We build ourselves a Sukka where we are constantly doing Mitzvos and coming as close as we can to the bliss of G-dliness. We are then able to stretch that holiness throughout the year by appraising every one of our actions and effectively building a sukkah for ourselves in which everything we do is the will of G-d.

Until Shemini Atzeres we quote Dovid Hamelech’s praise for Hashem: “for you hide me in your Sukkah and protect me in its shade”. May we be Zoche to experience the Simcha and closeness to Hashem that is inherent in the Sukkah.

Posted on 10/05 at 02:34 PM • Permalink
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Friday, September 14, 2012

The Teruah

A new Teshuva of Rav Moshe Feinstein is published in ninth volume of his responsa. It concerns an event that happened at least fifty years ago.Apparently enough time has passed since the story that the family is no longer worried about anyone being identified.

The Teshuva describes a situation in which the Shochet in New Orleans became very ill and needed to be replaced. There were no national companies like Empire, and New Orleans needed a new shochet.

Many years earlier a man had immigrated to New Orleans and worked as a Shochet for a short time. He realized that he was making very little money and that he could make more money if he opened a store. He made the unfortunate decision to keep the store open on Shabbos.

Now, with the community desperate for a shochet, this man came forward and offered to take the job.

The community refused to accept the man as a shochet because he was not Shomer Shabbos. Worse, he openly violated Shabbos by working in his store and was disqualified for shechita.

The man accepted their rebuke and admitted that he had erred. He would close his business and return to shechita – even if it meant going back to a lower salary and a more difficult job.

The question was presented to Rav Moshe. Rav Moshe acknowledged that the man truly realized the errors of his ways. He sincerely regretted opening the store and working there on Shabbos. He wanted to turn back the clock and return to shechita because it was the right thing to do.

All the same, Rav Moshe recommended that the community not accept the man as a Shochet. The man talked earnestly about change, but he had not yet changed. His was still working in his store. He was a Mechalel Shabbos B’farhesya and not fit to be a shochet.

On the surface, Rav Moshe was concerned with the verse in Yeshaya which states “an evil man should leave his ways … return to Hashem”. The power of Teshuva is awesome, but it is not without effort. Talk is cheap and planning is relatively easy. We need to take actual steps in the right direction. The Rambam writes clearly that one of the key steps of Teshuva is ‘Azivas Hacheit” – Leaving the sin. As long as this man was only willing to change, his Teshuva would not be accepted. He needed to actually change. Until then he is like a man who immerse in the Mikva while holding an object of impurity.

This may have been what Rav Moshe had in mind, but I would like to suggest something deeper based on two other ideas from Rav Moshe’s writings.

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The Mussaf of Rosh Hashana is made up of three sections: Malchuyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros. In Malchuyos we describe Hashem’s dominion over the world, In Zichronos we describe Hashem’s unerring accounting of our actions, and in Shofaros we describe the Shofar. As we say each of these sections, we blow a Tekia, a Teruah, and Tekia. There are different customs regarding the Teruah, so we blow Tekia-Teruah-Tekia, Tekia-Shevarim-Tekiah, and Tekia-Shevarim/Teruah- Tekia.

In the first volume of Igros Moshe, Someone asked Rav Moshe what the halacha would be if a person said Malchuyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros but said them out of order. Would he need to repeat the Shemona Esrei?

Rav Moshe quotes the Magen Avraham and the Mishna Berurah that Shemona Esrei must be repeated, but acknowledges that there is no apparent reason. The mitzvah is to contemplate an acknowledge Malchuyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros. The order should not be an important factor.

Cryptically, Rav Moshe suggests that the ruling of the Magen Avraham may be related to the Shofar. The Torah gives a specific sequence for the Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah. They may not be blown out of order. Perhaps, Rav Moshe says, the same rule extends to the Malchuyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros.

Rav Moshe ends his teshuva with this thought, but leaves us perplexed. The Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah is a sequence described in the Torah for the Shofar blasts sounded whenever the Jewish people travelled.  Why would this be a source for the sequence on Malchiyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros? The Gemara says: “Say Malchuyos before me in order to make me your king, and your Zichronos will be remembered favorably before me. Do this with the Shofar”. If anything, the Gemara indicates that the order is not important.

iii

Before explaining these two teshuvos, I’d like to share a thought process that I went through recently.

There is a shul that I used to daven in that opened in a new neighborhood and drew up plans for a grand building. They were denied a permit by local zoning board but they repealed the ruling all the way up to the highest court in the state. Their battle to build a shul was so intense and justified that they were featured on the front page of the New York Times. This was fifteen or twenty years ago.

The funny thing is that they never built their new building. Over the summer I had occasion to visit the shul and as I walked through the door, I couldn’t help but notice that nothing had changed. They were still davening in the same garage with the same chairs, the same tables, and the same venetian blinds. All of the same people sat in the same seats and sang the same tunes. They were just a little bit greyer and a little bit bigger.

On one of the walls of the shul was a picture of the projected building. It wasn’t the old blueprint that I remembered from the original building campaign; it was a new and crisp rendering, prepared with the latest in Computer Graphics engineering. The people in the shul had gotten nowhere in the past fifteen years – yet they were still working on the plans for their new building. Their picture was growing sharper and sharper and more and more glamorous.

At first I wanted to laugh out loud, but then I caught myself. ISome respect was in order. These were people who had a picture in their minds and were determined to get there. They had begun with high hopes and they still had a rosy vision of the future. It was only the present that was temporarily bogging them down.

When Rav Moshe was in his thirties and forties he was a Rav in Luban, a city in Russia. When the Bolshevik Revolution came to Luban, the Jewish community began to slowly fall apart. In 1921 there was a pogrom and many people did not survive. Other people left for America, or succumbed to the pressures around them. It was a very hard to be Jewish in Luban. Even those people who were not won over by the idea of Communism abandoned Judaism to put bread on their tables.

Rather than outlaw rabbis, the government pressured them to step down. Every rabbi who left his post would be publicized as an example of the religious leadership crossing over and becoming a part of the communist dream. Rav Moshe refused to step down and insisted on leading his people when they needed him most.

When the shochet in Rav Moshe’s town finally left, Rav Moshe learned the art of shechita himself, when the town had no Mikva, Rav Moshe found a way to make the local municipal pool into a Kosher Mikvah. Everything was a struggle and every religious item was taxed unfairly. At one point they used one Lulav for two years – and shared it with a neighboring community.

In 1929, Rav Moshe spoke to his people about the blasts of the Shofar. He explained that in life we often expect a Tekiah. We expect a clear uninterrupted blast of good fortune and ease. We know that we are on the right path and we expect everything to go easy and unchallenged. We are looking for a long run, a winning streak an uninterrupted play.

Rav mosehe explained that this is not reality. Life is actually a broken up Teruah. We start and stop and start and stop and start and stop again. Like the Teruah, we ourselves are broken up and divided. As a people, we can’t seem to get along and nothing seems to ‘just work’. In the desert, the Teruah was only blown when the people moved from one encampment to the next. It symbolized their broken-up forty-year journey to Eretz Yisroel.

The only comfort that we have in this reality is the assurance that eventually things will get better. Whether it takes a day, a week, or a lifetime, there will come a time when things will work out and we will be able to enjoy success. One day Hashem will blow a final Tekiah. He will give us direct routing to the land of Israel. All of the dead will come back to life, all of the problems will go away and we will finally be unified as one.

The first Tekiah is like the starting trumpet in a race and the last Tekia is the triumphant win. The challenges and interceptions that we experience along the way are the Teruah.

Rav Moshe writes that these three stages are reflected in the three Berachos of Malchiyus, Zichronos, and Shofaros:

Malchiyos – the dominion of Hashem - represents the stark truth and knowledge of Hashem’s will that gets us started on our journey. We are confident and feel like we can’t go wrong because we are doing the will of Hashem. We feel like we are unstoppable.

When we do experience hardship – “the Teruah” – we can find comfort and reassurance in the Zichronos. Hashem is keeping a perfect accounting of every loss and triumph that we achieve and experience. Nothing is unnoticed and nothing is forgotten.

Finally, we are promised that in the end everything will work out. This is Shofaros. Whether it is at the end of a day, the end of a project, the end of our lifetime, or the end of days, everything will work out. Hashem will blow a Tekia that never ends and never fades away. The world will be perfect, we will be one, and the will of Hashem will be fulfilled because the knowledge of Hashem will be everywhere.

Rav Moshe explained in his Shabbos Shuva Drosha that the people in Luban were much the same. Some people lived by the first Tekiah. They believed and understood that Hashem created the world and that He has certain expectations from us. They became flustered when they encountered difficulty. They succumbed to pressure’ but they were still firm in their beliefs. They excelled in Malchiyos – recognizing the dominion of Hashem but had trouble carrying through.

The Communists excelled in Zichronos. They were obsessed with the idea of accounting for all actions and making sure that everybody was got what they deserved. They were caught up in the Teruah of society and did not look for the master plan of Hashem. They were good at Teruah, but their confidence an allegiance to farness and perfect accounting did not have much meaning when it was separated from an acknowledgement of Hashem’s plan.

The final Tekiah was forgotten by all but a few special people. The men and women of Shofaros and the final Tekiah were the men and women who stayed strong in their Judaism with faith and knowledge that one day the sun would shine again. Communism would not last forever and the suffering would come to an end, even if they had to wait for the Shofar of Moshiach.

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Rav Moshe taught his people that everyone is holy in their own way, but our ultimate goal needs to be the mastery of Malchuyos, Zichrons, and Shofaros.

Like the Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah, Malchiyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros are in a specific order because they reflect this world and our lives. If they are blown or said out of order, they must be repeated.

There are many people who become inspired with an awareness of Hashem and a desire to do His will, but that is just Malchuyos and it is not enough. It is certainly a virtue to be convinced of Hashem’s will and desire to follow it, but until someone has actually experienced the Teruah, the challenges, the parts where there is no smooth sailing, he has not truly done Teshuva.

The Shochet in New Orleans was looking for a Tekiah. He was convinced of G-d’s will and of what was right, but he wanted to move seamlessly from one career to the other with no uncertainty in between. He was willing to make major changes, but he was waiting for the free ride. Rav Moshe was not impressed. The Shochet was talking the talk, but he had not yet walked the walk.

May we merit a year in which we achieve a strong beginning, relentless determination, and ultimately, the final blast of the Tekia when everything is perfect and the world is run according Hashem’s Ultimate plan.

Posted on 09/14 at 04:59 PM • Permalink
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Monday, September 03, 2012

Honesty

There are very few things that the Torah calls disgusting. Most of them have to do with idol worship, illicit relationships and eating snails. But in Parshas Ki Seitze we are told that owning false weights and measures is not only a To’eivah - disgusting, but a To’avas Hashem – something that Hashem finds disgusting and abominable.

Back in the days of old fashioned scales, shopkeepers would measure the produce that they were selling against a one pound weight. The customer would depend on the storekeeper to use an accurate one pound weight and there was a certain trust that existed. Dishonest shopkeepers would shave a little metal off of the weight and the customers would get slightly less than they thought they were getting. Of course, when the shopkeeper was buying produce from a wholesaler he wouldn’t use a smaller weight. He would keep a bigger weight so that if he is the one buying, he can be sure that he is getting his full money’s worth (and possibly more).

Gas stations purchase gasoline from wholesalers and measure it at sixty degrees Fahrenheit. Sometimes, when they sell the gas, it is dispensed in the middle of the day when temperatures reach eighty or ninety degrees. The volume of the gas goes up but the weight of the gas (and the energy that it produces) does not. They are charging you an extra 7-10 cents on the gallon because they are not giving you the full weight and mileage that you are paying for. If this fact is misrepresented by the gas station, it may be forbidden.

In grocery stores, there are always two types of scales: there are the scales available to the customers as they shop for tomatoes and then there are the scales used by the cashiers at checkout. According to halacha, the scales used by the customers need to be just as accurate as the scales used at the register.

The same applies in our homes. We may not rig a scale to make us feel bigger or smaller and we may not adjust our measuring cups so that we eat less sugar. Reb Shlomo Zalman allows some leeway based on societal expectations, but ultimately the prohibition to have false weights is very real and an important and practical part of the Torah.

The Netziv and the Klei Yakar write that the prohibition against owning and using false weights is not just stealing. It is about living a lifestyle that goes against the Torah. If we honestly believe that Hashem will provide for us (or cause us losses) we won’t make ourselves crazy trying to make shtick with larger weights and smaller weights.

The Yerushalmi tells us that when we come up to heaven we will be asked six questions. The second question is: “Were you faithful in business?” Rav Pam explains that this doesn’t just refer to being faithful to our customers – it involves having faith in Hashem. If we have faith in Hashem when we conduct business, all of our attitudes and strategies and ways of thinking will be different.

The same applies to all areas of our lives. As Rosh Hashana approaches we need to make sure that we organize and arrange our lives and schedules in ways that are conducive to the type of life that we want to lead. It is hard to quit smoking with a box of cigarettes in your pocket. It is hard to come to Mincha if you need to have a beer and a cigar at 6:00 every evening.

When Rav Gifter was living in Waterbury, CT there were not many frum Jews around. When rabbis cme to visit, he would always invite them to inspect his home. “Open the cabinets, look under the beds”, he would say, “Make sure that my home is conducive to Torah growth”.

As we think about our lives and the coming year, we need to be honest with ourselves and with others. Honest for its own sake is a virtue, but honesty is so much more important when it is part of allowing our trust in Hashem to be a part of everything that we do.

Posted on 09/03 at 02:46 AM • Permalink
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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 04:49 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 05:18 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 03:31 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 09:38 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 04:44 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 04:12 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 05:52 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 06:16 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 09:16 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 08:33 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 04:55 AM • 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