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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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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

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

Posted on 02/24 at 08:54 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 06:13 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Game Changer


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.


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?


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.


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.


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 07:19 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 07:22 PM • Permalink
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Friday, November 11, 2011

The Rosh Yeshiva

While learning in the Mir Yeshiva, I once approached Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel with a difficulty that I had encountered in a gemara in Kesuvos.

The Rosh Yeshiva listened carefully to my articulated question and spent several minutes in thought. I stood awkwardly and averted my gaze as he twitched uncontrollably and swayed back and forth in apparent discomfort. Finally, he turned and told me that there were two possible approaches to my question. He outlined both approaches, complimented me on my question, and wished me a good day.

I was so excited. The Rosh Yeshiva had acknowledged my question! Quickly, I ran to my seat, opened my gemara, and began to pursue the two approaches that he had outlined. By the end of the morning, I had several pages of notes and had formed a new picture of the entire sugya.

Later that same week, Reb Nosson Tzvi gave a shiur klali. There were several hundred Torah scholars in attendance and, to my delight, he opened the shiur with my question. He shared the two approaches that we had discussed and another two approaches that he had, apparently, thought of afterward. I was ecstatic and flattered. I bought a copy of the printed notes of the lecture and knew that I would always treasure the shiur that I had inspired with my brilliant question.

Several months later I happened upon the same idea in a printed essay written by Reb Nosson Tzvi. Looking at the date of publication, I quickly realized that Reb Nosson Tzvi had thought of the question and explanation long before I had even opened my Gemara. He had written at length on the topic and come to the same conclusions many years before.

Reb Nosson Tzvi could have told me to look on page 66 of the Yad Eliezer, but he didn’t. Instead he chose to guide me and inspire me to find the answer on my own.

A Rosh Yeshiva is a teacher. He is not just the smartest man in the room, the policy setter, or the biggest tzaddik. He is a man who’s primary desire and goal in this world is to help young students develop into true Talmidei Chachamim.

The Gemara is very particular about teachers of Torah. A teacher of Torah, we are taught, must remind us of a heavenly angel.

What kind of angel is a Rosh Yeshiva?

Rav Yitzchak Ezrachi explains that every blade of grass and every flower is assigned an angel. The angel’s sole purpose is to stand over that grass or flower and encourage it to grow. Likewise, our Torah teachers need to be willing to stand over us and encourage us to grow. They need to be reminiscent of those angels.

Not all of my encounters with Reb Nosson Tzvi were flattering and buoyant. He could be very firm and did not always mince words. My ears are still ringing from a particular rebuke that Reb Nosson Tzvi whispered into my ear. At the time, I was confused by the rebuke and enthused by the compliments. Today, I can look back and just feel fortunate that a man such as he took the time to stand over me, look me in the eye, and tell me to grow.

Yehi Zichro Baruch.

On Parshas Vayeira:

Posted on 11/11 at 05:44 AM • Permalink
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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Am Ha’aretz

A friend of mine is the founder and director of a gardening program at the University of Maryland. They plant a garden, tend to it, and donate the fruits to the needy.

The students at Maryland call their program ‘Am Ha’aretz’, but I think that it could just as successfully be a program for budding Talmidei Chachamim. Not for me, because I hate gardening, but for the kids out there who want to work hard at Gemara for ten hours a day and plant cucumbers at night.

I read in The Google Story that the owners of Google have always encouraged their engineers to spend 20% of their time - about one day a week - working on personal projects that interest them. Gmail, Google News, and more than fifty percent of Google’s new products are a result of this creativity time. It is considered one of the secrets of Google’s success.

Google instituted the 20% policy to attract creative and talented people. The founders of Google understood that the brightest minds work best in environments that encourage and support creativity. Most of the personal projects don’t work or make no money, but Google always wins because they have the loyalty of the world’s best programmers and engineers.

Imagine if we could make this program a part of our culture. We already have highly motivated young men and women devoting their spare time to personal studies and chessed, but what if we encouraged them and gave them license to learn anything they wanted?

Imagine a yeshiva where students were encouraged to spend an hour and a half a day learning a subject of their choice. Students could choose Chassidus, Nach, Zeraim, Rambam, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Rav Nachman’s stories, Taamei Haminhagim, Seder Hadoros, Medrash, Zohar, Ramban, Mussar, Responsa, Astronomy, Practical Rabbinics, Chofetz Chaim, Dikduk, Yerushalmi, or Gemara and Rashi. They could choose to learn quickly or slowly, to study one sefer in depth or to check out every commentary on the topic, to study alone or with a chavrusa, in their rooms, outside, or in the Beis Medrash.

Nobody would lose, because 80% of the time would still be spent on core curriculum; everybody would gain, because students who are already motivated they would be driven and satisfied by the opportunity to learn where their neshama leads them.

And what about the boys who aren’t driven to learn anything at all, or the boys who are satisfied to learn ‘just’ eight hours a day? Couldn’t they use their 20% to follow their hearts? We learn so much about how Noach cultivated kindness by caring for the animals and how Avraham built our nation on a foundation of Chessed. Why not let those students use their 20% to make their mark on the world?

Perhaps even more important are the students who deal with emotional and psychological challenges. What if they could devote 20% of their time learning more about themselves, their self worth, and their personal strategies for growth?

In my limited experience, I’ve found that kids who have trouble with the Yeshiva or Bais Yaakov system have trouble with just one thing. The “one thing” could be clothes, hair, music, or friends, but it is usually just one issue that makes it difficult for them to embrace the other 80% of the system that they love. I’ve found that even the students who are successful are not immune to frustrations – maybe they want to learn something else or at a different pace – it’s just that the nature of their frustrations make them easier to overcome and deal with.

Maybe we need an 80/20 formula. If a student is embracing 80% of ‘the system’, maybe we need to give them space to explore the other 20% on their own. As long as they are respecting halacha and not causing harm to themselves or others, maybe we need to let them be.

Many years ago, Rav Moshe Feinstein suggested that we give 10% (maaser) of our learning time to others. Maybe we need to take Google’s lead and teach our students to give 20% (a chomesh) of their productive time to themselves.

Jesse Rabinowitz and his troop of Am Ha’aratzim are exercising their “20%”. They are spending their time on a project that runs counter to the expectations that people have of serious Jewish college students, but they are not doing anything that precludes them from being serious Jewish college students. Am Ha’aretz tells me that their motivation is 100% Torah based and that they have regular learning sessions to connect Torah agricultural practices to their mission. They are doing something which is fulfilling and productive, but not at all expected. We need to encourage others to do the same.

The Torah doesn’t tell us to be successful despite our ambitions and aspirations; the Torah tells us to become successful by identifying the unique ambitions and aspirations that lie deep in our neshamos. Hashem told Avraham: “Lech Lecha!” –“Go to yourself!”, and at a time when the whole world was going one way, Avraham and Sarah were able to do just that. They picked themselves up and went the other way. They were doing something that had never been done before and they weren’t sure exactly where they were going or how things were going to turn out, but Hashem promised that as long as they followed in His ways it would be a journey full of bracha, hatzlacha, and closeness to Hashem.

For more on Lech Lecha see

Posted on 11/01 at 06:15 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Letter

Before my last trip to Israel, I invited my third grade students to write notes to G-d. There is an ancient custom to put messages in the Western Wall and I thought that it would be a meaningful and worthy exercise. I promised not to read the notes and encouraged the students to put serious thought into the words that they would write.

I watched with apprehension and awe as one girl wrote her letter with tears pouring down her cheeks. I knew that she was not crying because of the letter, but about some of the challenges that she was describing. It was awful to see her crying but touching to know to whom she was crying. I carefully placed all of the letters into one sealed envelope and packed it away for my trip. I assured the students that I would be a faithful messenger.

Later that night I received an emergency phone call. One girl had been home with the flu. Was there time to bring her letter over to my house?

The girl had used a tiny florist’s envelope to hold her letter. I don’t know what was on the note inside the envelope, but on the front of the envelope was a simple message in the careful handwriting of a ten-year-old:

“To: Hashem; From Chana”.

I don’t know what came over me, but I was overcome with emotion and struck by the beauty and plaintiveness of the letter. I stuck the envelope into my pocket and kept it with me as I boarded the plane a few hours later.

A trip to Eretz Yisroel is always an emotional experience, but this time I felt like so many of my emotions were articulated in that simple envelope. All of the logistics, politics, planning, excitement, and trepidation were encapsulated in those four words on the outside of the envelope. I was going to the land of Hashem and Hashem was waiting for and listening to my prayers.

I couldn’t control myself. I showed the envelope to my sister when she met me in New York and to the Rosh Yeshiva who sat down next to me on the plane. I showed it to the woman behind me on the escalator and to the couple in line with me at the border. I showed to a Christian Pilgrim at the baggage claim and to my family when I arrived at the wedding.

Finally, faithfully, even lovingly, I placed the tiny letters from the little girls into an ancient crack between the age worn stones of the Kosel.

I hope that all of my prayers are as pure and uncomplex as the prayers of those small children. I hope that we all merit to see our prayers find their way to Hashem’s throne as He blesses us with purity, sincerity, sensitivity, and connection to Hashem.

Posted on 10/06 at 06:25 PM • Permalink
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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Yom Kippur

In Parshas Haazinu, Moshe addressed the Heavens and the Earth.

The Medrash observes that if Moshe addressed the heavens, we can assume that they were affected by the words of Torah. If the words of Torah have the power to affect the heavens and the earth, they surely have the power to affect us.

The same is true in the reverse. Exposure to words of hatred, deceit, and immorality, has the power to make us hateful deceitful and immoral.

The Parsha goes on to describe what the Ramban describes as the natural cycle of the Jewish people. We are inspired by the Torah and achieve great things only to be led astray by the luxuries and ideas that we become exposed to. Finally, Hashem says “I will marginalize them; I will erase their memory”.

Thankfully, Hashem does not go through with his plans. “When Hashem judges his people; He changes His mind” - Hashem reconsiders, as it were, and does not allow us to fade into oblivion.

Why does Hashem change His mind in the midst of judgment? The Ramban writes that this is as a result of Moshes prayer on Yom Kippur. After the Jewish people sinned with the Golden Calf, Hashem told Moshe that he would destroy the Jewish people. For Forty days, Moshe begged Hashem to ‘protect His investment’ and not allow us to be completely destroyed. Finally, on Yom Kippur Hashem said, as we do at Kol Nidrei: “Salachti Kidvarecha” – “I have forgiven you”.

The Chidushei Harim writes that this is the meaning if the blessing of “Magen Avraham”. We thank Hashem three times daily for actively protecting the spark of Avraham within us. Even as we (sometines) work to extinguish that spark through what we hear and what we do, Hashem keeps His promise to Moshe and does not allow us to disappear.

On Yom Kippur, Hashem gives us a chance to separate ourselves from what we have become and return to that tiny spark. We have a chance to do teshuva and to make real changes. If we can keep from slipping back into our old habits, we can become truly changed people.

At a recent Sheva Berachos, my father told a story about Rav Chaim Sanzer.

Rav Chaim was once travelling in a wagon between two cities. As always, he was dressed regally in a noble peltz and all of the accoutrement befitting a Rebbe. Suddenly, the wagon slipped into a ditch. After coaxing the horses with no success, the driver turned apologetically to the Rebbe and asked him to help push the wagon. He then borrowed the Rebbe’s coat and put it under the wheels to help them gain purchase. Finally, he asked the Rebbe to get between the horses and help them pull the wagon out of the pit.

At this point the Rebbe was standing in his tzitzis, freezing, and caked in mud. He asked for a moment to pray.

“Ribono shel Olam!” he said, “I am sure that you have put me into this situation because I have sinned and need to repent. I will repent, but I cannot repent here in a ditch among the horses and covered with mud. Take me out of the pit. Bring me to a place of comfort. Then, I will do a proper Teshuva”.

And so it was.

Every year, on Yom Kippur, Hashem gives a chance to emerge from the pit which is our lives. He gives us a day of purity and cleanliness and a chance to do Teshuva.

This Yom Kippur, may we all merit to cleanse ourselves of all of our Aveiros and allow our true selves to shine.

G’mar Chasima Tova.

Posted on 10/04 at 03:59 AM • Permalink
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Friday, September 23, 2011

Who Was Rav Mordechai Feinstein?

We will never know who was Rav Mordechai Feinstein was.

Rav Moshe Feinstein was a well-known tzaddik and one of the foremost Halachic authorities of his generation. He wrote thousands of brilliant Teshuvos (responsa) and published seven volumes of Igros Moshe during his lifetime. An eighth volume was published several years ago and a ninth volume of Igros Moshe was published this month.

The ninth volume includes a section of responsa by Rav Moshe’s brother, Rav Mordechai Feinstein. It is twelve pages long.

I read the letters of Reb Mordechai and was mesmerized by their style. I was treated to a glimpse of Reb Mordechai’s scholarship and his clever and encompassing approach to issues. It was easy to get a feel for Reb Mordechai’s love of Torah and his burning desire to fulfill the will of Hashem.

I did some research into the Feinstein family and learned that at the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution both Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Mordechai Feinstein led communities in Russia. They possessed a level of scholarship that, according to Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, belonged to previous generations. They were throwbacks to earlier times. They were also Rabbis at a time when Judaism was all but illegal. Rav Mordechai ran a secret yeshiva in Shklov and Rav Moshe worked secretly to make the local municipal pool into a Kosher Mikva. Both brothers represented a level of sacrifice and love for Torah that we can only aspire to reach.

As it became apparent that there would not be another generation of Jewish Education in Russia, Rav Moshe Feinstein left the country and immigrated to New York. Over the next five decades, he was a source of halachic decisions, guidance, and advice to hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world. He was instrumental in teaching American Jewry how to apply ancient rules to modern shores. By the time of his passing in the 1980’s, he was considered by many to be the last word in Halacha. His volumes of responsa have become classics and can be found anywhere that Halacha is studied.

Reb Mordechai Feinstein did not come to America. He remained in Russia where he continued to teach Torah in secret. Many of his students did not survive the revolution and the war. Almost nothing remains of his teachings beyond the twelve pages in ninth volume of Igros Moshe.

One of the letters that we have from Rav Mordechai was written just before Rosh Hashana in 1923. It was written to Reb Mordechai’s uncle, Rabbi Yaacov Kantrowitz, and he alludes to some of the difficulties that they were facing in Russia. Knowing what I know, I couldn’t help but cry as I read Rav Mordechai’s concluding words to his uncle:

“May Hashem grant you and your family a year of health of the body and soul and clarity of mind. May you have a year of happiness, peace, and true peace. May you see Nachas from your children in Kletzk and may you watch them become truly great people…

“May Hashem increase the honor of the Torah and those who study it, thus increasing the honor of His entire nation.


Mordechai Feinstein”

We now know that many of the prayers of Rav Mordechai were not fulfilled: Rabbi Kantrowitz’s son Yitzchok Yechiel was murdered by the Nazis outside Vilna. His daughter, Cheina Gittel, never left Leningrad and did not survive the war.

Rav Mordechai Feinstein himself was arrested not too long afterward. The Yevsektsia took him from his table while he was celebrating the holiday of Shavuos. They sent him to Siberia for the “crime” of teaching Torah and he was never heard from again.

Both Rav Moshe and Rav Mordechai lived holy lives that are worthy of our envy, but we can’t help but wonder what could have been if Rav Mordechai had lived long enough to parallel the great life of his brother.

We cannot question the ways of Hashem, but we can appreciate the questions that we ask ourselves on Rosh Hashana: Who will live? Who will prosper? Who will make a difference in the lives of others? Who will see nachas from their children? Who will celebrate Simchos with their friends? Who will realize their aspirations and who will have the chance to accomplish all that they can in this world?

This is the time of year when we need to think about what was and what could have been. We need to ask Hashem for the strength and opportunity to achieve everything that we are capable of.

May we all merit a year of true peace and prosperity. May we realize all of our dreams and experience only happiness and nachas. Most importantly, may we learn to take nothing for granted.

Kesiva V’Chasima Tova.

Read more about Elul and Rosh Hashana by downloading a collation of past posts and essays at

Posted on 09/23 at 03:50 AM • Permalink
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Friday, September 16, 2011

Moving Forward

A number of years ago, my car hit high water. I called for help and AAA sent me a mechanic with North Carolinean plates. He had only two or three teeth, which he used endearingly to chew and spit real tobacco as he spoke.

The Mechanic explained to me that he had gotten out of bed at 4:00 AM so that he could drive up to Virginia and save stranded motorists. He looked over my car and got ready to give it a boost. He gave me his legal disclaimer:

“This might fix y’all’s car, but it could also fry y’all’s ‘lectricals”.

It seems that since the car was so saturated in moisture, there was a risk that the boost might cause the electrical system to short. If my ‘lectricals were fried, the car would never be the same. The windows wouldn’t open, the locks wouldn’t work, and the radio would fritz. My other option was to allow the car to dry out for three days, so I decided to take the chance and told him to go ahead with the boost.

The mechanic hooked up the wires, turned on the juice, disconnected the wires, and ran back to his truck. He fastened his seatbelt, rolled down his window, and, as he prepared to drive off, instructed me to wait a few minutes before trying to start the engine.

“Aren’t you going to wait to see what happens?” I asked.

“Naw”. (spit)

I pointed out to my new friend that he had been up since 4:00 am helping people. He had driven all the way up from North Carolina. He had worked in the pouring rain for hours. Yet, he would never know whether he had really saved someone’s day or just “fried their ‘ectricals”.

“That’s ‘boot right”, he said.

I’m not sure how that mechanic lives with himself. As human beings we need to know that our actions have an effect on people and that we are changing this world for the better.

Even the greatest and most selfless people yearn to see the impact of their actions. Rabbi Sternberg of Park Avenue in Monsey told me that he once consulted Rav Shach about an issue that he was dealing with. A few days later, Rabbi Strernberg came back to Rav Shach to let him know that he had taken his advice and that everything had worked out. Rav Shach, who had been in his seat in the Ponevizh Yeshiva, took Rabbi Sternberg by the shoulder, led him out of the Beis Medrash and kissed him.

“Hundreds of people come to me with their problems”, he explained, “they ask for my blessings and for my advice, but they never come back. I worry about those people, I carry the burden of those people and I pray for those people. I wish that they would let me know when everything works out and they are able to go on with their lives. Thank you for coming back.”

Last week my Chavrusa and friend Jimmy Ellenson and I celebrated a Siyum on Maseches Eduyos. We have finished several Masechtos together but this was to be our last siyum for a while. Jimmy is making Aliyah (and I am not).

We both spoke at the Siyum and acknowledged that we had influenced each other in profound ways. We didn’t just cover material; we developed an approach to the material. We evolved in our thinking and learned to agree and disagree about many issues. Jimmy got me through some tough times with his advice and assistance. He provided me with academic material and concepts that I would not have considered otherwise. I, in turn, encouraged Jimmy to learn like a Yeshiva Bochur would and allow the melody and the flow of the Gemara to surround him and take over his mind and soul.

In a constantly changing world, where you never know whether you enhanced somebody’s life or just ‘fried their ‘lectricals’, it is heartening to know that we have made a difference in each other’s lives.

I will miss Jimmy and look forward to the day when we can continue to learn together in our holy land, with or before the coming of Moshiach.

In honor of the siyum, I put some of our notes into book form. It is our humble contribution to a very small body of literature on Eduyos. The Electronic version is available at

Posted on 09/16 at 03:12 AM • Permalink
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Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Blind Man’s Outlook

My Great-Uncle Nat was blind. As kids we were fascinated by his talking watch and the way that he counted steps. We would talk about how all of his clothing were matching so that he could get himself dressed in the morning. We did not fully grasp the implication of his handicap. We just thought that it was cool.

Once, while davening at his shul in Florida, a friend pointed out that Uncle Nat was using someone else’s tallis bag. He had apparently swapped it accidentally and had been using it, unaware that the name embroidered on the front was not his own. Nobody recognized the name on the bag and Uncle Nat, who travelled around a bit, had no idea where he had picked it up. He decided that he would continue to use the bag. One day, somebody might recognize the name and help him return it.

Three years later Uncle Nat was in Lawrence sitting Shiva for his sister, my Aunt Hattie. As groups of people made their way through the house, one man recognized his Tallis bag and asked if he could have it back.

Uncle Nat began to cry tears of joy. I don’t remember the exact words that he used, but it went something like this:

“I am over ninety years old and blind. When does a man like me get the opportunity to return a lost object? Blind men don’t find things. I thank G-d for giving me the opportunity to do this Mitzvah before I die.”

He kissed the tallis bag and returned it to its proper owner.

We need to thank G-d that we have the ability to help others.

Posted on 09/11 at 05:12 PM • Permalink
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Friday, June 17, 2011

Branching Out

Sometimes I get the feeling that my Turkish ancestors are staring at me. They probably wonder why I’m wearing a black Fedora and not a Red Fez with a pom-pom. They wonder why I rush through some parts of davening and relegate others to long, drawn out marches. They probably wonder about my accent, my mannerisms and my kids who carry the names of deceased relatives rather than more familiar names like Mazaltov and Machlouf.

Yitzhak ben Tzvi compared the Jewish people to the Paroches in the Mishkan. He wrote that we are a tapestry made up of many different threads. We all come together to make something beautiful, but when we are apart our similarities disappear. His words were beautiful and they are printed on every twenty sheqel note in Israel.

I think he was wrong.

We are not the Paroches; we are the Menorah. The Menorah was made of one solid piece of gold, yet it forms seven diverse branches. We are all united at the core and made of the same stuff.

To often, we try to shove one type of Jew into another Jew’s clothing. We think that Jews who believe the same way must feel and act the same way as well. When my great-grandparents were impressed they would use words like “W’allah” or “Harika”; when my students are impressed they say “Awesome!” or “Beast”. They have the same belief systems but different ways of expressing themselves.

Last Shabbos I had the opportunity to spend time at the Bar Mitzvah of one of my favorite students. It was a Purely Sefardic Shabbos and it was packed with songs, mannerisms, and customs that I was not used to. I thought about my Sefardi grandparents and allowed their blood to course through my veins for just one weekend. It worked, and it opened up my eyes to the vastly different ways that my students relate to Yiddishket. Each one of my students has a different Neshama with different interests, different emotions, different sensitivities, and different motivations. In my Tefillos, I thought of my graduating students and prayed that I had respected the individuality of each and every one of them. The Bar Mitzvah boy made my day when he reached the end of his speech and proclaimed his unique thanks:

“Rabbi Haber”, he intoned, “thank you for teaching me Torah. You are a Beast Rebbe!”

Nobody was sure what he meant, but I’m sure that my ancestors were proud.

Posted on 06/17 at 03:47 AM • Permalink
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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Taking the Plunge

Three thousand three hundred and seventeen years ago, Moshe announced to the Jewish people that He would be ascending Har Sinai to receive the Torah for the Jewish people. The Jewish people protested. They said: “רצוננו לראות את מלכנו” – we want to see our G-d; we want to receive the Torah directly from it’s author. Moshe transmitted the Jewish peoples’ beautiful request to Hashem. Hashem agreed and gave Moshe detailed instructions on how the people must prepare and purify themselves for a three-day period. The people rejoiced at the news and enthusiastically threw themselves into the task of preparing to literally ‘meet their creator’ and receive his Torah.

By the third day everything was in place. The purification process was completed and at dawn and shofaros and thunder were heard. The presence of Hashem began to descend on Har Sinai.

Nobody showed up.

Moshe quickly ran back to the camp and spoke to the people. He woke them, comforted them, calmed them, and convinced them to come to Har Sinai and receive the Torah. Our sages tell us that Hashem himself came toward the camp to greet and encourage our forefathers as they gathered beneath the mountain to receive the Torah.

This is very strange. The Jewish begged for an audience with Hashem, but needed to be convinced to attend!

As children we are taught that the Jewish people were sleepyheads – they just forgot to set their alarm clocks. This does not explain what happened to the initial excitement , the statement of ‘retzoneinu lir’os es malkeinu- we want to see our G-d’.

The Jewish people had been the Chosen people since the times of Avraham and the Bris Bein Habesarim. Nonetheless, this was the first time that the people were forced to make a commitment to Hashem. It could be said that until now the Jewish people had enjoyed a very long engagement. Har Sinai was to be the wedding ceremony between Bnai Yisroel and Hashem. The Torah was the contract, the rules and the promises that came with the relationship. When it came to actually tying the knot our forefathers were scared. They were the first (and only) nation in history to enter into a covenant with G-d. All of the other nations refused the Torah out right but the Jewish people – with a little encouragement from Moshe and from Hashem himself were able to take the plunge, tie the knot and make the commitment.

Generations later we have a close relationship with Hashem because our forefathers made that plunge.

Sometimes in order to grow as people and as Jews we need to be strong enough to do something new; to take on something daunting. often we do not need that strength, because it’s already been done by our fathers and their fathers before them.

We can stay up studying Torah on Shavuos with no apprehension or fear because our grandfathers already jumped that hurdle and showed us how wonderful a close relationship with Hashem can be.

At a wedding there is a minhag for the Chossan to step forward to greet the Kallah as she walks down to the Chuppa. Every Friday night we sing the words “Lechah Dodi Likraas Kallah” asking Hashem to please come out and greet us and encourage us once again just as He did at Har Sinai and bring Moshiach speedily in our days.

Material Related to Shavuos:
The Defining Moment
Threee on Makom Torah

Posted on 06/07 at 06:10 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