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Friday, May 27, 2011

If You Can Read This T-shirt - My Rabbi Fell Off

Have you ever been stuck at a traffic light next to a Harley Davidson? Did you watch the driver fidget and crank his motor? Did the roar when he or she finally took off scare you out your mind?

You shouldn’t be scared; You should be inspired.

Bikers know that it is hard to balance a bike when you are standing still and that it is very frustrating to sit on top of a sixty-five horsepower engine and go nowhere. Bikers also know that the roar of a Harley is indicative of potential. Both the engine and the rider want to see that potential actualized.

Our souls work in much the same way. There is a quiet but powerful voice within us that wants to roar with spirituality. It wants to break loose, speed forward and conquer the open road. We are the custodians of powerful and frustrated engines that are yearning to exercise their true potential.

Almost one hundred years ago, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan of Radin wrote a book on Proper Speech and tried selling it door-to-door. He found that many people refused to buy it. The idea of changing habits of speech was simply beyond the collective imagination. Rabbi Kagan was not discouraged. “It was worth writing my book”, he said, “if just one Jew give a krechtz and spends a moment thinking about proper speech”.

We can never underestimate the power of a krechtz and its’ role in articulating the yearning of a Jewish soul.

Two weeks ago I was riding on the back of bike #10 in a procession of hundreds of Jewish Bikers commemorating the holocaust. I lifted my visor and took a good look at the crowds lining the roads and staring at us. Many of the spectators were unaffiliated Jews who had no idea that we were coming. They didn’t know that Jewish Bikers existed, much less three hundred of them. I thought about all of the Jewish Bikers who weren’t riding with us. They must have felt a twinge of guilt and yearning when they watched us roar by. They might have thought about their Judaism for the first time in years. They might have wished that they could be like those proud Jews who wave their Jewish Flags, play their Jewish music and belong to clubs with names like Lost Tribe, Chai Rider, and Hillel’s Angel’s. We probably made a lot of people Krechtz that day.

Many of the riders at the convention are very active Jews. Others were just born Jewish. They may not keep Kosher or go to shul or think about G-d much, but their pent up Jewish souls are turning over, trying to break loose. They may not know Kaddish from Cottage Cheese, but they ride as Jews and something drove them to gather together for a Jewish event.

Elena Baum, head of the Federation’s Holocaust commission, was speechless when we showed up at the JCC’s Holocaust Memorial. I guess she’d never been visited by three hundred bikers before. She was a little bit intimidated - but proud. Our local rabbis and community leaders all commented on the Jewish Pride of the Bikers. The short Divrei Torah and Divrei Brocha were well received and they were peppered with enthusiastic shouts of “Amein” and “Am Yisroel Chai”. Cameras rolled as Rabbi Silver (of Bnai israel) spoke passionately about the need to perpetuate the memory of the Six Million through deeds as well as thought. The Biker Rebbe, Reb Zachary “Zig Zag” Betesh spoke of the sparks that can be gathered from the road and the miles of asphalt that make up his shul. I shared a few short words before leading the assembled in the traditional Traveler’s Prayer and at the end of the service everyone stood solemnly as Chazzan Berman recited a stirring Kel Maleh Rachamim.  The Ride to Remember was a powerful experience and one that will be reflected upon for a long time to come.

Ten years ago, when I first told my grandfather that I was moving to Norfolk, VA, he was horrified. He had been here as a sailor in World War II, and was sure that I’d be living above a tattoo parlor and next door to a bar. Understandably, he never saw the motorcycle thing coming. Today, as he looks at pictures of his Norfolk einekel clad in a do-rag and wearing leather jackets, he sees the more spiritual side of Norfolk. He sees a bunch of tough looking guys who compete for the opportunity to carry to a Yeshiva Bochur with tzitzis for hundreds of miles on their Harley. Guys who are willing to call the most distant Jew and say: “You’re Jewish - come ride with us”.

So next time you hear a biker gunning his engine at a red light, think about his Neshama - and yours. Krechtz a little bit. Think about what you have always known that you can accomplish. When the light turns green - ‘let her rip’. Go full speed ahead and don’t stop moving. Don’t slow down until you have made your unique mark on the world that Hashem has given you.

I shared with those assembled at the Ride that Hitler thought that we would never survive. He even commissioned a museum to commemorate “The Lost Race”. Our job is to show the world that the Race is still on. Collectively and individually, we are still here and we are still riding.

Am Yisroel Chai!


Posted on 05/27 at 09:13 AM • Permalink
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Friday, April 29, 2011

Pirkei Avos

I am fortunate to have grown up in a home which put great emphasis on Pirkei Avos. Boruch Hashem, the enthusiasm has carried on to my young students who have been begging for weeks: “Rabbi Haber, when can we start Pirkei Avos?”

I believe that we begin Pirkei Avos in the weeks after Pesach to emphasize that leaving Egypt and slavery was not enough. We need to continue to work on ourselves, to strive for more and to grow as people.

When we tell the story of Pesach we are instructed to “begin with Bad and end with Praise”.

Why aren’t we told to “begin with Bad and end with Good”? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate?

The Mishna is recognizing that Pesach is not the end. Even the first Pesach wasn’t perfect. We were able to praise Hashem, but we still had a long way to go.

Even in Hallel, which should be the ultimate praise of Hashem, we cannot help but interrupt with a plea of “Anah Hashem” - “Please Save us Hashem!”. It is not contradictory to praise Hashem while simultaneously look forward to something better.

On the last day of Pesach an older woman in our Shul shared a Pesach experience with me. She told me that in 1942, she was a young girl in Belgium and her father, a religious Jew, did not have access to a Jewish calendar. He estimated when Pesach would be and was able to procure one bag of black flour. As the family stood around, he baked one round Matzah and together they recited the Brachos and ate their ‘bread of freedom’. That was their Pesach.

Was that Pesach ‘good’? I don’t think so. But it was a chance to praise Hashem. The family had been previously torn apart. They had survived trying times. Finally, they were able to reunite and celebrate together as Jews. They even had some flour and an oven. They had plenty to thank Hashem for, but they had even more to hope for in the future.

Pesach is a holiday of freedom and of praise. It is not the end of the road. Even as we celebrate our freedom from slavery, we begin to count the days to the giving of the Torah on Shavuos.

May we always be fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to grow and to have young Jewish boys who are anxious to learn ancient texts on character refinement.

I have put together some material on the first chapter of Pirkei Avos. Please use the link below.

Pirkei Avos - Chapter One (45 pages)

Also, don’t miss the upcoming Jewish Motorcycle Alliance’s convention in Virginia Beach. Our local president and founder, Mike Ashe, wrote a great article entitled Kosher Hogs for the UJFT blog. I noticed that he left out several details in order to make it sound more like a tea party and less like a convention of Jewish Motorcyclists.

Posted on 04/29 at 08:17 AM • Permalink
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Monday, April 18, 2011

Born Free

When we left Egypt, we were so free that we could never been enslaved again. Of course, we’ve had our share of servitude over the years. We’ve seen plenty of persecution, suffering, and abuse throughout the years. Still, 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.

About ten years ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks visited the Windsor Castle and delivered a lecture in the presence of Prince Philip. The Windsor Castle is the oldest inhabited castle in the world and has seen much of the glory of the British Empire as well as the dark stains of the expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I in 1290 and other incorrigible massacres and libels.

Rabbi Sacks began his lecture by acknowledging the unique experience of growing up in a castle. He pointed out that a young prince or princess would have no choice but to take note of the deep history of their home and the expectations, protocols, morals, and obligations that came along with it.

“Jews don’t own buildings like Windsor Castle”, he continued, “We are not that kind of people. But we own something that is, in its own way, no less majestic and even more consecrated by time. The Jewish castle is built not of bricks or stone, but of words. But it too has been preserved across the centuries, handed on by one generation to the next, added to and enhanced in age after age, lovingly cherished and sustained. As a child I inherited it from my parents, as they had inherited it from theirs. It is not a building but it is nonetheless, a home, a place in which to live. More than it belongs to us, we belong to it; and it too is part of the heritage of mankind.”

As hard as people try to remove us from our heritage and to burden us with their prejudices and ideas, we remain free. We are free to feel and act and think as Jews. We are free to fulfill our role of being a light unto the nations and to make all of our decisions based on the will of G-d.

This can be a freedom that is hard to relate to as individuals. Reb Yitzchak Ezrachi of the Mir Yeshiva points out that on Pesach we celebrate the duality of our the escape from the bondage of Egypt as well as the opportunity to live and fulfill our own individual freedom to act and think as Jews.

During the year we become burdened by hangups, Mishegassin, addiction, bad habits and plain laziness. On Pesach, we can tap into the power of the seder to break out of our bondage and live in true freedom.

About a year ago I met a new friend who had made some bad mistakes and was in a lot of trouble. He had been passing through Virginia on a trip and made the terrible decision of picking up some untaxed merchandise for resale in New York. It seemed like a victimless crime, he was desperate for the money, and he figured that the worst that could happen was a slap on the wrist.

He could not have been more wrong. My friend ended up in a jail cell with veteran smugglers who ran entire smuggling rings across state lines. On paper, he was just as bad as they were. He told me that he didn’t know if he would stay in that cell for ten minutes, ten hours or ten years. He was petrified.

Fortunately, with some help from the right people, Moshe was able to get out on bail and begin the long, expensive, and embarrassing process of trying to avoid a decade in prison.

I suppose that there are some criminals with no regrets and no remorse. This young man was both regretful and remorseful and my wife and I made a decision to help him out.

As we worked together on the statement for the judge, Moshe made an exclamation to the effect of the following: “I just want to be free from this whole thing”, he said, “I want to be free from prison, free from lawyers, free from Askonim and free from all of these statements and decisions. I want to be free to start again, to get a normal job, to support my family, pay my rent and get on with life”.

He may not have used those exact words, but those were his exact feelings. They should be our feelings too.

As one of the local lawyers put it: “I forgot the word for it, but I learned in Yeshiva that people that look like you don’t belong in situations like these”. We get ourselves trapped in situations where we do not belong. We need to learn to break free, to follow our heart and to reset our moral compasses.

On the night before the trial Moshe stayed at my house in Norfolk. By 11:30 his family, his friends, the askonim, and the lawyers had all gone to sleep. Only the two of us were awake and as I prepared for bed I asked if there was anything else that I could do for him. He had a long day of travelling, meetings and decisions behind him and an important day in court before him. He asked for a Gemara Sukkah and a chavrusa. It wasn’t that he felt like a tzaddik or wanted to impress me. He just wanted to connect with Hashem and to free his Neshama of the burdens that he had brought upon himself. He wanted to reconnect with the freedom that we achieved when we left Egypt to receive the Torah.

We reviewed the Gemara, consulted the Rashi’s, and examined the Tosafos. We made a small diagram and arrived at a satisfactory conclusion. It was past midnight when we finally closed our Gemaras. We were both exhausted but we had no regrets at all. We had connected with something sane, something real, and something that would last beyond our present issues.

Last Monday, just as I was returning from Israel, Moshe received his final verdict. The judge allowed him to walk away with no more jail time, no more parole, and no more investigations. He has large fines and many bills to pay, but he is free to continue with his life and spend Pesach with his family. He was very grateful and sent me and the lawyer a box of Matzah, which I received at the end of last week.

At first I was perplexed by Moshe’s odd choice of gifts. I already had Matzos (Baruch Hashem!). My wife pointed out to me that the matzos from Moshe were more than just free matzos. These matzos were Matzos of Freedom. These Matzos were the most relevant and meaningful gift that I could possibly receive from a man who had just learned the true meaning of freedom. This was a man who would truly celebrate Pesach.

Every Pesach, as we eat our Matzah, we think of and experience the same taste that our forefathers tasted as they rushed out of Mitzrayim. This year, I’ll also be thinking of my individual matzos. I’ll be thinking of the freedom that each one of us has the ability and obligation to achieve in our own lives.

May we merit to truly feel the words which we articulate as we begin Hallel at the seder::

“Therefore we must thank, praise, pay tribute, glorify, exalt, honor, bless and acclaim the One who performed all these miracles for our fathers and for us: He took us from slavery to freedom, from grief to joy, from mourning to Yom Tov, from darkness to great light, out of bondage to. We will burst out in a new song before Him! Hallelukah!”

Posted on 04/18 at 10:34 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Citizens of the World

The Torah instructs the Metzora to end his or her period of isolation and repentance by bringing an offering that includes (among other things) a branch of a cedar tree and two birds.

How is it that the Metzora, who is afflicted with a form of leprosy because of his habits of haughtiness and chatter, would bring an atonement sacrifice that includes Cedar and Fowl? Don’t the tall cedar tree and the chirping birds recall the very traits of haughtiness and chatter that got him or her into trouble to begin with?

At my sister’s Sheva Berachos in Ramat Beit Shemesh I attempted to answer this question by sharing my experiences as a jurist for the Norfolk circuit court.

The defendant was a young man who was accused of kicking a policeman while intoxicated. My fellow jurors and I listened closely to the testimony and unanimously voted to declare the defendant Guilty. The young man was sentenced to between one and five years in prison - at our discretion.

As an American Citizen I was proud that I would serve on this man’s jury and, along with my fellow citizens, ensure that the Kicker received no more and no less than the consequence that he rightly deserved.

As we entered the Jury Chamber, one woman set the tone for the discussion:

“I don’t know about y ‘all”, she said. “but I don’t want to be meeting this man in the K-mart Parking Lot. I vote to put him behind bars for as long as possible”. As I watched with shock and disappointment, each one of the jurors around the table slowly nodded in confirmation. They were voting to keep a man who had done very little wrong behind bars for as long as possible, just so that they would not have to deal with him.

I was the proverbial Twelfth Juror and, sitting as I was between the jurists and the door to the courtroom, the defendant’s fate was in my hands. I made an impassioned plea for sanity and, after much argument, managed to exact a compromise of three years.

We handed our decision to the judge, and the verdict was handed down.

As we watched the poor young man leave the courtroom in chains, I couldn’t help but wonder what the world would lose by putting this man behind bars for three years. I was shocked by the insensitivity of a group of people who could say, “we don’t need him, he’s not important, just put him somewhere where we can’t see him.”

The phrase “I don’t need him” articulates precisely the haughtiness and talk that gets the Metzorah into trouble. Haughtiness can be the most destructive element in even an exemplary and fair society like the one that we live in.

Yet, we don’t ask the Metzorah to give up his haughtiness. We allow him to keep it and even celebrate it by marking the end of his purification process with a piece of Cedar. This is because haughtiness is not really bad. Cedar is used to described wise people and the Torah teaches us that a person who is haughty in the ways of Hashem will go further than any other.

Good haughtiness causes a person to realize that with the help of others they can become great. Good haughtiness causes a person to say: “I need him”, “he is important”, and “I have great goals that can’t be accomplished without him”.

My sister and her new husband, for example, exemplify the type of Haughtiness that King David prayed for. They know that G-d expects great things from them and, rather than exclude others, they understand the value and importance of including and learning from every person. They have circled the globe and found that everyone in this world has something unique that can help them grow. They respect people and are respected in return. They help people and really believe that they are receiving more than they can ever give. Nobody is dispensable. Like the imposing Cedar, they spread their roots and know to appreciate and draw upon the unique qualities of everyone around them.

The Chosson and Kallah employ the ultimate strategy in growth, and it works.

May we merit to watch my sister, her husband, and many more young couples like them grow to build Jerusalem into the center of the Universe, an all-inclusive and beautiful home for the Jewish people.

This week, I merited to visit Eretz Yisroel for the first time in over five years. I reunited with many people who I love dearly, as well as scores of new friends. Among those who I met were many readers of this blog. I appreciate their kind words and I will endeavor to deliver the quality that they deserve.

I am including links to several Pesach related materials that I have worked to create for my students. Some are new and others have been updated from previous years. Please contact me with any questions.

Uploads on the Hagada (prepared for my students).

Hagada Companion (56 pages)

Hilchos Haseder (43 pages)

Sugyos Haseder (Part I, 22 pages)

More posts on Pesach:

The Double Dip

The Call of the Turtledove

Bongo Without a Cause (on Unity)

Bottle It

Making Kadesh Last

Our National Bar Mitzvah (Shabbos Hagadol)

The Hardest Chametz to Remove

Chag Kasher Vesame’ach!

Posted on 04/07 at 11:25 PM • Permalink
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Friday, March 18, 2011

Why a Shul?

The most important asset that we have is our Torah. We are the People of the Book. The study of the Written and Oral Torah is the most important Mitzvah in the Torah and the foundation upon which all of Judaism stands. The most important book of the Oral Law is the Mishna, written by Reb Yehudah Hansi.

Reb Yehuda Hanasi was the codifier of the Oral Law and the undisputed leader of his generation. He had a Yeshiva in Babylon where he taught the Mishna to hundreds of scholarly students.

Imagine visiting Reb Yehuda Hanasi’s yeshiva, spending time there and absorbing the atmosphere. It must have been amazing. Even today, walking into any yeshiva is an awesome and inspiring experience in observing the continuity and hard work that goes into who we are as a people.

Yet, as important as Torah is, Reb Yehuda Hanasi taught his students that the reading of the Megilla is even more important than Torah study. (Although the Megilla is Torah too, it did not require the same depth and self-sacrifice that Reb Yehuda Hanasi’s students were accustomed to).

The Gemara tells as that Reb Yehuda did not just suspend his classes for the reading of the Megilla. He would actually close his Yeshiva and have all of the students leave the Yeshiva and go to the local shul to hear the Megilla.

In the times of the Geonim many people had the custom of gathering a Minyan in their homes on Purim and read the Megilla for their friends and family. The Hagahos Ashri criticized them by citing Rebi’s practice: If Reb Yehuda Hanasi left his Yeshiva to go to shul, we should certainly leave the coziness of our homes to hear the Megilla in a Beis Hakneses.

A Beis Hakneses has a unique holiness that supersedes even the study of Torah in Reb Yehuda Hanasi’s own Yeshiva!

What is a Beis Haknesses?

The Rambam in the Laws of Prayer writes the following:

“Any location that is populated by ten Jews is obligated to appropriate a house where they can congregate for prayer whenever it is time to pray. This place is called a Beis Haknesses.” (Rambam, Mishna Torah, Laws of Prayer, Chapter 12)

Residents of a city may actually force each other to build a shul and (according to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) fine them if they do not help make the Minyan.
The main criterion for a Beis Hakneses is community involvement.

When the Mishkan was built, each Jew needed to donate at least half a Shekel to the building of the Mishkan, and these half-shekels were melted down to create the Adanim – the Base of the Mishkan. The strength of the Beis hamikdash came from its status as Tel Piyos – The Mountain toward which everyone prayed, and the daily Tamid needed to be financed by the Jewish people as a group. If a city was late in submitting its share of the Machatzis Hashekel, the Bais Hamikdosh would put out money. The show could not go on without them.

Many of us could pull ten men together and hold a Friday night minyan or a Megilla reading in our homes, but even if we could pull the ten holiest Jews alive into our minyan, the Kedusha of the Minyan would not approach the holiness of a simple Beis Haknesses.

A Beis Hakneses is the holiest building that a city can have, but it is only a Beis Haknesses because it is the sum total of the efforts, abilities and self-sacrifice of every person in it.

May we all merit to continue to build our Batei Knessiyos and make sure that they live up to the standards of the legendary students of Reb Yehuda Hanasi. We need to imagine them leaving their world-class Yeshiva and heading for our little shuls saying: “That is where we want to hear the Megilla”.

Posted on 03/18 at 09:45 AM • Permalink
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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Gedolim Puzzle

My seven-year-old daughter recently asked for a puzzle of a Gadol. In the age of ‘Gedolim Memory’ and ‘Gedolim Guess Who’, her request is perfectly reasonable but still slightly odd.

I can’t help but imagine completing a puzzle only to realize that Rav Shach’s Shirt is missing a button or that I need one more curl for the Bobover Rebbe’s peyos.

Do Gedolim puzzles also have blue sky pieces, straight-edged pieces, beard pieces and eye pieces?

Can a Gadol be broken up into pieces and put back together again? What are the pieces that make up a Gadol?

When I was a kid, we didn’t plan to be Gedolim when we grew up. My mother told me to be a big Tzaddik and Uncle Moishy told me to be a big Talmid Chacham. Nobody ever mentioned Gadol. The aperture of Gadol is fairly new to modern parlance.

Despite it’s recent introduction to our vocabulary, the idea of a Gadol has ancient roots. When Avraham celebrated Yitzchak’s second birthday it was called a “seudah gedola” and we are taught that the Gedolim of the generation were in attendance.

An elderly Jew in Jerusalem once explained the concept as follows: an Adam Gadol (a big person) is like a Yeshiva Gedola (a big yeshiva). A big Yeshiva is able to accept all sorts of boys because they are populous enough to absorb even the weaker and less committed among us. A Gadol is, likewise, able to accept all sorts of ideas and values because they are absorbed into his all-encompassing Torah-based weltanschauung.

There is an important lesson here. In our praiseworthy rush to emulate Gedolim, we tend to look at only one or two facets of their behavior. We sometimes fail to recognize the Derech Eretz which is the Sine qua non of all Torah learning and of all great people.

Gedolim are not obsessed with appearances, but they also tuck in their shirts and turn down their brims. Gedolim don’t waste time or money, but they also don’t get speeding tickets or steal. Gedolim are able to guide people wisely, yet they rarely boss people around. Gedolim are deserving of great honor, yet they rarely request it.

We need to teach our children that it takes many pieces to form a Gadol. If they ignore half of the pieces, their puzzle will be incomplete.

One of the fondest weeks of my life was the one in which Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg Shlita came to Australia. I was fourteen at the time and was given the task of assisting Rabbi Scheinberg and making sure that all of his needs were met. At first, Rav Scheinberg was very upset to see me and told my father to send me back to school. He begrudgingly relented to my presence when we promised that my Chavrusa would join me in the dining room so that I could continue my learning while he met with people in an office upstairs.

The highlight of my week came in the form of a glass of fresh mousse with a cherry on top. At the request of the woman of the house (Mrs. Herzog), I took leave of my Chavrusa and brought the delectable dessert upstairs to the Rosh Yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva thanked me politely and, for the first time all week, asked if I would do him a favor. Of course I said yes. My excitement turned to wonder as he handed me his spoon and asked me to stay for a few minutes and eat the Mousse. It was delicious and I told him so. He thanked me again and I took leave, taking care to return the empty glass to the kitchen.

I returned to my chavrusa but it wasn’t long before the woman of the house, noting the uncharacteristic speed with which “Rav Scheinberg” had devoured the mousse, asked me to bring up another glass which she had painstakingly prepared.

She confided in me, saying, “I finally found something he likes”. I just licked my lips and smiled.

The rest of the week was as sweet as it was instructive. My role as Rav Scheinberg’s assistant was to arrange his appointments, answer the door, and eat his mousse. My chavrusa was a little jealous when he found out, but I had no intention of sharing my responsibilities.

The word Gadol means big and a Gadol must be big enough to consider everything. Rav Scheinberg wasn’t content to greet visitors all day and let people guess how many Tzitzis he wears - that’s what Jelly bean contests are for. He busied himself considering my learning, his learning, his diet, and the feelings of his hostess.  A Gadol spends his time perfecting every aspect of every moment in his day.

I don’t know if anyone has taken a Jigsaw to Reb Scheinberg yet. When they do, I hope that it captures his entire personalty. I recommend a corner piece showing a small fourteen-year-old boy with pimples eating a delicious chocolate mousse with a bright red cherry on top.

Posted on 01/26 at 01:35 AM • Permalink
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Friday, January 07, 2011

The Blissfully Ignorant

I often try to identify the matriarchs and patriarchs who can claim responsibility for entire clans of religious, scholarly and respected Jews. Last week, I attended a Simcha where such a clan was in attendance. The grandfather spoke about his father and traced the birth of the dynasty to the day that his father joined Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s shul almost fifty years ago. Rabbi Miller was an accomplished Talmid Chacham on the staff at Chaim Berlin and a star student of Slobodka. He later became one of the leading Orthodox Rabbis in the United States. The people in his shul were not all as illustrious as he. One day, Rabbi Miller announced that he would be giving a new class with only one pre-requisite: ignorance. He told the students to come to the class prepared with blank note paper and empty heads. They were also told to bring pencils. Several middle-aged men attended and before long those blank papers became treasured documents. As the students grew wiser, their attitudes toward Jewish education grew firmer. They raised their children as scholars and today tens of Yeshivos are staffed by progeny of Rabbi Miller’s class for Amei Ha’aretz.

Rabbi Miller was a Talmid of Rav Isaac Sher of Slobodka. He finished Shas at least once a year and never let a day pass without a session in Mussar. He never veered from his daily schedule and measured every word that he uttered. Yet, Rabbi Miller wasn’t to great or busy to make himself the inaugural teacher of the class for the ignorant.

I remember reading about Rabbi Miller’s most spiritual moment. One would have thought the spiritual peak in his life would come from Torah, a Tefila, or perhaps an act of self control. The truth, according to Rabbi Miller himself, was very different. Rabbi Miller’s epiphany came to him in the Lithuanian country side. He noticed a flower beginning to blossom and sat down to marvel at it’s beauty and design. He gazed at it for over an hour. Beholding that simple beauty brought him closer to Hashem than any of his hours in study or his ninety years of intense Tefilla.

Rav Avigdor Miller had an appreciation for simple things.

Sometimes I wish that I could be ignorant. I wish I could take my blank papers and my pencils and get excited about a new topic that I will never excel in. It won’t earn me money, convenience, or glory, but it will shape my attitude toward life and show my children where my heart is.

Posted on 01/07 at 12:58 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, December 19, 2010


I have a brother who spends an extraordinary amount of time at the Kosel Hamaaravi (the Western Wall). Before he was married he even brought each of his dates to the Kotel. Despite the presence of a Mechitza, my brother managed to make these dates meaningful by greeting each one of the beggars by name and introducing them to his date. One particular girl was particularly struck by this habit. She did not end up marrying my brother, but she recommended that my brother meet the only other person she knew who could greet the Kotel staff by name. They were engaged a few weeks later.

I arrived in Israel on the day before my brother’s wedding with a strong desire to go to the Kosel and spend time with my brother. We arrived at the Kotel just before midnight and the soldiers on duty greeted my brother like an old friend. As they ushered us through the metal detector an alarm went off.  The soldier searched my brother and gave him a questioning look when he found and removed a case of cigars from my brother’s jacket pocket. “Those are for you guys”, Eliyahu explained, “I’m getting married tomorrow”.

As the smiling soldiers lit up and the aroma of cigars filled the Kosel plaza, I couldn’t help but notice the number of beggars approaching my brother and I. They didn’t want money. They just wanted to talk to Eliyahu. Eliyahu looked straight into the first man’s eyes and said “I’m getting married tomorrow, please come to the wedding”. The joy on the man’s face was unmistakable, but I couldn’t tell if he was smiling for Eliyahu’s good fortune in getting married, or for his own good fortune in getting invited.

Eliyahu extended his sincere invitation to each and every one of those downtrodden men and women at the Kosel. He asked about their spouses by name, gave some money for a taxi, and expressed genuine regret when one fellow said that he would be to busy to make it to the wedding.
We made our way to the Kosel, davened, and finally made our way home after midnight amidst calls of good wishes and through a cloud of cigar smoke.

Needless to say, the wedding was beautiful and the couple began their married lives together with some of the most overlooked residents of Jerusalem.

In Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov lay on his deathbed. He summoned each one of his children and blessed them individually. Only Shimon and Levi were called in as a pair. “Shimon and Levi are brothers”, Yaacov told them. “You have the power to unite with each other and cause major events to happen.  You acted together to sell Yosef, and he was sold. You acted together to attack the residents of Shechem, and you were successful”.

In his bracha, Yaacov hinted that in the future the children of Shimon would stage a demonstration against Moshe in the episode of Zimri and Kosbi and the children of Levi would gather together against Moshe in the rebellion of Korach. Yaakov was very clear in his criticism. He cursed their anger and declared that he would have no part in their actions. He prayed that the protagonists would not be identified as his grandchildren and that the children of Shimon and Levi not be allowed to unite. Instead, he expressed his hope that the decendants of Shimon and Levi would be scattered and dispersed throughout the Jewish kingdom.

Despite the implications of Yaacov’s dying words, the tribes of Shimon and Levi were not evil. From all of the tribes, it was Levi who was to represent us in the Beis Hamikdosh. To this day, we are commanded to this day to give special honor to Kohanim and Leviim. Likewise, the tribe of Shimon made up the teaching corp of the Jewish people people. The scholars and educators of all of the tribes came primarily from Shimon.
The Kli Yakar writes that the ability of Shimon and Levi to represent and educate the Jewish people as Kohanim and teachers was a result of their ability to connect with people. Yaacov saw that when Shimon and Levi connected to each other the results were not good, so he prayed that they separate from each other and use their abilities to form powerful connections with the entire Jewish nation. Shimon and Levi were to spread out, to teach and to inspire because of their ability to connect, not in spite of it.

When I was in yeshiva, one of my Chavrusas (study partners) was also my best friend. We didn’t learn much because there was so much to talk about. We could shmooze for hours and fall drastically behind in our leaarning. In an act of self-righteousness, we asked asked our rebbe to split us up and assign us new Chavrusos.  The rebbe refused.  “If you shmooze well together”, he said, “you can learn well together too”.
Yaacov looked at the powerful abilities of Shimon and Levi and saw enormous potential. He chastised them for their anger but not for their unity. He told them to channel their energy to benefit all of Klal Yisrael. In their particular case it was not advantageous to direct their connectivity toward each other. Instead, he insisted that they scatter throughout the land of Israel and connect to every single Jew. He made them our representatives in the Beis Hamikdash and the teachers in our Yeshivos. He unleashed their power in a constructive way and gave them, perhaps, the best blessing of all.

I recently asked my brother what became of all of those guests at his wedding. He told me that not one of them has forgotten his gesture. Five years later, they approach him in the streets and thank him for making them a part of his simcha and of his life.

We have a power to connect with people in a way that is too valuable to ignore.Like Shimon and Levi, we need to spread the love and recognize that we can change lives every time we smile, every time we make a phone call, and every time we say good shabbos.

We may be tempted to restrict our unity to those around us, but we need to follow the lead of Yaacov, Shimon, and Levi to touch and acknowledge every single person in our lives.

N.B. Many people have asked me “Where is your brother now?” Please have a look at

Posted on 12/19 at 12:31 PM • Permalink
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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Makin’ the Minyan

Many of my childhood memories are cold and stormy. I grew up in Buffalo, NY who’s major natural resource is snow.

To be sure, the Jewish Community of Buffalo is a friendly and vibrant community, but we spent our share of time watching the snow and waiting for a Minyan.

Old time Buffalonians love to tell about the snowy Sunday morning that found my father out front looking for a Tzenter. Unfortunately, the only soul in sight was the pastor coming down the steps of the church down the block. He told my father that they were having trouble too.

I was under Bar Mitzvah at the time and was constantly criticized for not getting older faster. Though I couldn’t help with the Minyan, I would go to shul to daven and to learn some important lessons about the power of ten individuals and the importance of davening as one.

I have memories of trudging through the snow to warm up in the sanctuary and wait while the men made calls. More men would enter, always one at a time, to dry up and wait and discuss lake-effect snow. Eventually, we would daven.

Some people liked to describe Buffalo as “B’afeilo” which is Hebrew for dark, but we knew that Buffalo had a spark that was as bright as it was strong. We couldn’t dream of a pizza shop and the Bills never quite won the Superbowl, but we had the best Minyan that a shul could hope for.

There are many faces in my memories of minyan and one of them belongs distinctly to Mr. Sull. Sometimes Mr. Sull was the one making the calls for people to come and sometimes he was the one being called, but in my mind he was the man with the heavy parka and fur cap whose entrance was invariably accompanied by a flurry of snowflakes and a particularly strong gust of wind.

Twenty-three years ago, this week, Mr. Sull’s grandmother passed away. Judith Levine and her husband had been legends in our community and the Sull’s were devastated. My father officiated at the funeral and spoke of our forefather Yaacov. Yaacov was also irreplaceable. He inspired so many, and yet when his time came he was taken from this world.

My father explained that every man and woman has his or her time. We come, we make our mark, and we leave for a better place.

The family found comfort in my father’s words, but looking back I cannot help but think of the Medrash that ‘Yaacov Avinu lo Meis’ - “Yaacov, our forefather, never really died”. Some people are able to light a spark that is simply to strong to disappear. These people transcend time and their inspiration lives within us forever.

Many of the inspiring men and women who lived in Buffalo are no longer there. Their families have moved and the older generations have passed on. On onlooker might think that all of their work was for nothing, that they have only a tiny shul to show for their efforts. Nothing could be further form the truth. That tiny shul packs a pretty big punch and here is no place like it in the world. I have learned over the years that while the people in Buffalo continue to wait patiently for a Minyan, scores of former Buffalonians are ‘making Minyan’ in shuls throughout the world. Buffalo natives and their children can be found in the holiest and the most unholy locations. They are learning Torah, teaching Torah and leading inspired lives. Generations of dedicated Jews can trace their roots to Buffalo and an obstinate spark of conviction continues to burn in me, in Buffalo, and throughout the world.

I have grown up a lot since those cold and stormy Buffalo days. I live in tropical Norfolk, VA now. Men don’t wear earmuffs here and nobody cares that the Bills actually won a game this week.

We don’t usually have trouble getting a Minyan for Mincha, but today an uncharacteristic snowstorm blew in from the North. As it happened, I was the one making the phone calls. My mind wandered back to the warm blizzards of my youth and I could almost see the men entering, one by one, through the snow. Suddenly, the door burst open and I was roused from my reveries by a particularly strong gust of wind. A guest entered amidst a flurry of snowflakes. He was wearing a heavy parka and a familiar fur cap and he was in town to visit his daughter, Yehudis.

Without a trace of surprise, I cleared my throat and approached a man who I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years. “Mr. Sull”, I said, “I am Sender Haber. I think we’ve met before and I think you’ve just made our Minyan”.

We’re talkin’ really proud.

Posted on 12/14 at 02:01 PM • Permalink
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Monday, November 08, 2010

Praying for the Improbable

Recently, I’ve been struck by the recurring theme of identity fraud in Sefer Bereishis: Yaacov received the Brachos by masquerading as Eisav only to be fooled into marrying Leah when she masquerades as Rochel. Yosef’s death is faked and he emerges as an Egyptian viceroy, Tamar defrauds her father-in-law, and Dina’s daughter surfaces inexplicably in Potifar’s household.

When I first read the Merchant of Venice, I was intensely disappointed. The line “Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desirest” are impressive, but only until one considers that those words were designed to be uttered by a male actor who was playing the role of a woman masquerading as a man thinking (correctly!) that she could fool her own husband into believing that she was her cousin. Talk about improbable fiction!.

Shakespeare got away with some pretty crazy things, but he was writing fiction and he wasn’t G-d.

What are we supposed to think when we read the stories in the Torah?

I think that background sheds a lot of light on our question.

Rochel and Leah were identical twins. The only feature that separated them was their facial complexion. Rochel was beautiful; Leah was splotchy and blotchy. Everybody knew that the Avinu family only married cousins and Rivka and Lavan had twin boys and girls, respectively. There was no question that the two sets of twins would be paired off according to age. Leah wept because was understandably unhappy with the childhood predictions of her and Eisav sitting in a tree. She didn’t want to marry a man who killed people for their jackets. She cried until her skin was stained.

But why did Leah cry? Was it self-pity and depression? Was it dread and dismay? The Medrash tells us that Leah was crying in prayer. She knew that her destiny was to marry Eisav and she prayed for something better for herself.

Leah’s prayer worked. In an unpredictable chain of events, Yaacov snagged the Bechora, Rochel helped Leah steal her groom, and a nation was born.

Rochel gave up a lot more than the right to marry Yaakov first. Leah literally stepped into Rochel’s shoes. The Torah clearly tells us that it was Leah’s prayer that made her the progenitor of the children that would have been Rochel’s.  Rochel had only two of the twelve tribes, passed away at the age of thirty-six and did not get buried with Yaakov. To paraphrase Antonio, “The world is a stage, and Leah took Rochel’s part”. Such is the strength of prayer. (Rochel was rewarded for her selflessness, but that is the subject of a different post).

So many of the events in our own lives are the product of prayer.  Prayer has the ability to make the impossible happen. The events of Bereishis are the products of prayer.

We all know that prayer is powerful, but we seem to have trouble recognizing their fulfillment. Think back to your prayers of six months ago. How many of those prayers were fulfilled? How often do we say thank you?

When Chana returned to the Mishkan after Shmuel’s long awaited birth she presented her child to Eli, the Kohein Gadol. She said “El Hanaar Hazeh Hispallati” – “this is the child I was praying for”. Imagine if we would think those words every time that we are inspired to complain about our children. Imagine if we really thanked Hashem for everything that we begged and cried for years ago.

Reuvain was the oldest of the Shevatim. When Yosef predicted that he would rule over them all, Reuvain should have been the most indignant. Yet we find that it was Reuvain who tried to save Yosef from being killed or sold. The Medrash explains that Reuvain was able to rise above the fray because he had the gift of taking nothing for granted.  After Rochel’s death, Reuvain had been criticized for moving Yaacov’s furniture to his mother Leah’s tent. Reuvain took his mistake seriously and lived with the fear that as a result of his actions he would no longer be counted among the twelve tribes. He cried and fasted daily, asking G-d to forgive him. When Reuvain heard Yosef ‘s dreams and the predictions that they contained, he knew that his prayers had been answered. While the other brothers focused on Yosef’s usurpation of the throne, Reuvain was counting the stars. He quickly realized that eleven stars plus one Yosef, meant that he was still part of the dream and that he would retain his status as one of the twelve tribes. Everyone else felt hatred for Yosef; Reuvain felt gratitude and relief. His prayers had been answered. It was Reuvain’s grateful attitude that saved him from getting involved in the brothers’ plot.

We tend to take things for granted. We need to appreciate the power of prayer and we need to appreciate the results of prayer when they finally come.

My young students often ask me how my wife and I first met.

After a disclaimer about truth and accuracy, I usually tell them about the time I was strapped for cash. As it happened, there was a circus in town and the lion had died suddenly. In desperation, I took a job impersonating the lion. I growled and stalked and prowled around stage and was actually enjoying the applause when the Siberian tiger was let loose. I knew that my jig was up. I might be able to fool a crowd of humans, but there was no way that I could fool the tiger. I threw away all pretenses and yelled out “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad”. The tiger responded (to my relief) “Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuso L’olam Va’ed”. The woman in the tiger was Mrs. Haber. We were engaged soon afterward.

Of course, the real story of how Sender met Chamie was not nearly as exciting, but it was no less miraculous. I, like any shidduch, was the culmination of a chain of events too complicated to fathom.

Shakespeare had no prayers to excuse his unlikely plot.  We, on the other hand, need to step back and appreciate the power of prayer and the unlikely chains of events that prayers have brought into our lives.

(It appears that Shakespeare did study the Parsha but chose to focus on the caricature of Yaacov extracting payment from Lavan. Truly, the Devil can cite scripture to his anti-Semitic purpose.)

See also:
My semi-anonymous contribution to the internet: The Parsha according to Mario

Posted on 11/08 at 03:19 AM • Permalink
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Friday, November 05, 2010

What Did Yitzchok Order?

On this day, several years ago, I wrote a post was about Red Lentil Soup. In it, I bravely attacked preconceived notions about Lentil Soup and questioned if anybody had ever actually seen Lentil Soup that was Red. The post was picked up by Frum Jews and Christian Bible groups, Culinary websites, scholars, laymen and Baalebustas.

People appreciated the refreshing approach to the parsha and the practical questions that I posed.

How did I do it? I teach third grade.

Third graders have the ability to approach everything practically and pragmatically. When our sages told us that we learn the most from our students, they were not exaggerating. Teaching has helped me grow far more than any other single learning endeavor that I have taken on.

One of my jobs in teaching is to reinforce Rashi’s role in his commentary on the Torah. Rashi took upon himself to answer questions that students might have as they learn the parsha. When Rashi writes we know that he is writing because he wants to answer a question. True students of Rashi strive to understand not only what Rashi is saying, but what he is trying to answer.

I told my students about the time when Rashi was travelling on a wet and cold night. An innkeeper let Rashi in to his kretchma but made him go to sleep on the floor near the fireplace. He did not give Rashi any food or drink because Rashi did not have any money. Of course, he did not know that his guest was Rashi.

The innkeeper then made two cups of steaming hot vegetable soup and sat down at the table to teach his son chumash with ... Rashi. Soon they came to a Rashi butcould not understand what Rashi wanted to explain. “What does Rashi Want!!?” the innkeeper asked. A voice was heard from the back of the room: “Rashi wants a glass of hot soup”.

I have found that my students, with their fresh approach to learning, are able to anticipate Rashi’s questions in ways that I can only try to emulate.

This year, my students were not bothered by Red Lentil Soup. They were concerned about Hot Dogs.

We estimated that our class (including the Rebbe) could eat a maximum of 20 hot dogs in one evening. Since the average goat can produce 800 hot dogs (80 pounds), it would take 40 nights for the third graders to eat an entire goat. (cows produce 5000 hot dogs or 250 nights of BBQ’s). According to Guinness, the current record for hot dog eating is 68 hot dogs (with buns) in ten minutes.

Yet, we learned in Chumash that Rivkah prepared two goats for Yitzchok’s meal - that’s 1600 hot dogs!

How could Yitzchok possibly need two goats for just one meal?!

The third graders did some research and came up with several excellent answers. One felt that Yitzchak’s request for two goats was a way to test Eisav and see if he would make the effort. Another thought that the two goats were Rivka’s idea: She used one for the meat and the other for Yaacov’s costume. A third thought that maybe Yitzchak only liked one specific part of the goat (like the tongue, for example). Two others thought that since Yitzchak was afraid he was going to die, he wanted a humungous last meal. Similiarly, two students posited that it may have been Yitzchak’s last korban before he was niftar.

Still, the overall attitude was one of wonderment and (dare I say it) disbelief. How could Yitzchok flout all records and averages to justify a menu of two goats (1600 Hot Dogs) for one night.

It turns out that Rashi was also bothered by our Hot Dog question. Rashi explains that Yitzchak’s feast was not an ordinary meal: It was the Pesach seder. Since the Korban Pesach must be eaten on a full stomach, Yitzchak needed one goat to fill him up and another goat for his Korban Pesach.

How did Rashi know that it was Pesach? Also, Why did Yitzchak just begin to worry about getting old?

These questions answer each other: We know that in Parshas Vayeira Avraham served Matzah to his three special guests because they arrived on Pesach. They told him that Yitzchak would be born exactly a year later - which was also on Pesach. Since Yitzchak’s 123rd birthday was on Pesach he began to get worried about when he would die. His mother had passed away at 127 and a person should worry about deasth within five years of his pareants demise. (As it turned out Yitzchok lived to see his 180th birthday, living just five years longer than his father Avraham).

We read about the two goats year after year and assume that they were a typical dinner. The third graders nailed Rashi’s question in a way that we could only be jealous of.

Take a fresh approach to your learning, try to anticipate Rashi’s difficulties and, above all, make a point of memorizing the records for Hot Dog eating in all fifty states.

Posted on 11/05 at 12:05 AM • Permalink
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Friday, October 29, 2010

Zombie Tag

Nothing is more popular right now than zombies. The living dead are here to stay.
—Katy Hershbereger (2009)

You may be wondering if Katy Hershberger has an iPhone or Facebook.

She does. And it was just those tools that got almost 20,000 people to sign up for a game of Zombie tag. I know this because everyone who played gathered down the block from my house last Friday.The police closed the streets, PETA and the reporters set up shop, and the walk home from Kabolas Shabbos got really interesting.

At exactly Shkia, fifteen professional zombies raced through the streets and tagged civilian players. Anybody who was tagged became a Zombie, and before long the streets were crawling with over 1,000 zombies. The zombies dressed in black and spent four hours darting from hiding place to hiding place tagging people and (I suppose) feeding off their flesh. They couldn’t die because they were already dead.

I figured someone out there would want to hear Kiddush, so I went down to where the action was and mingled with the crowd. My first reaction was fright. People in Norfolk have been trained by the Navy to look tough and camouflage well. Muscular black clad men emerging from the darkness are always a little chilling, and even more so when they come in swarms of ten or more.

I quickly got over the initial fear when I realized that these were all just regular people. Most of them thought that I was part of the event (I do dress in black).

I went home for the Shabbos Seudah but learned an important lesson: Normal people are attracted to zombie events. Something about us enjoys dressing up like the living dead and forming lines around the block for a chance to be attacked by a flesh-eater.

I am fascinated by this trend and have spent the past week trying to understand it.

Back in the Harry Potter days, I remember being shocked by a world that was fascinated with the metaphysical but totally uninterested in the soul. As the trend moves beyond sorcerers and hobbits to include vampires and zombies, the soul is still not emerging as an important player..

A former boss of mine used to enjoy asking college kids to describe a “Soulmate”. There were always loud and lively answers, until he led into the next question:

“What is a soul?”

It seems like people don’t think about souls often enough.

The Medrash tells us about the Zombie that Rabi Akiva met. The unfortunate man’s soul was not allowed entry to the world-to-come until his son began to learn Torah. Of course, Rabi Akiva taught the son to say Kaddish and liberated the zombie from his misery.

We (as a people) love to say Kaddish. Kaddish is the #1 mitzva for most Jews, and yet we seem to belong to a society that is fixated on the body after death and all but unaware of the soul.

I once read a little known story about the Chofetz Chaim:

In 1917, as a teenager, a relative of the Chofetz Chaim was dealing with many internal struggles and doubts. She decided to confront the great Tzadik, the Chofetz Chayim, directly. The Chofetz Chayim was, of course, one of the greatest leaders and gedolim alive. She asked the Chofetz Chayim “How can you sit here in this little town of Radin “doing nothing” while in the world around you technology and industry are developing at an unprecedented rate?”

The Chofetz Chayim did not take offense or criticize the girl. He explained gently and presciently: “You see airplanes flying and you are very impressed, but one day they will invent an airplane that can fly to the moon. You hear about bombs blowing up buildings and you are awed, but soon they will invent a bomb that can destroy an entire city.

“The world around us is impressive and awesome. Amazing advances are being made daily - but they are not my primary concern.

“I am not in the business of making better bombs or better airplanes. My job is to make people better. The Torah makes people better and my job is to become a mench. My job is to become a human being who is closer to Hashem. That is what I am doing here in Radin.”

The Chofetz Chaim understood that, more than anything else, we need to develop our neshamos. We are fascinated with the tangible and captivated by our physicality. Our Yetzer Hora wants us to focus on walking corpses, but our true focus should be on our better half: the holy Neshama that has the potential to elevate us, satisfy us and nurture us to 120 and beyond.

I walked out of my house before midnight last Friday just as a tired zombie emerged from the shadows. Feeling impulsive and reckless, I yelled out “I’m winning!”. He prepared to tag me and turn me into a zombie. When I told him that I wasn’t playing, he looked a little bit puzzled and continued down the street. As he disappeared around the corner he turned around to face me again.

“You are winning...”, he shouted, “ life”.

He may have been a zombie and he might have been drunk, but I’d like to think that he was right.

N.B. I am currently involved in a project to give the Zombie movement some soul. If you are knowledgeable in Torah and interested in zombies, please contact me ASAP.

Posted on 10/29 at 11:44 AM • Permalink
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Friday, October 08, 2010

Lakewood’s Ark

I hope that Shalom Mordechai Levine never reads this blog.

Shalom Mordechai is a close friend of mine and was my Chavrusa in Lakewood. We learned together right in front of the Aron Kodesh in the main Beis Medrash. When I left Lakewood for Norfolk, Shalom worried that my learning might be affected. He undertook to check on me every month.

Shalom was relentless, he called me every Rosh Chodesh for an update on my progress. He wouldn’t accept vague answers and he challenged every decision that I made. He made sure that I stayed in touch with my inner Yeshiva Bochur and made me answerable for my learning schedules and priorities.

I love talking to Shalom but it wasn’t a walk in the park.  Shalom is hard to impress. He is a man on a mission. When I made a siyum he asked me what else I was learning, When I began giving a class early in the morning, he asked if I learned at night. When the President of Hebrew Union College and the Mayor of Virginia Beach spoke at my Siyum on Krisos, Shalom didn’t care. He wanted to know if I had learned every Tosfos.

As I took on various rabbinic responsibilities and teaching positions in the community, Shalom wasn’t impressed.  He was no less demanding. When I joined the Harley Davidson Club and enrolled in Norfolk State University, Shalom didn’t blink. Shalom just wanted to be sure that I was learning.

What right did Shalom have to be so demanding? Who appointed him as my personal Mashgiach and Drill Sergeant? I often wondered but never complained.

Last year, my wife and I took advantage of some time in Lakewood to return to our kollel days. The plan was for me to spend a week learning in BMG. This was not a social visit and nobody in Yeshiva was expecting me. I strode into the Beis Medrash bright and early, took a seat twenty rows back from the Aron Kodesh and opened my Bava Basra. I saw Shalom in our old seat with his new chavrusa learning Bava Kama. He never saw me.

I learned in Lakewood for a week and Shalom never took his head out of his gemara. He came earlier than me, left later than me, and never stopped learning.

Shalom truly does live the Lakewood life. His entire life is about Torah and he will never look out of his Gemara. He doesn’t care about mayors, presidents, prestige, or motorcycles.

Torah is his life. Torah is our life. Shalom refused to let me forget that.

Would I have continued to learn even without Shalom’s monthly phone calls? I like to think so. Did Shalom have the license to call and remind me that learning is important? Absolutely.

Watching Shalom Mordechai learn convinced me of this more than a thousand phone calls. Shalom passed the test of time and withstood the pressures of ‘the little world out there’. Shalom is what Lakewood and all Bnei Torah should represent. They are our reminder that everything is in the Torah and that we are nothing without it. They affirm that Torah has the depth to captivate us for a lifetime.

More than ten years have passed since I left Lakewood. Shalom and I still pick up a phone every now and then to talk about Torah and Life. I never told him that I visited Lakewood without saying hello.


On Parshas Noach:
Nimrod the Orwellian

On living out of town:
By Invitation Only

Summary of Parsha:
Parsha Summaries For Bereishis

Posted on 10/08 at 12:17 PM • Permalink
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Monday, September 20, 2010

Hit the Road

On the day after Yom Kippur, a couple members of the Lost Tribe were gracious enough to come around, wish my family a Shana Tova, and (after ensuring that my Sukkah was built) let me hold on to the back of a Harley for another ride with the club.

After posing for some pictures and a generous gift from the Tribe to my kids, the original plan was to relax a little bit. It wasn’t long before I found that it can be difficult to relax when your brain feels like it is bouncing around in your skull. That being said, I had a great, fun, exhilarating afternoon and got to spend time with some wonderful people as I hung on through over one hundred and twenty miles of beautiful countryside. We passed rivers and lakes, several cow pastures, three hospitals, two funeral homes, and one graveyard. Mike treated everyone in a two mile radius to Kosher Heavy Metal, Shlock Rock, and loud throttling noises.  We discussed Sukkos, auctions in shul, cohanim in graveyards, and cows in Kiev. They got me home in plenty of time to daven Mincha with a Minyan and pick out a Lulav and Esrog.

It was just like driving on the highway, except that there was no car around me.  I felt oddly in touch with the Torah’s commandment to follow up on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur by leaving the safety of our homes and exposing ourselves to the elements. 

I though of the Rabbinic teaching that after our cleansing on Yom Kippur we are too busy building, buying, cooking, (and riding) to do any Aveiros (sins). Our first Aveiros are when we leave our houses and enter our Sukkos.

Sukkos, according to the Medrash, is the Rosh Hashana for Aveiros.

It seems obvious to my rattled brain that the Medrash is not really suggesting that Succos is the first day to sin. Rather, Sukkos is our first opportunity to show how the purity that we achieved on Yom Kippur will affect our approach to sin.

As the sukka forces us to reinvent our physical environment, the calm of Yom Tov challenges us to make full use of our new spiritual reality. Sukkos is our first chance to be tested. It is the Rosh Hashana for sins.

Whether our sukkos have four walls and stand still or are open to the elements and make turns at 70 mph, we need to follow Yom Kippur by hitting the road. We need to take who we have become out to the real world and apply it there. We need to remain holy people in an unholy world. We need to be constantly aware of the presence of Hashem in our lives.

People looked at us kind of funny when we said Tefillas Haderech in front of the stockades at the Isle of Wight courthouse, but we were acknowledging that we still rely on Hashem for our protection. He didn’t let us fall, He got us home safely, and (according to Ben) He gave the Redskins three touchdowns.

May we merit to see how our Yom Kippur elevated our relationship with Hashem and penetrated to the depths of our souls.

May the glow of our “High Holy Days” accompany us out of our houses and into our year.

See also Sukkos: Rosh Hashana for aveiros
and Blessing of the Bikers

Posted on 09/20 at 11:04 AM • Permalink
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Friday, September 17, 2010

What to Bring to Kol Nidrei

It is said that when Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz visited the United States in the thirties he was greeted at the port by a Jewish man. The man welcomed the Rosh Yeshiva and told him proudly, “I have been living in the United States for Twenty years. I keep Kosher, I pray daily , and I’ve never worked on Shabbos”.

Rav Kalmonowitz turned to his students and quoted an obscure medrash: “Woe is to the person who comes to heaven and is able to enumerate his good deeds”.

The ability to recall all of our good deeds is not a good thing.

On the other hand, we read on Shabbos Shuva that we are to “bring stuff (devarim) with us when we return to Hashem”.

We need to approach Hashem on Yom Kippur and present our actions as both infinite and finite, We say that we tried to fix the world and to become truly righteous. We also say that there is an extra man in shul because of our role modeling or that a student got his first one hundred on a test because of our encouragement.

Unfortunately, we get so bogged down by the ‘concrete stuff’ that we lose site of the less trackable small stuff. We feel so good about our Major Accomplishments that we let everything else fall to the wayside. Everyone wants to save the world; nobody wants to help with the dishes.

I had a friend who made up his mind to wake up early and daven vasikin at the Kosel for forty consecutive days. He woke up at 4:00 am, walked to the Old City and davened. He came home a few hours later, had a quick bite to eat and cleared the rest of his schedule for a nap ... until the next morning at 4:00 am. He was impervious to criticism. He had prayed at sunrise at the Kosel and was therefore holier than most of the people rebuking him.

The fifteen minutes of fame come and go. Greatness is about quietly and consistently amping up our integrity, our Tefilla, and our Torah learning.

As we approach Yom Kippur we need to be very confident, but not overly confident.

Posted on 09/17 at 09:40 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