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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Beating tonight’s Rare Super Blood Moon Total Eclipse

The Torah commands us sit in the Sukkah for seven days so that we can remember that G-d put us in Sukkos when we left Egypt.

The commandment is to dwell in the Sukkah as we would in our house. If it is raining, we are not obligated to sit in the Succah. As a matter of fact, the Ramah says that we are fools.

Yet, on the first night we are obligated to sit in the Sukkah even if it is raining. According to many opinions a person could even make a blessing on this sitting.

It seems that the commandment to sit in the succah on the first night is independent of the Mitzvah to treat the Sukkah as our homes.

We fulfill the will of G-d even if it is not comfortable.

In Bereishis (1:14) we read: “And G-d said, let there be lights in the heavens to separate between the day and the night, and they will be for ‘Osos’ and ‘Moadim’; for days and for years”

Rashi explains that ‘osos’ are astrological signs that could G-d forbid herald bad news for the Jewish people and the world. These are mentioned in the Gemara in Succah (29a), particularly a lunar eclipse and a “Blood Moon”.

‘Moadim’, Rashi explains, are the holidays that the Jewish people will one day keep. These are also reckoned by the moon.

Tonight we have a Moed, a holiday that is marked by the moon that in fact it is called the “Harvest Moon” as is appropriate for ‘Chag Ha’asif’ - ‘The Celebration of our Harvest”.

At the same time, we will be experiencing both a lunar eclipse and a Blood Moon.

So, there will be a face-off between the ‘Osos’ – the astrological signs, and the ‘Moadim’ – our mitzvah of Succah.

The Talmud tells us that as long as we are performing the will of G-d we have nothing to fear from the constellations. That is our challenge tonight. We must allow our Moadim to outweigh the natural cycle of the earth. It is a power that we have and a power that we need to utilize. That power that we have is the Simcha and joy of Yom Tov.

May we see only blessing in our lives and may we truly have a joyous Yom Tov.

Posted on 09/27 at 10:01 PM • Permalink
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Friday, September 11, 2015

Eyes on You

One year is ending and another is beginning. We stand before G-d and ask him to bless us this year.  We think of all of the good things that happened over the past year and hope that they will be repeated and multiplied.
We think of all of the bad things – or the not so good things - and worry that they might happen again. 

We think about the past year and we wonder: What can we daven for on Rosh Hashana? What do we know about the coming year? Do we really know what we want?

I believe that the greatest thing that we can ask of Hashem is that He keep an eye on us. We ask for the opportunity to live lives in which we are aware that Hashem is our Father and our King. Lives in which we are aware of Hashem’s loving presence at each and every moment.

I have a friend who has a nine year old son. This year, his son was diagnosed with a serious tumor in his leg this year. A nine year old boy. The family has spent months going through Chemotherapy and surgery and tours of hospitals and emergency rooms.

Before one round of Chemotherapy, my friend took his son on a roller coaster. The boy was in a wheelchair and had lost all of his hair but he and his father were determined to have fun on that roller coaster. The sensitive workers did not ask the boy to remove his hat, but as the ride began, the little boy looked around and asked his father an awkward question: “how come they asked everyone else to take of their hats, but they let me leave mine on?” The father did not want his son to feel self-conscious, so he stretched the truth a little bit. He explained that the workers did not want to waste time finding the owners of all of the fallen hats after the ride. That’s why they ask everyone to remove their hats.  “But”, he continued, “They choose one person during each ride who is allowed to keep his hat on. If your hat flies off they don’t have to wonder who it belongs to.  They will know that it is yours and they will return it right away.”

Can you imagine the thoughts going through that little boy’s mind? Here he was going through the most traumatic year of his life, dealing with things that no nine year old should deal with, and he was chosen – of all of the people on the roller coaster to be the ‘designated hat wearer”. The workers were willing to keep track of one hat, and they had chosen his! What a feeling of confidence and comfort!
The story about the Roller Coaster is 100% true for every one of us, only it is not a thoughtful worker at Six Flags that has his eye on us – it is G-d Himself. Hashem has the ability to keep track of every single one of us and make sure that we succeed.

We ask ourselves so many questions on Rosh Hashana: Who will live? Who will prosper? Who will make a difference in the lives of others? Who will see nachas from their children? Who will celebrate Simchos with their friends? Who will realize their aspirations and who will have the chance to accomplish all that they can in this world?

We know what we want the answers to those questions to be, but we cannot question the ways of Hashem. One thing we can know for sure is that Hashem has His eye on us. No matter what happens this year – He will be with us.

We need to think about what last year was like and who we could have been. We need to ask Hashem for the strength and opportunity to achieve everything that we are capable of. But, most importantly, we need to ask Hashem to let us know that he is watching us. He has our back. If anything goes wrong, He is watching. It is all about us.
May we all merit a year of true peace and prosperity. May we realize all of our dreams and experience only happiness and nachas. Most importantly, may we learn to appreciate Hashem’s constant presence and to take nothing for granted.

Kesiva V’Chasima Tova.

Posted on 09/11 at 07:19 PM • Permalink
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Friday, July 31, 2015

The Land of Love

In Australia there was a man named Tom. He could be difficult to deal with but everyone had patience for him because they knew that his shortcomings were not his fault. He had been through the Holocaust.

One thing that Tom did that was completely out of character was bake cherry pies. Often, when there was a Bris or a Kiddush, Tom would come to the kitchen and bake a beautiful pie. He would top it with crisscrossed strips of dough and present it to the Baalei Simcha.

It turns out that when Tom was in the concentration camps he worked as a chef. He would bake beautiful pies for the Nazi officers and it hurt him to no end. When he finally got out of the camps he set about fixing the problem. He made pies for people celebrating happy occasions. In this way he could brighten up a world that the Nazis had sought to darken forever.

Moshe Rabbeinu led an accomplished life. He took us out of Egypt, got us the Torah and pleaded our case before Hashem on ten different occasions. He brought Hashem and the Torah to the eyes of the world. Still, Moshe was unsatisfied because he could not enter the land of Israel. In Parshas Va’eschanan, Moshe begged in 515 different ways to enter the land. If he could not enter as a leader, he would enter as a simple person, a bird, a stone, or even a gust of wind. Moshe understood the beauty of Eretz Yisroel.

The verse tells us that servants of Hashem love even the dust and the stones of the land of Israel.

At the same time, there were another group of people – the Bnei Gad and the Bnei Reuvain. They came to Moshe with a request: “Please do not send us across the Jordan. We do not want to enter Israel. We want to stay here.”

One could imagine Moshe’s response to these tribes. They needed to open up their eyes to the beauty of Israel and the holiness of its stones. He could have told them about the site of the Bais Hamikdash and about the Mearas Hamachpeila. He didn’t.

Instead Moshe lectured the tribes Gad and Reuvain on empathy. “Will you stay here while your brothers go to war? Will you throw cold water on their excitement and shatter their resolve to enter the holy land?”

Moshe Rabbeinu realized that the tribes of Gad and Reuvain were not ready to hear about the dust and stones of the land of Israel. They would have time for those regrets later. The first step, the important step now, was for them to hear about the beauty of their fellow Jews. They needed to be thinking about each other and about what their decision not to cross the Yardein would do to their cousins in the Shevatim of Dan and Naftali.

The Gemara in Gittin tells us that Jerusalem was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. We are sitting on the floor today because Kamtza was insulted. Who was Bar Kamtza? We don’t know a lot about him, but we do know that he encouraged the Caesar to attack the Jews. Not a very good guy, but good enough that we were punished because people like him were mistreated.

As we rise from the ashes of Tisha B’av we need to look around us and learn to appreciate every single person. We need to find something to admire in every person and we need to do everything we can to avoid insulting another person.

When it comes to actions that are between us and Hashem, we can always claim that we had good intentions. If we thought the food was Kosher or we forgot that it was Shabbos our sins make less of an impact. By contrast, when it comes to actions between people intentions don’t always matter. If someone is insulted, he is insulted. He may be reacting unreasonably, but we see from Bar Kamtza that that unreasonable reaction has the potential to cause us just as much pain as a reasonable reaction. If not more.

We have just finished mourning the tragedies we have experienced as a nation. It is time to yearn for the air and the dust and the water of Eretz Yisroel.

Moshe Rabbeinu has taught us that we do not prepare for our journey by reading travel books and studying satellite images on Google Earth. We prepare for the final Geulah by learning how to treat the people around us and training ourselves to value every person and the effect that we can have on him or her.

We need to emerge from Tisha B’av ready to go further. We need to solve the world’s problems and bring about the ultimate redemption. We can do this by thinking about others and brightening their lives.

(Sources: Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, Rav Peretz Tarshish)

Posted on 07/31 at 12:51 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, July 09, 2015


The daughters of Tzelafched were upset because their father had died and there was nobody to inherit his land. They approached “Moshe, Elazar, and the heads of the tribes with their query” (27:1-2). This seems odd. Once they approached Moshe, why would they approach Elazar? Once they approached Elazar (the Kohen Gadol), why would they approach the heads of the tribes? In Bava Basra 119b, there are two approaches. Rav Yoshiyah says that the verse is written out of order. The women approached the lower judges first and then worked their way up, as per Yisro’s system. When the Torah then lists the people asked they are listed in order of importance. Abba Chanan disagrees.

According to Abba Chanan the Posuk is to be taken literally. The daughters actually did approach Moshe, Elazar and all of the heads of the tribes simultaneously.

The Abarbanel tells the story in way that both approaches are true. The daughters began their quest for fairness and an inheritance by going straight to the top. Moshe declined to answer them. He explained that he had put a court system into place. You don’t go straight to the top. You need to start with the lower judges. The daughters went to the lower judges but they deferred the case up to Moshe. This was Moshe’s business, they said. Finally, the daughters took matters into their own hands. They waited until all of the courts were assembled and approached everyone at exactly the same time. Somebody had to answer their question.

Moshe was overcome with mercy for these young ladies. He sidestepped the elaborate system that he had set up and dealt with the issue himself. He also didn’t satisfy himself with what he had already been told on Har Sinai. He too went straight to the top and consulted with G-d.

We need to imagine that there were many questions in the desert. Here, in one of the only instances in history, Hashem gave a ruling as a direct response to an individual’s question.

Systems are good, but sometimes we need to be overcome with mercy. We need to break all of the boundaries and go with whatever it takes.

Anybody who wants to truly appreciate our military should watch a homecoming. Often, the first one hundred sailors of the ship are sailors who have not yet met their newborn children. Can you imagine the feelings in these men’s hearts? Yet they stand like everyone else at perfect attention and in formation until they are ordered to disembark. If you look closely you can see that every one of those sailors is standing stoically, but with tears pouring out of his eyes.

This is how we need to be. We need to keep the rules and defend the system. We also need to be overcome with emotion.

Posted on 07/09 at 10:36 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Martha Shapiro

I officiated at a funeral this morning for a woman named Martha Shapiro – Masha bas Yosef ע"ה - who had passed away at the age of 107.

Although I did not have the privilege of knowing Martha, I remember reading her article in the paper last December and telling my wife how struck I was by her unusual life and the description of her Kosher kitchen. Two remarkable traits stood out as a learned about her life. One trait, was a personality that was truly loving and caring and sweet; the second was the ability to be happy with her portion and not to be jealous of others.

At every funeral we read an ancient prayer affirming that G-d is in control and that there is no reason to be jealous or resentful of what we don’t have and what others do. Martha lived that prayer with her caring and her modest living.

It is only with those two traits that a person could possibly run a household that was so open and welcoming. The Torah teaches that if someone honors their parents they will merit long lives. Martha welcomed her own mother into her home along with her sister and her sister’s children.

Martha Bloom Shapiro was born in 1908 in Przasnysz, Poland, not too far from Warsaw. At the age of three she immigrated with her parents Leba and Joseph to Baltimore and soon thereafter to Newport News. She married Charles Shapiro in 1939 and lived in Newport News for a total of 104 years.

I was frankly humbled to stand here eulogizing a woman who lived through times that I can only read about. What words of wisdom could I possibly share? How can I possibly relate to a woman born in Pruzhnitz and a woman who truly lived through the entire American experience?

I decided to quote the Rabbi in Pruzhnitz, where Masha was born. His name was Rav Avraham Lichtstein and he was a nephew the legendary Chassidic leaders, the Rebbe Reb Zishe and the Rebbe Reb Elimelech. He recorded his thoughts on the week’s Torah portion in his Kanfei Nesharim.

In Parshas Korach the Jewish people were struck by a plague after the narcissistic rebellion of Korach and his men. They accused Moshe of “Killing the Nation of G-d”. Moshe needed to explain to the people that by quashing the selfish rebellion of Korach he wasn’t killing G-d’s nation, he was ensuring its continuity. If we are obsessed with this world we will not be able to live as Jews and care for and love others as Jews should. In a dramatic and desperate moment Moshe sent Aaron with incense to stop the plague. Aaron stood between the living and the dead and he stopped the plague.

The Pruzhnitzer Rav explained that this idea of ‘standing between the Living and the dead’ was more than just logistics. Aaron had a job of standing between the living and the dead. Too often those who are living are consumed with selfishness and greed and a lack of perspective. Once we are in the next world we can look back and realize just how transient and unimportant everything was. But souls are not holier. G-d places us here in this world to fulfill a mission. We can only fulfill that mission as living and breathing human beings.

Aaron’s task was to stand between the living and the dead. He had to take the perspectives of those who are no longer here and somehow communicate them to those here in this world.

That, I believe was Martha. I think that reflects on the two traits that struck me about Martha: The ability to be care about others and the ability to appreciate life even when it is not easy.

Martha could have been pardoned for embracing this world – she spent more time here than almost anyone else we will encounter – but Martha did not become obsessed with this world. She said, “There’s a lot of stuff you can do without, and you feel better when you’re without it”. She forgot the name of the grocery store that her parents’ ran but she remembered her children, her family, her involvement with the Jewish community, and the ability to exercise love and satisfaction by viewing life from a heavenly perspective.

Martha truly stood between the living and the dead. She was a link to a generation that nobody else has seen. And she did it well. The prayers we will say affirming G-d’s role in our lives are the same that were said by her Rabbi Pruzhnitz 107 years ago. Martha was a link in Jewish continuity, not only in Hapton, but for the Jewish nation.

It is up to us to be the next link. To stand between the living and those who have passed away, and to carry her message for the next one hundred years.

May we merit to see the day when there is no more suffering and G-d wipes away the tears from all of our faces.

Posted on 06/17 at 05:20 AM • Permalink
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Friday, May 22, 2015

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Chapter Six (Shavuos)

Our Chapter

“The Sages taught in the language of the Mishna”.

The sixth chapter is not really a part of Pirkei Avos. It is a Braisa entitled “The acquisition of Torah” that was appended by Rav Meir after the sealing of the Mishna.

The theme of this chapter is Torah study, which is our greatest tool in accessing G-d’s wisdom. Even greeting Elijah the prophet and hearing G-d’s word from his mouth is considered secondary to our personal study of Torah.

We acquire the Torah by studying it and making it ours. By acquiring it we become different people. We have opportunity to embody the Torah in our own actions and our own lives.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that the very existence of the Sixth Chapter is an “Acquisition of Torah”. After an entire tractate about our heritage, this chapter is an affirmation by the following generation that we too can speak in the language of the Mishna, we too can acquire the Torah, and we too can and will pass it on to the next generation.

If we can study Torah properly and for the right purpose, then we too can be “Chachomim” (sages), tapped into the divine “Chochma”. Our Torah knowledge will be emanate from G-d and it will be a new chapter in the Torah that He bequeathed to all of us at Mount Sinai.

Like the history of the Jewish people, Pirkei Avos does not have a final chapter. It began with our forefathers, was defined as Sinai, and became our inheritance to receive, to cherish, and to teach to our children.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber, Shlita.

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Posted on 05/22 at 10:57 PM • Permalink
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We know that the Jewish people were never counted directly. Each Jew would give a half-shekel coin and that Half-shekel coin would be counted. This is the halacha until today. We do not count Jews. We can count hats and lists of names and possibly noses or fingers – but we don’t count Jews.

The interesting thing is that as much as we don’t count number s are important. We count for a minyan, we count for a mezuman, three fathers, four mothers, forty eight prophets, and seven prophetesses. We count. In the final analysis Moshe does count the Jewish people.

Furthermore, the Gemara in Yoma 22 tells us something surprising:
R. Yonasan asked: It is written: ‘Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea,’ and it is also written: ‘Which cannot be numbered? Here it speaks of the time when Israel fulfils the will of the Lord, there of the time when they do not fulfill His will. Rebbi on behalf of Abba Yose son of Dostai, said: This is no contradiction: Here it speaks of [counting done] by human beings, there of counting by Heaven.

Apparently, only Hashem can count the Jewish people.

In the times of Dovid there was a terrible mistake. The Jewish people were counted directly. The Navi tells us that 70,000 people died in the resulting plague.

The Pirkei D’rabi Elazar writes that it was actually just one person who died. That one person was Avishai ben Tzeruyah – one of David’s general’s – and he was considered equal to 70,000 men.

It seems kind of odd to count one person as 70,000, but that is exactly the point. The Jewish people cannot be counted, because we cannot possibly know how much each person is worth. We are all dependent upon each other. Whether we are generals or janitors, no matter what our qualifications and talents are we should count as more than just ourselves.

I saw a beautiful idea from Reb Michel Twerski, shlita. The Torah tells us that Hashem commanded both Moshe and Aharon to count the Jewish people. But the word Aharon has dots over it to tell us that he did not actually go and count them.

How could he defy Hashem’s command? Reb Michel explains that the Leviim understood that they were not just being counted. They were being appointed to be caretakers for the holiest objects in Judaism. They shied away from that counting. It took an Aharon to go and raise them up and tell them that they were up to the task. Only then was Moshe able to get the names and take the census.

In general, we shouldn’t even count, just as we shouldn’t judge. When we do counts, it should be with an Aharon Hakohein at our side to assist and encourage every human being and to tell him about his or her potential. Hashem is always allowed to count. Because Hashem sees our true value. We need to count for more.

Posted on 05/22 at 05:00 AM • Permalink
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Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: The Sixth Mishna

Yehoshua Ben Perachia and Nitai Ha’arbeili

Once again we encounter a Jewish nation with two leaders. Yehoshua ben Perachia was the Nasi based in the metropolis of Jerusalem, although he was exiled for a time by his Sadducee neighbors. Nitai was the head of the court and based in remote Arbel where he fulfilled his dictum to “Stay away from bad neighbors“.

Yehoshua Ben Perachia encouraged interaction with others. H?e said to ‘Make a teacher, acquire a friend, and judge every person favorably”

The Rambam, commenting on this Mishna writes that the obligation to judge favorably does not extend to a wicked person who almost certainly is guilty. Elsewhere, the Rambam writes that it is proper to judge every person favorably without exception.

Perhaps this can be resolved by differentiating between actual judges, who are the focus of the commandment to judge favorably, and regular people whose obligation is extrapolated from that of the judges. It would make sense to say that a judge should not and may not defy logic to judge a man favorably. If he is a wicked man he is probably guilty. It is only in our private lives that we have the ability and the right to engage in mental acrobatics to judge our friends favorably.

A more accurate translation of the Mishnah would be to “judge the whole person favorably”. By judging the whole person we are bound to find some merit in their ways. The Bnei Yissoschar points out that G-d Himself gives us free choice. Surely our knowledge of another person’s worth is not more comprehensive than that of G-d. We need to recognize the ability of each person to choose to change.

The Student

Yehoshua ben Prachia is cited in a passage of Talmud that was unavailable for centuries as a result of Christian censorship.

The Talmud tells us to always bring people close to us with our right (stronger) hand even as we are pushing them away with our weaker hand. The Chiddushei Harim encourage us to visualize this statement: If we pull someone toward us with one hand while pushing them away with the other, we can literally turn them around. It is significant that the stronger hand is the one used for bringing closer. The Talmud says that both Elisha the prophet and Yehoshua ben Perachia erred in this regard. Elisha the prophet was too strong with his servant Geichazi and Yehoshua ben Perachia was too strong with one of his students.

Yehoshua ben Perachia had a student named Yeshu. One day, while they were traveling, Yeshu made an inappropriate comment. Yehoshua ben Prachia refused to speak with him for thirty days. On the thirtieth day, Yehoshua ben Perachia was going to accept his student with open arms but was in the middle of Shema when he entered. Seeing Yehoshua cover his eyes, the student thought that he would never be forgiven. He left to begin his own religion.

The Gemara teaches that Reb Yehoshua ben Perachia was too swift and harsh in pushing away his student. He should have emphasized his redeeming factors and brought him close with his stronger hand, even as he was pushing him away with his weaker hand.

As a result, we can imagine that Yehoshua ben Perachia was very aware of the importance of judging every person in a favorable way or more accurately, judging ‘the entire person’ favorably. Often, when we look at a person’s total experience we are more equipped to think kindly of them. If we know that a person has a difficult situation at home, we will be more tolerant of their crankiness when they are dealing with us.

Yehoshua ben Perachia emerged with a message. “Make yourself a teacher, acquire a friend, and judge the entire person so that you see them favorably.


There is something very deep here. Yehoshua ben Perachia is telling us to find mentors and to socialize, but at the same time he is telling us to find the skills and the searching within ourselves. We are the ones who need to make, acquire, and judge. We don’t always have our friends there to do it for us.

Avraham himself did not really have a teacher. He did seek council with Malki-tzedek and Mamre, but they weren’t mentors. That’s why he was told “לך לך”, “Go to yourself”

Nitai Ha’arbeli

Nitai Ha’arbeli led the generation together with Reb Yehoshua ben Perachia. They agreed in concept and disagreed in approach. Reb Yehoshua said: Make yourself a teacher and acquire a friend. Nitai Ha’arbeili said: Stay away from bad people and don’t associate with evil. Reb Yehoshua said: Judge everyone favorably; Nitai Ha’arbeili said: Evil people will eventually be punished.

Nitai Ha’arbeli lived in the rural town of Arbeil where the ruins of his Shul can still be seen. He did not want to be around people. He said ‘stay far from a bad neighbor’, and he did.

Who were the evil people that Nitai Ha’arbeli sought to avoid? A peek into Avos D’rebi Nosson gives us an insight into Nitai Ha’arbeili’s inspiration. He tells the story of a man who found Tzaraas (leprousy) on the walls of his home. The metzora gets his wall knocked down, presumably because he has sinned. The neighbor who shares a wall loses his wall as well - because he has a neighbor who has sinned.
Nitai Ha’arbeili understood that to live next to a metzorah is to share his guilt.

What kind of people become ‘Metzoras’?

There were ten possible causes, but the top three are Lashon Hora (Evil Speech), Haughtiness, and Stinginess. Basically, Nitai Ha’arbeili moved to get away from bigmouths, show-offs and cheapskates.

History tells us that these were exactly the type of who populated Jerusalem in the era of Nitai and Yehoshua ben Perachia.

I once brought my daughter to a doctor. There was a Mezuza on the door, a complete set of Talmud in the waiting room, A prayer on the wall and a nurse who could not stop saying Baruch Hashem. At the pharmacy, we found the Pesach Guide attached to the counter. It felt like a game of Mitzvah Monopoly.

I was jealous for a few minutes, perhaps rightfully so, but I stopped. Was my judgement based on the Mishna in Avos or on my own comfort level?

Life surrounded by like-minded indivduals is very nice, but (possibly) not an end in itself. When Nitai Ha’arbeili told us to have good neighbors, he wasn’t talking about living on the street with the biggest Lag B’omer bonfire or on the route of Kosher Ice Cream Truck. Nitai Ha’arbeili was telling us to find neighbors who are loving, humble, and generous. That is what the Metzorah did when he made contact with the Cohein and that is what both Nitai Ha’arbeili and Reb Yehoshua ben Prachia agreed was the key to our survival.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber, Shlita.

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Posted on 05/22 at 04:38 AM • Permalink
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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Chapter Five (Shavuos)

Ten Utterances

The Mishna teaches us that the world was created with “Ten Utterances”. G-d made ten verbal statements that brought the world into being. This is to teach us that the righteous who uphold the world will get reward and the evildoers who destroy it will suffer the consequences.

What is the significance of the Ten Utterances? The Bnei Yissoschar reminds us that it is not our task to understand why G-d created the world in a specific way. Our task is to under stand “מה תלמוד לומר?” – What does this come to teach us? G-d could have created the world with just one utterance, or none at all. What is the practical lesson here?

A parallel to the ten utterances (מאמרות) of Creation are the Ten Commandments (דברות) at Sinai.

The Ten Commandments begin with a personal introduction to G-d: “I am the Lord your G-d”. We are taught that the Jewish people heard the words directly from G-d Himself, as it were. Why then the need to remind us not to worship other deities, not to kill, not to steal, and not to covet another person’s wife? Is someone who has seen G-d really going to covet another person’s wife?

In a perfect world, G-d would not have had to spell out all Ten Commandments, just the first statement of “I am the Lord your G-d” would have been enough to guide us on a straight and moral path. Abraham did not have the commandments spelled out for him, yet he understood G-d’s will clearly and was able to teach it to the world .

This was a great kindness of G-d. He made his Torah accessible and relevant to everybody. No matter where we are in life or how far we are from spirituality.

The same applies in the creation of the world. With every utterance of creation, the world the world became a little bit more physical and a little less G-dly. Even the most physical and coarse beings have their place in G-d’s creation.

The result is a physical world that is full of opportunities to have a relationship with G-d. For some it is about Shabbos and Honoring Parents, but for others it is about resisting thievery and adultery.  If we neglect to bring G-d into our lives, no matter how coarse our lives might be, then we are wasting an opportunity that G-d has given us. The Mishna tells us that G-d will make us “pay him back for these squandered opportunities.

If, on the other hand, we can navigate the world properly and use it as a place to connect to G-d, then there is more reward for us.  G-d, as it were, has satisfaction in seeing his creations used properly.

Paying for Wasted Opportunities

The Vilna Gaon once said that our days come to heaven with us. Each day testifies about how we spent it and whether we used it well. Each day that Hashem gives us is a gift to allow to become better people and to carry out our unique role in this world.

In the Shaar Hatzion the Chofetz Chaim observes that some people deal with daily struggles but give up. They figure that if they don’t do what they need to do they will just get punished or perhaps die. The Chofetz Chaim explains that this never works. If we come up to heaven without fixing what we need to fix – and it is different for every person – we will be sent right back down. Even in this world, Hashem gives us each day as a gift and another chance to become better.

I was once sitting in Norfolk’s only kosher pizza shop when a stranger walked in. He clearly hadn’t intended to enter a Kosher Pizza shop and he spent a few minutes talking. It became clear from the conversation that he had once kept kosher but did not keep kosher any longer. He left the store and went to eat lunch somewhere else. I was shocked: here he was struggling with kashrus and G-d gave him another chance. He was out of town on a business trip with a partner and of all stores he walked into a kosher one. How much more of an opportunity do you need?

G-d could have created this world as a completely spiritually place or He could have made His commandments accessible to only the most spiritual of men. But He didn’t. He made this world a physical place and He made the Commandments relevant to everyone. If we squander that opportunity, we will have to make it up; but if we use that opportunity we have even more opportunities for reward.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber , Shlita.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Chapter Four

Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai

Shimon ben Zoman and Shimon ben Azai were two outstanding scholars in their generation. Both passed away at a young age before they had attained the title of ‘Rabi’.

Ben Zoma is noted for his intellect. The Talmud tells us that if someone saw Ben Zoma in a dream they could expect to be blessed with wisdom. Ben Azzai was noted for his passion. He was engaged to the daughter of Rabi Akiva but he was unable to stay married because his passion for Torah left no room for any other relationship.

The Talmud tells us that both Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai were part of the group that entered the Pardes, which Tosfos describes as a deep kabbalistic trance. Ben Zoma lost his faculties of reason from the experience; Ben Azzai died. Only Rabi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace.

Who is Wise? Who is Wealthy? Who is Strong? Who is Honored?

Wisdom, Wealth, Strength, and humility are important traits. We are taught that they are prerequisites for prophecy and the Talmud tells us that all of the prophets met these requirements. But Ben Zoma taught that Wisdom, Wealth, Strength, and Honor should not be measured or attained in traditional ways. Wisdom is about learning from all people, Wealth is about being happy with ones lot, Strength is about controlling our evil inclination, and honor is about respecting others.

Ben Zoma is teaching that if we can recognize that blessing come from G-d, all we need to do is connect to G-d’s wisdom, wealth, strength and honor. We connect to G-d by following His direction as described in the verses quoted in the mishna.

We are taught that the incense in the Temple made a person wealthy. The Bnei Yissoschar explains that the offering of incense was itself an act that connected a person to G-d’s wealth. A person who is successful in this relationship with G-d is truly wealthy.

It emerges from Ben Zoma’s teaching that to be wealthy a person does not actually need material assets and to be wise they do not actually have to know anything. Ben Zoma was content with the trajectory and direction of the persons thoughts. A connection to G-d’s attributes and blessings was enough. No overt actions were required.

They Are All Created To Serve Me

The Talmud (Brachos 58) tells us of a time that Ben Zoma was standing above Temple Mount and observing a crowd of 600,000 Jews. He made the blessing “Baruch Chacham Harazim”, Blessed is the G-d of secrets who knows what is in the thoughts of every one of those 600,000 people and knows that no two of them are thinking the same thoughts. Ben Zoma continued with a statement, “and all of them were created to serve me”.

Ben Zoma explained: A good guest dines with the attitude that his host prepared the food especially for him; a bad host dines with the attitude that the host prepared the food for himself and that he just happened to have leftovers. Although the truth may be the latter, a good host is obliged to assume the former.

If Adam and Chava wanted a piece of bread, they had to plow and plant and harvest and grind and bake. If they wanted clothing they needed to plant or shear and weave and comb and sew. Ben Zoma thanked G-d that he simply woke up in the morning and had the finished product as his doorstep.

He said, “Thank you for creating all of these people just to serve me”. Ben Zoma was a good guest.

Ben Azzai Disagrees

The Abarbanel writes that Ben Azzai disagreed with Ben Zoma’s assessment. Happiness alone does not make a person wealthy and a willingness to learn does not make a person wise. Ben Azzai demanded action of himself and of others.

Ben Azzai said, “Run to a Mitzvah and escape from an Aveirah … for the reward of a Mitzvah is another Mitzvah and the consequence of an Aveirah is another Aveirah”.

Ben Azzai agreed with Ben Zoma that our goal is to attach ourselves to G-d, but where Ben Zoma was satisfied with attitude, Ben Azzai demanded action.

Where Ben Zoma saw everyone working for him; Ben Azzai was not convinced.

When Pharaoh closed in on the Jewish people he effectively brought the Jewish people closer to G- than they had even been before. “U’Paroh Hikriv” – “and Pharaoh brought them close”.

Did Pharaoh receive reward for bringing the Jews close? According to Ben Azzai he most definitely would not. Since Pharaoh’s actions were ones of overt animosity, ant covert goodness that came of it was purely incidental. It did not pertain to Pharaoh at all. We look at actions. The reward for a Mitzvah is a Mitzvah, but the consequence of an Aveirah is an Aveirah. Pharaoh didn’t do a Mitzvah. He did an Aveirah.

Rochel, On the other hand, was doing a mitzvah when she gave the secret signs to her sister Leah. Her initial intention may have been to spare her sister embarrassment, but that led to another mitzvah: that of keeping a low profile and not making a scene. Although it was an unintended result she received a reward in the form of descendants like Shaul and Esther who were content to help the Jewish people while keeping a low profile.

When Avraham rescued his nephew Lot and the belongings of the Sodomites, it was clear to all involved that the spoils of war belonged to Avraham. Only the king of Sedom (who had trouble sharing) insisted on referring to the spoils as ‘his belongings’. Avraham knew that the spoils were rightfully his, but he chose not to accept them. Avraham wanted to make clear that the source of his wealth was his relationship with G-d.

According to Ben Zoma a relationship can be forged through attitude. According to Ben Azzai, it can be forged by actions alone.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber , Shlita.

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Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Fifth Mishna

Yosi Ben Yochanan was the Head of the Rabbinic Court. He and Yosi Ben Yoezer led the Jewish people for a generation. Both were charged with continuing the legacy of Antigonus Ish Socho that had been so true and yet so ill received by some of their peers.

Yosi Ben Yoezer taught the people hope by encouraging them to connect to wise men, Yosi ben Yochanan wanted to see every man work toward a very deep relationship with G-d. It may be missing in breadth, but it would far make up for it in quality. In Kabbalistic literature this is referred to as ‘Bina’, a deep understanding.

Yosi ben Yochanan realized that not everyone was going to be a sage or even share company with a sage. Everyone, however, has the opportunity to perform a kindness.

I once visited with an elderly woman who was bedridden and had three weeks to live. She was lonely and had no will to go on. I asked her if she smiled when the nurse walked into the room. She answered that she did. I explained to her that her smile had the potential to change the way the nurse felt in her interaction with her and with the other patients. It had the potential to change the woman’s attitude when she came home and sat down to dinner with her family. It was worthwhile for her to go on, if only for her smile.

On another occasion I was approached by a nurse at a long-term care facility. She asked me to pray for her father. I told her I would but pointed out that it would be worthwhile for her to pray as well. She spent all day caring for other people’s parents. She could certainly ask G-d to take care of hers.

Nobody will be perfect at everything, but we can all excel at something.

As a matter of fact, it is often the small things that we truly should be putting our energy into. Everyone wants to save the world; nobody wants to help out with the dishes.

I once ducked into Munkacz on Sixteenth Avenue. I had just spent twenty minutes attempting to single park a twelve seater van that wasn’t mine. I was very frustrated with Boro Park.

I was surprised to find that there was traffic inside Munkacz too. A bottleneck had formed at the stairwell and movement had come to a standstill. Unlike the traffic outside, I noticed that nobody was yelling, pushing, or even talking loudly on their cell phones. At the front of the line was a distraught man pouring out his heart to the Munkaczer Rebbe. The Rebbe was standing riveted to his spot and completely oblivious to the long and patient line of people waiting to go downstairs. This was a type of Boro Park traffic that I could appreciate.

Avraham excelled in opening up his own house to his guests. His house was open on all four sides. He made himself easy to find. Police resent having to give a ticket but once they see something they have a duty to help. We also hope the poor man won’t find us. We don’t want to feel obligated.

Lot learned hospitality from Avraham, but he had a degree of separation from his guests. He believed in welcoming guests but didn’t advertise.

Furthermore, Avraham gave up his privacy completely. His house was everybody’s house.

Modern day Bedouins also continue this legacy of hospitality, but it only begins once someone has entered the home. They are not obligated to allow a person entry. Interestingly, their tents are open on only three sides. The west side is off limits to guests.

Their hospitality is commendable, but it is not quite the tent of Avraham and Sarah.

The Bnei Yissaschar understands the concept of making poor people members of your household very literally. They should be your staff, the people you work with and need to depend on. At the same time, you should not be above helping your guests personally. Avraham ran to help the guests. When he didn’t he sent his children to help.

Antigonus had said that we should be like slaves serving our masters without thought of a reward. The Bnei Yissoschar points out that when it comes to parents and children the roles of slave and master are often switched. Sometimes the master’s role is to be a slave. Yosi ben Yochanan made this a way of life. Treat the poor people as members of your household. Be their slaves. This isn’t about how to make more money or run things more efficiently, this about serving our “masters” in need and ultimately our Master in heaven.

Yosi ben Yochanan is making a tall order, but we can all be a part of it. Next time we do a kindness, we need to take it just one step further than we did before. Be a little more proactive, give up a little more privacy.  G-d does it for us; we can do it for Him.

The Talmud tells us that Rav Shimon ben Shetach once bought a mule. He brought the mule home, and his students discovered a valuable gem hanging around its neck.

All those around him rejoiced at the rabbi’s good fortune. God has answered his prayers! Shimon ben Shetach took the jewel and went immediately back to the merchant to return the jewel. The merchant looked at him with amazement and proclaimed with misery, “It is clearly your jewel” you bought the mule.” The rabbi argued and said, “No, it is yours, I bought a mule, I didn’t buy a jewel.” Upon hearing the words of the rabbi, the merchant exclaimed: “Blessed be the God of Shimon be Shetach!”

By acting G-dly in even one area of our lives, we bring glory to G-d. This is the best way to spread the message of Antigonus.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber , Shlita.

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Friday, May 08, 2015

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Fourth Mishna

After generations of a single ruler, the Jewish People were now led by two great men: Yosi ben Yoezer and Yosi ben Yochanan.

They only differed on one Halachic point, but their approaches to Judaism and to leadership were very different.

Yosi ben Yoezer said, “Make you home a meeting place for sages. Get dirty in the dust of their feet and drink their words with thirst”.

Yosi ben Yochanan said, “Open your house up wide and let poor people be the members of your household”.

On the surface, it would seem that Yosi ben Yochanan is the more liberal of the two. He had relaxed entrance policies and was clearly not an elitist. Yosi ben Yochanan, on the other hand, seems to advise limiting ones company to scholars.

There is another approach to this as well.

Antigonus Ish Socho had tried his best to inspire his generation in both the love and the fear of G-d. His message was on the mark, but his generation could not accept it. The concept of love was too daunting and the concept of fear was almost unnoticed. They certainly couldn’t do both. Later generations split the message. One taught love the other taught fear.

This is the depth of “Chabad”. It is an acronym for Chochma (Wisdom), Bina, (Understanding), and Daas - which is a combination of Chochma and Bina. Good Daas leads to good decision making. Bad Daas leads to bad decisions.

Everything in life is a combination between book knowledge and street smarts. Every good couple is a combination between information and application. If we are lucky the emergent result is Daas – common sense, which is not very common at all.

In the case of Antigonus, he possessed a Daas that was incomprehensible to those who lived in his times. Instead the next generation focused on either love or fear, either knowledge or understanding.

Yosi ben Yoezer emphasized the primacy of knowledge of G-d and love. He understood that some may not be motivated to serve G-d out of the love, but pointed out that everyone can admire someone who does.

Yosi Ben Yoezer gave us an easy way out. Learn about G-d he said, invite scholars into your home, drink their words thirstily, and be willing to get yourself dirty from their dust.

Yosi ben Yoezer did not focus on personal responsibility. He focused on knowledge and role models. That was enough to save the next generation.

Our forefather Avraham was a nomad. He moved around and pitched his tent in many places, but he only received a prophecy in the Plains of Mamre. This was because Mamre was a good friend who admired Avraham and encouraged him to go ahead with the circumcision. He welcomed Avraham into his property, and that brought G-d with him.

Avraham’s servant Eliezer was considered a holy man. The Torah tells his story three times because “The idle talk of the servants of the forefathers is more significant than the Torah of the children”.

The idea is that we can gain from just being in the presence of a holy person or, better yet, having them in our presence.  While we may be lacking in deep and personal understanding, we gain wisdom and knowledge that we would not otherwise have.

Often people will come to a class that they cannot understand just to experience the ambience and the concepts and the conversation. That experience and the knowledge gained is significant.

One interpretation of getting “dirty at the dust of their feet” is that we should watch the arguments. When Eisav and Yaacov fought the language of dust is used as well. But when it comes to Torah scholars we are taught that even a father and son can become enemies, but they are not hockey players, they always become better friends at the end of the argument.  We have so much to gain just by sitting close enough to the argument for the dust to settle on our clothing.

This was the message of Yosi ben Yoezer to his generation. He was the first Nasi. He was a role model and not a lawmaker. His role was to show the world a holy person and his role was to show the world how holy people argue.

We need to recognize that even if we are not ready to live the words of Antigonus, there are others who are. We can love Hashem and serve him by drawing those holy people close to us.

In the language of philosophy, a person’s house refers to his or her mind. The Abarbanel points out that even if we cannot invite scholars into our literal homes, we can still invite their character and their words into our minds and allow them to form a context of holiness that we can draw upon and eventually emulate.

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.

This is what we gain from holy people. Rav Sheinberg spent the week in his Tefillin and Talis. He never uttered an idle word and his prayers and devotion to study were incredible. But I learned the most from his every day actions. They showed how to live my life as a Torah Jew. By watching even the most mundane actions of holy people we gain a very broad and practical understanding of Torah concepts that we might not grasp on our own. Inviting holy people into our lives helps us grow closer to G-d when we can’t do it on our own.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber , Shlita. 

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Who Wrote That Song?

I once got a call from a friend. I had just made a decision. He wasn’t really involved in the decision, but he called me.

“Rabbi Haber”, He said, “let me tell you a story”.

One day a boy and his father took a day off to go flying in a small airplane. There were some clouds in the sky and there was a storm coming in so the boy and his son decided not to fly that day. A few hours later the sky cleared up. It hadn’t rained, the wind had settled down, and the son was very disappointed.

The man turned to his son and said:

“Son, I’d rather be down here wishing I was up there, than up there wishing I was down here”.

The point is that we choose a path for ourselves. We choose the wisest path, the holiest path, and the path that the Torah shows us. Sometimes there are moments of indecision. We look at the “Road not Taken” and wonder. Sometimes we are jealous, curious, or just unsure. That’s when we thank Hashem for giving us so many rules and so many guidelines and telling us how to live.

That is not to say that we can’t make our own decisions. The Talmud tells us that just as no two people look exactly the same, so too no two people think in exactly the same way. Each and every one of us is unique. There is room for that in the Torah.

But there is one thing that is not open for negotiation: each and every decision we make must be rooted in the will of Hashem. Every time we look back at life it will be with the confidence of “I’m glad I’m here wishing I was there, rather than there wishing I was here.”

The Torah says, “Im Bechukosai Teleichu – If you will walk in the way of my laws.” We need to walk in the way of Hashem. If we do the right thing, good things will happen. Maybe not immediately, maybe not in the next decade, but they will happen. Satisfaction is guaranteed.

Tonight is Lag B’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer. On it we celebrate several events and people, including the great Tanna Rabban Shimon Bar Yochai. Tonight and tomorrow half a million people will converge on the tiny mountain top of Meron in Northern Israel. They will light fires and dance and sing in honor of the Holy Sage Rabban Shimon bar Yochai. And they will all be singing the same song. It is one of the few songs that are owned by both Sefardim and Ashkenazim and it is the unmistakable anthem of Lag B’omer.

Who wrote that song?

Back in 1492 there was a little boy in Spain by the name of Shimon ibn Lavi. His family left when the Jews were expelled and eventually settled in Fez, Morroco. Shimon grew up and became a doctor. He also began studying Kabbala and Zohar and became a great Kabbalist. He became obsessed with Rav Shimon bar Yochai and his teachings about the holiness of every single Jew. The Zohar brings out the idea that all of us and all of those around us possess a very holy spark that with the proper care and education can be cultivated and ignited. After many years of yearning, he decided that he would travel by foot to the land of Israel. He was not headed for Jerusalem or Chevron. All he wanted in life was to visit the grave of Rav Shimon bar Yochai.

It was a rough journey and at one point he was kidnapped and ransomed, but he kept on trucking toward Meiron. At one point he stopped in Tripoli, in what we now call Libya, and discovered that there were no Torah scholars there. They didn’t know the Friday night prayers, they didn’t know how to welcome Shabbos and they didn’t know how to live their lives as Jews. Rav Shimon Lavi decided to stay and teach Torah to the people. He never left Tripoli and he never made it to Meron.

As we walk our path through life we don’t really know where it will lead. Rav Shimon Lavi didn’t make it to Meiron but he did inspire a generation of Jews in a city that had no teachers. And his song did make it to Meiron. All of that emotion and dedication and enthusiasm for Rav Shimon Bar Yochai wasn’t lost. He wrote the theme song for Lag B’omer.

As we go through life, our paths will also take twists and turns. We are very fortunate to have role models to guide us along the way. By making sure that every twist and turn in our paths is dictated by the will of Hashem we can be confident that we will always be able to look back on life with a feeling of satisfaction.

“I’m glad I’m here wondering what it’s like over there; and not over there wondering what it’s like over here”.

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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Chapter Three (Lag B’omer)

The Holy Tanna, Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai was the author of the Zohar. His Yahrzheit is not a day of mourning but a day of celebration because he taught that on the anniversary of a Tzaddik’s death his soul rises to yet a higher level in heaven.

Amidst a discussion about the ability of ten, five, three, or even one person to merit the divine presence, Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai makes perhaps the most dramatic statement of all:

“If three people are eating at one table, and they are discussing Torah, that table becomes an Altar before G-d. If however, those people do not share Torah, it is as if they have eating idolatrous offerings full of vomit and filth”.

Now that we do not have a Temple in Jerusalem our table can take its place. Rather than offer food to G-d, we consume the food and use the energy and strength to serve G-d. The table is like an altar. We do not sit on it, we must eat respectfully, and we must speak words of Torah.

Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai was known for his view that a person should not work for a living. Rather, Rabi Shimon felt that we could spend our lives in Torah study and rely on G-d for our sustenance. Others disagreed with Rabi Shimon but Rabi Shimon put his words in to practice and they did work for him. The Talmud tells us that Rabi Shimon did not even pray, so engrossed was he in his holy pursuits.

The Talmud (Shabbos 33b) tells us of a famous conversation between three great sages. Rabi Yehudah began the conversation by praising the Romans for their marketplaces, their bathhouses and their bridges. Rabi Yosi, who may or may not have concurred, remained silent. Rabi Shimon was vehement in his disagreement: “Do you think they created those amenities for good purposes?” He asked. “The Marketplaces are there to facilitate prostitution; The bathhouses are there for pleasure only, and the bridges are nothing more than money making ventures”.

Similar to his statement in Pirkei Avos, Rabi Shimon was clear that not only were the Roman’s not a Holy empire; they were actually consumed with filth. Perhaps this was a reflection of Rabi Shimon’s views on thius world in general and his clear preference for purely spiritual pursuits.

The Roman government heard of the conversation between these three Torah sages and Rabi Shimon and his son were forced in to hiding. They studied together in a cave for twelve years. Miraculously, a carob tree and a spring of water appeared at the mouth of the cave and they had all of the nourishment that they needed. They buried themselves in sand so as to preserve their clothing as they studied. We are taught that the Zohar was formulated during those twelve years.

After twelve years, Elijah the prophet appeared outside the cave. Not wanting to disturb the study of Rabi Shimon and his son, Elijah did not eneter. He stood outside and proclaimed “Who will tell Rabi Shimon that the Caesar has passed away and the edict against him has been lifted?”

Rabi Shimon and his son emerged from the cave. Immediately, they came across a man plowing his field, Rabi Shimon was horrified. How could a man with a chance to access the next world waste his time on a transient world? Rabi Shimon looked at the man and he was consumed in a ball of fire.

A heavenly voice was heard and Rabi Shimon and his son were ordered back to return to the cave. They may have been deeply attuned to spirituality, but G-d did not want them to come out and destroy the world.

After twelve months they emerged once again. Rabi Elazar would cause fires wherever he looked, but Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai extinguished them. “Between the two of us“, Rabi Shimon said, “The world can survive”. (A similar sentiment is found in Succah 45b)

Just before Shabbos, Rabi Shimon and his son came across a man rushing with two myrtle branches. He told them that they were in honor of Shabbos. Rabi Shimon was comforted by the eagerness of Jewish people to perform mitzvos.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe makes an intriguing observation. Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai extolled the virtues of eating and studying as a threesome, yet for twelve long years he and his son were secluded in a cave. Perhaps Rabi Shimon spent all of those years yearning for a third person to partake in their meal and in their Torah thoughts.

The Bartenura, in his commentary to this Mishna, famously asserts that the obligation to share Torah at a meal can be discharged with the recital of the Grace after Meals. Many others argue and the halacha does not follow the Bartenurah, although the Bnei Yissoschar writes that he Bartenurah did the world a great service by advancing this lenient view.

Bearing this in mind, perhaps Rabi Shimon bar Yochai’s statement can be understood in the following way:

The Yaacov Yosef Polnoah (commenting on this chapter in his Toldos Yaacov Yosef on Parshas Metzora) makes the point that holiness is much easier to attain when we are on our own and not subject to the whims and distractions of others. Think of a Rebbe at his Tish. He alone sets the tone for the meal and the meal is entirely holy. Of course, if two holy people with the same approach and motivation come together for a meal, that meal will be all the more holier.

To give a simple illustration: If one person who is accustomed to saying the Grace After Meals eats on his own we can assume that he will thank G-d for the food trhat he has eaten. If he eats with a companion who is less religious that he, it is quite likely that the second person will follow the first one’s lead and join him in Birchas Hamazon. One is reflecting the holiness of the other. If However, the religious person is outnumbered, it can go either wat. It is likely that the rest of the party will leave while the one religious man stays behind to Thank G-d, but there is an opportunity for the religious man to change the tone of the meal and inspire all of his colleagues – as Avraham did – to praise G-d before rising from their meal.

This is the depth of a ‘mezuman’, in which one person invites two others to ‘bench’, and this was the point of Rabi Shimon. If one person is Holy, that is fine. If two people are holy, that is better. But if three people eat together and one is able to effect a change upon all of them and inspire all of them to thank G-d, he has elevated the entire table and in doing so can change the entire world.

This is alluded to in the verse in Shir Hashirim (6:10) describing the Jewish people: “Who is she that looks forth like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, clear as the sun, and awe inspiring as a watch tower?”. The Medrash Rabba explains that the Jewish people shed light first as a rising sun, then as sun with a moon to reflect its light, and finally like the clear sun at noon. In future days we will be awe inspiring as well. (The word “Shulchan is an acronym for the four levels of influence: Shachar, Levanah, Chamah, and Nidgalos.)

Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai was a rising sun, in studying with Rabi Elazar the world was enhanced with a ‘moon’, but he yearned for an opportunity to spread that light outward and to inspire holiness and light throughout the world. For twelve years, he dreamed of expanding the spiritual and G-dly light that he had experienced. We can imagine his disappointment when he finally encountered that third person and the man was not interested. He was consumed with this world and unable to accept the spiritual light.

When they emerged a second time, Rabi Shimon was comforted by the man running to honor Shabbos. He realized that he too had the capacity to enjoy a spiritual day, consume a spiritual meal, and truly sit at a table before G-d.

In the Zohar on Terumah, Rabi Shimon expands on this idea. He teaches that if we use our tables properly two angels will accompany us along with our table when we stand before G-d after our deaths. The angels will describe how we made the table a vehicle for holiness, an altar and a source of blessing in both this world and the next.

When we sit down to our tables for a meal we need to think “This is the table that is before G-d”. Our table is our Altar and it is situated just in front of the Holy of Holies.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber , Shlita. 

Posted on 05/03 at 06:34 PM • Permalink
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Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Chapter Two

The second Chapter of Avos is about paths. What is the proper path on which a person should walk? Which is the Straight path? The Good Path?  The Bad path?

The chapter begins with the advice of Rebbe: Seek Tiferes. Tiferes is the combination of strict and flexible. It is the ability to be, like Rebbe, a person that can live in luxury and yet live only for G-d. Rebbe was a person that could live at a time when the Torah is being forgotten and build a legacy by transcribing the oral law.

Rebbe says to find a path that is a Tiferes to the person himself and also a Tiferes to those around him.

While there is much talk about people who are “off the Derech” (or “off the Path”), this chapter discussed the Derech itself. It is a special balance between motivation and expectation; the art of weighing every mitzvah and every action that we do; and the constant recognition that G-d is watching us and recording all of our actions.

Rav Chaim Vital, a disciple of the Arizal speaks of “walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death”. He explains that everyone, even the most righteous, spend the first three days after death on a path that passes alongside Hell. At every juncture he or she is met with another turn-off to Gehenom and it is only by focusing that he can continue on his path to his just reward in the Garden of Eden.

To my mind, these are the turn-offs to the “paths not taken”. They are the jobs we didn’t take, the people we didn’t help, and the moves we never made. At each juncture we are plagued with self-doubt and even granted a vision of “what could have been”. It is a very frightening path and we can only hope that we made the proper decisions and that we will be able to continue to our reward. King David prayed, “Even as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are with me.”

Rabban Yochana ben Zakkai was a mysterious figure and we don’t know much about his family. Zakkai was an appellation and not the name of his father. His brother-in-law was the head of the Zealots in Jerusalem and Rabban Yochanan became head of the Pharisees when the traditional family of leaders (the descendants of Rabban Gamliel, Hillel, and King David) were forced into hiding. Whe Rabban Gamliel was allowed to emerge from hiding Rabban Yochanan be Zakkai worked to put Rabban Gamliel back into a leadership position and made himself scarce so as not to infringe on Rabban Gamliel’s position.

Rabban Yochanan be Zakkai’s years of leadership were difficult ones for the Jews of Jerusalem. The Roman army had laid siege to the city and the Zealots within the city were not allowing anyone to negotiate for peace. Rabban Gamliel met with his brother-in-law and hatched a plan to sneak out of the city in a coffin and meet with the General Vespasian. When they met, he foretold Vespasian’s rise to the crown and indeed as they were speaking a horseman cam and informed Vespasian that he had been crowned Emperor of Rome. Before he left, Vespasian granted Rabban Yochanan three requests: The Academy at Yavneh was spared, the family of Rabban Gamliel was no longer threatened, and doctors were procured for Rabi Tzadok who had been fasting for forty years.

When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai returned Jerusalem, he was criticized by his colleagues. Rabi Akiva quoted a verse claiming that Hashem had caused him to err. He should have requested that Jerusalem be spared and not settled for the granting of three comparatively minor requests.

Jerusalem was destroyed and the academy at Yavneh prospered. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai retreated with a handful of students to Bror Chayil. While he had acted to the best of his knowledge and abilities, one can imagine the constant fear of “the path not taken”. We need to be careful not to project our own feelings onto so great a personage as Rabban Yochanan, but we do know that on his deathbed, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai cried in fear.

“I see two paths before me”, he told his students, “and I don’t know which one I am going to take”. Rav Chaim Vital explains that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was describing the aforementioned “Gei Tzalmaves”, the path through the valley of the shadow of death.

Although we are accustomed to saying that G-d only expects us to do our best, one can imagine the fear of standing before G-d who knows what was truly best. He knows what the options were and what the best decision would have been. He knows what destruction we caused and what destruction we avoided. It is frightful to be standing before G-d.

Rabban Yochanan, who had stood before a human king without fear, was scared of a G-d who truly knew everything. As he lay on his deathbed he described a G-d who knows the true and everlasting ramifications of our actions, whose anger lasts forever and whose decisions are final. How could any mortal know that he had walked the proper path all his life and how could anyone stand without fear and the final day of judgement before a G-d who knows that “our best” was not actually good enough?

It was in this context that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai implored his students to find the proper path. He was not satisfied with the suggestion of Rebbi that one find a path that worked well for him and those around him. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai wanted a path that he could walk upon comfortably in the context of eternity and the world that G-d had created.

He challenged his five students: Go out and find the proper path upon which a person should walk. “Going Out” is an instruction to rethink everything from the very beginning and to avoid all bias of previous thoughts or teachings.

In many editions of Pirkei Avos, the language is “Derech Tovah” – the Good Path”. In identifying good, each of the students examined the first instance of “Good” in the Torah: “And G-d saw the light, and it was Good”.

Rabi Eliezer ben Hukanus said the Tov can be achieved through a good eye, a utilization of Hashem’s creation of light to take in the world around us in an accurate and fair way. Rabi Yehoshua and Rabi Yosi focused on the relationship between Light and Dark. The Torah tells us that before light, there was a “Darkness on the face of the deep, and the spirit of Hashem was hovering above the water” The world was not yet good. It was with the advent of a Chaver Tov V’Shachein Tov – “a good friend and neighbor”, in this case light, that life was good.

Rav Shimon considered the Midrashic light and talked about seeing the future. The Medrash tells us that the Light of creation was a divine light. It allowed us to see from one end of the earth to the other; from the beginning of time to the end of time.

These four aspects of Light were on the minds of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s four students and the basis of their description of the “Proper Path”.

Only Rabi Elazar ben Arach chose to go back to the beginning of the Torah. The world didn’t start with Light. It started at the Beginning. All of the ingredients from the word Bereishis went into Hashem description of Tov. We can’t work on our eyes or our neighbors or our friends our ability to predict. We need to start from the very beginning and work on our hearts.

As a matter of fact there are exact thirty two words from the beginning of the Torah until the word Tov. All thirty two of those components (with the numerical value of Lev or Heart) were important to achieve Tov.

Perhaps all of this connects Rabban Gamliel’s original teaching in this chapter. “If you have studied a lot of Torah, don’t keep the Good for yourself, for that is why you were created.”

The Good that we have is a product of everything that we have had since creation and it something that we need to share with chose around us. We are just one piece in a very large puzzle. Our creation began in the womb when we were taught the whole Torah and instructed to do our best and not to be swayed by the opinion of the world around us (Nidda 32b).

When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was on his death bed he said that there were two paths before him, one led to Gehinnom and the other to Gan Eden. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was acutely aware that his actions were not the whole picture. He was scared of coming before G-d who would see the ramifications and results of all of his actions. There is nothing we can do about that except to follow the direction of Rabi Eliezer ben Arach: we need to make sure that everything that we do is rooted in a Lev tov. And we need to recognize that we are the sum total of all that preceded us.

The Avos Derabbi Nosson tells of a time when rabban Yochana ben Zakkai sat in mourning for his son. Four of his students tried to comfort him but they were unsuccessful. Finally Rabi Elazar ben Arach was able to comfort his teacher with the following analogy: “imagine that he king had given you a precious item to watch. You would have lived all your life in distress, worried that you might mistreat or ruin the item. G-d has taken back your son. You will no longer be plagued with the responsibility of maintaining His precious jewel.”

Rabban Yochana benm Zakkai was comforted because Rabi Elazar’s words reflected his teachings.

This approach did not work for Rabi Elazar. After the death of Rabban Yochanan his wife convinced him to move to Damascus. After all, he was an “overflowing spring”, he had a Lev Tov and did not need his colleagues for support.

In the end Rabi Elazar forgot all of his Torah. His colleagues returned and taught it to him once again. In the continuation of the chapter Rabi Elazar teaches that while a Good heart is paramount, we must be anchored in this world as well and we must remain confident that G-d will lead us down the proper path to our rightful reward:

“Be assiduous in your study of Torah”. He said, “Know how to respond to someone who does not respect Torah, and always remember that you are serving G-d. G-d can be trusted to give your rightful reward”.

These were the consoling words of King David: “Even as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are with me.”

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber , Shlita.

Posted on 05/03 at 06:33 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