Join Rabbi Haber's mailing list:
Home What's New Blogs Store Dedications Weekly Parshah About TorahLab Contact Us Links


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What is a Shul?

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

Residents may force each other to build a shul and (according to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) fine them if they do not help make the Minyan.

The main criteria for Beis Hakneses is community involvement.

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

To be sure many special men (and women) have single-handedly built shuls. Some of the most beautiful minyanim I have attended have been in private homes. Many Tzadikim daven at minyanim in their homes and today’s Kiruv movement is all about one community building a shul for another. But those shuls need to be sure that they have the cooperation and “$18” support of all of their congregants too – otherwise they are just a Minyan and not a “Beis Haknesses”. (Mishna Berura in OC 687)

Reb Yehuda Hanasi, author of the Mishna, had a yeshiva with hundreds of students. When Purim came he would close his Yeshiva and direct all of his students to the local shul where they could hear the Megilla. In Geonic times when many people would gather a Minyan in their homes on Purim and read the Megila for their friends and family, the Hagahos Ashri cited Rebi’s practice: If Reb Yehuda Hanasi left his Yeshiva to go to shul, we should certainly leave the coziness of our homes to hear the Megila in a Beis Hakneses.

I love walking into Shuls that were built during the Depression. Where did they find the money to build those buildings? And what about the immigrants from Europe after World War II - How did they manage to put up those shuls that we pass every day? To paraphrase Rabbi Berel Wein, they understood that they needed a Beis Haknesses and not a Base-ment.

“Any location that is populated by ten Jews is obligated to prepare a house where they can congregate for prayer whenever it is time to pray. This place is called a Beis Hakneses.”

(Note: I have been to several shuls lately. They were all great. With the exception of one gathering of snowed-in tzadikim on a Friday night , they were all bona fide Batei Knesios, Kein Yirbu)

More on Teruma

Posted on 02/17 at 09:11 PM • Permalink
(0) Comments

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Shuckle

Shuckling is an art. A number of years ago, I was part of a movement to introduce competitive shuckling in Shuls world-wide. Unfortunately, it never caught on and even our local Shuckle club disbanded (our corporate sponsor backed out). The playbooks are now reduced to collector’s items.

Shuckling remains one of the greatest fusions of mind, body and spirit for the Orthodox male (there is very little literature on female Shucklers). I had a friend from Toldos Aharon with a legendary Pesukai D’zimra. He would assume pitcher stance, alternately lifting his left and right legs as he shuckled. His nose would graze the table but never make impact, he was always on the right page and, amazingly, his eyes were always closed.

Professional Shuckling can be intimidating to the outsider (I’m told that the average male can shuckle at 60-70 SPM). I have always encouraged beginners to start slow and not jump straight into “Scissor Action” or “Backward Bends”. Some beginners will actually “warm up” with a few exploratory shuckles in the privacy of their own home before sitting on or near the Extreme Shuckler bench at their local shul. Synchronized Team Shuckelers would do well to wear a fiberglass helmet during practice.

I consider myself a fairly accomplished Shuckler. I have Shuckled on three continents and in dozens of cities. I have Shuckled at the Kosel and at Shea Stadium. I have Shuckled in the Land Down Under and on a 747 enroute to Louisville (Well, not Louisville). I’ve Shuckled on the Monsey Bus, on the Major Deegan, on a sleeping volcano and, yes, on the back of a Harley. Though I shuckled with the best, I never fully understood the depth of The Shuckle until I attended my first Yoga session, compliments of an amazing friend of mine.

The compatibility of Yoga and Judaism has been the basis of many scholarly articles. For our purposes, I will ignore the scholars and stick to a few uneducated first-impressions on Yoga as they relate to the general tefila experience:

Never eat tomatoes before Yoga. I did and suffered terribly.  Those incongruously overpowering Amino acids have the ability to make you leave an uplifting experience with a sour taste in your mouth. More about this later.

Absolute Concentration. Everyone knows that Yoga requires complete undivided focus. This should be obvious in Tefila as well.

Pacing. Yoga practitioners are encouraged to pace themselves. There an almost circadian rhythm that should guide a person in his stretches, shuckles and, most importantly, the words that he says. Shluchan Aruch calls this Mispallel L’ito.

Posture. The first thing that struck me was the instruction to keep my gaze lowered and my heart high. The Shulchan Aruch recommends this (OC 2), but it never really resonated with me until I understood it in the context of external actions influencing internal attitudes. According to Halacha, we should consciously lift our hearts and pull in our ribcages as we walk down the street, even as we lower our gaze and assume poses of humility. Unlike other disciplines (e.g. the Alexander Technique) where a Stiff Neck is mandatory, Yoga seems comfortable with the lazy, loose and lowered neck (hence, the popular Forward-Dog position).

Toe Positioning. Keeping my feet together for certain exercises was natural and it made me think about the angels who are paused in their growth, yet appreciate the moment. 

Bowing. Although the bows weren’t very meaningful (maybe because they were called “Forward-Dog”), I found that Stacking my Vertebrae and Rounding my Shoulders Back on the way up was an accurate reflection of the sentiment that we should straighten our backs into a Koma Zekufah before considering the name of Hashem. (People often concentrate on the bows and don’t realize that there is a significance to straightening up as well.)

Hands. I was a little uncomfortable with the “Prayer Pose” but it did reflect the words of the Mekubalim who suggest that we daven with our hands clasped above our waist. This brings the forces of Right and Left a la fois au-dessus de gartel.

Body Core. Like any physical activity, the trick is to find your center and get into a mode. Done properly, and from a yoga perspective, it is easy to see how finding the body core, building it, and then shuckling would enhance a Tefila experience. Once you’ve found your core you will find that you can slip naturally into the Shuckling techniquethat best expresses your personality and mood.

All in all, I felt that Yoga enhanced my Tefila experience and helped lend some extra meaning to actions in Tefila that can seem foreign in our western world.

Of course, the use of a foreign culture to understand Judaism is a tricky business. When we start trying to incorporate other belief systems in the worship of our G-d we are treading in delicate territory. That’s why I’m avoiding interpretation and innovation and trying to use Yoga to explain communal and Halachic practices of Tefila that already exist.

My only nagging thought is the tomatoes. If Tefila incorporates Yoga-like activities, maybe it would be commendable to refrain from indulging in tomatoes before Tefila. Look for it at a Chumra club near you (They usually sit right in front of the Shucklers).

Now, please excuse me as I return to Peaceful Warrior pose.

(If you were hoping for something on Parshas Yisro - Try this.)

Posted on 02/02 at 12:10 PM • Permalink
(0) Comments

Friday, January 15, 2010

No Expiration Date

Students are dependable vigilantes. College kids are always ready to stand up for a cause, stage a protest, and resist culture as we know it. Some student movements have been great; others have been terribly misinformed. All of them have been passionate.

Eventually, all students grow up, cut their hair, get a job and stop being so passionate.

My Yeshivos encouraged passion in the form of two basic teachings: (#1) Live your life according to the Torah and (#2) Never make a decision based on money.

In Yeshiva we were surrounded by people who lived by those ideals.

In Mir Yeshiva, I would sit next to Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel Shlita. His shiur began at 4:30 and ended when he collapsed. He would give his last strength for the Torah.

In Lakewood, I saw Reb Dovid Schustal study with a nineteen year-old student. The Rosh Yeshiva refused to interrupt his learning to take calls from supporters. He could have made up the learning later, but he refused to make a decision based on money - even money for Yeshiva.

It seems to me that a Yeshiva education is not an initiation into an elite culture or an opportunity to memorize Torah facts. Yeshiva is the training ground for life. We may not learn how to grow a tomato or design a bridge, but we learn about priorities and how to live by them - regardless of difficulty or unpopularity.

When I feel tired or discouraged I remember Reb Nosson Tzvi, twitching and trembling with pain - trying to whisper just one more sentence of Torah before being escorted from the room.

When I make a difficult decision, I think of Reb Dovid Schustal, cool under pressure and consistent in his values.

When we left Yeshiva we were encouraged to keep up those ideals - regardless of where we are or what we are doing. When I decided to leave Lakewood many people tried to keep me there. When they said goodbye they encouraged me to stay strong. My friends told me to keep up my Torah learning so that I would have the strength to stay strong. I have a friend who has faithfully called me almost every month for the past eight years. Sometimes we speak for an hour and sometimes we speak for a minute, but he always calls for the same reason: to make sure that I haven’t compromised.

I remember going back to visit one of my Roshei Yeshiva. It was 11:00 at night, but he needed to cut our conversation short so that he could help his students review the daily shiur. Rather than send me home, he took me by the arm and introduced me to each one of his students. He had them present their questions to me and he encouraged me to respond. The Rosh Yeshiva wasn’t implying that I knew the material better than he did. He wasn’t trying teach the material at all. His goal was to let his passionate students know that he expected them to ‘keep at it’ and remain passionate even a decade after they left yeshiva. You don’t just become part of a Yeshiva for a few years; the Yeshiva needs to become a part of you forever.

Posted on 01/15 at 08:28 PM • Permalink
(0) Comments

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Last Word

This will be my third consecutive post about death. Unfortunately, death can come when you least expect it and to the most unlikely people.

Almost ten years ago I was invited to write an article for a journal (Simchas Binyamin) in Lakewood. Reb Dovid Frost sat a few rows ahead of me and he had written an article a few weeks earlier. I took issue with his conclusions and, rather than approach him directly, I ‘surprised’ him with an article refuting (to my mind) the article that he had written.

This is not as bad as it sounds. The Talmud tells us that close relationships come through arguments in Torah. A teacher and student may be enemies in the heat of debate but they will end the day as best friends - ‘Es Vahav Besufa’. By arguing with Rabbi Frost I was letting him know that I had read his article and that I had given it deep thought. I had also disagreed and was looking for a reaction.

Someone introduced us to each other the next day. I remember that he declined to discuss the issue, and I remember being puzzled at his reaction.

A decade later I can hardly picture Reb Dovid in my mind, but when I saw the announcement of his tragic death and of the funeral this morning, I couldn’t get him out of my mind.

Reb Dovid taught me that a true Torah Scholar does not need to react. He taught me that being quiet and smiling is sometimes sufficient . And he taught me that if a man can learn Torah for ten solid hours a day, he does not need to constantly assert himself and make himself heard.

We are taught that when a deceased scholar is quoted in this world, his lips move in the hereafter. Last night, I took out my old notes and reviewed the original article by Rabbi Frost. Once again, I took the time to read Reb Dovid’s words, learn from them, and think about them deeply. I recalled Reb Dovid’s non-response to my criticism and I resolved to learn from his actions.

Despite his silence, Reb Dovid had the last word.

We have lost a Masmid, a Talmid Chacham and a role model.

Yehi Zichro Baruch. May we know of no further suffering.

Posted on 12/22 at 06:12 PM • Permalink
(1) Comments

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Simple Jew

Michael was on a mission. He was seeking the man deserving of the term, epithet, description, designation, characterization and appellation of The Simple Jew. He could conjure up an image of The Macher, The Askan and The Charismatic Leader, but he had yet to put his finger on the elusive creature known as The Simple Jew.

He was not after the men who flaunted dollars in millions and controlled people in the thousands. He was focusing this quest on the Simple Jew – the “One who Fears G-d and Yearns Only For His Grace ”, the “Humble One Who Will inherit the Land”.  Michael sought to describe, perhaps even meet, the Simple Jew who goes about his life seeking to serve Hashem to his utmost. He was seeking the Simple Jew with no fanfare or need for it; no apparent riches or desire for power.

His first stop was in Bnei Berak, where he was directed to the home of the greatest sage in town. The sage lived in a two room apartment and answered letters using used scraps of worn paper; he had only three chairs in his house and his dining room was just a bare table and a fold down cot that transformed it into a bedroom at night.

Michael took note of the holy man and traveled on to Sassov where he met the Rebbe, Reb Moshe Leib. The Sassover surrounded himself with the lowest of the low and called himself ‘the rebbe of the thieves’. Even if the gates of heaven would be closed to him, the rebbe claimed, his Chasidim would be more than prepared to pick the locks and let him in. The rebbe didn’t search more esteemed company - he was just a Simple Jew.

Michael took a train to Radin where he met the Simple Jew arranging books and benches in shul before leaving to work at his grocery store. He was the top Halachic authority of his day, yet he had the appearance of a Simple Jew.

In Novardok the Simple Jew claimed he knew nothing, in Kelm he would not even be interviewed. In Vilna, the Simple Jew was in a deep conversation with his passenger about the intricacies of Chometz Noksha.

In Jerusalem, the Simple Jew sat in the back of an unknown Shtibel and recited Tehillim every day, he had Shas at his fingertips but never volunteered to answer a question. In Lakewood, the Simple Jew knew only his house, the Yeshiva and the mechanic. His life was pure Torah.

At Yad Vashem he was shown names of thousands of Simple Jews who gave up their lives for no crime but their Jewish identity, in Tel Aviv he found the Jew who knew nothing but called himself a Simple Jew. In Tzfat, the Simple Jew immersed daily in the Arizal’s Mikva and spent his nights cloistered in the caves of Meron. In New York, the Simple Jew was a doctor by trade, but gave a Daf Yomi shiur every morning and evening.

Michael traveled through the provincial United States and heard about the Simple Jews who had preceded him, uninvited, armed with only tuna fish and passion. They spearheaded the Jewish day school movement, only to be forgotten a decade later. He met the elderly man who never missed a day of Tefillin despite six years of Auschwitz and he found the elderly woman who gagged at the thought of non-kosher food. He met the Simple Jew who had seen every hardship yet remained steadfast in his fear of G-d and rebuilt Judaism in an assimilating country. He met the mother who taught her children that nothing would make her prouder than to see them grow up to be Simple Jews.

In the music world, he heard Lipa assert his status as a ‘Pushite Yid’ with talent on loan from G-d. In the sports world, he met the boy who gave up a career for Shabbos and the boys who forfeited a game because the referee would not allow them to wear yarmulkes. On Forty-seventh Street, he met the man who refused a million dollar deal because it just didn’t smell kosher.

Michael was more flummoxed than before. Who was the Simple Jew? G-d asks for passion and admires sincerity – but how did it look? What was the end goal? Who should he strive to emulate? How should he live his life?

Michael went to sleep, weary from his journeys and frustrated in his search.

Sadly, he never woke up.

Those who found him did not know him well, but his obituary said it all:

“He appeared to be the quintessential Simple Jew”.

(With apologies to O. Henry)

Posted on 12/20 at 06:45 PM • Permalink
(0) Comments

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Grandest Finale

I’ve often wondered whether swans actually sing a beautiful song just before they die.

As the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig left this world, he tried to leave a lasting message for his wife. As he breathed his final breaths he wrote her the following sentence: “And now it comes, the point of all points, which the L-rd has truly revealed to me in my sleep, the point of all points for which there ------“.

We will never know whether Franz Rosenzweig intended to profess his belief in G-d, his theory of everything or the importance of the Hokie-pokie. For a reason unknown to us G-d did not give him a chance to finish his sentence.

King David speaks of how every pious Jew should pray for a sense of serenity at the time that his soul departs this world. We all come to this world to communicate a lesson, and we are fortunate if we leave this world knowing that we have succeeded in our mission.

I knew a very special young man who passed away several weeks ago. Just thirty hours before his tragic death, he delivered a powerful message to his family as they gathered together for the Yom Tov meal.

It seems that after the destruction of Jerusalem, our grandfather Avraham would pace back and forth among the ruins of the Bais Hamikdosh. Hashem approached Avraham and comforted him with words of King David: “Your children are like olives”.

Olive trees lead a tortuous existence before they finally bear fruit. But when they finally do bear fruit, that fruit is both abundant and valuable. In the land of Israel alone there are olive trees in excess of 1600 years old that continue to bear fruit to this day.

Hashem was reassuring Avraham that while it was true that his children had misbehaved to the point of expulsion, this was not the end. Eventually we would get past our difficult adolescence and begin to bear valuable fruit.

The young man’s name was Shalom Benayahu (Zichrono Livracha) and he made the point that ultimate perfection can only be found in completion. It is only in the final result that we will see the true fruits of our nation as a whole and of our people as individuals.

The name Shalom Benayahu actually hints to this concept: Shalom is the Hebrew word for completion and Benayahu can refer to an edifice built for Hashem. (See my essay on this elsewhere)

Hillel once told his students that he was rushing to do a mitzvah. His students followed him and were surprised to see him taking a shower. Hillel explained with a parable:

Imagine that you had a statue of the king. The purpose of the statue is to bring honor and glory to the king. If the statue is dented, cemented and rusty, the king will not appreciate your gesture of respect. He might even be offended.

An American Flag is a sign of patriotism; a ripped, wet, unlit American flag is a sign of disgrace.

(Or as the Brisker Rebetzin once pointed out: “A shmutzeger shniptz is kein shniptz nit!”)

The point is that we were all created as monuments to Hashem. We can’t satisfy ourselves with a good deed here and an impressive mitzvah there. We need to build ourselves up as true edifices to Hashem’s greatness. We need to show the world what Man, created in the image of G-d, can really accomplish and become.

The Greeks and Tiger Woods maintained great images. They impressed the entire world with their good clean living. But when push came to crash, we found out that they weren’t so perfect after all. They were immoral, dishonest and twisted. They were vulnerable to a weak but vibrant G-dly society that exposed their hollow core.

Hashem told Avraham that he shouldn’t worry about his children. Other societies will shine and fade away. The Jewish people will ultimately grow from their struggles and produce the brightest fruit of all. We know that the olive in the Chanuka story shined beyond anybodies predictions. We continue to experience the glow of the menora as it lights up the world to this day.

I am told that when the olives finally ripen they do so in unity. Every olive on the tree ripens on the same day. In the zechus of Shlaom Benayahu, z”l, I hope that we can all grow together to reap our ultimate harvest as we become a true Binyan Shaleim – a perfect and complete monument to Hashem.

(Sources: The Merchant of Venice, Act 3 Scene 2, Menachos 53, Ramban Behaaloscha)

Link: Shalom Lives On

Posted on 12/15 at 07:20 AM • Permalink
(1) Comments

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Small Stuff

The only person in the area who was willing to take apart my hard drive works out of a basement in Portsmouth. He turned out to be a really nice Lebanese fellow who was just dying to spend five hours on my computers, adding hardware, running software, and charging me a fraction of the going rate.

Apparently, I owe a debt of gratitude to Saul Goldstein. Saul immigrated to Miami from Europe about the same time that my new friend’s grandfather came over from Lebanon. They started a business together and remained partners for forty two years. “When grandma died, grandpa was real sad”, I was told, “but when Saul Goldstein died, it was the end of the world for grandpa. He only lasted a few weeks after that”.

Saul Goldstein was probably just another poor European immigrant, but he made a strong impression on that kind Lebanese family. When the Six Day War broke out, they didn’t think of tanks – they thought of Saul Goldstein. Decades later, when my friend eats with wayward Jews he tells them not to order ham – because Saul Goldstein wouldn’t. And when I entered his basement in Portsmouth, VA, I was given special attention – because that is what Saul Goldstein would have done.

True greatness is not about big headlines; it is about an impression that lasts for forty years.

Too often, we judge ourselves and others by the wrong standards. Everyone wants to change the world; but only a select few are available to help Mom with the dishes. We are addicted to momentary honor and handicapped by our need for glory.

Rav Gustman was one of the leading Talmidei Chachamim of the last generation. One day an angry young man entered his Yeshiva and slapped him across the face. The students were taken aback, but Rav Gustman reacted by telling two stories:

“When I was twenty years old”, he said, “I was chosen to serve with two senior scholars on Rav Chaim Ozer’s Rabbinic Court in Vilna. One day I arrived late at a session and the entire crowd, along with the greatest scholars of Vilna, rose in my honor. ”

“Several years later” he continued, “The Nazis held my family at gunpoint. They spat at me and yelled at me and shamed me before killing my wife and children before my eyes.”

“I experienced the pinnacle of honor and the depth of scorn. Since then, I am been incapable of feeling either honor or humiliation.”

Truly effective people focus on what everyone else calls “small stuff”.

We live in a world where the most thoughtful man can be vilified because he allowed a run and the lowest of the low becomes a hero for pitching a shutout inning. We can name the inventor of the atom bomb but we have no idea who came up with the ballpoint pen. We tell everybody where we graduated from but seldom thank the person who taught us to tie our shoes.

P.J. O’Rourke once wrote: A very quiet and tasteful way to be famous is to have a famous relative. Then you can not only be nothing, you can do nothing too.

We need more Saul Goldsteins.

Posted on 11/12 at 07:10 AM • Permalink
(2) Comments

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blessing of the Bikers

I rode with the Lost Tribe today.

Lost tribe are a group of very proud Jews who make up our local Jewish Motorcycle Minyan . They describe themselves as a Jewish mother’s worst nightmare.  In conjunction with the Blessing of the Bikers, Lost Tribe was kind enough to treat me to four hours of high decibel excitement, camaraderie and Torah as we ripped through the Virginian highways and Countryside.

To be honest, I had never conducted a Blessing of the Bikers before and couldn’t find it in my siddur. I related biking to the Parsha and described Avraham as he set out on his own, exposed to the elements on all four sides. Avraham was commanded to break from society, but he wasn’t frightened of society. He opened his heart up to those around him and showed the world how to follow G-d and care for each other. There are no seatbelts on Harley’s. I learned that it is the very force of the ride that keeps the biker in his seat and that we wave to other bikers because they might one day pick us up off the floor. I humbly blessed those assembled that the power of their mission keep them safely in their seats as their GPS remains focused on Jerusalem.

The ride itself was a blast. I let my tzitzis fly and kept my yarmulke on under my do-rag. We had Klezmer music piped into the helmets and even some friendly Yiddish cursing when a red pick-up cut us off. We passed Cotton fields and shipyards; we went through tunnels and over (scary) bridges. I could try to describe the ride at length, but nothing can beat the flavor of the official Ride Report:

Mike, Jim, Lee, Randy & Susan, Ben, Ron & Ellie, Howard, and Ed met at 9 am for a quick breakfast before the ride to Ghent to pick up Rabbi Haber.

After a quick fuel stop, we rode to Norfolk via I-264 to pick up Rabbi Haber and meet his family…

Off we rode to Smithfield for a quick rest stop and then it was decided we would return to the JCC and have Rabbi Haber conduct the Blessing of the Bikers. Then we would ride to Little Israel in Virginia Beach for lunch.

Arriving at the JCC approximately 2:15 pm, we were met by Mitzi, Jill, Mark, Doreen, Scott, Lauren, and Rabbi Haber’s family. Rabbi Haber conducted the Bikers Blessing with Mike and Scott blowing the Shofar! After the Blessing, several of us rode to Little Israel on Independence Boulevard for a lunch of falafel, schwarma, chicken soup, chicken sandwiches, etc. During our lunch we were met by several of the Brucha Boys [Yeshiva Bochurim] and had an opportunity to show them our rides and talk to them about motorcycling. It was surprising that they knew a lot about motorcycles and several of them were given rides. We left Little Israel and rode to the JCC where Rabbi Haber was to meet his family.

Overall, we had eighteen (18) club members in attendance during this special event! Photos have been posted on the Lost Tribe website. Looking forward to seeing everyone again at our next event! Thank you for attending and Ride Safe!

Mi K’amcha Yisroel!


Posted on 10/26 at 05:17 AM • Permalink
(6) Comments

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Let Freedom Bring…

The Liberty Bell rang false even before it cracked.

The bell proclaims Liberty throunghout the land, but for no apparent reason. Liberty is only a means to an end. Booker T. and De Bois argued about the purpose of liberty during African-American emancipation and the French revolutionists debated their goals at beheading parties.  The founding fathers weren’t just looking for Freedom – they were looking to grow as human beings. Freedom for a cause is a virtue; Freedom in and of itself is pointless and often violent. The bell was cast in England – maybe they didn’t understand what our freedom was all about. (They certainly didn’t know enough about making bells.)

The Torah criticizes voluntary slaves for one reason only: “You should desire to be My servant”, Hashem says, “and not the servant of a servant”. When Hebrew slaves were emancipated with the Shofar Blast at Yovel it was to become servants of Hashem. “There is no freer man than he who toils in Torah” (Avos 6).

The word Yovel (jubilee) is related to the Hebrew word Mabul (flood). It is the precursor of the Latin Movere (move) and Mobilis (mobile). The Torah uses this root word to indicate intense shifts and important transitions. We sounded the Tekiah Gedola at the conclusion of Yom Kippur to signify our transition into the new year as new and different people. After forty days of supplication, prayer, and change there is no reason why we shouldn’t be ready to free ourselves from ourselves and serve Hashem exclusively.

What a blast!


Posted on 10/01 at 05:24 AM • Permalink
(0) Comments

Friday, September 25, 2009

Never Start Again

Imagine working on a project for decades only to see it voted down by a show of hands.

This week, after twenty years and fifty-five million dollars, the City of Newport News, VA decided to terminate the 13 billion gallon King William Reservoir project.

The Cohoke Mill Creek will not be dammed.

I am sure that this is a real bummer for the engineers, scientists and tractor drivers involved. Nobody likes to be put out of business by the desalinization plant down the block. It is hard to watch twenty years of work float off down the river. In just two more years it would have been completed.

Hashem taught Yona that the anger of the Army Corp of Engineers is legitimate. Yona was deeply upset because he lost a Kikayon tree that had sprouted over night and Hashem was not willing to see the great (and evil) city of Nineveh destroyed.

Hashem puts a lot into each one of us. It is fair and non-heretical to say that it is within Hashem’s best interest to see us succeed. He creates us to see us thrive. Hashem created a system of rules and rewards, but the ultimate goal is our spiritual success. It’s not over until we win.

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz used to tell his discouraged students: “Never start again”! Often a person begins a tractate of Gemara or a project and loses interest for a few days. If he is constantly starting again from the beginning he will eventually find himself too discouraged to carry on.

We need to build on our small successes and move forward. Step by step we will prevail, because Hashem wants us to succeed.

Hashem might not bring storms and large fish and prophets together to help us succeed, but he did design the world around us with our best interests in mind. We are built to last.

As for the reservoir, it was just a blip on the landscape of 5770 years of history.  The Mattoponi River will continue to flood its banks for many happy and healthy years to come, 430 acres of wetlands will not be destroyed and everyone will still have plenty of water to drink.

Nature found its way and so can we.


Disclaimer: I am not an environmentalist or politician. I actually know very little about rivers, reservoirs, dams, and wetlands. The point is that it (the reservoir) was a big project which was canceled in favor of an even bigger project (nature). Our Neshamos are Hashem’s biggest project.

Posted on 09/25 at 06:04 AM • Permalink
(1) Comments

Friday, September 04, 2009

The King Has No Healthcare!

There is no record of public outcry against King Chizkiyahu’s Healthcare Reform Plan. Until Chizkiyahu, doctors and patients consulted the Sefer Harefuos.  It was an ancient book dating back King Solomon and, according to the Rambam, an effective medical text. Some say that the original manuscript was actually written by Noach and preserved carefully for centuries.

Chizkiyahu threw away the Book of Cures. He hid it and told people to rely on G-d instead (Pesachim 4).

Apparently, it worked. There were no protests that we know of, no town hall meetings and no angry talk show hosts. The Rabbinic leaders of the time praised Chizkiyahu. The people began to pray and the Jewish kingdom entered one of its brightest eras.

And then King Chizkiyahu got very sick. He was going to die and, by his own design, he had no book of cures to consult. The prophet Yeshaya made an unprecedented visit to the palace and prophesized that the king would die. There was no hope.

Chizkiyahu turned to Yeshaya and asked him to leave. He turned to the wall and prayed. His prayers were answered and Yeshaya was back in minutes with a new message from G-d: the king would live for fifteen more years. He would marry Yeshaya’s daughter, raise two children, revive the Davidic line and lead the Jewish people.

Chizkiahu learned from his grandfather King David: Even if a sharp sword is tickling your neck – Prayer works.

I am not suggesting that we abolish doctors (neither is President Obama, by the way). I’m just putting things into perspective. Ultimately our health does not lie in the hands of insurers, congressmen, or doctors. Life and death are in the hands of Hashem.

ChizkiahuCare worked, and the results were immediate.


Posted on 09/04 at 04:32 AM • Permalink
(0) Comments

Friday, August 21, 2009

Movers and Shakers

I’ve had a very pluralistic summer. I met new people, went new places and did new things. As the summer draws to a close it is time to draw some conclusions and let my mother know that I’ve been gainfully occupied.

First of all, there is my family. We celebrated simchos, visited certain relatives, and went on numerous day trips. We rode the Big Bad Wolf and made Play Dough and learned to ride a two wheeler. We tried to catch up on a year’s worth of projects and prepared for the upcoming school-year.  We picnicked and played and spent hours and hours together.

Beyond family, there was camp. We had great counselers and rabbeim, including myself. We invented and executive an innovative Os Yomi program focusing on one letter each day and its’ attendant lessons. We used Mysteries of the Aleph Bet as a text and hope to make the curriculum available one day soon.

And then there was everything else:

Last night, for example, I was given a handwritten notebook listing all of the construction equipment in downtown Norfolk. The meticulous notes included operators, manufacturers, license numbers, serial numbers and countries of origin. I become aware for the first time of the advantages of steel wheels vs. metal ones and the importance of air-conditioned cabs.

I have no idea why I was privileged to receive this information. It was given to me by a young man who spent all day gathering it and at times chased trucks by bike to ensure that he got the serial number accurately. I know that if Hashem sent me this information on Rosh Chodesh Elul it was with a specific purpose in mind, if only to test my patience.

I spoke with a friend (a more mainstream fellow) a couple of weeks ago. He was in town to take pictures of the nuclear reactors aboard aircraft carriers. His company is developing a program to simulate the carrier’s nuclear plants and train military engineers. He has a very limited audience for his program since the United States only has eight carriers with those particular controls and they won’t be building any more. The simulator is classified, so it will be limited to a handful of engineers training for emergency situations that will probably never take place.

I guess the point is that our autonomy, infrastructure and security are made possible by some powerful movers and shakers that we simply do not think about.

Over the summer I learned with Yungeleit in Vizhnitz, Baalebatim in Flatbush and Young Working Guys in Rabbi Cynamon’s chabura. I spent time with Reb Nota Greenblatt, Rav Shlomo Brevda, and R’ Uri Zohar. I took a Torah Umesorah course with a group of Lubavitchers and I gave a shiur on Maharal to a chabura of Litvaks. I welcomed one hundred people to Norfolk and was (sort of) welcomed by hundreds of people in other communities. I was in touch with rabbis who left Norfolk to become lawyers and with lawyers who came to Norfolk to become rabbis. I had my license suspended and was summoned to serve on a Jury. I buried an older woman with frum grandchildren and I visited a hospitalized six year old with unaffiliated parents.  I ended up (accidentally) at a frum singles event and (separately) locked in a home with an archivist from the Philadelphia Historic Society. I bought Lipa Schmeltzer’s new Non-stop CD and downloaded ancient shmuzen from Rav Gifter Zatzal. I read the memoirs of Rabbi Shlomo Lorentz and the autobiography of Reb Moshe Mendelowitz.  I reread the Pulichever saga and Permission to Believe. I even read Skyscrapers and Innocent Deception. I learned Shvil Hazahav on how to get wealthy and was told by a millionaire that it isn’t important. I met old friends and current Rosh Yeshivas. I reviewed the end of Bava Metzia and the beginning of Ahavas Chesed.

On the secular front, I read the fictional biography of David Ponder, the anthology on the future by Mike Wallace, and a review on the Britannica by A.J. Jacobs. I spent less time than ever on the internet and more time than ever lifting weights. I still have outstanding invitations to ride a Harley and go fishing.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite current events, the world is not such a bad place after all. We don’t get along and usually aren’t aware of each other’s existence, but we are inevitably interconnected. We have the ability to move each other and to shake each other up.

Close family and unique friends; The M-Series Bobcat and the USS Ronald Reagan; Rabbonim and rabble-rousers; Septuagenarians and six-year-old boys; Williamsburg, NY and Williamsburg, VA – they are all movers and shakers.

Posted on 08/21 at 05:10 AM • Permalink
(2) Comments

Friday, August 07, 2009

Upsherin: The Rest of the Story

My son Moshe just turned three. If he were a tree he would be entering the year of ‘Neta Ravai’ and experiencing his first harvest. He would also be a lot quieter. We gave him his first haircut shortly after his third birthday, and I shared some remarks on Neta Revai.

Neta Revai is the name given to the fruits of a tree’s fourth year, the only privately owned holiness detailed in the Torah. Neta Revaii is ours to eat or share but it must be enjoyed in the city of Yerushalayim. The fruits of Neta Revai can be redeemed but only if the replacement fruits will be eaten in Yerushalayim.

Let’s say that someone transferred his Neta Revai to fruits that could not possibly make the journey to Yerushalayim. If he knows for a fact that the fruits will be rotten and inedible by the time he gets to Yerushalayim, can he still use them as Neta Revai?

The Rambam’s surprising ruling is - yes! A person may designate almost expired food as Neta Revai even though it is physically impossible to bring it to (and eat it in) Yerushalayim! Many have wondered at the Rambam’s reasoning and Reb Chaim Kanievsky explains it in a very creative way. In his Derech Emunah, Reb Chaim cites a Sifre and proves that although it is impossible for the fruits to make it to Yerushalayim, It is entirely possible that Yerushalayim will expand to include the fruits.

Zachariah (9:1) tells us that at the end of days there will be no unrest in Yerushalayim. She will expand to the East and to the West and her rest-filled borders will spread out as far as Damascus. According to the Medrash, a person could go to sleep in Syria and wake up to find that his home has been divinely annexed and that he is living within the restful borders of Yerushalayim.

Reb Chaim uses the Medrash to legalize overripe Neta Revai in Syria, but there is another message here as well:

Hashem calls Yerushalayim His city of Rest and we live to rest. Our week’s build up to a day of rest and our ultimate reward will come with our eternal rest, be it in heaven or here on earth with the coming of Moshiach.

In our non-stop pursuit of rest we often find ourselves engaged in non-stop motion. If rest requires the absence of motion, then our lives are an exercise in counterproductivity. How can we possibly achieve our goal of rest if we are constantly involed in propeling ourselves forward?

It seems that, contrary to Newton, an object in motion will become an object at rest. Yaakov said of his son Yissochar: “And he saw that rest was good ... so he bent his shoulder to bear” [Breishis 49:15]. The Torah’s definition of rest includes some pretty hard work. Like a soldier preparing for battle, the only way to stay cool and calm when it counts is to prepare thoroughly, train well and work hard beforehand. True rest comes only after working through years of unrest.

On all three of our National missions to rebuild Yerushalayim we contended with some serious unrest. Hashem challenges us, tests us, and sometimes pushed us to our limits. He just won’t let us stop moving in our perpetual quest for rest. But when push comes to shove and we reach the end of the road, the rest can come as the result an entity outside of ourselves. It will come at us when we least expect it. Like the expanding borders of Yerushalayim, Hashem’s bracha of Menucha will radiate powerfully and envelope us even as as we continue to journey toward Him.

Neta Revai begins with the fourth fruit bearing year of a tree’s existence and the first harvest it’s fruits; Education in Mitzvos begins with the fourth year of a child’s life and (in some circles) his first haircut. In both instances we are entrusted with something holy and given a monumental task. The laws of Neta Revai teach us not to give up. Our goals seem impossibly hard to reach, but while we are engrossed in the ‘game’ Hashem is quietly moving the goal closer and closer to our side of the field.

Before we know it we may wake up to find that our goals have been reached, that Moshiach has finally come and that we are all proud residents of a restful, resplendent and redefined Yerushalayim.

May we have only Nachas and true Menuchas Hanefesh from all of our children.


Posted on 08/07 at 03:41 AM • Permalink
(2) Comments

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Parshas Balak: Unterpersönlichkeit

Bilaam had a very personal relationship with Hashem. He spoke to Hashem and Hashem spoke back. The poetry and prose found in this week’s parsha is very possibly the most beautiful Poetry found in the Torah. From a poetic perspective, his words seem to be even more beautiful than the words of Moshe or Aharon or any of the Neviim – prophets- at the time. Bilaam could hear the word of Hashem and he could convey it beautifully. He had all of the tools necessary to be a truly great man. And he wasn’t. 

Hashem told Bilaam personally, “Don’t curse these people, they are blessed”. Bilaam knew that Hashem did not want the Jews to be cursed and that He would not allow the Jews to be cursed. Any of us would have left it right there, but Bilaam didn’t get it. Bilaam completely ignored the fact that the Jewish people were Hashem’s chosen people. He made light of the fact that the whole world trembled when Hashem gave the Torah, and he spent his time finding loopholes. He searched for some strategy, someway, somehow, that he would be able to curse the Jewish people despite the will of Hashem.

How could a person who is able to transmit Hashem’s words so eloquently and who knows that his power to curse comes from Hashem be so oblivious to the will of Hashem and to the obligation of Man to fulfill the will of Hashem?

Who was Bilaam? Was he a prophet who spoke to Hashem or was he a wicked person, oblivious to the words of Hashem?

The Torah is making a point with Bilaam: A person can hear the קול ה’ – the literal voice of G-d, he can understand G-d better than any of the people around him, he can speak more beautifully than any prophet in history, and he can still be an idiot. The path to true greatness is by looking within ourselves and concentrating on improving ourselves. If we can do this we can become great people. If we cannot, we can be very impressive and say all the right things, but we cannot become great.

Bilaam had knowledge and talent, but he did not have the will or desire to look inward and evaluate himself. He was a vain, arrogant, greedy, impatient man who had power struggles with his donkey – and refused to give in even after the donkey opened her mouth and talked to him!

We see this in the difference between the way Bilaam spoke to Hashem and the way we are supposed to talk to Hashem. Bilaam and Balak put a lot of emphasis in choosing a spot from which to curse the Jewish people. When Bilaam was unsuccessful in his cursing, he changed spots. When he was unsuccessful again he changed to yet another spot. Each time his prayers weren’t answered he went and tried a different location.

Avraham Avinu also davened many times – he invented shacharis – but whenever he davened he always returned to the same spot. Our sages tell us that anybody, anywhere, who makes a permanent spot for his or her davening is following the path of Avraham and will be assisted by G-d of Avraham.

Bilaam was a superficial person; He had no depth of character. When he was unsuccessful, he tried changing his location and the view and blamed everything and everyone around him.

If we want to follow in the path of Avraham, we need to get beyond the external. Instead of trying to change all of the circumstances and people around us we need to try changing ourselves.


Posted on 07/02 at 04:29 AM • Permalink
(0) Comments

Friday, June 26, 2009

We Are Their World

I clearly wasn’t worth killing and I hoped that the guy with the gun would remember that. I patiently and pensively attempted to read my attacker’s thoughts as I realized that there was very little I could do to defend myself.

It was late at night and I was in the process of being robbed. I had no money; he had a gun. I stood helplessly and hoped that he had good teachers or good parents. I could only hope that someone, somewhere, at sometime in his life had taught him right from wrong. I prayed that someone had showed him how to manage his anger and make good choices. He still had time to come to his senses. I stood and waited; he stood trembling and considering his options.

The boy who mugged me could have killed me, I have no tears for him. I was reminded, though, of my responsibility to my own children and my own students. One day they too will make life altering decisions. If we procrastinate and wait until they grow up and get into trouble before we begin to guide them, it might just be too late. It is up to us - right now – to make sure that the future decisions of our children are grounded in intelligence, clarity and the words of our Torah.

A teacher’s ultimate goal is not to control talking during class or to make sure that students remember their homework. It is not even to have a student read a pasuk perfectly. A parent’s goal is not to get kids to clean their room or go to sleep on time. We work hard and concentrate on these small lessons because each one will serve as a valuable stepping stone in a larger and much more important world that extends beyond the classroom and the home. Children need the skills to learn and to succeed so that when they go out on their own they can continue to grow as thoughtful and responsible members of society. They need to know that with discipline, knowledge and fear of G-d they can matter and they can make an indelible mark on this world.

Our children won’t be robbing people or playing with guns but they need our love and lessons all the same. When they are down and out and there seems no hope at all they will need to remember our guidance and example. As we go through the every day motions of our lives as parents and teachers, we are giving our children the tools to choose well in the choices they will be making in their own lives.

When Yehudah took responsibility for his brother Binyamin he realized that he needed to succeed in the long run. “How can I face my father”, he said, “if the Child is not with me”. We will all need to face Hashem one day and we want to face Him knowing that we have done the best for our children.

So Let’s Start Giving.


Posted on 06/26 at 01:38 AM • Permalink
(4) Comments
Page 12 of 15 pages « First  <  10 11 12 13 14 >  Last »

Subscribe to this blog

RSS Feed

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