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Friday, November 28, 2014

On Finishing Tanach

I began the study of Nach (prophets) a long time ago with Mrs. Yaffa Elimelech and my class at the Kadimah school of Buffalo. I have clear memories of her standing in front of the room like Golda Meir proclaiming the words of G-d to Joshua “Chazak V’ematz!” – “Be strong and Courageous”. The next year we had Mr. Zaharani who was an IDF reservist.  He had us map out the strategy for each battle and engage in debates about every decision. My father was less than happy when I was given the part of Yiftach and spent a week working on ways to defend Yiftach’s decision to offer his daughter as a sacrifice. The next year, I moved to Melbourne and learned with Rav Opman. He was a Meah Shearim native and read and translated everything into dramatic Yiddish like it was best story book he ever read. A few years later one of Rav Aharon Kotler’s grandchildren and I studied the Neviim Harishonim together and I’ve been continuing on and off since then. When I began to teach at Toras Chaim elementary, my first subject was Navi and preparing for my students while staying up all night with my newborn daughter brought the study of Tanach to a new level.

Not learning Tanach is something you could get away with all your life, yet it is obviously basic to an understanding of the underlying lessons of the Torah. As I learn Tanach and simultaneously come across quotations from Tannaim, Amoraim, Rishonim, Acharonim, and other great men, it becomes obvious that they spent time learning Tanach and were familiar with the context and meaning of the most obscure verses.

Two books that stood out for me were Tehillim and Divrei Hayamim. Both center on the legacy of King David. Tehillim gives us a window into his thoughts, his prayers and his challenges. Divrei Hayamim takes the entire Davidic line and ties it together in one book. It goes back to Adam and forwards to the building of the Second Beis Hamikdash. It gives one an awesome perspective on how short history really is.

When Eli Meir Reich and I finished the book of Shmuel in Stamford, CT about twenty years ago we decided to make a siyum. After all, Rav Moshe Feinstein writes that one can make a siyum and eat meat in the nine days upon finishing a book of Tanach.

We approached our principal, Rav Dovid Hirsch Meyer Zatzal, and asked for permission. It was rumored that the Menahel – as we called him – had finished Tanach over a summer when he was in his teens, so we figured he would be proud of us. The Menahel listened to our question and asked if we studied the parsha each week. We confirmed that we did. “Then”, he pointed out, “you just finished the book of Bereishis. Did you make a siyum?” Of course we hadn’t. The Menahel’s point was that the custom does not seem to bear out the opinion of Rav Moshe.

The Menahel did go on to praise us and to encourage us to make a party and celebrate and encourage our friends to do the same.

And that is what I am doing. There is a Parsha and Haftorah every week, a Megilla every Yom Tov and, after that, just fourteen more books to go.

I’m glad I did it and encourage anyone who can to do the same.

Posted on 11/28 at 10:58 PM • Permalink
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Monday, November 24, 2014

Becoming Yaacov

Toward the end of the parsha, Yaacov and his family finally escaped Lavan and started to make their way back home. Lavan ran after them. He said that he wanted to kiss his daughter’s goodbye but it soon emerged that his real concern was his Terafim, which Rachel had stolen.

Terafim are statuettes that were used for some form of witchcraft. Some say that they would talk to Lavan and tell him things, but the Abarbanel writes they would just help him organize his thoughts. He would focus on them and he would feel like they were talking to him because he would start to think more clearly.

Whether these Trafim were some form of witchcraft or mind game is irrelevant. The point is that Lavan was dependent upon them. He couldn’t think without them, he couldn’t live without them.

Yaacov was quite the opposite; he was attacked by Elifaz, son of Eisav shortly after he left home and lost all of his belongings. Still, he kept on going. He lay down on a mountaintop alone with nothing but stones to protect him, yet we don’t find that he became afraid until he realized that he had slept in a holy place. Yaacov understood that his greatest asset was his personal development.

Yaacov was sixty three at the time of the Brachos. Why didn’t he get married? His father got married at forty and that was considered late! Reb Aharon tells us that he wasn’t ready. He understood that he was expected to raise the twelve tribes and he wanted to make sure that he was prepared. He even stopped at the Yeshiva of Sheim and Ever to study for fourteen years. He wanted to be ready. The Seforno explains that this was Yaacov’ greatest wish when he woke up “Veshavti B’shalom el Beis Avi”. He wanted to return home complete and developed. He wanted to grow from his experiences. He arrived at Lavan’s house at seventy-seven years of age. When Lavan told him to wait seven years, that was ok because he understood that Hahsem was giving him more time to prepare. He went through the challenges of a Jew who needs to be honest in business and loyal to Hashem while surrounded by people who are not.

Throughout the next Parshiyos we find that Yaacov was constantly looking at his own development. He didn’t depend on Lavan for honesty or for Eisav to be nice. He just worked on himself for years and years and years.

That is how he was able to raise the twelve tribes.

There are two ways to grow. You can grow by becoming dependant on things around you or you can grow from within. Yaacov developed himself from within. That was how he survived the tough life that he was dealt and that was how he developed the strength to raise the twelve tribes.

Posted on 11/24 at 09:45 PM • Permalink
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Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Our entire Parsha this week focuses on Yitzchak but still we know very little about him. One could easily mistake Yitzchak for being someone who had very little to say. Over the next few weeks we will read about how Yaacov runs out in search of a wife, deals with Lavan, raises the twelve Shevatim, faces Eisav, and later deals with the brothers as Yosef disappears and they gradually make their way down to Mitzrayim. We don’t have those exciting stories when it comes to Yitzchak.

First of all, it is important to point out that it is a mistake to think less of someone because they don’t do anything exciting or innovative. Yitzchak was strong in his belief and was the only link in the chain that connects us with Avraham. What happened to all of Avraham’s servants and students? They disappeared. They did not have the willpower, the courage and the structured life to carry on Avraham’s legacy in a world that was still unaware of monotheism.

Yitzchak was the only one who stood his ground. When he came to Gerar he noted that all of his father’s wells had been refilled. This was pure spite. It was as if Avraham had built a chain of Royal Farms with free gas across the Negev and Avimelech’s people came and burned them down.

Yitzchak stood his ground because he knew that the land was to be ours and that the wells were a part of Avraham’s way of teaching kindness and G-dliness to the world. He systematically re-dug all of those wells and gave them the same names that his father had given them. When Avimelech and his advisors came to see Yitzchok, he was not flattered into submission. He put them in their place and said “why have you come to me for help? You hate me.” Imagine if a politician in the Middle East had the courage to say that today. Yitzchak agreed to a peace treaty that lasted all the way until the times of Yehoshua, but it was on his terms and with a clear articulation of Avimelech’s motives.

This is the lesson of Yitzchok. Not innovation. Not teaching. Just courage. Courage to stand up for what he believed in a world that wanted him to just go away.

So many of us feel vulnerable in our lives. It’s the world we live in. We watch people lose money, their good name and their health. We see people working hard and not getting much reward. We feel like giving up.

It is at times like those that we need to remember Yitzchak. He just did what was right. He had no doubts in his mind and he went full speed ahead.

In Brisk during the First World War there was once a Jew accused of treason and sentenced to death. Legally, he could not be executed until the rabbi came and performed his last rites. The Brisker Rav refused saying that he would not have a hand in shortening the Jew’s life. They were at a stalemate. The government officials came to shul to get the Brisker Rav but he was davening Shemona Esrei. Knowing that they would wait he just kept on davening while they stood exasperated. Finally, they put enough pressure on the community and another rabbi went and performed the last rites. Immediately after the execution a messenger came running to the courthouse pardoning the man. The Brisker Rav was famous for this. He knew he was right and would not give in. the others were swayed – as we might be – by surrounding events and outside pressure.

We need to emulate the Gevuras Yitzchak – the strength of Yitzchak – and stand our ground for what we believe in.

(Based in part on Abarbanel)

Posted on 11/18 at 03:08 AM • Permalink
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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Haazinu - The Pintele Yid

The Medrash on Haazinu begins with an interesting statement. If someone has an earache on Shabbos, they are allowed to treat it as if the entire body is at risk. The ear is the gateway to the entire body. Good words have the power to change the entire person. Evil words have the power to damage our entire body. Such is the power of the ear.

The Medrash further points out that in Parshas Haazinu, Moshe addressed the Heavens and the Earth. If Moshe addressed the heavens, we can assume that they were affected by the words of Torah. If the words of Torah have the power to affect the heavens and the earth, they surely have the power to affect us.

The Izhbitzer in Mei Hashiloach writes that it is not really our ears that are affected by the words that we hear. The ears are only the conduit for information to travel to our neshamos. Our neshamos are affected very deeply. The word Shomayim has the same numerical value as Neshama because when Moshe addressed the heavens in this week’s Parsha he was also addressing the Neshama.

He told the Neshama about what the Ramban describes as the natural cycle of the Jewish people. We are inspired by the Torah and achieve great things only to be distracted and led astray by success and ideas that we swirl around us. Finally, Hashem says “I will marginalize them; I will erase their memory”.

Thankfully, Hashem does not go through with his plans. “When Hashem judges his people; He changes His mind” - Hashem reconsiders, as it were, and does not allow us to fade into oblivion.

The Chidushei Harim writes that this is the meaning if the blessing of “Magen Avraham”. We thank Hashem three times daily for actively protecting the spark of Avraham within us. Even if we work to extinguish that spark through what we hear and what we do, Hashem keeps His promise to Moshe and does not allow us to disappear.

On Yom Kippur, Hashem gave us a chance to separate ourselves from what we had become and return to that tiny spark. We have a chance to do teshuva and to make real changes. If we can keep from slipping back into our old habits, we can become truly changed people.

The Gemara in Rosh Hashana writes that the Leviim would sing the song of Haazinu every Shabbos at Mussaf. It is the story of our lives. We have ups and downs but we never, ever lose the special spark that is inside of us. There is always a place where we can be reached.

Posted on 09/23 at 09:01 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, August 27, 2014


The Torah tells us in Parshas Shoftim (17:22) – You should not erect a ‘Matzeiva’ – a monument, which your G-d hates. This Pasuk was one of six Pesukim etched onto King Solomon’s throne.

The simple understanding of the verse is that we should not create a Matzeivah for idolatry, as the Ibn Ezra explains. Rashi quotes the Sifri that it is also forbidden to build a Matzeivah for legitimate sacrifices.

The difference between a Matzeivah, a monument, and a Mizbeiach, an altar, is that one is made of many stones and one is made of one stone. G-d hates the Matzeivah which is made with one stone. He favors the Mizbeach which is made with many stones.

This is very odd. The Matzeivah was not the only thing use by idolators. They used Mizbeiach’s as well. This is clear throughout the Torah. Furthermore, Yaacov built two Matzeivos. One was after his dream on Har Hamoriah and the second was after separating from Lavan. Did Hashem hate those too?

The Ramban and the Rambam explain that the Matzeivah that is forbidden was not a Mizbeiach at all. Besides for worshiping their gods, the pagans also worshipped the actual places of worship and stones upon which the priests would stand. This was frowned upon.

A third approach is that of the Abarbanel. The Abarbanel makes an important distinction between a Matzeivah and a Mizbeiach. A matzeivah is a monument to a past event, a reminder of something or someone that was. A Mizbeiach is an expression of thanks or prayer to Hashem. Yaakov built both a monument and an altar, but he was careful not to mix the two. He built Matzeivos but never prayed on them. He brought his sacrifices on a Mizbeiach. The idol worshipers, Abarbanel explains, did not know how to differentiate between a memory and a prayer. They brought their sacrifices right on the Matzeivah.

Remembering events, feelings, and people are important and they are an integral part of being Jewish. Still, they are not Hashem. Our relationship is with Hashem and Hashem alone. 

And when Elul and Rosh Hashana comes, we need to break out of our comfort level.

We’ve all met people who had their fifteen minutes of fame. The reality is that after most people finish their fifteen minutes they are forgotten. They try to milk those fifteen minutes everywhere they go and with everyone they meet for the rest of their lives. Yet they find that most people don’t care. It’s nostalgia. Catching a home run ball at the World Series or meeting the President of the United States will only get you so far.

It wasn’t enough for Yaacov to come back to Har Hamoriah and remember his dream with the ladder. That was awesome, but he had to keep moving. He built a new Mizbeach and brought new sacrifices to Hashem.

We need to take everything that we have from previous years and move forward. We need to try something new, take something up a notch. We can’t just bask in memories of great Elul’s past.

Elul needs to be about more than just nostalgia. Forget the Matzeivah. Build a Mizbeiach.

Posted on 08/27 at 12:45 AM • Permalink
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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Travelling Jewish

The Jewish people have been traveling for many years. The Torah list forty two stops that the Jewish people made before finally entering the land of Israel and it didn’t stop there. We eventually left the land of Israel and we are still travelling around.

The Zohar in Parshas Tetzaveh writes that we left Mitzrayim on a spiritual high. After leaving, we were given forty two different challenges through which we could change the world and develop as a nation. Each place that we camped brought a new challenge. Sometimes we wanted more of G-d; sometimes we were rebellious. Sometimes there was no food; sometimes we ate too much. People died; people were born, people got married, people questioned, and people changed. Sometimes we went forward; sometimes we went backwards. We hit rocks and waged wars and sent spies. We tried to go faster and we tried to turn around. The Book of Bamidbar has been an incredible journey.

There was a specific purpose to each one of the forty two stops. The Zohar teaches that if we had succeeded then, we would have entered Israel and stayed there. We would be complete and the world around us would be perfect.

Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. We needed to leave Israel again and go back through those same forty two exercises and challenges. We didn’t go back to the same geographic position, but throughout our personal and national history we have met each one of those challenges. When we overcome all of those challenges, we will be able to go home.

In this week’s Haftorah, Yirmiyahu told the Jewish people that they should be learning from the Kedarim. These nomadic tribes traveled everywhere, but brought their gods with them wherever they went. Their gods were false, yet the Kedarim had the understanding and loyalty to always stick to the same god. The Jews for some reason felt a need to constantly be starting over again.

When we left Egypt, Hashem gave us all the miracles and amazing wonders that we needed. Afterward He let go a little bit and let the Jewish people stumble along by ourselves. Sometimes, we come to points where Hashem does not seem to be “as with us” as he was.  The Jewish people continue to exist because we don’t just ‘look for something new’. Hashem is with us wherever our travels take us.

Hashem is like a father teaching his daughter to ride a bike. He is watching closely but he is letting go. We need to remember that it is an illusion. Hashem never really leaves us. If we fall He will help us get up.

(Zohar Tetzaveh, Baal Shem Tov, Abarbanel, Toldos Yaakov Yosef)

Posted on 07/22 at 07:40 PM • Permalink
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Friday, July 18, 2014

Iron Dome: 75 Years in the Making

The following question was posed on the internet: What if Hamas overshot a missile from Gaza and it was headed toward a terrorist stronghold in the west bank or Lebanon? Would we use the Iron Dome to shoot it down?

There were many opinions and thoughts, but someone suggested that I skip to answer number 151 from our own Rabbi Yosef Friedman. He said, “This question is a Chilul Hashem”. In his inimitable style, he felt strongly that even to ask the question is an affront to the type of people that we are. We are against the indiscriminate killing of civilians, whether they are our friends or our enemies.

Everyone knows that the heads of Hamas are in a bunker below a hospital in Gaza. They probably know which hospital. Everyone also knows that while others are being told to act as human shields to save their houses, the Hamas leaders can be confident that Israel will not bomb their hospitals. I have been told that if there is a ground invasion it will be for that reason and that reason only. We refuse to bomb high rise buildings and hospitals. And they know that.
Last week’s Haftorah speaks of the frustration of Eliyahu Hanavi. He lost hope in the Jewish people but Hashem told him that the Jewish people will last far longer than he will.

That’s one of the reasons we set a seat up for him at a Bris. Let him come and see that we are still here. This is the Nitzchiyos – the eternal nature of the Jewish people.

Several weeks ago there was a demonstration of the Iron Dome here in Norfolk. I went together with my wife and we heard from Lt. Col. Gideon Weiss who is one of the Vice Presidents of Refael which is the manufacturer of the Iron Dome and soon the Iron Beam.

In addition to showing how the weapons worked to defend Israeli citizens and to change the war strategically, Gideon Weiss explained that Refael is a huge company with contracts all over the world. They recently bought a portion of Zeiss Optronik in Germany. Mr. Weiss showed us how during the war Zeiss Optronik forced Jews to work at making ammunition. He showed us a list of the Jews who worked at Zeiss Optronik and the sick “Identification Numbers” that they gave to each one of the workers.

Then he showed us a picture of his mother who is now living in Israel. The picture showed the number on her arm and it is clear that she was one of those forced laborers in the Zeiss ammunition factory. Today that same factory is owned by her Israeli son and is hard at work developing the technology that may have saved hundreds of Jewish lives over the past week.

The Jewish people have a staying power that is unparalleled. Even as wicked people are launching rockets at our brothers and sisters we are here celebrating another boy another girl, another Bris, and another community devoted to Hashem and His Torah.

Good Shabbos

Posted on 07/18 at 10:04 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Opening the Donkey’s Mouth

I officiated at two funerals last week. The first was at Bnai Isreal cemetery at the same time as the massive funeral in Modiin for the three boys murdered by terrorists. The second was at Forest Lawn at the exact same time as the unveiling of my grandfather’s monument at his grave in Beit Shemesh.

The services had nothing to do with each other but I think they are what the Jewish people are all about.

It doesn’t matter if we are famous or infamous, old or young, related or strangers, in Israel or in Norfolk. All of us are all linked by a common belief in Hashem and the very wise traditions of burial and mourning that have been passed down and cherished from generation to generation. We are linked to Hashem and to each other.

As my siblings drove home from my grandfather’s unveiling they were able to see the fires from the Palestinian riots in Jerusalem. They are upset and the world is upset with them. Never mind that Hamas is the only party that says it is ok to kidnap sixteen year olds. Never mind that the Israelis are making this investigation a top priority while hamas was publicly opposed to any effort to help the three boys. Nobody cares. People are just upset.

Liron is our new Schwarma chef over at Chumus Express and I consulted him on this situation.

Liron said that he didn’t follow the story of the three boys. He said he gave up when Gilad Shalit was a prisoner of war. If the world couldn’t see Hamas for it was back then, he doesn’t see how anything will ever change. Theit are just people out there who a mental block to the fact that Hamas is a terrorist group and that Israel needs to get rid of terrorists in order to survive. It’s obvious, but it’s not what we hear when we turn on the news and read the paper. It’s not what we hear after a mother of a kidnapped sixteen year old cries to the UN security council in Geneva. The world is seeing the same things we are seeing and thinking that maybe we are the bad guy.

This week’s parsha contains the same dynamic. It is in the same region, perhaps the same players, and definitely the same attitude. Balak was the king of Moav and an Anti-semite. He wanted to curse the Jews so he hired his arch-enemy Bilaam to join him in the desert and say bad things about the Jews. Bilaam was the most eloquent speaker alive and he agreed.
BIlaam was Moshe’s nemesis. He was the man who counseled Pharaoh to kill Moshe back in Egypt. He was a natural for coming up with all of the bad things about the Jews and saying them in the worst possible way.

And that is what is happening now. People look at a story of violence and murder, of a civilized country and an uncivilized group of people, of people who treasure life and people who are obsessed with death, and they somehow end up with eloquent criticism of Israel. They tell us not to get too upset.

But that’s not what happened in the desert. Bilaam got up with all of the worst of intentions but he could not see or say anything bad about us. He talked about how great our tents, how great we are, and how we have the power to last forever.

Our problem is that our enemies get up say bad things about us, and we have no donkey opening its mouth. We don’t seem to have Hashem putting words into Bilaam’s mouth. It would be nice if Hashem made the world say only good things about the Jeiwsh people.

Everyone wants to solve the world’s problems, and I’m no exception. I did some research into this week’s Parsha. What did we do to deserve that everyone see things for what they are? How do we recreate that and make it happen again?

In what merit did Hashem make the donkey talk? In what merit was Bilaam forced to speak about our greatness?

I found nothing. We had a well in the merit of Miriam and the Purim Story in the merit of Ester. We had clouds of glory in honor of Aharon and it was in Moshe’s merit that the earth opened up and swallowed Korach and his people. But I could not find one word explaining why we deserved to have donkey open her mouth or why deserved to have Bilaam change his curse in to a blessing.

In the haftorah, Micha tells us “remember what Balak wanted to do to you and what Bilaam ended up doing – so that you will know the righteousness of Hashem”.

Hashem did this “just because”. He helped us and helped everyone see the good in us because He is who He is we are who we are. That’s it.

So as the world still fails to recognize Israel predicament surround by seventy wolves, as the world has nothing serious to say or do to an organization that condones kidnapping and murder and trains suicide bombers, all that remains is for us to be who we are. We need to cling tightly to our Torah and to our Tradition and to each other. We pray that if we work hard enough at being who we are, the nations of the world will one day see that too. They will condemn those who need to be condemned and they will support the one reasonable country in the region and it’s right to arrest a few terrorists.

May we be zoche to see only the good in each other, and may we hear only good things said about us.

Good Shabbos.

Posted on 07/09 at 10:06 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, July 03, 2014


When we begin our meal on Friday night we are joined by two angels. One is good and one is bad. If they find the house lit up and the table set and everything arranged, the good angel says, ‘May it be the Will that next Shabbat will be like this.’ The bad angel is forced to answer ‘Amen.’

If G-d forbid the house is not ready for shabbos, the bad angel says, ‘May it be the Will that next Shabbat will be like this.’ And the good angel is forced to answer ‘Amen.’

The Degel Machane Efrayim writes that the same thing happened to Bilaam. He was hired to curse the Jewish people, to say terrible things about us and to bring about our destruction, but he couldn’t. He took a look at us and was forced to say nice things.

In Rabbi Epraim Schwartz’s weekly email he refers to this feeling as a moment of ‘Wow’. Sometimes we are able to feel removed, detached, even resentful and hateful of something or someone, but then we see them in action. We have a moment of ‘wow’.

Every day, every hour we have to deal with the people around us. We see things that are truly wrong and human beings that are truly flawed. Sometimes we feel like people have no hope. Hashem helps us out and shows us something nice about these people. He gives us something good to think about whenever we are thinking something bad; something constructive to think about whenever we are ready to lash out and destruct.

We need to seize those moments and treasure them. They might not come again.

We strive to be the good angel who only sees good, but at the very least we can be that bad angel who recognizes something nice and is forced to say ‘Amein’.

I could stop here, but I’d like to take things one step further and flip them around. It was we, the Jewish people, who gave Bilaam his ‘wow moment’. Bilaam looked at our tents and our homes and our shuls and said “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaacov”. That is a power that we have.

We can create a moment in which everything changes.

I once heard a story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe that stuck in my head.  There was a general with a long and difficult name that once came to see the rebbe. Perhaps is name was kogissofilevich. The rebbe met him years later and greeted him accurately by name. The general started to cry. “Everyone tries to avoid saying my name”, he said. “Nobody can pronounce it and they don’t even make the effort. It is so refreshing for someone to remember and call me by my own name”.

I have a recommendation: We are going into the summer months. People leave and travel for a few days, for a few weeks, sometimes longer. Some people leave and don’t come back. Some are sick, some are busy.

Pick up the phone and give them a call. Just say “Good Shabbos”. “Life isn’t the same without you”. “Hope you’re doing ok”.

A call like that can change a relationship. It can make someone’s day or someone’s life. They say that Shlomo Carlbach made a random call to a phone number that he found in his pocket. Turns out that the fellow hadn’t been called in weeks and was about to hang himself.

That story may or may not be true, but the ease with which we can pick up the phone and the power of the impact that we can make is undeniable.

Don’t just go into the three weeks with a fast and a somber attitude. Go into the three weeks seeing the good in others, and giving others a chance to see the good in you.

Posted on 07/03 at 03:02 PM • Permalink
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Monday, May 05, 2014

The Belt Buckle

During World War II my grandfather used to trade cigarettes with the German and Japanese Prisoners of War on his ship. He would give them cigarettes and they would give him whatever they had. He showed me some of the Nazi memorabilia that he acquired. We both agreed that it was gruesome but he couldn’t get rid of it.

One of the items in my grandfather’s collection is a belt that changed my life. The fact that it is a belt worn by a Nazi is fascinating enough for a young boy, but it was worse: On the belt buckle, right above the Swastika, are the words “Got Mit Unz” – “G-d is with us”.

Chutzpah is too nice of a word. I still can’t get my mind around the fact that those sadistic and subhuman Nazis had the stupidity to entertain the idea that G-d was somehow on their side. May their name be obliterated forever.

Earlier this week I attended the Yom Hashoah event and had the privilege of hearing a lecture from a holocaust survivor named Werner Reich. Warner Reich remembered the belt buckle. He was a short eight year old when he went to Auschwitz and it was at his eye level.

Warner recalled being shocked by the belt buckle. “G-d’s with you!? G-d’s with us!”, he thought.  “We are the ones who study G-d’s Torah and keep his laws. We don’t kill, we don’t steal, and we don’t covet. We honor the Shabbos and we dedicate our lives to representing G-d. G-d is with us!”

Warner was a tiny, scared, hungry, undressed orphan who had just come off of three days in a cattle car. He was looking at a well dressed and powerful officer with a highly polished belt buckle. But he knew that G-d was with him and not with the enemy.

We will never ever have to deal with anything even remotely close to what Warner Reich dealt with and survived. We will never ever have to deal with the indignities that Warner Reich suffered. But we will have challenges in your life. Some of those challenges will be formidable. Some will make us lose sleep and lose confidence. Some will make us scared.

G-d is with us. We walk the paths of men and women who live with G-d. And when you live with G-d you can live with anything.

It’s not that simple though. We are going to need to make Torah integral to our lives. We are going to need to allow the Torah to form who we are and how we act and how we react and what we believe in and how we live.

It’s not just our Torah, it’s G-d’s Torah. It’s the Torah that makes us special and able to face anybody and anything that dares to disparage our uniqueness.

May G-d be with us.

(Originally shared at the Bar Mitzvah of Yitzi Litt. Mazal Tov!)

Posted on 05/05 at 10:53 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Staying Awake at Night

"Rebbe Chanina ben Chachinai said: One who is awake at night or goes on the road by himself, and turns his heart to wasteful things, this person is taking his life in his hands.”

The Mishna seems to be giving us an important practical lesson: If you are up at night or walking alone, don’t waste time. Turn to the Torah. Grow. Become better. Be a better Jew.

About two thousand years ago, a young shepherd by the name of Akiva decided to devote his life to Torah. Everyone but his wife thought that he was crazy, but he did it. The Talmud tells us that he had twenty four thousand followers, and that all of them died.

We mourn their death at this time of year by not getting married and not listening to music, but we also stop mourning on Lag B’omer, in part to celebrate the fact that Rabi Akiva picked himself up after losing all of his students and moved down South where he established new students at great peril to his life.

Thanks to Rabi Akiva, the unbroken chain of the Torah’s transmission remained intact.

Rabi Akiva lived at a very dark period in history and he was very alone. The Romans had outlawed Torah study and his students were wiped out in a plague. He had to go against the flow and he had very little support.

The Mishna that we mentioned speaks of a person who is awake at night and a person who walks alone. A person who is awake at night is a person who wants to keep going when the whole world is standing still. A person who is awake at night is a person who wants to move forward even though he can’t be sure where his path is leading him.

The worst thing for that person to do is to forget about the Torah. If he forgets about the Torah he really is in danger of getting lost. He really will be alone.

A Jew is never alone. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you need to remember that Hashem is with you. It may be the middle of the night or in the middle of a personal struggle in your own life, you need to remember that you are never alone.

Remember to stay awake at night. Remember to keep on growing when the world is standing still. Remember that you are never truly walking alone, because Hashem is with you in every step that you take and every decision that you make.

(I originally shared the following at Moshe Rothman’s Bar Mitzvah. It is based in part on a thought from Rav Michel Twerski Shlita of Milwaukee, although he did not recall it when I repeated it to him.)

Posted on 04/30 at 03:59 AM • Permalink
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Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Rose by another Name

Throughout the Song of Songs, King Solomon compares the Jewish people to a rose. We are the Chavatzeles of the Sharon and the Shoshanah of the Valleys. A Chavatzeles is an underdeveloped bulb while a Shoshana is a fully developed rose, vibrant in all of its glory.

According to the American Rose Society, the rose market as we know it underwent a significant change in 1867. The French developed a rose which they named “La France” and from that time on genetically altered roses became very popular. The roses that are mass produced and sold in grocery stores are generally modern roses.

The main difference between a modern rose and an Old Garden Rose (which you can still get) is that the modern roses are weak and highly dependent on Sunlight. They also die quickly. Old World Roses need far less sunlight. As a result they have a richer color and they fade far slower than modern roses. Old World Roses are tough.

The Vilna Gaon explains that the Jewish people are Old World Roses. We thrive in the shade. Our natural colors emerge and our scent is more pungent than that of any other rose. We are the Shoshana of the Valleys.

When we were slaves in Egypt we were so choked and burdened and malnourished that even we couldn’t sprout at all.

Even before we were fully freed, we celebrated the first Pesach in the Egyptian city of Ramses. We didn’t need to go to Eretz Yisroel or even to leave Egypt. All we needed was a little bit of sunlight and we were able to shine right there in the darkness of Egypt.

After we left Egypt we often found ourselves over exposed to the elements. Too much sunlight for an Old World Rose. Our unique qualities began to fade and we weren’t quite as fragrant.

In Shir Hashirim we remind Hashem that we are the most beautiful, strong, vibrant roses that exist. We may look awful, faded and windblown, but our DNA has not changed.

Just as we recovered quickly from the darkness of Egypt and immediately sprouted into a beautiful rose, we remind Hashem that we will do the same if he will take us now, in our faded glory and replant us in our perfect valley.

The Beis Halevi points out that so many habits need to be broken over time. Nations take centuries to change. Somehow, the Jewish people have historically been able to attain immediate holiness. This is because holiness has been a part of us all along.

So many of us aren’t perfect. Deep inside we want to improve but we are so entrenched in our surroundings, our habits and our relationships that we can’t just change.

Sometimes we are starved for sunlight; sometimes we have too much. Still, our basic DNA will never change. Put us in the perfect environment and we will immediately blossom into the beautiful Shoshana that we have always been.

Posted on 04/19 at 12:36 AM • Permalink
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The Answer

Sometimes we need to explain things that have no explanation. It might be a joke, a feeling of satisfaction, or intense anger.

Explaining takes away a piece. Once you put it into words you lose the essence. You limit your experience to that which you can ariculate.

The Piasetzner tells us not to share our most inspirational moments. Once we try to explain them they become finite and lose their luster.

At the Seder we don’t have that luxury. Our children are asking questions. They want to know more, they want to know why we bother, or they are just confused.

Even if our child does not ask, we need to answer him anyway. Even if there is no child we need to articulate our feelings.

The Bnei Yissoschar explains based on the Arizal that Hashem does this for us as well. It is difficult to come close to G-d because it is impossible to comprehend him. V’chi Efshar Lidavek B’eish?! Is it possible to attach to oneself to fire?!

On Pesach we are given to understand and come close to Hashem. He takes us out in a way that we can truly comprehend. We are all Kabbalists for just a moment.

People work their entire lives to be like ‘huge tzadikim’. On Pesach we are there.

We all have a Pharaoh inside of us. There is something in us that has the ability to see on miracle after another and to remain uninspired and uninterested.

I knew a fellow who was a heretic. He would learn and go to shul but he didn’t believe. This went on for years. One day a torah scholar that he knew suffered a tragedy. This fellow attended the Shiva and for the first time ever started to daven.

Why? It didn’t make sense, he didn’t understand G-d better but he was so overcome by his lack of control and by the fact that the torah scholar was so confident in Hashem’s control that he began to believe.

That is our gift at the Seder. We recognize, finally, that it is all Hashem.

We articulate to our children on their level and Heaven articulates it to us in a way that we can comprehend. We need to savor, enjoy, live, and grow with every moment of the Seder.

When it is over we need to use the forty-nine days of counting the omer to take that newly articulated holiness and allow it to become a part of our daily lives so that we can be fully prepared to receive the Torah as elevated human beings.

Posted on 04/19 at 12:14 AM • Permalink
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Be The Matzah

Dough is one of the most unwieldy and uncooperative items in the kitchen. I’ve seen dough rise back out of the Garbage can, push open the door of the refrigerator and jump out of the bread machine and onto the floor. It has a life of its own. Wine ferments in a staid and mature fashion. Dough can be all over the place.

The Torah describes Matzah as Lechem Oni - a poor man’s bread but the way it is actually written in the Torah is Lechem Ani - Poor bread. Is it the bread that is poor or the person that is poor? The Gemara brings an argument as to which is the proper translation and the Shulchan Aruch quotes both.

The Bnei Yissaschar explains that in truth both explanations are the same. Our Mitzvah is not just to eat the Lechem Oni, it is to be the Lechem Oni. We need to be like that bread.

Creativity is great. There is nothing wrong with growing unpredictably and spontaneously, but every once in a while we need to put that dough back in its place we bang it down and pat it down and rush it into a two thousand degree oven to ensure that it doesn’t rise. We need to get back to the basics.

Take things down to their simplest level. This is how Hashem made me. This is what Hashem wants me to do. It is good to build on that, but once in a while we need to just take ourselves out of it.

Sometimes we have a little kid who is so excited about going outside or going to shul. We tell him or to stand still for a minute while we button his shirt or tie his shoes.

We are that little kid. We are so excited about life and G-d and fly off in ten different directions. Today we need to just pause and give Hashem a moment to tie our shoes. We need to make sure that we have the basics.

Matzah is called Nahma D’meihemnusa. It is the bread of Emunah.  Even if we lose everything else, we will still have our Emunah. On Pesach we get back to the basics.

Posted on 04/19 at 12:04 AM • Permalink
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Friday, April 11, 2014

Good Idea? (Acharei Mos)

After the death of Aharon’s two sons Moshe came and told Aharon that he should not enter the Kodesh Hakodashim.

Rav Yosi Haglili confirms that the sons of Aharon had been killed as a punishment for their entry.

Something seems wrong here. If the sons were punished for bringing a strange fire or for being intoxicated, one could argue that they had been warned. But here there was no hint at all that the brothers were not allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. Why the punishment?

One could argue that we are dealing with cause and effect but that does not seem to be the approach of Rav Yosi Haglili.

I think the answer lies in a Medrash Rabba. The Medrash says that the sons committed four sins. They entered the Holy of Holies, they brought a strange fire, they brought the wrong sacrifice, and … they did not consult with one another.

Some explain cleverly that there is a sin for more than one person to enter the Kodesh Hakodashim at a given time. Since Nadav and Avihu didn’t collaborate they ended up coming together and they died.

I think the explanation may be much simpler:

Whenever we embark upon something holy, exciting, and new, we need to humble ourselves and check with somebody else. There is certain arrogance to saying, “there is one spot on earth that is holier than any other and I am going to be the first one to enter it”. It may come from a good place and it may even be a good sentiment, but Nadav and Avihu should have at the very least conferred with one another before taking the step.

The Torah is acquired B’chavrusa and B’eitzah – through companionship and advice.

Perhaps the brothers were punished for entering because they should have consulted with someone else first. Maybe they would have come up with a different idea. Maybe they would have realized that only Aharon should go in, and only on Yom Kippur, and only for a minute.

This was Moshe’s message to Aharon. “Your sons cannot be excused for entering the Kodesh Hakodashim on their own. You didn’t enter. You waited to discuss it with me. I am here as your brother to tell you that it is a good idea”.

Articles on Pesach:

Posted on 04/11 at 03:10 AM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

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

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

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

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at