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Friday, May 15, 2015

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Fifth Mishna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, May 08, 2015

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Fourth Mishna

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

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

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

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

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

There is another approach to this as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the fondest weeks of my life was the one in which Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg Shlita came to Australia. I was fourteen at the time and was given the task of assisting Rabbi Scheinberg and making sure that all of his needs were met. At first, Rav Scheinberg was very upset to see me and told my father to send me back to school. He begrudgingly relented to my presence when we promised that my Chavrusa would join me in the dining room so that I could continue my learning while he met with people in an office upstairs.

The highlight of my week came in the form of a glass of fresh mousse with a cherry on top. At the request of the woman of the house (Mrs. Herzog), I took leave of my Chavrusa and brought the delectable dessert upstairs to the Rosh Yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva thanked me politely and, for the first time all week, asked if I would do him a favor. Of course I said yes. My excitement turned to wonder as he handed me his spoon and asked me to stay for a few minutes and eat the Mousse. It was delicious and I told him so. He thanked me again and I took leave, taking care to return the empty glass to the kitchen.

I returned to my chavrusa but it wasn’t long before the woman of the house, noting the uncharacteristic speed with which “Rav Scheinberg” had devoured the mousse, asked me to bring up another glass which she had painstakingly prepared.

She confided in me, saying, “I finally found something he likes”. I just licked my lips and smiled.

The rest of the week was as sweet as it was instructive. My role as Rav Scheinberg’s assistant was to arrange his appointments, answer the door, and eat his mousse. My chavrusa was a little jealous when he found out, but I had no intention of sharing my responsibilities.

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

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

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Who Wrote That Song?

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

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

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

The man turned to his son and said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who wrote that song?

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, May 03, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on 05/03 at 06:33 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, April 30, 2015


Moshe taught us the fifty one mitzvos found in this week’s parsha. He began with the commandment: “Kedoshim Tihiyu’ – You must be holy.

We are all familiar with holiness. Hopefully, we’ve been in contact with holy individuals, experienced holy times and visited holy places. Moshe taught us that this was not enough. We all need to be holy.

One of the themes in the Parsha “V’ahavta L’reiacha kamocha”. We need to love our friend as we love ourselves. We hear about this mitzvah so often that we sometimes don’t think about its simple meaning.

Rabi Akiva taught that there is an exception to this halacha: when our lives are in danger. If there is only one cup of water in the desert or one parachute, we may keep it for ourselves. He proves this from the verse ‘V’chai Bahem’. The Ramban points out that Rabi Akiva had to source his leniency because the simple understanding of the commandment to love someone else doesn’t seem to have any exclusion at all.

Aristotle held that it is possible to keep our minds clear of emotion. We could have neutral feelings about a person. Abarbanel explains that the Torah disagrees. Either you love someone or you hate them or you are very mixed up. Our hearts are small and life is short so rather than complicate our hearts with conflicting emotions of love and hate, the Torah tells us to keep it simple. Just love them. You can be annoyed, impatient, and unappreciative. But you need to love them.

We are at a point of the year where Rabi Akiva’s message is particularly important. We don’t listen to music or get haircuts because Rabi Akiva’s great students passed away. These students were the cream of the crop, but their failure to show proper respect for each other made them unfit to be the next link in the chain of Torah scholarship.

It’s easy not to listen to music and not to get a haircut. The tough part is remembering why we are mourning and working on respect for each person.

I once read an article about my brother-in-law’s father. He was born in Shanghai and recently went back to visit. He related how at his birth and Bris, which was on Yom Kippur, all of the refugees celebrated. They had no food, no family and no country, but they were excited about the idea of more life and a new generation. They named him Chaim – Life.

We need to remember that everyone is a part of the world that we enjoy. We can usually think of a reason to love them, but even if we can’t – they are life. They are another Neshama and we need to spend the next six weeks remembering that every time we miss our favorite music.

Posted on 04/30 at 10:00 PM • Permalink
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Moshe gathered all of the Jewish people together in a gathering called Hakhel. He taught us the fifty mitzvos found in this week’s parsha but introduced them with the commandment: “Kedoshim Tihiyu’ – You must be holy.

The Ramban explains that Kedoshim Tehiyu is a Mitzvah that affects the way we live and interact with this world. It is possible for a person to keep all of the commandments and still be a ‘Naval Bireshus Hatorah’ – ‘a disgusting person who follows the Torah’.

The Rambam understands the commandment a little differently. He writes in his introduction to Sefer Hamitzvos that being holy is not a new Mitzvah. It is just an extra push and encouragement to keep all of the other Mitzvos and to stay away from Aveiros.

Rashi appears to come down in between. He tells us to be holy by staying far away from Arayos – inappropriate relationships – and other Aveiros. It isn’t enough not to do Aveiros. We need to keep safeguards as well.

Everyone appears to agree that being ‘kadosh’ is an attitude in life. It may manifest or be manifested by actions and safeguards, but ultimately it is about our approach to life.

Rav Shalom Schwadron tells the story of a Hot Dog Drawing contest. One of the finalists requested a year to perfect his painting. He won the contest and explained his strategy.

“Of course I didn’t spend a year on the drawing”, he said. “First I swore off hot dogs. I didn’t eat them for an entire year. I love Hot Dogs so I began to obsess about them. They filled my mind and all of my waking and sleeping hours were consumed with images of Hot Dogs. Finally, as the year drew to a close I was able to take my vivid thoughts and put them down on paper.”

That is Kedusha. We need to fill our minds with something holy until we are day dreaming about kindness and Torah study and helping people and making every person feel good. If we fill our minds with that we will have fulfilled all three interpretations of Kedusha.

We can become obsessed with kedusha.

Posted on 04/30 at 09:58 PM • Permalink
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Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Third Mishna

Antigonus Ish Socho was a student of Shimon Hatzaddik. Whereas Shimon Hatzaddik had been the last remnant of the Anshei Knesses Hagedola, Antigonus was charged with leading a generation that had no remnant at all. Despite the instructions and encouragement given by the Anshei Kenesses Hagedola, life was far from idyllic. Heresy, poverty, and persecution reigned. Even as the people focused on Torah, Prayer, and kindness, their world continued to crumble before their eyes. One of Shimon Hatzakik’s own children went to Alexander the Great and obtained permission to build a Temple on Mount Grizim. The struggle of those on Mount Grizim was, in part a question of why those who abided the word of G-d were not rewarded in kind.

Rather than rule with platitudes, Antigonus chose to challenge his remaining followers. “Don’t concern yourselves with reward”, he said, “Focus on your love of G-d”. Unlike the previous generations who had held up Jewish continuity as an incentive, Antigonus preached no incentive at all.  He enjoined the people to enhance their love of G-d.

Some of the students couldn’t handle it. Tzadok and Beitus left and formed their own groups called the Sadducees and the Beitusim. Antigonus held his ground. It wasn’t forbidden to look for reward, but it wasn’t recommended either.

In keeping with his approach to Pirkei Avos, the Bnei Yissoschar explains Antigonus with a discussion about our forefather Avraham.

Avraham Avinu was only commanded to keep seven mitzvos. One of those was the prohibition against bloodshed. G-d told Noach that he and his children were not permitted to take any life, including their own. When Avraham was commanded to either bow to an idol or jump into a fiery furnace, he should have bowed to the idol. It is only Jewish people who are commanded toi give up their lives rather than worship idols. We see this from Elisha’s ruling to Na’aman in the book of Melachim: Although Naaman hand pledged his loyalty to G-d, Elisha allowed him to bow before an idol when he was accompanying the king on his yearly pilgrimage. The seven Noahide laws don’t allow a person to risk his life in order to avoid idolatry.

Avraham lived prior to the giving of the Torah. He was bound by the Seven Noahide laws. When Avraham jumped into the furnace, he didn’t do it because he would be rewarded or because he was supposed to. He did it not knowing if he was making the right choice. Nonetheless, out of sheer love for G-d, Avraham didn’t see any option other than jumping into the furnace, even knowing full well that he might be forfeiting both this world and the next.

This was Avraham’s first test, and it was a test of his love. It was not included in the Torah because he did not act to fulfill G-d’s command. He acted out of pure emotion.

Acting solely based on love is a slippery slope and not a recommended one, but Antigonus suggested that we use the model of Avraham in our motivation to fulfill the commandments.

Antigonus told his generation to stop concentrating on reward and consequence. Instead, we should allow our motivation to be sheer love for G-d. Some couldn’t handle that and indeed later generations pointed out that Antigonus should have been more careful with his words. The human being needs to have some framework of reward and satisfaction.

Antigonus did end by reminding us of Morah Shomayim. Morah Shamayim is an awareness of G-d’s existence and His constant presence in our life.

If we can recognize G-d’s hand in our life and minor miracles that take place daily, we will be better able to love and serve G-d with enthusiasm. Human nature doesn’t produce love spontaneously, we need inspiring consequences and reminders from G-d to awaken our love and set us on the proper path.

Rav Z’eira used to sit down when he knew a scholar was coming so that he could stand up and receive reward. We can understand that he channeled his weakness into a mitzvah, but why the fixation on reward?

Perhaps this is related to the end of the verse, “Rise for the wise and you will fear G-d”. The true reward is fear of G-d and that is a worthwhile fixation. Rav Zeira understood that he would need to think about actions and even his potential reward if he was to grow in his love of G-d.  We find a similar concept in Nazir 66 where Rav encourages his son to say Amein in order to gain reward. The ultimate reward was the fear of G-d.

This too is learned from the forefathers, each of whom was meticulous about tithing. In Devarim 14:22-23 we are told that tithing leads to fear of G-d. In the book of Malachi G-d asks us to test him with tithing. He wants to show us His reward so that we can grow in our awareness of G-d and through that in our love.

Even at the pinnacle of his love for G-d, when he was willing to slaughter His son Yitzchak, G-d said “Now I know that you are a man who fears G-d”. Fear and Love must work together. No human can operate on Love alone.

Antigonus deliberately instructed his generation with a mix of love and fear. One cannot exist without the other. Fear or, more accurately, awareness of G-d’s presence, allows us to make our love of G-d relevant in this world.

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

Posted on 04/30 at 09:55 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Second Mishna

Shimon Hatzadik was the last surviving members of the Kenesses Hagedolah. He was a High Priest and a respected leader. His task was to usher in a non-prophetic era. The previous generation had assured us that we could keep the Torah alive through patience, education, and safeguards; Shimon Hatzaddik’s mission was to tell us which ideas to focus on and emphasize.

The Medrash tells us that Alexander the Great bowed before Shimon Hatzadik. Perhaps Alexander understood that Shimon Hatzadik embodied the pinnacle of philosophy and humanity whiule at the same time harnessing it for spiritual purposes.

Shimon Hatzadik taught that the world is supported by Torah, Avodah (Sacrifices and prayer), and Gemilas Chasadim (kindness). Each of these reflects a defining trait of our forefathers. Avraham excelled in and taught the world about kindness. Yitzhak is most often noted for his prayer. He Himself was a sacrifice. Yaacov was a “dweller of tents”, constantly found in the study of Torah. Perhaps Shimon Hatzadik listed these traits out of patriarchal order because the trait of Torah Study is most accessible to us. Alternatively, Shimon Hatzadik is telling us that even if we can’t relate to G-d through Torah study, we can still relate to him through prayer. Those Jews who embrace neither Torah nor prayer can still relate to G-d through the trait of Loving Kindness.

The final Mishna in the first chapter of Avos contains a quote from Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel tells us that “the world exists on three things: Justice, Truth, and Peace”. He seems to argue with the three tenets of Shimon Hatzaddik in our Mishna.

Rabbi Yaacov Baal Haturim (1270 – 1340) wrote the basic Jewish Legal text for Judges and entitled it “Choshen Mishpat”. He introduces his work by explaining that while the world was created for Torah, Prayer, and Kindness, it continues to exist only because of Justice, Truth, and Peace. He bases this on Rabbeinu Yonah and encourages Judges to recognize their role as partners with G-d in the continued existence of the world.

Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, was unsatisfied with this approach. If Torah, Prayer, and Kindess were sufficient reasons to create the world, why wouldn’t they justify its existence as well?

Instead, Rav Yosef Cairo explains the contradiction between Shimon Hatzaddik and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel by making the following sobering point: Shimon Hatzaddik lived in the times of the Holy Temple; he followed on the coattails of great scholars and prophets. He could truly instruct his generation in Torah, prayer, and kindness. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, on the other hand, led a generation that had been exiled. The Temple had been destroyed. We are no longer capable of true Torah, Prayer, and kindness. We just do the best we can. We need to suffice with “Justice, truth, and peace”.

The Bnei Yissoschar (based on the Megaleh Amukos) refuses to accept this stance. It is precisely the Torah, Prayer, and Kindness of Shimon Hatzaddik that we have access to in each and every generation. The world was created for Torah, Prayer and Kindness. They were the message upon which Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov based their teachings, and they were the three traits that Shimon Hatzadik used to inspire a generation that had lost hope.

In the Torah we find that Avraham welcomed his guests by offering them עגת or cakes. When we left Egypt we also ate Matzos that are referred to as עגת as well. The word עגת is an acronym for Torah, Avodah, and Gemilas Chasadim, for it was those three ideas that Avraham taught his guests and it was those three ideas that we focused on as we left Egypt.

The Baal Shem Tov is known to have pursued three careers in his short lifetime. He would lead children to school to study Torah, He would lead congregations in prayer, and he would slaughter and inspect livestock which was distributed to the poor. It is said that he chose these three areas in order to inspire Jews in Torah, Prayer and Kindness.

Even where Jews have nothing but kindness to connect them to G-d, they will stay connected. This is G-d’s promise to Avraham that the blessing of the forefathers (in Shemona Esrie) ends with Avraham. Even when all connection is lost, we have an unbreakable bond based on the trait of kindness that we inherited from Avraham.

The Minchas Elazar makes a frightening point. The three traits of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel are Justice, Truth, and Peace. The world may exist on these three traits, but they cannot be faked. False Justice is not justice, Falsehood is not truth, and false friendship is not peace. The directives of Shimon Hatzadik on the other hand,, can be faked. We can study Torah even if we do not feel inspired, we can pray even if we don’t mean it, and we can perform kindness even as we carry a grudge.

The Beis Yosef felt that Shimon Hatzaddik’s words are beyond our reach today. The Bnei Yissoschar taught the opposite. It is precisely the words of Shimon Hatzadik that we can access today. They worked for Abraham and they can work for us. Perhaps if we can “fake” Torah study, Prayer, and kindness of creation, they will grow upon us until we are able to exercise the Justice, Truth, and Peace upon which the world continues to exist.

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

Posted on 04/23 at 10:01 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Rabi Akiva and Shir Hashirim

The book of Shir Hashirim is one of the most unusual books in the Torah. It describes the love between two people and is an allegory for the love that exists between G-d and the Jewish people. This love song is background music to every single moment in our history, from our decent to Egypt to our exile to Babylon, to our redemption in the future and everything in between.

When we read about each of the events, when we celebrate on Chanukah and mourn on Tisha B’av we don’t think about this song playing in the background. Yet, it is there. Hashem yearns for us and how we, sometimes in our very deep sub consciousness, yearn desperately for G-d.

Most of the rabbis of the Mishna were of the opinion that Shir Hashirim is not as holy as the other books of the Torah. It doesn’t contain the same hallmarks of holiness and, in fact, contains information that we usually would not share in a holy setting. Rabi Akiva disagreed. He said “All of the songs are holy, but Shir Hashirim is the Holy of Holies”. Shir Hashirim is holier than the Torah, the prophets and the rest of the writings.

How is this possible?

We know that Rabi Akiva was always able to look below the surface. He was able to laugh while everyone else cried and perhaps it was that trait that allowed him to see holiness where others did not, but Rav Avigdor Miller, in the newly published book on Shir Hashirim has a different approach:

Rav Miller points out that Shir Hashirim is not just a backdrop to history. It is the reason that we still survive. Were it not for the strong love that exists between the Jewish people and G-d, Jewish history would have been a very short story. In the same way that a wife and a husband can support one another and survive anything, G-d has been there for us through thick and thin, always loving, always caring.

Who understood this more than Rabi Akiva?

Rabi Akiva was a simple shepherd. He was – according to many accounts – illiterate. He said he would bite a scholar if he saw him. He wanted to be a scholar but understood that Torah study was not going to come easily. He couldn’t do it on his own. It was his wife Rachel who believed in him and who inspired him. She was the one who gave up everything to marry him; she was the one who sent him away to learn Torah. She was the one who encouraged him when he didn’t feel like he was getting anywhere, and she was the one who lived in absolute poverty and was happy to do so that he could learn Torah.

Rabi Akiva understood the relationship between a husband and a wife. He understood how a wife can make her husband into a man and he saw how much she genuinely appreciated and enjoyed everything that he accomplished. (And by the way, a husband can do this for his wife as well). When Rabi Akiva came home after twenty-four years he refused to take any credit for his Torah. “My Torah”, he told his students, “and Your Torah, is all Her Torah”. He told them to treat her with the respect that they would give to him. The Mishna even tells us what jewelry Rabi Akiva bought for his wife, so strong and exemplary was their relationship.

Rabi Akiva understood Shir Hashirim better than anybody else. He understood how his wife had made him who he was. He understood how much he meant to his wife. And he understood that a key part of our existence is our relationship with G-d. There was no better parable than that of a man and a woman.

On the flipside, we find that Rabi Akiva’s students did not get the memo. They perished because they did not show proper respect for each other. They may have been great scholars, but they were not worthy of teaching the next generation. Relationships are essential to our existence as a people.

All the songs are holy, but in essence the song of Shir Hashirim is the Holy of Holies.

Rachel and Rabi Akiva taught us about relationships. Rabi Akiva taught us to Love our neighbors as ourselves. We mourn his students during Sefira because they did not have the proper respect for each other. Let’s cherish the relationships that we have and work to build model relationships so that people can look to us to understand the ultimate relationship that exists between G-d and his people.

Posted on 04/19 at 11:21 PM • Permalink
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Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: First Mishna


Our forefathers were close to perfect. There is very little that we can say that they didn’t say and there is very little that we can do that they didn’t do better. Still, each of the personalities in the Torah was noted for his or her unique strengths. Adam and Chava were the parents of all mankind, Noach saved the world, Avraham rediscovered G-d, Sarah dealt with infertility and a disappointing stepson, Yitzchak was willing to die for G-d, Rivkah believed in Yaacov and supported him unilaterally, Yaacov was faithful to the Torah even as he dealt with the dredges of society. Yosef remained holy and faithful despite all odds, Yocheved raised Moshe who persevered to take us out of Egypt, Bisya negotiated with her father to save Moshe’s life, Aharon was our spiritual leader, Miriam never gave up. And the list goes on. Every week the Rabbi gets up in shul and focuses on another biblical hero and his or her story.

In a similar vein, Pirkei Avos is a work of many men. Although they were all close to perfect, it is understood that no one person could excel in everything. And so, dozens of rabbis came together to write our Life’s Little Instruction Book, recognizing that each one had something unique and special to teach their generation and ours.

These are the Pirkei Avos. The teaching of our forefathers as transmitted to us by the rabbis of the Mishna.

What then is the meaning of the first Mishna? Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and gave it to Yehoshua?! Did Moshe alone have the monopoly on ethics? Wasn’t this a group effort? Aren’t ethics something that we can each excel in personally and teach our own personal message?

Here we need to take a moment to appreciate the Uniqueness of Moshe and His Torah. Somehow, G-d was able to take all of the lessons of biblical times and transmit them to Moshe in His Torah. It’s all there. Moshe was able to transmit those lessons to Yehoshua, who was able to grasp them as well. But that is where it stopped. Never again (and never before) was one person able to hold the entire Torah. It is almost as if history took a time out to regroup. All of our history and our legacy and our canon was consolidated into one book and taught to one man. That one man taught it to another.

At Sinai, ethics stopped being an intuitive way of life and became a wisdom, something to be studied, learned and and mastered. Where Abraham and Sarah relied on their own intuition, we rely on truisms, aphorisms and the experience of others.

The Mesilas Yesharim speaks of a garden maze with a large platform in the center. While everyone else has to blunder their way through the twists and the turns, the person who has completed the maze and stands in the center is able to look down and see all of the traps and dead ends in front of him. He can call out directions to those who are lost, or he could stay quiet and let them enjoy the maze.

When Adam was asked why he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he blamed his wife: “the woman that you gave me made me eat it.” G-d was not happy with this answer. Our sages tell us “כאן כפר בטובה”, it was at this moment that Adam stopped appreciating his wife. Worse, it was at that moment that he stopped appreciating the G-d who gave him his wife. Perhaps, this is why his son was a murderer and his grandson worshipped idols. Perhaps the world would be a little more perfect today if Adam hadn’t jumped to blame Chava for his shortcomings.

We all know not to complain about our wives. Some of us know because we have been told; others know from experience. Admittedly, those of us who know from experience know the lesson more intimately, but perhaps we would have been better off if we had received the advice earlier, if we had been given the ability to learn from their mistake rather than our own.

Life is a maze. We will never have all of the answers given to us on a silver platter. The challenge of life and the joy of living is about navigating our way through the maze of life and learning from our mistakes. Still, it is nice to have a head start. This was the Torah, and this was the wisdom imparted to Moshe. Moshe got it all from Sinai, and in this way he had a leg up on Adam and Chava, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchok, Rivka, Yaccov, Rachel and Leah.

Moshe managed to impart that wisdom to Yehoshua, but it would go no further. The next generation was led by the elders, a group of people who were contemporaries who had judged alongside Moshe and Yehoshua. As a collective they contained the wisdom of the Torah, but as individuals would never come close to Moshe or even Yehoshua.


How was it that Moshe and Yehoshua merited a knowledge that encompassed all that had preceded them? The Torah tells us that Moshe was the humblest of men. Yehoshua was his aide. He would stay behind after all of the opther students left to organize the chairs for the next day.  Rav Chaim Volozhin points out that a cup with thick wall has less room to hold water. The humility of Moshe allowed him to be a true vessel to capture the word of G-d. Yehoshua was the moon to Moshe’s sun. He saw himself as merely reflecting the greatness of his teacher. He didn’t consider himself special in his own right. The humility of Yehoshua allowed him to truly accept all that Moshe taught him.

This idea is hinted at in the Mishna. “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai”. Moshe did not receive the Torah from Sinai, but from G-d. The Mishna is worded strangely to remind us why Sinai was chosen. She wasn’t the tallest or the most beautiful mountain. She was the smallest mountain with no flora or vista. G-d, who first appeared in a burning bush – and not a cedar – chose to give the Toarah on a hill and not a mountain. It is all about humility.

Of course Mt. Sinai did ultimately give forth flowers, and Moshe and Yehoshua had personalities, experiences, and even failings of their own. Still the humility that defined them made them uniquely able to accept the entire Torah and transmit it to future generations.


The choice of Prophets as transmitters of the Torah is a controversial one. Why not the kings? Surely such wise and natural leaders as Kind David and King Solomon would have been ideally positioned to pass the legacy of Torah to the next generations? Abarbanel – who spent much of his life advising kings – writes that kings are not trustworthy. It was not safe to leave our tradition in the hands of kings. Too many of our monarchs were swayed by their wealth and their power to make some very bad decisions. The people were more unified in the Book of Judges than they were in the Book of Kings. Kings are good. But the Torah was transmitted via the prophets.

Rav Moshe Feinstein points out further that the role of a Jewish king is not to legislate. Where even an American president can issue a pardon, the Jewish king has no ability at all to override the rules. Moshe wanted to be a king, but G-d said “no. you are lawmaker”. The king facilitates the law but he is subject to it as well. It would never do to for the monarchs to be the custodians of our future.


The prophets were not immune to personal feelings. We are taught that no two prophets will ever see an identical prophecy. In the days leading up to the destruction of the first temple the monarchs preferred Chulda the prophetess over YIrmiyahu the prophet. Both preached the word of G-d, yet somehow Chulda was more merciful in her prophecies. She was not allowed to mince words but the visions she described were different than the ones described by Yirmiyahu.

In describing G-d, Moshe (our greatest prophet) used the words א-ל, גדול, גבור, ונורא – Powerful, Great, Strong, and Feared. Jeremiah described G-d as Powerful, Great, and Strong, because he did not see G-d as feared. Yirmiyahu spent his lifetime warning people to repent but they did not listen. After the destruction, Daniel described G-d as Powerful and Great. G-d didn’t appear strong or feared with his sanctuary destroyed and His children in exile. Yirmiyahu and Daniel knew about the Awe and the Strength of G-d, but they articulated G-d as he was perceived in their generation.

The Men of the Great Assembly were a group of Rabbis who led the Jewish people after our return from exile to build the second Temple. They led for over a century and included in their ranks some of the last prophets that the Jewish people had. They instituted much of Judaism as we know it with a standardized prayer book, Torah Reading three times a week, and synagogues in every town. They were called the “Men of the Great Assembly” because when they wrote their Siddur they described G-d as Moshe had: א-ל, גדול, גבור, ונורא – Powerful, Great, Strong, and feared.

Did the Men of the Great Assembly restore the words “Strong and Feared” because G-d seemed stronger and more feared in their times? Probably not. History tells us that these were very trying times for the Jews. Intermarriage was at record highs, assimilation was rampant and the Men of The Great assembly had their hands full trying to preserve Judaism.

It seems that the change here was not one in our recognition of G-d’s strength, but rather in strategy. The Men of the Great Assembly realized that if we sit around and wait until G-d’s Awe and Strength become obvious, we will have to wait a long time. And if we continue along the path of Yirmiyahu and Daniel we will need to remove the other adjectives as well. Was G-d’s power evident? What about his greatness?

Rather than allowing the prayer book to reflect our perception of G-d, the Men of the Great Assmebly, wrote the prayer book and asked the Jewish people to try to perceive G-d as Moshe had described Him and – indeed – as he was. For G-d never stopped being א-ל, גדול, גבור, ונורא – Powerful, Great, Strong, and feared.

In essence, the Men of the Great Assembly gave power to the people. No longer were we relying on intuition like our forefathers, no longer did we have a Moshe or a Yehoshua who could encompass the entire cannon of Jewish Wisdom. Not even a group of Rabbis could faithfully transmit it all. The Men of the Great Assembly asked the people to step up to the plate. This is what made them truly Great. In the words of our sages “They returned the crown to where it had been before”.


The Anshei Knesses Hagedola left us with three major teachings: Be patient in Judgment, Build up many disciples, and Create Safeguards for the Torah.

All three of the traits can be found in our forefather Avraham. When G-d set out to destroy the city of Sedom, he consulted first with Avraham. G-d said “How can I hide my intention form Avraham who is teaching the world about kindness and will raise a nation of kindness!?’ In a way G-d was training Avraham for the very difficult task of compassionate judgment. G-d presented Avraham with an open and shut case: The people of Sedom were evil. They represented everything that Avraham opposed. Avraham opened his home to guests while the Sodomites putlawed hospitality. Still, Avraham begged and pleaded with G-d to find a way to spare the people of Sedom. Because G-d said, “Avraham will teach his children to perform both kindness and justice”.

The Bartenura characterizes patience in judgment as follows: sometimes a case comes before a judge three or four times. He is tempted to draw on his previous rulings and render a speedy judgment. He may not do so. Rather he must examine the merits of each case individually. This is what Avraham did in Sedom. In doing so, Avraham may have saved the world. G-d had been disappointed by the world twice before. It was only Avraham who was able to find merit in the world, to introduce monotheism and to justify our continued existence.

“Having many students” seems like an irrefutable approach, but the Bartenura is quick to point out that this Mishna is in diametric opposition to Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh. Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh would not accept a student unless he was completely pure of hypocrisy. Only the best of the best were allowed entry in Rabban Gamliel’s yeshiva at Yavneh. It is fascinating that although Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh is quoted throughout the Oral Law, he is not quoted even once in Pirkei Avos. The Anshei Kenesses Hagedola held strongly that all students must be accepted and taught.

Additionally, the Bartenura quotes a passage from Yevamos. “Even if a person taught students in his youth, he should teach more students in his old age”.

Avraham clearly reflected both parts of this teaching. He welcomed everyone into his tent, even if they were idol worshippers who worshipped the dust on their feet. He began teaching in his youth as the Torah describes “the people who he created in Charan” and he continued through his old age as the Torah reports the “Eishel” that he planted in Be’er Sheva to welcome wayfarers and teach them about the oneness of G-d.

Of course, Avraham’s star disciple was his son Yitzchak. It is interesting to note that Yitzchak is generally associated with a strict approach. It is not unusual to find students that adopt a stricter approach than their teacher.

Finally, Avraham is known for “creating a safeguard for the Torah”. We do not hear about this in his lifetime. But after his death, Hashem tells Yitzchak that he will honor His covenant with Avraham who “preserved his Safeguards”. Apparently, Avraham kept the commandments and even took steps to make sure that he would not come close to transgressing them.

It occurs to me that there are three approaches to education. The first is an approach that accepts all students with patience and grace. The second accepts only the best students with the greatest potential. The third accepts many students in the hope that some of them will succeed. In the words of the Medrash: “one thousand students study Chumash, one hundred go on to study Mishna, ten will study Talmud, and one will be a great leader and scholar.”

Perhaps the Anshei Kenesses Hagedolah began with the premise that we need to accept all students. We need to be willing to look at even a resident of Sedom and judge him based on any merits we can find. They said “be patient in judgment”.

They also recognized that this is not a complete approach. Patience alone will not build a generation; we need to develop students that are educated and well informed. Perhaps we can argue with Rabban Gamliel when it comes to accepting students, but our ultimate goal must be to build a student to become a true scholar and a worthy teacher of Torah. “Build up many students”

Finally, there are the students who do not become great scholars. For them (or us) patience alone is not a long term solution. A comprehensive education will not work either. For those students we say “Make a safeguard for the Torah”. Give them some hard and fast rules so that they will not find themselves transgressing the words of the Torah.

Consider the Mitzvah of keeping Kosher. A Jew with a non-kosher kitchen might decide to buy only Kosher meat. Although he isn’t keeping Kosher perfectly and we would not eat in that home, an approach of “patience in Judgment” will encourage us to look at him or her as an individual and to praise them in their efforts.

Obviously, just patience will not ensure the future of Judaism. Ultimately we will need to “Build up many students”. We can give people a very clear and intelligent idea of what is acceptable and unacceptable in a kosher kitchen. We can teach them the entire Yoreh Deiah with a deep understanding of Bitul, P’gam, B’dieved and L’chatchila. We can teach everyone to be a rabbi.

But that approach will not always work. Not everyone is going to be a rabbi. That is why we “Make a safeguard for the Torah”. We tell people to keep non-kosher food out of their kitchens, to keep meat and dairy completely separate, and to not even come close to a situation that might be less than Kosher.

Avraham himself began by “Creating people in Charan” but just “creating people” with patience and kindness was not enough. We don’t even know what happened to those people. Ultimately, he needed to educate them, to “build them up as students”. In the end, he was remembered as someone who had “created a safeguard for the Torah”.

This was an approach that worked in the times of Avraham and it was an approach that the Anshei Kenesses Hagedolah chose to employ again as the Jewish people entered a new era. It is an approach that can work for us today as well.

The statement of the Talmud that a person should teach students into his old age is a direct reference to Rabi Akiva. He taught many students in his early years, but they all perished. It was only the students of his later years that went on to teach the next generation.

This is the lesson of PIrkei Avos. We need to use the days of Sefira to recognize and respect each and every person, including ourselves. We are the ones who will receive the Torah and we are the ones who will teach it to the next generation.

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

Posted on 04/19 at 11:18 PM • Permalink
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Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Introduction

We read Pirkei Avos between Pesech and Shavuos because it prepares us to properly accept the Torah. This is the period when the students of Rabi Akiva perished because they did not have proper respect for one another. Apparently, it is possible for a person to possess vast Torah knowledge and yet lack the ethical behavior that should accompany it. In order to be a true vessel to receive and transmit the Torah we need to refine our character traits to reflect those found in Pirkei Avos.

The custom is to begin the recital or Pirkei Avos with a quote from the final chapter of Sanhedrin: “כל ישראל יש להם הלק לעולם הבא”. All Jews have a portion in the world to come.

This quote is somewhat perplexing. It seems obvious that there have been Jews in our history who did not merit a portion in the world to come. As a matter of fact, the very Mishna in Sanhedrin that is quoted ends with a list of those who have no portion in the world to come. The quote at the beginning of Pirkei Avos seems somewhat disingenuous.

I believe the answer lies in a famous volume of the Berenstein Bears. Sister Bear had trouble with Nail Biting. No incentive seemed to work. They even tried offering Sister a penny for each nail that she did not bit over the course of a day. It was ineffective. Finally, Grandma Bear had Sister put ten pennies into her pocket at the beginning of the day. As she walked around and heard the coins jingling in her pocket, Sister was able to control her nasty habit.

In that very same way, G-d puts very one of us into this world with a portion in the World to Come. Some of us will get to use it; some of us won’t. But having that portion is incentive to make something of our lives and to keep our eyes on the prize., After all, we already have it, It’s just a matter of holding on to it.

This important lesson about the potential of every Jew is the perfect introduction to Pirkei Avos. As we prepare to receive the Torah and to avoid the mistakes of Rabi Akiva’s students, we need to recognize that every single Jew has a portion in the world to come. We needed to learn to respect one another.


Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on the first five Mishnayos of Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov (1783 - 1841). This essay is loosely based on his work. For more essays based on Devarim Nechmadim please see

Posted on 04/19 at 11:15 PM • Permalink
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At the very end of my second Seder, my wife rose to count Sefirah and took a moment to explain how we are counting our way to Shavuos and growing each day of the forty nine days ahead of us. Everyone at the table counted, but one woman was puzzled. “I enjoyed this seder very much”, she said. “I’ve never stayed until the end before, but I’m glad I did. You need to explain to me, “What is this other thing coming up? What is Shavuos?”

Of course we explained that just leaving Egypt wasn’t good enough (even though we say ‘Dayeinu’). G-d took us out of Egypt to give us the Torah and that will be our ultimate celebration and the culmination of our goals. We celebrate the giving of the Torah on Shavuos after counting toward it for forty-nine days. “Will the meal be as long?” She asked. At that point, my son helpfully chimed in, “no, it’s only 2:00 now, on Shavuos we stay up all night long”.

The truth is that we should stay up all night on Pesach as well, but the point remains. As we finish our seder and our Pesach, as tired as we may be, we need to think about what is next. What is going to follow after Pesach?

I think we all know that Shavuos is coming up, but I’d like to talk about the days of Sefirah. These are days in which we mourn the students of Rabi Akiva. Twenty-four thousand students died because they did not act respectfully to each other. They all celebrated Pesach but did not make it to Shavuos, because they didn’t show proper respect. We aren’t talking about respect for Rabi Akiva or respect for their parents. We are referring to respect with one another. After all of the explanations, the Gemara’s account remains frightening. Twenty-four thousand students died because they did not act respectfully to each other.

When the Kollel in Toronto opened, Rav Shneur Kotler was asked his advice. He recommended that when the fellows in the Kollel speak to each other they should address one another as Rabbi. That is the definition of Nahagu Kavod Zeh B’zeh. And it doesn’t just apply to rabbis. We all need to learn to respect each other.

The Arizal writes that the impurity of Egypt was based in Haughtiness, on the inability of people to see beyond themselves and to recognize that someone might have something to offer. We need to spend forty-nine days of character refinement shedding that self centeredness.

We need to spend time every day of Sefira finding one thing to respect about one person. Do that for forty-nine days, and you will find that your life and your interactions with people will change. You will change as a person, and your Torah will change.

Rav Yosher was the first biographer of the Chofetz Chaim. In his book he writes an account that he heard from Rav Don Plotzky, author of the Kli Chemdah. Rav Don Plotzky was given the task of accompanying the Chofetz Chayim to the Knessiah Gedolah in Vienna in 1923.

They traveled by train and all of the Rabbis sat in second class. The Chofetz Chayim insisted on travelling third class and so he was in a different carriage than the other rabbis. At every town on the way to Vienna, hundreds of Jews would be gathered at the train station to greet the great rabbis on the train, which included the Gerrer Rebbe and the Sokolover Rebbe. We can imagine the scene. The Rabbis would come out onto the platform and greet the people, who would crowd around for blessings and to catch a glimpse of these Tzadikim. When the whistle blew, they would reboard the train and continue on their journey. This happened at station after station and it was a beautiful sight to behold. The Chofetz Chayim would have none of it. He stayed in his seat, far away from any windows and paid no attention to what was going on. At one city in Poland, the people had a little more chutzpah. They formed a committee of Rabbis and lay leaders and sent them onto the train to request that the Chofetz Chayim step outside a moment to greet the thousands of people who had travelled miles just to see him. The Chofetz Chaim refused.

At this point Rav Don Plotzky decided to act. He sat down next to the Chafetz Chaim and asked him why he was being so adamant about not going outside.

“All my life”, the Chofetz Chaim explained, “I’ve run away from honor. You are asking me to stand up and walk toward it. I just can’t. Furthermore“, he continued,”Rav Yehudah Hachasid writes that any honor that we receive in this world is deducted from the honor that we receive in the next, why would I do that?”

Rav Don Plotzky did not back down. “Rebbe”, he said, “isn’t it worthwhile to give up a little bit of the next world to make so many Jews happy? And besides I don’t understand how this could deduct – “

“Enough!” the Chofetz Chaim said. “Your first reason is good enough”. He rose and walked out onto the platform. Thousands of people started to press toward him and he was in danger of being trampled, so he raised his hand and called out “Sholom Aleichem Yidden”, explaining that one did not have to shake hands to receive a bracha.

When they re-boarded the train and stopped at the town of Chestechov, the Chofetz Chaim was already very weak from his journey. Apparently, he felt like he had made all the effort required of him and he begged his companions to close the doors and windows of the train car so that he could rest a little bit. They gave in and the Chofetz Chaim began to rest while the other Rabbis went out on the platform to greet the people. Suddenly, the door opened and the conductor came running into the car. An axle had broken on the track and everyone needed to disembark and switch to a different car.

The Chofetz knew that he had been beat. “The strength and willpower of so many people is impossible to overcome.” He explained, “If they want to see me, Hashem will make sure that they see me.”

On that same day, he arrived in Vienna and was videotaped by a reporter covering the convention. Sure enough, we all got to see him.

This story is all about honor. It is about the Chofetz Chaim’s discomfort with honor, but it is also about people wanting to honor the Chofetz Chaim. When people genuinely want to show respect, the Chofetz Chaim couldn’t say no.  Even G-d couldn’t say no.

At the convention the Chofetz Chaim spoke at length about showing honor to Hashem. We beg Hashem, Show us your face, show us how you look. Bring us close to you. Help us understand and keep your Torah. Hashem, as it were, can’t say no. If we honor Him and respect him and yearn to see him we will eventually get what we want, because we will never be satisfied until we do.

Let us work on honor. Foregoing our own honor, learning how to honor others – one person a day for forty-nine days adds up – and running to honor Hashem.

We pray to G-d,”Pull us toward you and we will run.” We need to find within ourselves to request a little help both from G-d and from others. We know that once we receive it we will run with it, but until we recognize that we need help from G-d and others, we will be nowhere.

We declare משכני אחריך נרוצה, - “Please G-d, pull us toward you”, and in the end we will be given the capacity to truly rejoice: נגילה ומשמחה בך.

Posted on 04/19 at 11:13 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Reclaiming Our Freedom


Do we need to read the Hagada and tell the story ourselves, or is ok if the head of the seder does it and we listen?

There are two components here. One is the Mitzvah of והגדת לבנך that we have to tell the story to our children. The second is the Mitzvah of סיפור יציאת מצרים which is to tell the story whether we have children or not.

For the Mitzvah of telling our children, we can appoint someone else as our Shaliach or agent. He or she can tell the story for us. If the Shaliach is a grandparent there is even a special Mitzvah “that you may tell your children and your grandchildren”.

As far as the Mitzvah of “Sippur”, things get a little more complicated. It seems clear from the Gemara’s description of the Seder and the description the Rambam gives that it was common for one leader to say the entire text while everyone listened. The Mishna Berurah seems to rule this way as well and encourages everyone to be sure to hear at least the part beginning with Rabban Gamliel, Pesach, Matzah, and Maror. This is in keeping with the concept of “Shomei’a K’oneh” – listening is like saying.

Some people have an issue with this. The Beis Halevi says (on a different topic) that listening only works for speech, not for action. For example a Kohein needs to bless the people loudly. A fellow Kohein could be ‘motzi’ him in the priestly blessing but not in saying it loudly.

Some point out that the seder is full of action. We need to say the story with Matzah and Maror in front of us and we need to say the story with great joy but also a feeling of awe. We need to feel as if we ourselves left Egypt. Based on this, some insist that everyone present should say the Hagada. This is more than just words and not something we can fulfill throught somebody else.

I would like to suggest that there is a difference between Birchas Kohanim and The Seder. Saying the blessing and saying it loud cannot be separated. But on Pesach there are two separate Mitzvos. We need to feel free and we need to tell the story. There is no problem with hearing someone else’s words, as long as they themselves are speaking from true joy as well. But in order to prepare ourselves to be Yotzei with such a joyous person, we need to experience that freedom as well. This is something that nobody can do for us.

I believe this reflected in the Mah Nishtana. The child looks around and sees all of us leaning, eating Maror, eating Matzah and dipping our food. He uses words like לנו and כלנו and he notes that we are celebrating. Once we have laid that groundwork, the leader of the Seder can go ahead and recite “the answer” and we can fulfill our obligation by listening to his words and having it counted as if we said them as well.

The following is based on the remarks of Rav Moshe Feinstein as recorded in Darash Moshe, Drush 8, Luban, 1923

גלתה יהודה מעוני – על שאכלו חמץ בפסח

The Medrash tells us that we were exiled from the Land of Israel because we ate Chametz on Pesach. Aside from the fact that the punishment seems rather harsh for the crime, it is also not the full story. We know that the Jews had sinned grievously in the areas Murder, Adultery, and Idolatry. This was more than just eating bagels at the seder.

Even the continuation of the Medrash that we were not treating those in need properly, seems to pale in comparison to some of the other things that were going on.

In order to understand the nature of our sins before we were exiled, we need to take a moment to think about why we were freed from Egypt and brought to Israel to begin with.

Egypt was a fine society. They were organized. They had a good economy and a fair system for taxation. They prosecuted murderers just like any civilized country. Better, in fact. Moshe was well connected. His stepmother was Pharaoh’s daughter. He grew up in the palace. But that didn’t stop Pharaoh from sentencing him to death.

Yet, that same Pharaoh somehow legislated the mass murder of every Jewish Boy born in Egypt.

We don’t have to be psychoanalysts to figure out why. Pharaoh was scared. He was afraid that we would become a fifth column, side with his enemies and expel him from the land.

We see people – politicians and otherwise - do this all the time. They are adamant about something until it doesn’t work out well for them.

In our terminology this is called “Kinah, Taavah, and Kavod” or “Jealousy, lust, and the need for respect”. These may seem somewhat trivial and not very far-reaching, but they are the root causes of the three cardinal sins of Giluy Arayos Shefichas Damim and Avodah Zarah. Pharaoh murdered because of his need for respect and his lust for power. He claimed he himself was a god because that was the only way he could bear to see himself.

We are no better. We aren’t immune to Jealousy. We have our lusts and our creature comforts. And we all demand some form of respect.

When we look at kids we understand this. Jealousy over a friend’s new toy makes it impossible for a child to be happy for a friend, lust over a rice crispy treat equips a child with blinder as he shoves and pushes his way into the Kiddush. The need for respect causes kids to interrupt and constantly assert themselves. They know they are being unreasonable but they can’t help themselves.

Adults suffer from this as well. When we wonder why someone has something that we don’t and we wish that he or she didn’t - that is jealousy. It doesn’t matter what it is or whether it is tangible or attainable. If we wish they didn’t have it - we are jealous.

When something we need is right within our reach but demands that we fudge the truth or turn the other way, that is desire. Sometimes it’s just our desire to relax and avoid confrontation that clouds our vision of what is important.

And honor is the toughest one. We all feel like we deserve recognition for something. And we are right. But how far wiil we go to get that recognition and how strange will we act when we don’t? Some of us lust for honor and when we see someone else get that honor, we experience jealousy. That is lust and honor all rolled up in one.

That is what happened to Pharaoh and it is what happened to every honorable society that has walked this earth.

We are not talking about power corrupting. We are talking about power becoming corrupt as a result of Jealousy, lust, and our need to be recognized.

Even in our amazing and beloved country, it is a fascinating anomaly called a Presidential pardon. If the president sees the words mercy in his alpha-bit cereal, he can save a life. If he doesn’t like a law passed by congress he can pardon everyone who breaks it. He does not need any further explanation. As a matter of fact a pardon is considered to be a proof of guilt. It is incongruous with our system of checks and balances, yet it is the law and has been used by every president since George Washington and in almost every civilized country in the world. Before it was called a Presidential pardon it was called a Royal Prerogative, just the thing that the United States was fighting against and yet this one piece of British Monarchy was something that the writers of the constitution just couldn’t get rid of.

There is no such thing as a pardon in the Torah. The closest we come is when Dovid Hamelech did not put Shim’i to death for cursing him. But even that was really just a postponement of his sentence and not a pardon. Shim’i was eventually put to death as well. The Talmud tells us: “Hamelech Dan; V’danim oso”. The King is a judge and at times he is judged. The role of the king is to facilitate the laws of the Torah. Not to write his own.

It is for this reason that Moshe was not allowed to become a king. Even though Moshe wasn’t a lawmaker, he is the source of our laws. It would not be proper for anyone to think that the king is a lawmaker. He asked and Hashem said אל תקרב הלום, don’t even think about it. King David, with all of his power and popularity said “If it wasn’t for Torah – I would have absolutely nothing”.

Personal biases have the ability to affect any society. So Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim to form a society that is based, not on our personal biases, but on the will of Hashem.

In a Torah based society, jealously, lust and need for power are no longer King. We become governed by Hashem’s rule.

Hashem gave us the tools to achieve this goal, but it is by no means easy. Every year we find ourselves back in Mitzrayim, motivated by jealousy, by what we think are our needs and by the respect we aren’t getting but think we deserve. We don’t use those words in our minds, but they are so much of what motivates us and – if left unchecked can motivate us to sanction even the worst of crimes.

On Pesach we go free. We allow our motivations to be dictated solely by the will of hashem.

What emerges is somewhat shocking. Our role as a nation – or even as a community - is not to be powerful or successful or noteworthy. We are pretty good at that, but it isn’t our primary goal. Many large and powerful and wealthy nations have left the world in shambles.

Our role as a nation is to be a people stripped of Kinah, Taavah and Kavod; a society that can concentrate on the will of Hashem. If in doing so we merit strength and wealth and power we won’t complain. In fact, it will help us accomplish more. But our basic goal is to be a society where what is right is more important than what we feel.

This is what every Galus and Geulah has been about. We go free to concentrate on what is important; we are exiled when we forget.

This brings us to Chametz and Matzah.

There is nothing more sensitive than flour and water mixing together. Done properly and with alacrity and constant work, it becomes a Matzah. Left to its own devices, it becomes Chametz.

We are a delicate mixture as well. G-d gave us a pure and holy soul but mixed it into a very physical body. Without work, we could become very selfish, lazy and calloused individuals. But with work we can be that amazing Torah driven nation G-d freed us from Egypt to become. We have the ability to remain as holy as the day we were born.

That is a true Ben Chorin. That is Pesach. We sit at the seder and remember not just how Hashem took us out, but why He took us out. And we remind ourselves that we are free to renew our role in this world. We get rid of all of our chametz from ourselves and our surroundings. We can start again and walk out of Egypt with a pledge that we will never stop working on ourselves and our character.

It is in that climate of freedom to do what is right and motivation to keep up the hard work that we can really show our children and ourselves what it was like to leave Egypt.

We can let someone else tell the story verbally, but we need to be the ones feeling free and removing the Chometz from within us.

And then, to echo the words of Rav Moshe, we can turn to Hashem and say, “we got it”. G’aleinu Na!’ Please redeem us. You sent us out because we had allowed too much Chametz to build up. We allowed the Jealousy lust and need for respect to become Idolatry, Adultery and Idol Worship, but we are clean now. We will ask and G-d will certainly come. He will wipe all of our tears and take us home.

Posted on 03/29 at 06:10 AM • Permalink
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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Moshe’s Strength

The Talmud in Nedarim tells us that Moshe was strong. He spread the covering over the Mishkan. The Gemara challenges this proof. Maybe Moshe was just large? What is the proof that he was strong? Instead the Gemara brings a proof from the Luchos which Moshe carried down from Har Sinai and broke.

The Rosh asks a simple question: What about the Krashim? Those were huge, yet Moshe put them up as well.

The truth is that this whole passage Gemara is strange in light of a Medrash, quoted in rashi, that Moshe did not know how to put up the Mishkan. It was actually G-d who put up the Mishkan. Moshe just got the credit. Similarly, we find regarding the Luchos that the ark carried those who carried it. Moshe didn’t need to be strong!

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that nobody ever does anything. All we can do is try. Real strength is about giving it everything that we have. The most awesome part of putting up the Mishkan was the fact that after he finished, the cloud of Hashem’s glory came down on the Mishkan. Nobody can do that! As a matter of fact, Moshe couldn’t even enter the cloud – much less make it.

Our job is to give it all of our strength. Accomplishments belong to G-d.

R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s students testified that when the cornerstone of the yeshiva was laid, he wept so much that no water was needed to moisten the mortar. The Chofetz Chaim concluded from this, “A yeshiva is built with tears.”

R’ Dov Eliach tells us in his book Avi Hayeshivos, Rabbenu Chaim turned down a tempting offer from Vilna’s Jewish dignitaries: if he would move his yeshiva from Volozhin to Vilna, they would completely finance it, as well as make him rav of the city.

“Not everything can be moved from one place to another without damage,” R’ Chaim explained to them. “A stone or a beam of wood for example, no matter how heavy it may be, can always be dislodged and reinstalled in a new location. You could do that with the beams and benches of the yeshiva, too. But you could never move the cobwebs from the yeshiva and reinstall them. A yeshiva is more like a cobweb than a beam of wood. If you try to move it, you are liable to destroy it.”

It is not easy to build.

The Pirkei Avos teaches us:  “Who is strong? He who conquers his Evil Inclination”. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that we can’t do that either. All we can do is give it all of our strength.

That is how we build buildings and that is how we build ourselves.

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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