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Thursday, January 28, 2016

From Every Mountain Top

We read two songs last week. The first was sung by all of the Jewish people on the banks of the Yam Suf; the second was sung two hundred years later by Devorah and Barak at the top of Mount Tavor in Israel.

Har Tavor is one of the highest mountains in the Middle East and it was one of the front runners as the site of the giving of the Torah. In the end, G-d chose Har Sinai and the Torah was given on her although she was not the tallest and not the widest and not the most beautiful. The Medrash tells us that Mount Tavor was given a consolation prize: One day Devorah would sing her song on Har Tavor. Further, the Pesikta writes that the Third temple will, in some way be built on Har Tavor.

Mount Tavor is cited throughout scripture as a tall and majestic mountain. Naftali was praised for owning this piece of Real Estate; Zevulun complained that he had nothing like Har Tavor in his portion of Israel. It is a beautiful piece of our Holy Land. It was also a very strategic mountain in wars that took place throughout history from the Romans through the crusades. It was the location of one of the bonfires that were lit to let people know the date of Rosh Chodesh.  But what is the particular connection between Mount Tavor and the song of the sea and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai?

I think the answer can be seen in Devora’s song. Devora began her song by pointing out that the Jewish people had wandered a little too far from Har Sinai. No longer were they a humble nation that had just a few weeks ago been slaves and a people that had nothing to lose. Now they were a people with territories and victories and a seat in the UN. Devorah criticized some of the tribes for being more concerned about their own territories than about the entire people of Israel. She criticized them for getting involved with and influenced by the local religions.

Devorah’s message to the people in leading the charge on Har Tavor and the song afterwards was that the Land of Israel was no different. True, Hashem chose to give the Torah on a mountain that was humble and plain and in the middle of a desert, but the same Torah exists on the beautiful, tall, and strategic Har Tavor. We are just as bound to Hashem’s word and just as dependent on His blessing.

This is an important lesson. We learn Torah, we keep Torah, and we sacrifice for Torah when it is our lifeline and the shining light in our lives. But what happens when our lives get more complicated, busier, and more expensive? Devorah taught us that the same Torah exists.

This is true for the Jewish People as well. We don’t grow out of the Torah. The same Torah who’s survival we fought for after World War II tells us to continue to cherish each soul today. The same Torah that inspired us to found schools decades ago also tells us to support them today, the same Torah that makes us feel responsible for making sure that there is a minyan in shul, also tells us to be there when we “aren’t needed”, and the same Torah that taught us so much when we were younger has something new to say to us every in every decade.

Just as we sang when crossed the Yam Suf to accept the Torah at humble Har Sinai, we will continue sing as we turn to Hashem and His Torah in every stage and every phase of our lives.

Posted on 01/28 at 05:55 PM • Permalink
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Friday, January 01, 2016

Frogs (Vo’eira)

The frogs seem to be an odd part of the story of the Exodus. Water turning to blood, wild animals, blackouts, death and disease seem pretty standard, but frogs are cute. One year my wife ordered one hundred frogs from oriental trading had my kids throw them at me throughout the seder. That was annoying. Still, it is hard to relate to frogs as real punishment for the Egyptians.

The Medrash tells us that more than the presence of the frogs, people were annoyed by their croaking. They would grate on everyone’s nerves; The Egyptians couldn’t deal with this. The Medrash tell us that first there was one big frog, but when they hit it turned into two, then four then eight then sixteen, then thirty two and so on and so forth.

They lost their self control. They kept on hitting the frog.

I think that this plague was directed specifically at Pharaoh. The frogs went to his house first before branching out to other homes. Pharaoh had a very shallow idea of God. He thought he was G-d. The Noam Elimelech writes that he was so shallow in his thoughts that Moshe had to actually represent G-d to Pharaoh. He really couldn’t conceive of a G-d that was beyond his understanding.

The frogs brought out the humanity in Pharaoh. He simply couldn’t deal with them. They annoyed him and he snapped. When the waters turned to blood, Pharaoh stayed strong. He made no official recorded statements. When it came to the frogs he was in frenzy. Get rid of these frogs. He didn’t complain about another plague until all the way at the end of the Parsha.

Pharaoh was learning a lesson about humanity and a lesson about G-d. G-d doesn’t get annoyed, his doesn’t lose His temper, and he doesn’t act irrationally. G-d is called a Kadosh because he is above all that.

This is a lesson for us as well. We need to do our best to act G-dly and rise above the fray. At the same time, we need to remember that only G-d is truly above it all and making the most rational decisions. The rest of us are just human.

Posted on 01/01 at 04:38 PM • Permalink
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Why Didn’t the Bush Burn? (Shemos)

Hashem appeared to Moshe in the Bush because a Bush is a lowly shrub. It symbolizes humility.

The Torah tells us that the Angel of Hashem appeared as a fire burning in the bush, but the bush was not consumed.

Moshe said, “Let me turn for a minute and take a look. Why isn’t the Bush consumed?”

What was the answer? We are accustomed to thinking that the Bush turned out to be a heavenly fire and therefore did not follow the rules of regular fire, but the Noam Elimelech writes and interesting idea.

One would think that a holy fire would wipe out something as unholy as a bush. One would think that holy activities would bring us to a level purity where the mundane world cannot enter.

It seems unfair when we are davening and the most random of thoughts comes in, or when we spend an hour studying Torah just to lose our tempers five minutes later. Moshe was bothered with the question: Why doesn’t the bush burn? Why don’t we ever seem totally free of our Yetzer Hora.

The answer is simple. The bush doesn’t burn. We always remain somewhat worldly. We never become angels. Maybe this is so that we elevate our worldliness and use it to serve Hashem, maybe it is to keep us challenged, but the fact remains. The Bush just simply doesn’t burn.

Hashem didn’t really answer Moshe’s question, but he did tell him to take off his shoes. The very first command Hashem gave Moshe. By taking off his shoes Moshe understood that he needed to feel every thorn and thistle on the ground if he was to truly help the Jewish people and grow as an individual.

We keep waiting for the holiness to root out and consume everything else, but it will never happen. This was the lesson of the burning bush.

Posted on 01/01 at 04:34 PM • Permalink
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Friday, December 18, 2015


So much of the parsha centers on Yosef, but I think it is important for us to think about Yehudah as well.

The Parsha begins with a showdown between Yehudah and Yosef. Besides for the immediate issue of Binyamin, there was a natural friction between the two of them. Yehudah was the king of Israel, yet Yosef was the apparent leader. He had all of the keys and all of the charm. In the dreams they were all bowing to him. Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were having an argument that would last for centuries. Eventually, we would be split between the Kingdoms of Yehudah and Ephraim.

Yosef was an Ish Matzliach. He had a difficult life, but everything that he put his hands on was blessed. All of his endeavors were successful.

Yehudah did not have that same mazal. Yehudah walked around for years knowing that he was the one who told the brothers to sell Yosef. He had two children, Er and Onan, who both died. Then he had the difficult story with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Finally, last week, he took responsibility for Binyamin, and Binyamin was caught. Everything seemed to go wrong.

The Torah discusses plowing and reaping. There is a big difference:  When you plow the field, you don’t see anything. It looks like a lot of dirt and mud. If someone comes and sees you plowing, he might think you’re not doing anything at all. But when someone is harvesting, you can see something happening. You can pick an apple or an orange and eat it for lunch.

The plowing is less rewarding and also more important. It is the one who did the plowing that put in the effort so that whatever would be planted there would grow.

The Zohar writes that Yosef is the harvester but Yehudah plows. In Vayigash, Yosef appeared to be getting his way in a very shortsighted way. He arrested Binyamin for simple possession of the goblet, but Yehudah had an entire story to tell. He told Yosef that he cannot make a decision based on the goblet alone.

Yehudah must be very frustrated. He had finally convinced Yaacov to let him take Binyamin and here this went wrong as well. He was about to lose his portion in the world to come. It was only later that it emerged that everything had worked perfectly. Yosef had become a leader in Mitzrayim because of Yehudah’s sale. Now, he was overwhelmed to tears and revealed himself thanks to Binyamin’s presence.

Everything worked out in the end. Yehuda was right and, in fact, he was sent by Yaacov to establish a place of Torah in Goshen before everyone else arrived. Yehudah had a sense for the long term success of Klal Yisroel.

A few years ago there was a Television show in Norway broadcasting a seven hour train ride. More than a million people watched, so they did another with a one week boat ride. More than half of Norway, including the Prime Minister, watched the show. Now they are working on knitting shows, bird-watching, and fishing. It took them three hours to catch the first fish. It is extremely boring, but people are getting very into it. There was one man who watched the entire train ride from start to finish. At the end, he stood up to get his luggage before he remembered that he was actually in his living room. There were studies done on why people are attracted to this kind of television, and the answer is fascinating. Television and radio nowadays is so fast paced, there is no waiting time at all between one event and another. It holds our attention but it is not natural, because life happens in real time.

This is the difference between Plowing and Reaping. Reaping gets us immediately satisfied, but plowing is equally important. It just takes time. And that is the natural reality of most things we do.

Yehudah was not a man of immediate successes, but he was responsible for saving Yosef, for bringing us to Mitzrayim and for leading the Jewish people.

The Pasuk in Amos (9:13) says, “Venigash Choresh Bekotzer” – “the one who plows the field and the one who reaps the harvest will get together when Moshiach comes”.
Yehudah and Yosef will come together at the end of days. At that time our efforts will meet our successes and everything will become clear. Ha’zor-im B’dimah; B’rinah Yiktzoru.

Posted on 12/18 at 07:24 PM • Permalink
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Friday, December 11, 2015

Stampede! (Chanukah)

There was once a group of researchers who went to North Africa and planted tomatoes. They felt really good about themselves for pioneering a new source of food and revenue for the natives. Indeed, the tomatoes were beautiful. Just as the tomatoes were about to ripen completely, the scientists were shocked to notice a herd of elephants come through and stampede the tomatoes. There was absolutely nothing they could do. They quickly realized that unless they were to spend all their projected income on repelling elephants, tomato crops would never flourish in Africa.

They also realized that the natives had known this all along. The scientists thought they knew better and were unwilling to listen.

King David said: “Rabas Tzraruni M’neurai”. Usually translated as “Many things have oppressed me from my youth”, it can also be translated as “The way that I developed has oppressed m from my youth”. The Jewish people have been oppressed because of our collective insistence on relying on G-d. It is our oldest form of defense since Avraham jumped in to a fiery furnace and it is what the Yevanim tried to take away from us. They wanted us to write “We have no portion with the G-d of the Jews”, but that is so intrinsic to who and what we are.

When we face adversity we need to go back to the basics. We need to trust our Emunah. The Greeks had many things to offer us, but without Hashem we have nothing.

Everything that the Greeks were selling could only be accepting in the context of enhancing what we already have. We need to cultivate our relationship with hashem before we get excited about the tomatoes. We might find that they can’t even last in our unique environment.  Not everything that works for the Greeks will work for us.

The Gemara tells us (23b) that Shabbos candles take precedence over Chanukah candles. We learn this from the pasuk “Tiznach M’shalom Nafshi”. The Gemara says that since the Shabbos candles are there for Shalom, we are obligated to take care of them first.

Shabbos Candles are not actually more important than Chanuka Candles. It is Shalom in the home that is more important than Chanuka. Reb Moshe Feinstein rules that nowadays Chanukah candles do not take precedence over Shabbos candles. We are not concerned about Shalom because we have electric lights.

Thank G-d, we can all afford to keep our houses well lit and to light Chanuka candles, but I believe that there is a very simple lesson here. We need to work on what we have before we work on what other people are trying to throw at us. The idea of Neiros Chanukah is Pirsumei Nissa, publicizing the miracle, but step number one is to make sure that we have Shalom right here in our neshamos and in our homes. Once we have taken care of ourseves, we can start accepting new ideas and, finally, fulfill our obligation of publicizing what we have to the entire world.

Posted on 12/11 at 04:16 PM • Permalink
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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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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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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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Posted on 05/15 at 11:32 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