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Tuesday, January 25, 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 01/25 at 07:35 PM • 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 06:58 AM • 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 06:31 AM • 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 08:01 AM • Permalink
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Sunday, November 07, 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 11/07 at 09:19 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, November 04, 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 11/04 at 07:05 PM • 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 06:44 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 07:17 AM • 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 06:04 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 04:40 AM • Permalink
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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Be a Tzaddik!

Before you were born, you knew everything that you needed to know.

When you were born you had a clear idea of your needs: Food, Oxygen, Love. You knew how to cry when you didn’t have what you needed. Life was very simple but very efficient.

As we grow older and more intelligent, we become more and more confused. Nurture competes with nature and by the time we grow up, we have no idea what we really want. Even if we are in touch with our needs, we have trouble asking - we forget how to cry.

The Talmud tells us that before we are born, we are taught the entire Torah. And then an angel comes, taps us on the lip, and makes us forget Torah. He takes the Torah out of our conscious mind and puts it into the fiber of our being. He doesn’t take the Torah away from us; he puts it into us. At that point our mission and our purpose in life are clear.

Right before we are born the angel speaks to us:
“Be a Tzaddik”, he says. “And don’t be a Rasha. Even if the entire world tells you that you are a Tzaddik, you still need to be able to look at yourself and say: I am a Rasha”.

The angel is telling us retain our purity and our connection to Hashem even as we enter the big and confusing world. We need to remain Tzadikim.

What is a Tzaddik? The Talmud tells us that if, on his wedding day the groom says “I will marry you on the condition that I am a total Tzaddik - the marriage is valid” Even if the groom was a serial killer ten minutes earlier - we assume that he has repented.

A tzaddik is not about what we do or have done, it is about who we are now and where we are headed. A Tzaddik knows the needs of his soul.

Someone once called the Kollel for a Chavrusa. He wanted to study Torah because he was a fan of Kirk Douglas. Kirk Douglas, in his old age, had begun studying Torah. I did some research into Kirk Douglas, read his book, and even met the rabbi who studies with Kirk.

As you may know, Kirk Douglas was born as Issur Danielovich to an Orthodox family. He writes that as he grew older, suffered losses, and almost died, he realized that there was more to him than Kirk Douglas. He realized that deep inside of him there still was a little frum kid named Issur Danielovitch. That little kid was more focused, more driven and less superficial than he was. Kirk found himself a Rabbi and began to learn Torah again. He put on Tefillin, davened and learned how to connect to Hashem, again.

“Hayom Haras Olam”. Rosh Hashana marks the Herayon - the birthing of the world. Hashem created us pure. Once a year we shed the superficiality that grows up around us and become that smart little baby boy or girl that we used to be. We can return to the Torah and internalize its’ message. We speak to Hashem and we know what to ask for.

Rosh Hashana is the day that we press Reset. We take the knowledge that we have gathered over the past twelve months and we start again. (It’s like installing a new program). We find the focus of our lives and connect to Hashem. Hashem looks deep into our souls and gives us our assignment for the year.

The Rosh Hashana liturgy makes no mention of forgiveness and there are almost no prayers asking Hashem for a good year. The exercise of Rosh Hashana is to refocus and reconnect.

The angel makes us promise to remain Tzadikim before we enter the world. Each Rosh Hashanah we renew that promise.

There is an exercise from Rabbi Leib Chasman that one of my teachers taught me and that I do with all of my students: Take a moment over Rosh Hashana to look at yourself honestly and choose five small things that you can change. You can stop wasting a certain hour every week. You can start calling someone every month. You can stop watching a certain program or reading a certain magazine. You can add an extra Tefila or mitzvah to your daily routine.

Take your list of five small items and select the four hardest ones. Cross those out. Choose the smallest, simplest, easiest promise that you can - and keep it. That Mitzvah will be your yearlong reminder of the purity and focus that you achieved on Rosh Hashana.

One realistic promise is worth more than hundreds of dramatic ones. Stand in front of Hashem next Rosh Hashana and say “I have changed” - at least this small and tiny way”. You will look back at who you’ve become and realize that the change was not so small after all.

May we merit to find ourselves this Rosh Hashana and to carry the inspiration with us for an entire year.

May we all be written in the Book of Tzadikim Gemurim - truly righteous people. May Hashem hear our personal and communal words to Him and fulfill all of our desires in the best possible way. May we learn to appreciate one another and appreciate ourselves. May we be written and sealed immediately in the book of good, long and peaceful lives.

Posted on 09/05 at 04:11 AM • Permalink
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Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Over the course of twelve months we experience highs and lows, but when the month of Elul comes we are in need of assistance. G-d is preparing to judge us again just as we are becoming ‘old’ and unexcited about our growth. We possess actions, but we no longer have the spark of excitement that sent us sailing through the judgment day last year.

Five thousand seven hundred and seventy six years ago, G-d founded a corporation. He organized a board of directors, a mission statement, and a corporate framework. He analyzed a list of possible employees and placed each person in their most appropriate and effective position.

Each year on the anniversary of this day, G-d reviews the progress of the world and of each individual. Based on past performance and future expectations, He sets the next year’s assignments.

“All pass before G-d like sheep. As a shepherd examines his flock, G-d inspects, counts, appoints, and determines the fate of every living. On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed” (High holiday prayers).

We begin each year with high hopes and excitement. Like anyone starting a new project, we are determined that this year will be THE year. We plan to do everything right, or, at the very least, better than ever before.

Many of us are successful. We make resolutions and follow them through to new heights and. Even so, as the year reaches its conclusion and the time of G-dly restructuring is imminent, none of us can be completely sure that we will be allowed to retain our positions. We set aside Elul, the last month of the year, as a time of Teshuva and introspection.

Towards the end of Deuteronomy (30:6), the Baal Haturim (1270-1343) finds a hint to the month of Elul. The Torah describes that at end of days, “G-d will bring back your exiles and He will have mercy on you and he will bring you to the land that He has promised you and He will remove the impurities from your hearts and from the hearts of your children” The first letters of the last four words “es Levavcha v’es Levav” spell the word Elul.

The Baal Haturim is not just playing word games. There is a significant connection between the end of days and the end of the year:

According to Kabbala, every person has times when he or she experiences an “Isarusa” (awakening). An Isarusa is defined by a deep desire to right a wrong, to grow as a person, or to come closer to G-d. An Isarusa may come as a result of intense sorrow, a feeling of emptiness, or a profound feeling of joy. It is imperative that we grab that Isarusa, and channel it into action and commitment before it fades away. As time goes on and the individual grows, the commitment will grow as well. This process is called growth.

As we progress along this path of growth, it becomes increasingly difficult to recall the excitement that was its original catalyst. We accept Mitzvos upon ourselves with excitement and we continue to do them, but they slowly become habit, rote, and something we do because we did it yesterday. We lose our spark of excitement, our Isarusa and feel as if we have reached the end of our growth path.

The Torah describes this condition in its description of the End of Days (Deut. 4): “When you shall give birth to children and grandchildren and you will grow old in the land”. ‘Growing old’ refers to a lackadaisical and bored attitude toward the Mitzvos and good deeds that we do. Growing Old is potentially the first step toward the abandonment of Mitzvos altogether, and the verse ends “… you will commit despicable acts and worship other gods”.

It seems that every Isarusa and growth spurt is eventually followed by a ‘low’. The energy that woke us up will eventually run out. The Torah (30:6) tells us that there is only one solution to this problem: “And G-d will bring back your exiles and He will have mercy on you and he will bring you to the Land that He as promised you and He will remove the impurities from your hearts and from the hearts of your children”.

G-d appreciates the good deeds that we do, He remembers us, and He will help us repent, reform, and reconnect to the original spark of inspiration that started us on our journey.

The Torah was referring to the end of days, but the same cycle takes place every year: We begin anew at Rosh Hashana full of excitement and determination to make this “The Year”. We have visions of a year with less fighting, more smiles and more time for G-d. We translate those yearnings into realistic commitments and we turn to G-d and to provide us with the means and circumstances to honor our commitments. We are granted the opportunity for growth and are able to change. 

Over the course of twelve months we experience highs and lows, but when the month of Elul comes we are in need of assistance. G-d is preparing to judge us again just as we are becoming ‘old’ and unexcited about our growth. We possess actions, but we no longer have the spark of excitement that sent us sailing through the judgment day last year.

G-d does not let us fizzle out. For a full month preceding Rosh Hashana, He helps us remove our impurities and bare our souls He gives us an opportunity to renew our excitement be our very best as He evaluates us and sets our roles for the coming year.

May we all emerge victorious in judgment and maintain our spark of enthusiasm throughout the entire year. (Based on the Afikei Mayim)

Posted on 08/31 at 10:56 AM • Permalink
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Friday, August 27, 2010

Breaking G-d’s Rules

On Rosh Hashana we beg G-d to rise from His throne of Judgment and sit on His throne of Mercy.

What’s up with that?

Didn’t Hashem make rules? Didn’t he tell us what will happen if we don’t follow the rules? How do we have the Chutzpa to stand before G-d and ask for special treatment after He clearly stated and restated the rules?

At best we are asking for trouble.

I spent the last few hours of last year at the Enterprise car rental agency. You need a credit card to rent a car, and I had the good fortune to get in line behind an angry marine who was trying to rent a car without a credit card. (Most marines are nice guys, but this one was not). The Marine tried cash, debit cards, and ID tags, but the clerk just kept repeating the rule: You Need a Credit Card to Rent a Car.

As I stood and watched this exchange, the marine finally lost his patience. He took his entire wallet, closed it and threw it at the clerk.

“Take whatever you need”, he said, “Just give me a car”

Everyone in the store was aghast at the man’s behavior and the clerk refused to serve him.

A supervisor came out a few minutes later and calmed him down. She said that she could get him a car. She would need to check his credit record, his driving record, and his personal history. She began drilling the Marine: Who is you employer? (U.S Marine Corp) How many years have you been with the Corp? (Twenty five years) What is your rank? (Sergeant) Who can we call for a recommendation? Do you have any outstanding debts and to which banks? Do you have a criminal record?

The tough marine was embarrassed and humiliated. Only after a full interrogation and extra paperwork was he allowed to take a car.

At first I looked on condescendingly as I thought of the teaching of Ben Zoma: “Who is Strong? He who conquers his emotions.” Apparently, a man can rappel from helicopters into enemy fire and still be a wimp when it comes to conquering his own anger.

A few minutes later, it occurred to me that I might not be much better than this Marine. What is the difference between his behavior at Enterprise and our own behavior on Rosh Hashana? Don’t we ask Hashem to ignore the rules and make an exception for us? Don’t we just ‘throw everything we have’ at Hashem and demand that He make it right? Are we really looking to interrogated and judged like the Marine was judged? Why would Hashem bypass the rules that He Himself set up? How do we have the Chutzpa to ask?

Many great thinkers have asked this question and they all seem to agree on one basic answer: Mercy is not a way to bypass judgment; it is a form of judgment.

Hashem judges us as we judge others. If we are unwilling to bend our will and our desire for others, Hashem will (chas veshalom) act in kind and not veer at all from the rules that he has set forth.

On the other hand, if we are merciful when considering the actions of others, Hashem will be merciful when considering our actions as well.

Enterprise rent-a-car isn’t sophisticated enough to change their policies on a case by case basis. Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, is able to base His Judgment on each person’s individual approach to justice.

The last line of Avinu Malkeinu was composed by Rabi Akiva. The Jewish people were desperate for rain and Rabi Akiva asked Hashem to have mercy upon us. He was answered immediately with torrents of rain. The students wondered why Rabi Akiva had been answered so quickly while Rabi Eliezer’s many Tefillos had gone unanswered. A heavenly voice explained that Rabi Eliezer was a student of Shammai. He was always strict and unforgiving on the Torah’s behalf. Rabi Akiva was a student of Hillel and he was being judged in the way that he judged others.

If we are merciful in judging others; Hashem will be merciful when He judges us.

Posted on 08/27 at 02:29 AM • Permalink
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Wednesday, August 25, 2010



Growth does not have to be upwards or outwards. The Torah in Parshas Ki Seitze teaches us that the most important growth is often directed inwards.

Back in the days of scales and weights a grocer had the opportunity to cheat his (or her) customers with inaccurate weights. He would use a lighter weight when selling produce and a slightly heavier weight when buying produce. This was a convenient and virtually undetectable way for a dishonest person to tip the scales in his favor.

The Torah prohibits this specifically and tells us that it is a sin to even own inaccurate weights. Rav Aharon Kotler explains that the commandment against ownership of false measures is designed for a man who has already given up trickery. He has turned over a new leaf and is taking the commandment of “Thou shall not steal” very seriously. Even so, in order for his teshuva to be complete he needs to get rid of the weights. Even has stopped cheating others, he still needs to stop being dishonest with himself. It is like a spoiled apple that can ferment and destroy him from within, the opportunity to sin is lying dormant in the back of his cabinets and in the recesses of his mind. He is like smoker who has quit smoking but still carries a lighter around in his pocket.

I once ate Shlalosh Seudos at the Aish Hatorah yeshiva in Jerusalem with students who were in a crash course on Judaism. The conversation at the table went something like this:

Mike: Rabbi A’s class isn’t quite as good as….

Charlie: Uh, Uh, Mike – that is Lashon Horah!

Mike (patiently): Charlie, Lashon Hora was last week. This week we are working on prayer.

Mike was probably joking, but he was describing a common attitude. We get bored of Mitzvos. Rather than take on one mitzvah honestly and thoroughly, we prefer to cycle from one Mitzvah to the next. We need to take our mitzvos seriously.

(Of course we can’t just concentrate on one Mitzva and ignore the other 612; we need to find a balance between global performance of the Mitzvos and our focus on individual mitzvos.)

The Medrash (Rabba Devarim, 3-3) tells the story of Rabi Pinchas ben Yair who was given some grain to watch. The owners of the grain forgot about their package and headed back North to their homes (Reb Pinchas lived in the South). When the grain began to rot, Reb Pinchas planted it and cultivated a new crop. He did this for seven years until the absent owners finally returned for what had become a full silo of grain.

It is not enough to take notice of the lost object, he is obligated to pick it up and care for it as if it his own. We might be tempted to pick up the item, stow it in a safe place, and feel very good about ourselves, but the Torah demands that we be thorough and complete.

Reb Pinchas didn’t just do the mitzvah. He did it completely and thoroughly.

Parshas Ki Seitzei is replete with attention to detail. Lending money and hiring people is not enough, we need to treat debtors and employees respectfully. When we take eggs, we need to care about the mother bird. We may not muzzle an ox while he is grazing. If we have a roof, we need to build a safety rail, even if the fellow should have looked where he was going and deserved to die anyway.


About ten years ago I called Reb Michel Twerski of Milwaulkee to tell him that I was engaged. His reaction was, unfortunately, unique.

“Reb Sender”, he said to me, “this phone call is such a treasure”.

He said it in a way that I could almost envision him taking my phone call and wrapping it up carefully to store in a box for future admiration.

Everybody else was asking me questions about the past and the future: How long did you go out? Where will you live? When is the wedding? Reb Michel taught me to treasure the moment and bask in my simcha.

When we hear that a baby was born we tend to ask the most inconsequential questions: How much did he weigh? How long was the labor? When will you name her?

Imagine if we would react to a birth by commenting on the new Neshama and the Kedusha he or she brings to the world. We could take a minute and treasure it; or we could rather than using wonder about the next step. We should focus on the happiness of the married couple or the new parents instead of on the timetable for the Kiddush or the main course.

In the same vein, it seems to me that if we appreciated the value and beauty of each Mitzvah, we would not be so anxious to leave Mitzvos behind in the quest for bigger and better ones.

When the Ben Ish Chai was twenty-six he sent a letter to his teacher, Rav Eliyahu Mani of Chevron, asking him to explain some of the Kabbalistic Kavanos in the Shemona Esrei.

Rav Mani’s reply was off the topic and to the point:

“Who is wealthy? The man who is content with what has”.

Rav Mani compared the Ben Ish Chai’s quest for Kabbalistic knowledge to a thirsty man who is standing in the middle of a lake with a cup of water. He spends his time worrying about how to collect massive amounts of water when he should be drinking from the cup that he is already holding in his hand.

We do not always need to move the next level. We need to learn to treasure every moment and every Mitzvah.

The Medrash about Rabi Pinchas ben Yair ends with a beautiful promise: If we treasure our Mitzvos, Hashem will treasure them too.

Hashem will take our Mitzvos, wrap them up and put them in a safe place for future admiration.

If we treasure our Mitzvos when we perform them, Hashem will cherish them forever.

Posted on 08/25 at 01:16 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Grave Sitter

In Parshas Ki Seitzei the Torah tells us the difficult story of the ‘Ben Sorer Umoreh’, the wayward son. This rare boy misbehaved to the point that we have given up hope on him. We assume that he will grow up to be a bandit and a murderer. The Torah tells us to put him to death. He should die as an innocent soul and not as a guilty criminal.

Death seems to be a harsh punishment for this young man. In fact R’ Shimon (in Maseches Sanhedrin) opines that it is inconceivable that the Beis Din would actually stone somebody who has not yet committed a crime. We cannot kill him for stealing wine and meat from his parents. R’ Shimon insists that the case of the Ben Sorer Umoreh never actually took place. The Torah wrote it so that we could receive reward for Torah study by learning it.

Reb Yonasan argues and asserts that the case of Ben Sorer Umoreh did take place. “I saw him”, he says, “and sat on his grave”.

The Talmud has a similar discussion about the Ir Hanidachas - the city that becomes completely idolatrous. The Torah commands us to destroy this city. This time R’ Eliezer insists that the Torah records this law only for the sake of Torah study. It never actually happened. Reb Yonasan argues once again: I saw it and sat on its ruins.

Reb Yonasan’s position is intriguing. Not only does he insist that these cases took place, he seems to have gone out of his way to visit the gravesites of these people. Reb Akiva Eiger understands the statement “I sat on his grave” literally. Reb Yonasan literally sat on the graves of these people. Why would Reb Yonasan visit their graves and then (seemingly) disgrace them?

Reb Yonasan’s position brings to mind a different statement of Reb Yonasan in Masechtas Brachos (18a): The Gemara tells of the time that Rav Chiya and Rav Yonasan were walking together in a graveyard. Rav Yonasan’s Tzitzis were dragging on the ground. Our minhag is to hide our tzitzis when entering a graveyard so as not to mock the deceased who can no longer do mitzvos. Reb Chiya said to Reb Yonasan “lift your tzitzis. You do not want those who have passed away to have complaints against you.” Rav Yonasan disagreed, “Since when are the deceased so aware of their surroundings?” He quoted a verse in Koheles “The dead do not know anything”. Reb Chiya argued sharply with Reb Yonasan but Reb Yonasan seems to be consistent with his propensity to sit on tombs.

Reb Yonasan’s appears to have been in the habit of deliberately demonstrating that the deceased cannot be offended.

In order to understand Reb Yonasan’ viewpoint we need to understand how the Ben Sorer Umoreh got to where he was in the first place. The Ben Sorer Umoreh is the only case in the Torah of someone who is punished based on his future actions. Even Yishmael, the father of the Arabic nations, had his life saved. Though his children would include many enemies of the Jewish people and he himself was not always a friend of the Jewish people, he was judged באשר הוא שם - as he was at that point in time.

Yishmael was given a chance to change but the Ben Sorer Umoreh was not. I once heard from Reb Yitzchak Ezrachi that there was a very important distinction between Yishmael and the Ben Sorer Umoreh. Yishmael had a chance to change and eventually he did do Teshuva. He had the opportunity to listen to and learn from Avraham and Hagar and those around him about the right way to live his life. His name was Yishamael, the one who hears Hashem.

Not so the Ben Sorer Umoreh. The Torah stresses that he refused to listen to those around him. He had no ears. The Gemara (according to Reb Schwab) explains that we are talking about someone who had the best of parents and the best of opportunities available to him, but he had no ears. He refused to listen. A person who is so wrapped up in himself that he refuses to listen to those around him is hopeless. He has no vehicle for change.

Reb Yonansan recognized that it was possible for a Ben Sorer Umoreh to exist. It could happen. But he also recognized something else: There was no hope for this rare child, but he was not completely bad either.

Reb Yonasan quotes Shlomo Hamelech who writes in Koheles that when a person passes away all of his lusts and obsessions pass away with him. If he was obsessed with himself when he was alive, he will cease to do so after he has passed. The Ben Sorer Umoreh is a person who is really good at heart but who is stifled by handicaps that are beyond his control. He cannot change because he cannot listen. Reb Yonasan reminds us that however great his faults, there is a good person hidden inside. His urges are not him, his lusts are not him and his problems are not him.

Just last week, I visited the home of “Gravedigger”, the famous off road driving champion. He drives a Monster Truck but he is not a Monster. He has all of his trucks on display along with a free petting zoo, picnic tables and open space for travelers to relax. He may earn his living by jumping over school buses and pushing the competition off of cliffs, but he is really a nice guy who enjoys hanging around his farm and giving rides to kids for $5.

We tend to judge ourselves by what we drive and what we wear. There is some truth to this, but in the final analysis what we wear is not us. Our clothing may tell people about us and they may affect who we are, but they are not us. The same is true of our bad habits. The way we act and the way we speak may dictate how we are perceived, but our actions are not us; they are things that we do.

Even the Ben Sorer Umoreh is not all bad. After he passes away he is no longer haughty, he no longer seeks glory and he no longer lusts. Reb Yonasan said “I saw him, he can exist; but he was just handicapped by forces beyond his control”. Now that he is no longer part of the physical world, his good points can shine. Where he is now he can listen and he does hear. He is no longer the person he was before. Reb Yonasan would go out of his way to demonstrate that the deceased were no longer tied up in their egos. He would sit on their graves.

Rav Yonasan later changed his mind about the feelings of people who are no longer with us. We know that when Moshe Rabeinu passed away Hashem told him to bring a message to Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov. Moshe was to tell them that Hashem had fulfilled his promised and that the Jews were entering Eretz Yisroel. They needed to hear about this and they needed to hear about it from Moshe. Our forefathers will never stop thinking about us and we will continue to yearn for mitzvos after we pass away.

We do not sit on graves and we subscribe to the majority view that the Ben Sorer Umoreh will never be born. Nonetheless, Reb Yonasan’s message remains true: we can be separated from our bad habits. Our bad habits are not us.

As we approach Rosh Hashana this is an important lesson to remember - our problems are not us. We can be and need to be ourselves, independent of any faults that we may have.

Posted on 08/19 at 03:58 PM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

Rabbi Sender Haber is the Rabbi of the B'nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk, VA. He is well known throughout Hampton Roads, having arrived over twelve years ago as one of the original four members of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel. In that capacity, Rabbi Haber was involved in community wide programming, teaching, and outreach. He has inspired many Jews to expand their Jewish identity and increase their love of Torah and commitment to its observance. Everyone who knows Rabbi Haber is touched by his breadth of Torah knowledge and his ability to convey the wisdom of the ages in such a way as to make those esoteric writings accessible to persons of all levels of experience and a variety of backgrounds.

Rabbi Haber has served in a number of capacities during his years in Norfolk. Since 2003 Rabbi Haber has been a teacher of Jewish Studies at Toras Chaim Day School in Portsmouth, teaching boys and girls of all ages, with a focus on Gemara, Halacha, and Chumash. He has also taught at Yeshivas Aish Kodesh and Bina High School in Norfolk, and served as Assistant Rabbi of B’nai Israel for 6 years. He also serves as the Rabbi of the “Lost Tribe,” Tidewater’s Jewish Motorcycle group! While handling all of these responsibilities, he has continued to participate in numerous Chavrusos (one-on-one learning partnerships) covering a wide range of topics and writings.

Rabbi Haber and his wife Chamie have been married for thirteen years. They have four children, Minna (9), Moshe (6), Ely (4), and Akiva Meir, born in August of 2012. They both come from rabbinic families steeped in Torah, Kiruv and Chesed. Rabbi Haber received his Rabbinic Ordination (Yoreh Yoreh) from Rabbi Sender Rosenbloom and Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander of the Jerusalem Beth Din. He was awarded a Teaching Certificate by Torah Umesorah Association for Jewish Day Schools in 2004 and again in 2009. In addition, Rabbi Haber has spent over a decade studying Talmud, Jewish Law, and ethics in some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivos including Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, NJ and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at