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Friday, April 30, 2010


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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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Making Kadesh Last

“The conquest will not be through strength or power; it will be with my spirit”. – G-d (to Zecharia in 4:6)

The land of Israel was blessed with two types of holiness.

When Zecharia’s generation regained Israel after the Babylonian exile, the conquest was from the outside in. We gained (partial) control militarily and strategically in order to built a second sanctuary for Hashem.

The future conquest of Jerusalem will be from the inside out. We will conquer Jerusalem with a holiness that will then overflow to encompass the entire land of Israel.

What will be the source of this holiness?

The answer lies in the table of contents that we sing at the Seder. According to the Kabbalists, we name each step of the seder because it represents a spiritual undercurrent. The seder is not just a mimicry of the Greek symposium; it is a yearly process of freedom, liberation and closeness to G-d.

We begin the Seder with Kadesh Urchatz: we sanctify ourselves and wash our hands. Common sense would dictate that we wash our hands as a first step in sanctification, but the Hagada tells us otherwise.We sanctify first and wash our hands second.

The Shpoiler Zaide (of Dancing Bear fame) explains that it is not we who are sanctifying ourselves at the seder, but G-d who is sanctifying us. Every Pesach (and, on smaller scale, every shabbos) we receive a gift of free sanctification from Hashem. Sometimes that holiness is allowed dissipate and get lost, but if we are alert we can ride that holiness and follow it with our own purification, making it last forever.

The Bais Yisroel of Gur had a unique perspective on the “Baal Teshuva movement”. He used to tell his Chassidim that a spirit of Teshuva had descended upom the entire world, unfortunately it was only the irreligious who took advantage and became inspired. His point was that every person at every stage in life is given freebies from G-d. We can ignore them and let them fade away, but if we are smart we will grab them.

Zecharia taught us that one jump start of Kedusha can fuel the conquest of the entire land of Israel. One spark, properly cultivated, can bring redemption to the entire world.

Post Script:

This is the third essay in a trilogy on holiness. The Targum on Isaiah, quoted in our daily Tefilla, writes that the three-fold Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, refers to three types of Holiness. There is Holiness in Heaven, Holiness on Earth, and Holiness that Lasts Forever.

Uploads on the Hagada (prepared for my students).

Hilchos Haseder (43 pages)

Hagada Companion (58 pages)

More posts on Pesach:

The Double Dip

The Call of the Turtledove

Bongo Without a Cause (on Unity)

Bottle It

Chag Kasher Vesame’ach!

Posted on 03/24 at 05:40 PM • Permalink
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Friday, March 19, 2010

More on Kedusha

“You are Holy, and Your name is Holy, and Holy ones will praise you daily”

Besides for being a popular Israeli song, these words are part of the Shemona Esrei that we recite three times each day.

The strange thing is that we only mention the idea of “praising G-d Daily” when it comes to holiness. We don’t praise G-d for daily wisdom, daily health, or daily forgiveness. What is the connection between Holiness and the fact that Holy beings offer their praise daily?

It seems to me that Holiness is intrinsically connected to consistency. Only by doing something regularly can we be considered holy.

Consistently is not the same as Constantly. Rashi writes clearly that the word Tamid (usually translated as always) means regular. The Menorah was not always lit, but it was lit every day. The sacrifices were not constantly being brought, but the Korban Tamid was brought every day.

The component that separates the Men from the Boys, the Women from the Girls, and the Holy from the Unholy, is consistency. It is easy to quit smoking twelve times. Truly holy people are able (if they so desire) to quit smoking once and stick to it.

I once asked Reb Nota Greenblatt why he didn’t ask potential converts if they would be willing to sacrifice their lives for Judaism. After all, we are supposed to examine converts on the easiest and the hardest Mitzvos. Kiddush Hashem, it would seem, is the most difficult of Mitzvos. Rabbi Greenblatt explained to me that dying for G-d is an easy mitzvah. It is living in a G-dly way that is a challenge. He preferred to verify that potential Jews would live as Jews and was willing to assume that, given their sincerity, they would be willing to die as Jews as well.

I once shared this thought on Kedusha with Rabbi Mordechai Dolinsky of Jerusalem. He agreed with me wholeheartedly and pulled a Mesillas Yesharim out of his briefcase. He turned to the chapter on holiness and showed me that he had underlined each of the many times that theRamchal mentions Consistency and regularity in conjunction with Holiness.

Inspired people do something once; Holy people do it again and again and again.

I recently received a phone call from a relative of someone who had passed away here in Virginia. “I’ve been davening for that man”, the relative said, “for forty-two years”. I hope that one day I can say that I have done something consistently for forty-two years.

This is the second of my thoughts during Kedusha. The first is here.

Posted on 03/19 at 06:05 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Some Thoughts During Kedusha

This morning, as my cousin led the congregation in Kedusha, I couldn’t help but think of our great-grandfather Yehoshua Binyamin Yudin, Zichrono l’vracha.

My great-grandfather passed away while his children were still very young. Two years later, exactly eighty years ago today, my widowed great-grandmother returned to the cemetery to bury her son Avigdor.

I am sure that it was a very dark and bleak day for my great-grandmother.  Surrounded as they were by assimilation, poverty, and sorrow, there was no way that anyone could have foreseen the beautiful generations of pious Jews that would come forth from the surviving children.

At lunch, I spoke in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of Michael and Isaac (“Mike & Ike”) Brooke, fourth generation Norfolkians. I shared with them the sentiment of most Bar Mitzvah boys who believe that life will be an upwardly mobile adventure toward uninterrupted success and holiness.

I told them that, unfortunately, this simply will not be the case. In Ezekiel’s vision, when he saw the Merkava, he beheld that the angels were dashing back and forth. Rashi explains that the angels run eagerly toward G-d’s presence, only to be thrown back because the holiness is too awesome for them to handle. The angels approach G-d again and again but each time they recoil in awe.

The Reishis Chochma explains that this is the reason behind the custom that we have to rise on our toes as we say “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh”. We are mimicking the angels who repeatedly approach and recede from Hashem’s glory as they cry out “ Kadosh”.

How do the angels do it? How can they deal with the constant cycle of growths and setbacks without becoming weary and giving up?

I believe that the answer to this question also lies in Kedusha. The prophet Isaiah observed that before approaching G-d, the angels call out to one another. They cooperate and work together to praise G-d. Rashi explains that if they angels were not unified, they would not be able to rise toward G-d’s presence for even a fleeting moment.

Even an angel experiences setbacks, and even an angel cannot rise up from those setbacks on his own. Humans experience growths and setbacks, but by working together we can rise up to grow another day.

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever got was before I left home for Yeshiva. I was leaving Australia for the United States and I was prepared for a new, perfect life in which I would never do anything wrong. My rebbe at the time (R’ Kaddish Rubinfeld) reminded me of one inevitable fact: my Yetzer Hora would be joining me on the trip to America. He recommended that I find myself some good friends, because who we are is largely a result of the friends that we have and the people that surround us.

I reminded the Brooke Brothers that, while being a twin is challenging, they had the constant advantage of a permanent good friend. By working together they would be able to constantly grow to overcome challenges and to rise higher and higher in holiness.

Getting back to my great-grandmother, Henna Rivka Yudin, I wish I could go back in time to comfort her and her children as they sat shiva for their son and siblings. I wish I could show them the dozens of frum families that they would produce (three branches of whom live right here in Norfolk!) and the Torah that would be studied and taught by their descendants. The Yudin clan experienced an irrevocably tragic setback with the death of my great-uncle, but that shouldn’t (and didn’t) stop them from continuing to raise generations of Jews that would cherish, preserve, and respect the Torah that they sacrificed so much to learn and keep.

When Reb Michoel Ber Weissmandel emerged from the holocaust, he had lost his wife and five children. He remarried, and he and his wife Leah bore five more children. They named each of their American-born sons after one of the sons who had perished in the war. At the Bris of the fifth (or actually tenth) child Rabbi Weissmandel tearfully referenced the first words of Kedusha: Nekadeish es Shimcha ba’olam… We will sanctify G-d’s name in this world, just as His name is being sanctified in the upper worlds.

By saying and spreading Kedusha here on earth, we have the ability to emulate, generate and recreate the holiness cherished and desired by those who are in heaven.

We need to work together to emulate the angels as they eagerly rise up again and again striving toward higher and higher goals. We may experience setbacks now, but if we hold out to the end we will witness nachas, fulfillment, and a sense of holiness that never fades away.

Posted on 03/14 at 08:20 AM • Permalink
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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