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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Elul!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking G-d’s Rules

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

What’s up with that?

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

At best we are asking for trouble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treasure

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grave Sitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on 08/19 at 03:58 PM • Permalink
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Friday, July 30, 2010

Baring Our Soles

There was an older man in my shul growing up. Once, when I was about fourteen, I was in a different city and ran into a cousin of this particular man. “I assume”, the cousin told me “that nothing will come of him”. I answered what I answered by the statement jarred me and stayed in my mind until today.

By what definition does something come of someone? The man in question was frum despite peer pressure and the holocaust, he made the Minyan three times a day, he lained, and he served as gabbai and president. He was a short cute old man. What were they waiting for? Did he need to cure the common cold or write volumes of response to become ‘something’?!

In parshas Eikev, the Torah reminds us to pay careful attention to the mitzvos that tend to be trampled with our Eikev - our heel. We tend to triage mitzvos and decide that certain ones are not important. We concentrate on the “Big Mitzvos” but the truth is that every single little mitzva is important. Every Mitzva plays a role in the development of our souls.

Before Moshe could speak with Hashem he was told to take off his shoes. In fact, the very first thing Hashem told Moshe to do was to take off his shoes. Shoes protect us from the small pebbles and toys that we trample but Hashem wanted Moshe to be sensitive. He was not allowed to trample on anything without noticing.

The Letters of the word Na’al (shoe) stand for Neshicha, Akitza, and Lechisha - biting, stinging and hissing. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos tells us that we need to beware of a Torah scholar because he can bite like a wolf, sting like a scorpion, and hiss like a snake. A Torah scholar can be expected to defend the Torah. We say that it is the Torah in him that is getting upset. Even so, Hashem told Moshe that he must remove his Na’al and be compassionate and sensitive.

We learn from this parsha that we need to be sensitive to everything and everybody there is no Mitzva and no person that we can just trample. We can no rely on our calluses.

The word Eikev also means that we need to investigate and get to the bottom of every Mitzva. Each Mitzva has its own special meaning and corresponds to a different part of our souls. The Zohar writes that there is a mitzvah corresponding to every one of our limbs and muscles. If we skip a Mitzvah or gloss over it we are missing an important piece of our overall structure.

Ruchama Shain tells the story of an assimilated Jew. He became engaged to a Catholic woman who insisted that he convert. He didn’t care. As he was taking off his shoes for the baptism he realized that he was taking them off as a Jew: first the left and then the right. It was possibly the only Mitzva that his mother had taught him. The man immediately tied his shoes, walked out of the church, and went to see a Rabbi. His mind and body were spiritually undeveloped but his feet were strong.

They say that there was once a grandson of the Ziditchoiver Rebbe who was becoming lax in his Yiddishkeit and decided to leave Yeshiva. His Rosh Yeshiva bid him farewell but made him to promise to keep just one family custom: In Ziditchoiv, the rebbes valued Shabbos so highly that they do not say tachanun on Friday. Accordingly, The boy promised not to say Tachanun on Friday. When the the next Friday the young man set his alarm clock to go off early. He needed to Daven if he was going to skip tachanun. As he stood and davened with his tefillin on, he began to think of the beauty of Shabbos and the impact that it must have made on his holy forbears. Before long he was back in yeshiva.

We often see people whose entire Judaism is based on one Mitzvah. We never know how any one Mitzva or any one person will affect us. We need to do every Mitzva properly and treat every person with respect.

L’iluy Nishmas Yechiel ben Ben Tzion a"h

Posted on 07/30 at 09:16 PM • Permalink
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Monday, July 19, 2010

Mourning the Kohanim - Thoughts on Kinah 10

If the Bais Hamikdash was the place that we could always depend upon to be G-dly and holy, then the Kohanim were the people whom we could always depend upon to be our steadfast role models in the service of Hashem.

The Kinah of Aicha Yashva departs from the theme of the destruction of the physical Bais Hamikdash and focuses on the Kohanim. The Kinah mirrors the first chapter of Aicha, preserving the first word of each verse in Eicha as the beginning of its respective stanza in the Kinah. The author, Reb Elazar Hakalir demonstrates a familiarity with the Kohanim that we no longer have. Many of the priestly cities that he mentions are not available to us from any other source.

Someone asked me if the Curtain in the Bais Hamikdash was removed on Tisha B’av just as it is removed in our shuls. It most certainly was not! Tisha B’av at the time of the Bais Hamikdash was (and will be ) a joyous Yom Tov. The Magen Avraham writes that those who eat large meals before Tisha B’av are mistakenly observing a minhag that has been preserved from the times of the Bais Hamikdosh. We used to eat large meals on tisha B’av and celebrate.

There were no sad days in the Bais Hamikdash.

The Kohein Gadol, who was considered a fixture of the Bais Hamikdash, was not allowed to be sad or sit Shiva. We are taught, “G-d’s soul weeps [only] in secret” and the atmosphere in the Bais Hamikdash and around the Kohein Gadol was always joyous.

The Torah writes that the Me’il of the Kohein Gadol could not be torn. It was constructed like a suit of armor with a reinforced neck. It is specifically forbidden to tear Kriah on the Me’il. The sanctity of the Me’il transcended the laws of Shiva. It was indestructible and dependable, because the Kohein Gadol’s role was to be indestructible and dependable. No matter how tough things were and how many people were tearing their clothes, we always knew that we could depend on the Kohein Gadol to stay strong. This ended on Tisha when – as our Kinah records - “V’hame’il K’nikra Pesilo” – the fabric of the Me’il was torn.

And in a later stanza: ‘Sila kol Abirai’ – He shattered all of my heroes’ – we had nobody to depend on and look up to.

Another loss was the love the Kohanim had for the Jewish people. When the Kohanim bless us they thank Hashem who commanded them “to bless the Jewish people with love”. We did not appreciate that love. The Kina tells us “Anos Amein Lo Avu” – we did not bother to answer Amen when they gave us their blessing.

Our focus was not in the right direction at all: We like to echo the words of Dovid “Esah Einai El Heharim” – ‘I will lift my eyes to the mountains’. But the Kinah records that at the time of the destruction: ‘Lo Lamarom Ayin Tzafas’ we were not looking upward/ ‘Kesef Al Cheresh Chipas’ – we were too busy putting a silver plate on earthenware jugs and pretending that everything was fine.

“R’eh Ki Husa’arti K’aniya” - The Kinah echoes the plight of Yonah as his ship tossed and turned in the ocean. We criticize Yona for trying to run away from his problems. He tried to escape Hashem’s command but it was impossible. We need to focus on Hashem when we seek to solve our problems.

‘Mishulchancha Ta’ariach’ - The Kina ends in the hope that we will once again be guests at G-d’s table. In the laws of Brachos, the intentions of the host always trump the intentions of his guest. G-d decided that we were no longer welcome at His table and we were forced to leave. We beg Hashem to invite us back.

Posted on 07/19 at 08:49 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Is There Another Torah?! - Thoughts on Kinah 41

Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was famous for being in jail. He was the last of the Tosafists and a respected leader of his generation. He was incarcerated for trying to make Aliyah and avoid Servi Camerae under Rudolph I in 1286.

If it wasn’t for the Maharam Rothenburg we might not have a Shulchan Aruch today. He was the teacher of Rabeinu Asher who is the father and teacher of Rabeinu Yaakov baal Haturim upon whose work the Shulchan Aruch is based.

Reb Meir of Rothenburg began his teaching career on Friday, June 17, 1242 at the Place de Grève in Paris.

Today, the place de Grève in Paris is the address of the City Hall and Mayor’s office. In 1242 it was the site of executions and, beginning June 17th, the site of the burning of the Talmud.

Reb Meir wrote a Kina describing his feelings as a twenty-seven year old student in Paris:  “My tears formed a river that reached to the Sinai desert and to the graves of Moshe and Aharon. Is there another Torah to replace the Torah which you have taken from us?’”

The printing Press hadn’t been invented yet and the Church had methodically collected and destroyed almost every manuscript in existence. We only have one surviving manuscript from that era. As Reb Meir watched wagonloads of scrolls go up in smoke, he realized just how Oral the Oral Law was. We could not rely on what has already been written and it was up to him to return to Germany and teach the Torah there.

It is the practice of the Norfolk community to bury worn out sefarim (books) with the deceased. Last week, at the funeral of a very special elderly woman, I was shocked to find that some of my Sefarim had gotten mixed up with the Sefarim being buried. These were volumes from a family collection that had belonged to my grandfather and, in some cases, to his father. They aren’t worth very much at an auction, but they are tangible proof that my forbears studied the same subjects I did, grappled with the same questions I do, and had a love for Torah that I can strive to emulate. As everyone else focused on the deceased, I am ashamed to say that I was focusing on the cardboard boxes. I knew that any Sefer that went down into that grave would never come out again. (I also knew that I might be headed in a similar direction if my family ever found out). My sefarim were rescued, but the experience brought the Maharam’s Kina to life.

The Maharam compared the burning of books to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh. Both the Torah and the Beis Hamikdash (temple) unite us and ensure our existence: The Torah guides us and connects us to the generation that received it from Sinai; the Beis Hamikdash allowed us to articulate our shared connection in a physical space.

Beyond the knowledge contained in sefarim, the written word is an assurance that our tradition will be passed to future generations. The 613th Mitzvah is the writing of the Torah. It is as if the writing of the words is the capstone that will ensure the Torah’s survival.

Before Moshe’s death he wrote thirteen Sifrei Torah. Twelve of the Sifrei Torah were distributed amongst the tribes and the thirteenth was placed in the Aron Hakodesh (Ark) in the Mishkan. According to the Pesikta (32) that Thirteenth Torah is now kept in heaven and it is read from three times a week.

When the Maharam was imprisoned in 1286 he was given access to parchment and quills but not to any Sefarim. Although he knew almost everything by heart, his inability to read from the Torah on Monday, Thursday, and Shabbos frustrated him.

According to legend, the angel Gavriel visited the Maharam and presented him with the Thirteenth Torah, on loan from heaven. Generations of Tzadikim would descend from heaven and join him in his cell every Monday, Thursday and Shabbos to hear him read from their Sefer Torah.

Eventually, the Maharam copied the Heavenly Torah onto his own scroll and sealed the copy in a waterproof case which he threw out of his window and into the river Rhine. The Torah floated to the city of Worms where some Jewish fishermen discovered it and placed it prominently in their shul. The Jewish community of Worms suffered terribly during the Chmielniki massacres but the Sefer Torah survived. They read from it every Simchas Torah and Shavuos. Today the Maharam’s Torah is in the Aron Kodesh of the famous Alt-neu shul in Prague.

The facts of the above legend are anybody’s guess, but the appropriateness of the legend to the Maharam is beyond dispute. The Maharam was deeply dedicated to the written word and to the transmission of the Torah. He successfully formed the foundation for Halacha as we know it and he inspired his students to record and codify the words of his teachers. Their works form the canon of Jewish Law as we know it today. If anyone desired and deserved a Heavenly Sefer Torah, it was he. And if anyone was going to write a Torah in the most unlikely place and deliver it via a raging river to a desperate community, it was the Maharam of Rothenburg. He watched the last copies of the Talmud being burned and emerged from the flames by founded a Yeshiva and teaching the Talmud to a new generation.

The Maharam of Rothenburg died in captivity writing that “the sun shines for everyone but not for G-d and myself”. His Kina foretells a happier ending for us:

“… perhaps Hashem will remember how you followed Him into the barren desert,
... For as long as you have suffered - He will console you.
He will bring gather all captives to Jerusalem and lift them up high,
We will wear dance joyously to a beat and join together as one.

My heart will be uplifted when Hashem shines his light for you,
He will light up your night and dispel all of your darkness”

Even in his generation’s darkest moments the Maharam knew that we would survive and that the Torah would survive. He was limited in his movements but he knew that we would go far. New copies of the Talmud are printed every day, and each and every volume contains the indelible words of the Maharam’s teachers and students.

On a slightly different topic, The Zohar writes that when the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed its’ bricks were scattered throughout the Diaspora. Wherever a stone landed, a future shul was built. When Moshiach comes each community will return their stone to Jerusalem and build the third Beis Hamikdash.

The Altneu shul in Prague was built with actual stones from the Beis Hamikdash. Some say that that is the “alt” in Alt-neu. Others say that the shul got its name because it was built on the condition - “al Tnai” - that when Moshiach came the stones would return to their original place in Jerusalem.

All of our shuls are only a stone’s throw from Yerushalayim. There is only one Torah and only one Beis Hamikdash. Our Torah and our tears are our shared legacy that has kept us together for thousands of years. One day we will all return to Yerushalayim and link the stones of our shuls together to form an everlasting testament to our love of Hashem and our nation of One. 

Posted on 07/18 at 09:47 AM • Permalink
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Friday, July 02, 2010

Korban Credits

This week Rabbi Schwartz wrote a beautiful article about Eretz Yisroel. It wasn’t the new and beautiful concepts he mentioned that made it special, it was the fact that he is actually moving to Eretz Yisrael next week.
Similarly, when the Benos Tzlafchad’s had their conversation with Moshe they were nowhere close to land of Israel. They weren’t satisfied that their husbands and uncles and cousins would eventually have land t share with them. The Benos Tzelafchad wanted their own personal stake in Eretz yisroel. Hashem agreed.
The Gemara tells the story of Elazar Ze’ira who was walking through the streets with black straps on his sandals. He was arrested by the Jewish police and thrown into jail as a fraud. “Chashiv At L’isabulai al Yerushalyim?” – “Do you think that you are distinguished enough to be mourning for Jerusalem”? Reb Eliezer reluctantly revealed his Torah wisdom and was allowed to go free.
We have trouble mourning for Jerusalem because we don’t really have a concept of what we are missing. It has been a very long time and our collective memory is short. Our lack of appreciation for Jerusalem prevents us from yearning for it’s rebuilding and it is the attitude that led us to lose Jerusalem to begin with.
There were two Daily sacrifices in the Beis Hamikdosh. The Afternoon Tamid would atone for all sins done during the day and the Morning Tamid would atone for all sins that occurred overnight. One would thing that we were immune to punishment. How then could the Jewish people ever aggregate enough sins to deserve the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh and exile? The Leshem explains that we were exiled for only one sin: our reliance on the Tamid. Rather than use the Beis Hamikdosh as a tool for coming closer to G-d, we relied on our Korban Credits and continued to follow a path that led away from G-d.
A beggar in Jerusalem once asked me about the shuls in America. He wanted to know when we open our doors, what kind of seats we have, whether we have a mikva, and whether we serve coffee. Basically, he wanted to come to America and live in a shul. Shuls are a great place to sleep, chap a shmooze, and get kosher food, but when we think of shul we should be focusing on our relationship with Hashem. The shul is just a miniature Beis Hamikdosh.
We need to learn more about Yerushalayim and more about the Beis Hamikdosh so that, like Reb Eliezer, we can be Chashuv enough to mourn.

Posted on 07/02 at 08:33 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lessons of 17 Tammuz

The only amendment to Shemona Esrei on the 17th of Tammuz is during Mincha. The reason given is because the Tefila of Aneinu was composed by Ellijah the prophet during the time of the Mincha. The scripture tells us that Eliyahu was only answered at Mincha.

The commentaries explain that unlike Shacharis and Maariv, Mincha necessarily comes in the middle of our daily routine. The uniqueness of Mincha is the distraction and turmoil that often accompanies it. Shacharis is said before we begin our day and Maariv can be said when we are finished with our day. Davening Mincha is like opening a window for G-d to peek into our lives.

The seventeenth of Tammuz is the anniversary of the smashing of the Luchos and the burning of the Torah by Apostumous. There is obviously a connection between the two. Also on this day, at various times in our history, the walls of Jerusalem were breached, the daily sacrifice was discontinued and an idol was erected in the holy of holies.

Aside from the common denominator that we will discuss, it is important to remember Hashem’s promise to spread the punishment for the golden calf over many years. Any tragedy is connected to the golden calf.

The Medrash tells us that when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai the tablets suddenly became heavy. The holy letters, written by G-d, could not bear to enter the presence of idol worshippers. In Moshe’s greatest and most dramatic lesson to the Jewish people, he showed that holiness couldn’t exist in a place where it is unwelcome.

The Torah ends with the death of Moshe and an epitaph to his life. The very last three words of the Torah, L’eienei Kol Yisroel, reference Moshe’s bold and dramatic demonstration that Torah cannot coexist with idol worship.

Eliyahu didn’t tell the people to serve Hashem. He told the people to make up their minds: If you are for Hashem – stay with Hashem; but if you are for the Baal – stay with the Baal.

The lesson of Moshe, Eliyahu, and Mincha are all the same: Even in the most hectic times of our day and on the craziest days of our lives, we need to be sure that Hashem is welcome.

Rabbi Hirsch points out that the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh was no surprise. The only surprise was that Hashem stopped protecting and dwelling in the Beis Hamikdosh. The burning of the Torah, the breaking of the Luchos, the desecration of the Holy of Holies, the discontinuation of the Tamid and the breaching of the wall were all a result of our actions that mage the Shechina unwelcome in our midst.

May we merit to make Hashem feel welcome in our homes, our lives and our lands. May this Tisha B’av be a day of holiness and joy in the cities of Yehuda and the courtyards of Yerushalayim.

Posted on 06/30 at 03:11 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Spiritual Congestion

Traffic in Boro Park is one of the hardest things to explain. How can anybody rest on  Shabbos, speak with Hashem three times a day, give tzedaka and double park?

I was asking myself that question just before I ducked into Munkacz on Sixteenth Avenue last Wednesday. 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 and very anxious to respond to the call of nature.

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.

Later on, I took my students to see the famous Shomer Shabbos shul. One minyan subtly pushed the other out as thousands of people rushed in to daven and get back to work. This happens for twenty-two hours a day. The carefully choreographed tzedaka collectors didn’t miss a beat. More Boro Park traffic.

We visited Hatzala where our gracious guide screeched into the tightest parking spot imaginable. His deluxe station wagon was decked out with a cherry light, a siren, and four car seats.

We spent some time at Hatzala, trying out expensive equipment, asking questions, and hearing about September 11th. We met veteran Hatzala members an even joined the Vizhnitzer Cheder in the dispatch room for a bilingual demonstration. The kids loved every minute, but my favorite part was the way the volunteers described themselves:

 “We may be machers, yentas, kuchleffels, busybodies and nudnicks – but we do save 10,000 lives a year”.

Out-of-towners love to express disbelief that Boro Park continues to exist. We claim that they are losing their youth, lost their integrity, and won’t show up when Moshiach comes. The Leshem writes that we need to look at the world as Hashem does: with confidence in everyone and an appreciation of the special qualities that distinguish every person and every community.

(written on my Blackberry while driving down New Utrecht) .

Posted on 06/10 at 04:42 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tradition

One hundred years ago, things didn’t look too good for Orthodox Jews on these shores. When my great-grandfather disembarked in Charleston the community was already challenged by assimilation and ignorance. Thankfully there were enough stubborn and learned people to keep the flames of Torah burning. My Elter-Zaidy tried to become an American citizen but the local officials told him that he would have to become a Mason first. And so, my Great Grandfather became a US Citizen and a Member of the Masonic Fraternity. He also remained a religious Jew.

Some time later, when Zaidy had earned enough money to bring the rest of my family over, he returned to Charleston to greet his family. Upon arrival, he was told that the ship was quarantined at Sullivan’s Island. Zaidy quickly found some Kosher food and made arrangements to have them delivered to his wife and children on board the ship. Unfortunately, the stone-faced officials were adamant in their refusal to allow strange parcels on board. They didn’t care about Kosher food. Zaidy was about to give up when he noticed an official wearing a Masonic ring. Zaidy greeted the man with a secret handshake and everything changed. The food was delivered, my Grandmother ate her first good meal in weeks, and the rest is history.

I visited Charleston this past Shabbos. As I shared the story with the congregation I could not mask the trace of pride in voice. My Great-Grandfather fought to get his family Kosher food in Charleston, and there I was, one century later, still keeping Torah and Mitzvos in a way that would make him proud.

The Charleston community has a lot to be proud of too. They are the oldest uninterrupted Ashkenazi kehilla in North America. They have faithfully survived breakaways and mergers and a couple of military attacks. In fact, they are proud to have provided an uninterrupted supply of Kosher meat and Matza to Confederate soldiers during the Civil war.

It is refreshing to remember that there were some oases of kashrus in the treife medina. Where others thought that the Torah couldn’t apply, they applied it, and lived to pray another day.

In preparation for my trip to Charleston I made it my business to learn the secret Masonic handshake. It was unnecessary. The Charleston community was very warm and hospitable and the grits were great.

As I walked out of shul Shabbos morning a middle-aged gentleman with a conspiratorial voice and a triangular ring approached me with an offer:

“Rabbi”, he said, “I am a third generation Mason. If you ever want to return to the fold, I can get you in”.

Posted on 05/26 at 05:12 AM • Permalink
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Monday, May 17, 2010

Our Google Image At Risk

It was the year that the cholent blew up. The yeshiva cholent pot was a little bit too full. The oil boiled over and dripped into the flame, causing an explosion on Friday night. The fire marshals came and didn’t like what they saw. They closed down the Yeshiva for a few months and closed down the kitchen for even longer. The Yeshiva was going to close it’s doors.

There was one guy, let’s call him Chaim, who stepped up to the plate and took over the running of the yeshiva. The elderly Roshei Yeshiva were great with learning, but not as involved in keeping the kitchen up to code. Chaim was already working for yeshiva in some capacity, but now he took full charge of the office, the kitchen and the entire building. He managed the meager finances of the Yeshiva and worked with donors to rehabilitate the building and make it legally habitable for Yeshiva Bochurim. Before we knew it , the building was safe once again, the kitchen was updated and the cholent was back on the flame. The yeshiva lived to learn another day.

Maybe I was naive, or maybe I was just out of the loop, but I just found out (years later) that Chaim was never paid. He had other jobs, and he was supporting his family responsibly, but my yeshiva had not paid him. If they had money they would have hired an administrator and the cholent might not have blown up to begin with.

The tragedy of this story is that a Google search on my Yeshiva will tell you about the condemned building, the oblivious Roshei Yeshiva, and the boys who were forced to go home. No search engine will tell you the story of Chaim, the altruistic hero who saved the Yeshiva.

More tragically, no Google search will tell you what Chaim saw in the yeshiva that made him work pro bono to rehabilitate it. You won’t find anything about the depth and diligence of the learning, the dedication and devotion of the teachers, or the decent businessmen and dayanim that the yeshiva produced.

Chaim is a real Chareidi, the type that exist off line and in real life: a regular guy, smiling, shmoozy, making a living and learning every day. Nobody asks him Halachic questions or stands up when he walks into the room. He helped the yeshiva because he loves Torah and he saw Torah suffering.

Today, every individual and group has a digital persona. Our snapshot for the world is the information that appears on the first page of a Google search. Some people manipulate their digital persona to misrepresent themselves; others are well represented online. Some innocent people let their digital persona take on a nasty life of it’s own while they don’t get within four amos of a computer screen.

Search engines can’t access a Rosh yeshiva’s Shiur Klali or his weekly Mussar Shmooze. They can’t be at a Rosh Yeshiva’s Shabbos Table or experience his Ne’ilah. They form an inaccurate digital perception of a Rosh Yeshiva based on a couple of second-hand statements quoted in the New York Times and on random weblogs.

I’m not suggesting that every Yeshiva Bochur to start a blog; I’m suggesting that every Yeshiva Google their staff and make sure that they are properly represented.

This Friday, a handwritten sign quoting Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel Shlita went up in the Mir Yeshiva. He urged his students not to attend protests. The sign was photographed, quoted and analyzed by scores of blog readers. The world out there is hungry for information and relying on inference and guesswork to get it.

What the world out there does not know (and cannot know) is that Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel has always been against students attending protests. I am aware of two instances in which Reb Nosson Tzvi gave his eleventh hour endorsement to rallies and, even then, encouraged students to go for no more than ten minutes. They were both peaceful rallies that obtained government permits. There is no room for conjecture and hearsay when it comes to Reb Nosson Tzvi and protests.

The problem is that the Mir Yeshiva doesn’t realize how many people are downloading that six word handwritten sign in the hallway. They don’t realize how many people are sincerely trying to figure out what Reb Nosson Tzvi really thinks about protests in Meah Shearim. If the yeshiva were thinking in terms of digital impact, they would have made the sign clearer. Better yet, the sign would have quoted the Rosh Yeshiva’s own words and been posted in an Internet press release. Why stay below the radar of the search engines and leave everyone assuming the worst?

It makes me think of the time I rudely interrupted a conversation in Jerusalem’s Old City. Three English tourists directly ahead of me were engrossed in an obscenely uninformed discussion about my style of dress. One of them asked a question and I, in frustration, jumped in and offered an unsolicited but accurate answer. They lectured me on my rudeness.

It was OK for them to walk in front of me and spew nonsense about my lifestyle, but it was inconceivably rude of me to insert myself (and some truth) into their conversation!

The point is that we would all be better off if people went straight to the source for information. When we, as Orthodox Jews, are an elusive source of information we are not doing ourselves any favors.

(And by the way, I’ve been informed that the alumni are getting together to buy a present for “Chaim”. If you contact me I can forward you the information – you won’t find it online)

Posted on 05/17 at 03:42 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Making of a Gadol

I am very proud of my family. I had this question about worms in fish and my siblings responded with reams of relevant Torah knowledge. It is always refreshing to argue with well-informed individuals.

I’ve also been re-reading “All for the Boss” by Ruchama Shain. I first read All For The Boss when I was ten years old and over the past twenty years I have been privileged to come in contact with almost every family chronicled in the book.

One of the most annoying parts of Rabbi Herman’s biography is that he is unemulateable. His actions worked for his time, but anybody who tries to copy him is crazy. Try going down to Coney Island with Sandwich boards and you’ll see what I mean. As a matter of fact, if I would ship a thirteen-year-old child to New Haven without parental consent or barge into the mayor’s office (as he did), I would probably end up in court.

I believe that the secret of R’ Yaacov Yosef’s piety and success as it could be applied to our generation is Limud Torah.

Rabbi Herman gave seven or eight Torah classes a day. He never stopped learning, even as he maintained a business and opened his home to the masses. His Torah learning was the invisible tool that made him popular with everyone from the greatest of the European sages to most coarse and unholy people in New York. When Rabbi Herman moved to Yerushalayim he was immediately accepted as a popular lecturer for the erudite community there.

More importantly, Rabbi Herman’s Torah kept him grounded. His decisions were Torah decisions, his battles were battles for Torah, and his words of rebuke were sincere. There was no fluff or self-interest in the Herman household.

When we see Torah leaders, they are often busy and important people with lines of people waiting to see them. Nobody is born that way. We need to see great people against the backdrop of the Torah they have learned.

Another great insight in All for the Boss is the frank biography of our leaders. Many of the stories about Cod Liver Oil and Podlikes are silly, but they give us a taste of the Way it Was. We can understand Torah leaders better if we have an idea of what they have experienced and accomplished in their lives.

I remember when I left Mir Yeshiva in Yerushalayim to avoid getting drafted into the IDF. I was crestfallen because I was learning well and didn’t want to go back to America.

I went to see Reb Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg, Shlita. The Rosh Yeshiva listened to my story, gave me some advice, gave me a bracha and sent me on my way. I knew I would take his advice, but there was no comfort in it because I felt like there was simply no way for him to identify with how it felt for me to terminate my studies in Mir and return to the United States.

On my way downstairs, I noticed the “Shain” apartment and decided to pay Rebetzin Shain a surprise visit. I had always wanted to meet her and I was sure that she would enjoy receiving regards from my parents. Besides, I needed someone to talk to. She welcomed me into her house and I explained my situation. Her reaction shocked me.

“You know”, she said, “My brother-in-law Chaim (aka Reb Sheinberg) left Mir (in Poland) because the Polish army was about to draft him. He was an American, but he had had been born in Poland. They told him that he could either return to the USA immediately or remain in Poland, away from his family, until he completed his army duty”.

It turned out that Reb Sheinberg had known what I was talking about all along. He hadn’t spoken more than ten words to me, and he certainly hadn’t shared any of his feelings, but he had known exactly what was going on in my mind.

(The Israeli army eventually waived my draft for several months after receiving documentation that my learning would be negatively impacted. Needless to say, that would not have happened in the Polish Armed Forces).

I always tell my students that our goal is not to see one of thirty-six hidden tzadikim, but to be one of the thirty-six hidden tzadikim. We are the product of the Torah that we have learned and the experiences that Hashem sends our way. By listening and growing, we can become shining lights in a dark and confusing world.

Posted on 05/13 at 05:16 AM • Permalink
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Friday, April 30, 2010

Perspective

As a male, I have trouble asking for directions. Yesterday, I got lost at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond. Wandering on my own, I followed a winding darkened path over a creaky bridge and into complete and total darkness. The only way out was a small crawlspace covered in barbed wire.  A dog began to bark urgently and I tried to back out and retrace my steps. That was when I saw the SS guard. He was crouching in the shadows, a full size wax image, with his rifle pointed directly at me. There was no sound but the rustling of the trees. The dog started barking again.

I was terrified. There was a depth of terror and lonesomeness that I never imagined existed. At that moment I realized how little I understood of the fear and helplessness that people lived through during those terrible years.

I forced myself to continue forward and found myself in a partisan forest encampment. I was alone and unable to retrace my steps so I sat down and waited for the rest of my group to catch up.

It occurred to me that it wasn’t only Holocaust survivors who I couldn’t relate to. Many arguments and bitter fights are the result of our inability to feel each other’s emotions.

Rabi Akiva’s students perished because they didn’t respect each other. Each person has his or her own needs and perspectives. The reality is that we will never put on our adversaries glasses or walk in their shoes. The best we can do is to respect their right to feel strongly.

Pirkei Avos writes that a man who reaches one hundred is “no longer part of this world”. A man who has lived for a century has seen and lived through experiences that we will never understand. He is a part of a different world. My artificially staged brush with the holocaust taught me just how different anither man’s world can be.

I recently visited Sam Althaus, a holocaust survivor, shortly before he passed away. I expressed an interest in his life and his family was kind enough to mail me an autographed copy of his memoirs.

The stories of his youth were interesting and terrifying but what struck me most were his memories on reaching the United States. He didn’t spend time getting angry with President Roosevelt. He was just happy to be in a country that would let him live and prosper as a Jew.

Mr. Althaus describes his arrival at the Boston docks:

“I must have had a worried, sad look on my face, because the Customs agent, who knew we had been concentration camp prisoners, took one look at me and called an interpreter.

“I was a stranger in a strange land but the first words I heard in America made me feel wonderful ... and welcome.

“This is America.” he said. “You don’t have to worry now because you are among friends.”

“Those words will stay with me until my dying day.”

The Docents at the Virginia Holocaust Museum made feeble and disturbing attempts to compare the holocaust to the strict immigration laws in Arizona. There is, of course, no parallel. We live in a fair and just country. Or, as Sam concludes his memoirs “with all of our problems, we have the greatest country in the world”.

There is no land I love more than Eretz Yisroel and there is no doubt that I would prefer to live under an administration that is more supportive of Israel. Still, I will never forward the daily complaints and incriminations of the government that fill my in-box. I am a proud American and even my limited and cushioned understanding of history makes me grateful and appreciative of the land in which I live.

We need to go beyond our short-term personal feelings. We need to acknowledge the reality of history and the valuable perspective of those who survived it. 

In our personal lives we need to respect and acknowledge every human being’s right to have emotions that run as deep as our own. May Hashem give us the opportunity to see the impact of our actions through the eyes of our friends.

Posted on 04/30 at 06:39 AM • Permalink
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Friday, April 02, 2010

The Hardest Chometz to Remove (and What to do When it is Gone)

1986 was the year of the Great Matza Shortage (I think). Two key Matza bakeries burned down and people had to scramble to get three large, round, hand-baked Matzos for each Seder. I remember my father driving two hours to Toronto on Erev Pesach just to get Matzos, because all of ours were broken.

A few months earlier, in that same year, an Israeli family came to the United States to find medical help for their young daughter. One man acted as their guide and translator. After doing some research, he was able to set up a meeting between the family and a well know neurological surgeon. The surgeon diagnosed the girl and explained that he would need to perform a delicate surgery to save her life. The translator thanked the surgeon but discreetly informed him that the family had no money and no insurance in the United States. Would he be willing to perform the surgery without being paid?

The doctor, who clearly wasn’t Jewish, thought for a moment before giving his answer: He would be willing to perform the surgery to save the girls life, but he would very much appreciate if someone could get him a few of those big, round, flat, crackers that the Jews eat. He had them once but was unable to find them in regular supermarkets.

The translator agreed eagerly and promised to bring the crackers as soon as they came into season.

The Doctor performed the surgery and the girl’s life was saved.

Some months later, on Erev Pesach, the translator suddenly remembered his promise to the generous doctor. He looked around for Matzos but couldn’t find any. Nobody was willing to relinquish their three or six whole matzos for a doctor who happened to like large crackers.

Finally the translator dipped into his own minimal supply of Matzos and brought them to the hungry doctor.

A Torah scholar could probably write a responsa on the allocation of matzos to Surgeon vs. Seder, but the truth was that there was no question. This surgeon had saved the girl’s life. She would have died. How could we not give him the Matza?

Despite the beauty of the story, the fact remains that there is much more to a Matza than a large, round, cracker. Matzos are the symbol of our freedom and they represent the beginning of who we are as Jews. The fact that we are Alive is worthy of celebrating, but it does not come close to the true meaning and significance of Matza.

The Sefer Hachinuch explains that on the first day of Pesach we concentrate solely on our freedom. We thank Hashem that we are alive and no longer enslaved in Egypt. But that is only for one day. By the time the second day of Pesach comes we need to really thinking about the Matza. There is more to Matza than Life and Freedom. What is the point of being alive and free if we do not use that life and freedom to come closer to Hashem?

On the second day of Pesach we dedicate ourselves to the re-acceptance of The Torah. We count the Sefiras Ha’omer for forty-nine days and celebrate our true raison d’etre on Shavuos.

The Talmud tells us that when Rav Aleksandri would complete his Shemona Esrei, before taking three steps back, he would say a short prayer:

“Master of the world, our desire is to fulfill your desire. The only thing standing in our way is some sourdough and the [Roman] government”

What is this Sourdough, this Chometz that obstructs us from doing Mitzvos?

The Chassidic Sefarim explain that the Chometz refers to haughtiness and pride. When we are puffed up and full of hot air, they are Chometzdik. Our ego gets in the way of their service to Hasehm.

The Mussar greats explained that Chometz is the result of laziness and a lackadaisical attitude toward life. When we leave the dough for too long it becomes Chometz; and when we are spiritually lethargic we have a hard time doing the will of Hashem.

The Nesivos Shalom understands Chometz as a simple chemical process of fermentation. Unfortunately some of us are a little rotten inside. Everything that we do or say is laced with a cynicism or anger. This too stands between us and perfection.

It is clear from Reb Aleksandri’s prayer that there is more to Chometz than breadcrumbs. As we remove the Chometz from our houses and our diets, we need to remove the chometz from our Neshamos as well. In fact, the Chometz inside of us is the hardest to remove: we can’t vacuum it, blowtorch it, bleach it, or sell it. We need to work on ourselves to excise the bad character traits that become a part of our lives.

The Matza is more than the bread of our freedom. It is the beginning of our existence as Jews. We spent the first day of Pesach celebrating our newfound alacrity, humility, and purity. Now we need to begin our forty-nine day trek toward Kabolas Hatorah. We need to grow step by step by step and use the platform of our Chometz-free personalities to become the very best people Hashem intended us to be.

Posted on 04/02 at 05:45 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 senderhaber@gmail.com