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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Obsession

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 08:58 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.

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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 08:55 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.

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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 09:01 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 10:21 PM • Permalink
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Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: First Mishna

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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”.

V

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.

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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 10:18 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.

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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 http://www.torahlab.org/calendar/C126/

Posted on 04/19 at 10:15 PM • Permalink
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Respect

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 10:13 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Reclaiming Our Freedom

Introduction

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 05:10 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.

Posted on 03/11 at 08:46 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Our Eternal Relationship with Egypt

Several weeks ago we were saved by coming down to Egypt. In this week’s Parsha we finally leave.

At the Yam Suf Hashem promised that we would not see the Egyptians again.

In Parshas Shoftim Hashem ruled that a king should not have too many horses because they would lead us back to Mitzrayim.

But in Devarim 28:68 we are told that if we misbehave Hashem will put us into ships and send us back.

The truth is that we have a long history with Egypt:

-Avraham went down with his wife because of the famine.
-We were kings there. Later, we were slaves there.
-King Solomon imported his horses from there and was criticized. He was also criticized for his relationship with Pharaoh’s daughter.
-Chizkiyahu allied with Egypt against Assyria. It didn’t work out and he was criticized. The ten tribes disappeared in the ensuing war andwere never seen again.
-After destruction of first Beis Hamikdosh and the assassination of Gedaliah the remaining Jews went against the prophesy of Yirmiyahu and emigrated to Egypt where they assimilated.
-There are many prophesies in which Egypt is prominently spoken of and gets their comeuppance at the end of days.
-The Alexandrian shul in Talmudic times was enormous and there was constant traffic between Jerusalem and Alexandria.
- The Talmud in Succah 51b tells us that Diopluston of Alexandria was a great honor for the torah but it was destroyed because of the prohibition of living in Egypt.
- The Talmud in Gittin 57a reprts that the Alexandrian Jews were happy there and in Egypt and did not mourn for Yerushalayim
- Rambam was apparently beholden to the Sultan and running from the Almohades. He lived in Egypt and may have signed his letters with a statement that he was inconstant violation of the ban on returning to Egypt. (Kaftor Vaferach)
-Additionally, The Karaim were very powerful in Egypt and their place of worship still stands.
-More recently, Rav Ovadiah Yosef emigrated to Egypt at 26 yrs. of age to be chief Rabbi of Cairo.
-The Egyptians are our constant neighbors and we think about them all the time.

Halacha
This Halacha not to return to Egypt is mentioned in Rambam but not in Shulchan Aruch. It seems that many have returned over the years.

There are several approaches to the reasons for the prohibition and the leniencies that were applied.

Approach One: Depravity of Egypt

The Egyptians were apparently less moral than any other country. They were also Godless due to their deification of the Pharaohs and the Nile. It was not a good place for Jews to hang out. This is the approach of the Ramban. Based on this approach we have two important leniencies:

1) Only prolonged residence is an issue. The Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin Ch. 10) rules that it is permitted to descend to Egypt temporarily. The Aderes adds that if one went temporarily they remain afterward, even permanently.

2) Egypt may be more moral than it once was. Sancheriv mixed everyone up when he conquered so the people of Egypt are no longer the same people. Further, Rabbeinu Bachyei writes that even if they are the same people, they may have changed. They may be more moral now. The third generation of Egyptians is allowed to enter the Jewish nation. They do have the potential to change.

This approach is not totally satisfying. The prohibition to return is mentioned even after the days of Sancheirev and Rabbi Kapach claims that historically the Rambam settled permanently without any duress and even before he got the job with the sultan.

Approach Two: No Moving Backwards

The Yereim explains that only a specific route was prohibited. G-d took us out of Egypt and we are not supposed to return. It is never a good idea to move backwards. As a matter of fact, just leaving Israel is an Issue. The prohibition on going to Egypt is just an extension of that rule.

Based on this it could be understood why the Rambam left Alexandria for El Kahir, which was not part of the original Egyptian kingdom which we left, but it does not explain everything.

Approach Three: National Pride

We need to proud of our nation as Israel. We can’t get too proud of Egypt, even if they are somewhat decent. This appears to be the approach of the Ritva that the prohibition only applies when there is a Jewish monarch and that all of the verses focus on the monarch. Even the Rambam records this law in the Laws of Kings. In a similar vein, others write that the mitzvah only applies if all of the Jews return to Egypt.

The Ritva and Rav Hirsch explain that it is up to us to choose a good country. Egypt is a bad one. The Korban Ha’eidah writes that settling in Egypt is a sign that one does not expect Moshiach.

Based on this, the Aruch Hashulchan writes that in times that Egypt isn’t doing well and there is no pride in being there, the halacha does not apply.

This approach is satisfactory but not very well sourced.

Approach Four: The Arizal

There is an idea in Jewish thought that can give us context to the mitzvah and even to its detractors.

In Jewish thought it is a given that we are influenced by our surroundings both positively and negatively. The Chassidim say that Babi Yar was the site of the battle between Kayin and Hevel. Any place we go has positive and negative vibes. We generally understand this as influence and nurture, but the Zohar actually sees it as Klipos and a real impurity that exists in a specific location and does not go away.

Mitzrayim can be pronounced ‘Metzarim’ or boundaries. Constricted boundaries are not conducive to spiritual growth.

However, within those Metzarim, there exist Nitzotzos, sparks of holiness that remain and must be redeemed. Like a Jew who has never heard a word of Torah, these holy sparks are waiting to be used in the proper way.

That’s what we deal with daily. We find holiness and purpose in the world around us. That is why we went down to Egypt to begin with. Yosef brought G-d to Egypt. Yosef found Asnas in Egypt, and ultimately Yosef let Egypt support the holiest nation.

The Arizal writes that we did such a good job that there were no sparks left in Egypt. We had to get out of there quick and there was no reason to go back.

What an important lesson! Sometimes we go somewhere in life and we grow and accomplish. That doesn’t mean that we need to go back. We haven’t become impervious to harm! We don’t need to run back into a burning house when there are no more victims and we don’t need to put our children through all the trials that we experienced.

That is the Mitzvah not to go back. Never. Not just to Egypt, but anywhere harmful should not be returned to.

But what if we do go back? The Jewish people did at the time of Gedaliah and they were assimilated there. The Karaites were there. Many Jews ended up there. So the sparks are back. And we need to return to elevate those sparks.  Halachically, there was a population shift. Egypt is not the same place it was.

Of course we can’t go back to stay there because we need to be proud of our own country and we need to hope for Moshiach, but we have a mission in Egypt and we may go back to fulfill our role.

Perhaps this was the thinking of the Rambam, of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, and of so many others. There is halachic and mystical basis for returning, but only for the purpose of getting our act together and going to Israel. Those who forgot their mission were criticized and punished.

I was always intrigued by a man I knew when I was younger. He left Egypt in the late forties. His father sold all of his assets and bought a diamond. His mother hid a diamond in her shoe. Before he left he ripped up his stamp collection and broke his tricycle. He didn’t want to leave those in Egypt.

Egypt will never be our home. We can do good stuff there. But we need to be really careful. And when we go we need to leave and not come back. Preferably we should be headed for Israel.

Additional Sources: Rav Kook (Mishetei Kohein p. 143), R’ Kapach on Mishna Torah, Chida (Pesach Einayim 28)

Posted on 01/28 at 07:45 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Bottle It!

The end of this week’s Parsha was one of the highest points in the spiritual history of the Jewish nation. The Jewish people were almost ready to leave Egypt. They had suffered enough, they were caring for one another, and they had very strong Jewish identities.

G-d gave us Mitzvos. On the first of Nissan, we were given the Mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh. Shortly afterward, on the tenth of Nissan, the Jewish people were commanded to select a lamb for the Korban Pesach. Technically, they didn’t need goats until the 14th – 4 days later- but G-d wanted us to be engrossed in Mitzvos.

And with pride, excitement, and enthusiasm The Jewish people performed these Mitzvos. They gathered the sheep, tied them to their bedposts and prepared for the seder. As Pesach approached Moshe and Aharon circumcised all of the Jewish males. Finally, on the fifteenth of Nissan, all of the Jewish people were seated in their homes enjoying the first Pesach Seder. At exactly midnight a wave of death passed through the country and killed all of the Egyptian first-borns. Not one of the Jewish homes suffered a loss. They were protected by the Korban Pesach. They heard death all around them while they sat safely and securely in their homes. The Talmud tells us that the Pesach seder is “אתכא דרחמנא” – G-d is our host and we are sitting at His table. The Jewish people were closer to G-d than they had ever been before.

As this was taking place Pharaoh made his way frantically to the Jewish quarter, tracked down Moshe and Aharon, and begged them to leave Egypt. They hadn’t packed and they had no time to prepare food for the way but they went unquestioningly following Moshe and, by extension G-d, into the desert. Many years later G-d would ‘reminisce’: “I remember the days when you were just a young Kallah – a young bride – you followed me out to the desert into a land that was totally desolate”.

Before all of this occurred, Moshe addressed the Jewish people. He went over all of the last minute laws and prepared them for what would happen. He said to them “You are leaving Egypt and you are going to arrive in the land that G-d has created for you. Be sure to continue to keep the holiday of Pesach and the seder with all of its halachos. Be sure to tell your children about this day.” He continued “And when your child asks מה העבודה הזאת לכם? – What is the big deal? Why are you doing all this hard work? ואמרתם אליו – You should say to him: This is my Korban Pesach for G-d. When we were in Egypt we were not that different from the Egyptians. We had no mitzvos. But when we did these mitzvos G-d punished all of the Egyptians and spared us and our homes”.

The Hagada tells us that the Torah spoke of Four Sons: the Wise son, The Wicked son, The Simple son, and the son who does not know how to ask questions. The Hagada goes on to quote verses in this week’s parsha (mostly) and tells us which pertain to each of the sons.

When Moshe told the Jewish people “You will have a son who will ask מה העבודה הזאת לכם? – Why are you doing all this hard work?”, he was describing the Wicked son. Presumably, The Torah should continue with the answer given to the wicked son: knock out his teeth and tell him בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי G-d did this for me when I was in Egypt – for me and not for you. If you were there you would not have been saved. Moshe, however, did recommend this answer at all, he said:  ואמרתם אליו – You should say to him: This is my Korban Pesach for G-d. We did this and G-d punished all of the Egyptians but spared us and our homes.

Why did Moshe use ask the question of the wicked son, but give an unrelated answer?

Perhaps we can explain, based on the Kli Yakar, Moshe’s answer was not directed at the wicked son (that will come later) it was directed at the rest of the Jewish people and at the parents.

Moshe said to the Jewish people: Right now you are on a high, you have never been closer to G-d and the purpose of the mitzvos are clear to you. You think that the rest of your existence as Jews will be the same way.
You think that you and all future generations will be able to maintain this constant connection to holiness. Let me tell you about reality. One day, you are going to have a son and he will have no idea what you are doing. He will ask “ מה העבודה הזאת לכם? – What is the big deal? Why are you doing all this hard work?” G-d will not always be as obvious as He is right now.”

What can we do about this? Moshe told the Jewish people: “stop for a moment and appreciate the feelings and emotions of what you are experiencing. Define it, bottle and put it somewhere safe. One day when you are challenged you will be able to pull that memory out of your pocket and say “I remember that moment when I did the Mitzvah of Pesach. I felt closer to G-d than you can ever imagine”.

We often experience spiritual highs. We need to save souvenirs, memories or commitments, from these highs to give us support at the times when we are low.

May we be merit to have only high points in our observance of mitzvos.

Posted on 01/22 at 10:22 PM • Permalink
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Friday, January 16, 2015

Pakod

When Moshe was a child he made a choice between a Diamond and a coal. He knew that the diamond was more valuable, but he picked up the coal instead. As a result he was inflicted with a speech impediment.

When Reb Shmuel Kamenetzky visited Norfolk several years ago, the students at Toras Chaim were encouraged to prepare a question to ask him. One of the students asked why Moshe did not pray to have his speech impediment cured, rather than allow it to handicap him for his entire life.

The Ramban answers that Moshe did not want to forget the amazing wonders that Hashem had done for him in saving his life when he was only a baby.

The Ran writes that Hashem wanted Moshe to have a speech impediment so that it would be understood that the Torah had sold itself and had not been the result of slick marketing. (The Shela disagrees based on the Medrash that Moshe was healed at Matan torah).

Rav Itzele Volozhiner wrote a work entitled Peh Kadosh. He quotes a Medrash that the Jewish people had a secret known through Serach that they would be redeemed with the word ‘Pakad’. There had been false saviors in Egypt and people were skeptical of Moshe, but when he used the word ‘Pakod Pakadeti’ they were convinced.

Moshe’s particular impediment was the inability to pronounce the letter “pey’. This may be the meaning of the verse ‘Mi Sam Peh L’adam?” When Moshe miraculously pronounced the words ‘Pakod Pakadeti’ they knew that he had truly been sent by G-d.

Still, we need to understand the significance of the words Pakod Efkod. Were they jus a code word like “Open Sesame”?

Perhaps the idea is that the people in Mitzrayim did not feel worthy of redemption. In fact, even the angels argued before Hashem that the Jews were no more deserving than the Egyptians.

This is where Pakod comes in. Pakod means to count and to remember and to assign because as Hashem counts us he remembers us and our potential. We may not always look great, but when we are desperate He knows what we need.

When Moshe was at the bush he also felt like the Jewish people were not ready. They wouldn’t listen to him. This was the symbolism of the historic staff turning into a snake but again into a staff. As gruesome as they looked, the Jewish people needed to be remembered and picked up off the ground.

Hashem’s miraculous message of Pakod Efkod was that he remembered every one of us, what we needed and what our role should be.

We need to remember this when we are feeling neglected and undeserving. More importantly, we need to remember this when we see somebody else having a bad day or acting improperly.

Hashem caused great miracles just to communicate that ‘Pakod Efkod’, “I remember you and I am going to let you shine”.

Posted on 01/16 at 07:21 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, January 08, 2015

It all Comes Down to Trust

Perhaps the worst two words that Pharaoh ever said were “Mi Hashem?” By not recognizing that Hashem even existed, he put himself at the mercy of his actions with no chance for change.

No amount of warnings will help for a man who does not believe in Hashem.

Throughout Sefer Shemos Moshe is under pressure but only has two basic enemies. Their names were Dasan and Aviram the sons of Eliav (son of Palu, son of Reuvein). These were the two who tried to kill each other and the two who reported Moshe to the Egyptian authorities. They were also the ones who joined with Korach in the rebellion against Moshe. According to the Medrash these two were also the ones who complained after Moshe caused the work quotas to be raised and they were the leaders of the group that wanted to return to Egypt when things didn’t go well.

When Rashi describes these two characters he does not mention any of the above. Instead, he tells about them as the ones who left over manna from one day to the next.

Rav Shalom Scwhadron explains that Dasan and Aviram could claim ideological motives but in truth the underlying issue was that they simply didn’t trust in Hashem. This became clear I n the incident with the Manna.

When Yocheved couldn’t hide Moshe anymore, she put him in a box in the Nile River, and Miriam stood in the bushes to see what would happen to him. Why didn’t Yocheved or Amram stay behind to see the baby? The Ponevizher Rav explains that Yocheved and Amram threw in their lot with the rest of the Jewish people. At that time, the mothers gave birth in the fields and left the babies there to be cared for by the angels.

Miriam was in a different position. She had seen through prophesy that Moshe would be a leader and she needed to see it through to the end. Halachically, a navi is charged with watching the fulfillment of his nevuah. We see this concept with Yonah, with Yirmiyahu and with Shmuel. 

Miriam didn’t stay behind to see if Moshe would be saved. She stayed behind to see how Moshe would be saved. She wanted to witness the fulfillment of her nevuah. She wanted to see the miracle, the Hashgachah Pratis, that hand that would stretch all the way to Moshe and rescue him.

Dasan and Aviram didn’t have vision. They just complained and went on to the next complaint. Miriam took her complaint and turned it into a mission. She saw it through to the end.

Posted on 01/08 at 11:14 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Attachment Parenting

Yosef Hatzaddik was a teenager with most of the Jewish world out to get him. He stayed strong. The wife of his boss Potiphar tried to seduce him but he would not give in. He sat in jail for that. The Gemara in Sota tells us that Yosef able to hold back from sin because he saw a reflection of his father in the window. Some point out cleverly that Yosef looked like his father. It was his own reflection that he saw, but it reminded him of his father and inspired him to withstand sin.

A seventeen year old boy who had been shunned by 90% of the Jewish population stayed faithful to his religion and it was his parents that helped him do that.

So many people read this story and think about how we need to strive to live up to our parents’ expectations. I’d like to approach it from the opposite direction. Look what parents can do for their children. We need to be those people for our children. When our children think of religion they need to think of people who are impeccably honest, genuine, good people. They need to envision parents who are constantly working to better themselves and are constantly learning and growing.

The Baal Shem Tov writes that the essence of a child is his parents. A child’s parents form a spark that sits deep inside that child’s neshama. Even when the parent’s are not around, the child is influenced by that holy spark, that eternal DNA, that pushes the child to grow.

If parents are insincere, vain or hypocritical that spark won’t be the same. If the parents are searching for holiness and truth, the inside their child spark will do the same.

I once spoke with a man who was not religious but at one point in life he began to put on Tefillin daily. Several years later he realized that he could not put on tefillin any more so he called his father and asked him to start putting on tefillin instead. He did.

The story makes no sense halachically but it made sense to this man. He understood that his father’s performance of Mitzvos would affect his neshama deeply. It would enhance his spirituality and his own desire to grow.

If we have a desire to grow and become closer to Hashem, chances are that we inherited that from our parents. It may not always be obvious, but it is usually true. And if our children are to have that driving spark, we will need to be there for them.

There are so many outside influences that affect children in today’s world. There is no way that we can control everything. But we can work on that spark, that inner influence of parenthood that gives our child something to reflect upon and something to keep them growing in the right direction.

Posted on 12/10 at 09:22 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, December 04, 2014

Devorah

Yaakov had a difficult life. Rashi tells us that at time that he was sending peace offering to Eisav he was “Sharuy B’kaas”. He was angry. Yaacov had been harassed by his brother, left home, lost everything and been cheated by Lavan in the switching of Rachel and Leah and with the spotted and dotted and striped sheep. He had encountered Eisav and Eisav’s angel, had his daughter kidnapped in Shechem and watched his sons Shimon and Levi get involved in a questionable tactic of promising peace and then killing an entire city.

In the midst of all this Yaakov had a funeral. There were many great people in the Torah but we do not hear about everyone’s funeral. This funeral was a seemingly insignificant character, Devorah the nurse of Rivka yet we are told that Yaacov wept copiously. In fact the place where she is buried is called Alon Bachus. Who was this Devorah and why was she - Rivkah’s nurse with Yaacov to begin with?

The first thing we need to remember is that Yaacov was leaving Lavan’s home in Charan and Rivkah was Lavan’s sister and a native of Charan. Presumably, her nursemaids were natives of Charan as well. Rashi explains that Devorah was with Yaacov because Rivka had promised to send for him when it was time to return home. Devorah was the messenger.

Why did Rivkah choose Devorah, of all people, to fetch Yaacov? It seems from the commentaries that this Devorah is the same wet nurse that was at Rivka’s engagement party many years earlier.  Rivka was blessed that she would be the mother of many multitudes. At the time, Devorah might have wondered if that would ever come true, but she stuck with Rivkah and raised her and helped her become who she was. The Targum says that Devorah was Rivka’s “padagogia”, she was her teacher. She showed Rivkah how to become great and she witnessed Rivkah as she grew.

Now Rivkah’s son Yaakov was at a difficult juncture in life. The UN was mad at him for the incident at Shechem. Lavan had only let them go by the skin of their teeth. Eisav was ready to attack at any moment. And more than any physical danger, Yaacov said that he didn’t know if he was spiritually able to stand all of it. “Maybe I became too small”, he said. “Perhaps I’m not great enough for all this”.

The only person who could answer this question honestly and bring Yaacov back home was Devorah. Devorah had been present when Rivkah was given her mandate. She had watched her grow and guided her through it. Devora, and only Devorah, could say to Yaccov “come home – this will work”.

We cannot judge ourselves and decide that we can’t go further and become greater. We need to find people outside of ourselves who are able to recognize the growth that we can’t see and encourage us. Better yet, we need someone to say, I’ve seen people like you – they turn out ok. This is the role of Devorah. It is why Rivkah sent her, and why
Yaacov cried so much when he buried her.

(Based in part on “Teachings” by Rabbi Asher Brander)

Posted on 12/04 at 09:30 PM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

Rabbi Sender Haber is the Rabbi of the B'nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk, VA. He is well known throughout Hampton Roads, having arrived over twelve years ago as one of the original four members of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel. In that capacity, Rabbi Haber was involved in community wide programming, teaching, and outreach. He has inspired many Jews to expand their Jewish identity and increase their love of Torah and commitment to its observance. Everyone who knows Rabbi Haber is touched by his breadth of Torah knowledge and his ability to convey the wisdom of the ages in such a way as to make those esoteric writings accessible to persons of all levels of experience and a variety of backgrounds.

Rabbi Haber has served in a number of capacities during his years in Norfolk. Since 2003 Rabbi Haber has been a teacher of Jewish Studies at Toras Chaim Day School in Portsmouth, teaching boys and girls of all ages, with a focus on Gemara, Halacha, and Chumash. He has also taught at Yeshivas Aish Kodesh and Bina High School in Norfolk, and served as Assistant Rabbi of B’nai Israel for 6 years. He also serves as the Rabbi of the “Lost Tribe,” Tidewater’s Jewish Motorcycle group! While handling all of these responsibilities, he has continued to participate in numerous Chavrusos (one-on-one learning partnerships) covering a wide range of topics and writings.

Rabbi Haber and his wife Chamie have been married for thirteen years. They have four children, Minna (9), Moshe (6), Ely (4), and Akiva Meir, born in August of 2012. They both come from rabbinic families steeped in Torah, Kiruv and Chesed. Rabbi Haber received his Rabbinic Ordination (Yoreh Yoreh) from Rabbi Sender Rosenbloom and Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander of the Jerusalem Beth Din. He was awarded a Teaching Certificate by Torah Umesorah Association for Jewish Day Schools in 2004 and again in 2009. In addition, Rabbi Haber has spent over a decade studying Talmud, Jewish Law, and ethics in some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivos including Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, NJ and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at senderhaber@gmail.com