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Friday, January 23, 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 01/23 at 05:22 AM • Permalink
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Saturday, January 17, 2015


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 01/17 at 02:21 AM • Permalink
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Friday, January 09, 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 01/09 at 06:14 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, December 11, 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 12/11 at 04:22 AM • Permalink
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Friday, December 05, 2014


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 12/05 at 04:30 AM • Permalink
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Saturday, November 29, 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 11/29 at 04:58 AM • Permalink
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Tuesday, November 25, 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 11/25 at 03:45 AM • 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 09:08 AM • Permalink
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Wednesday, September 24, 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 09/24 at 02:01 AM • 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 05:45 AM • Permalink
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Wednesday, July 23, 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 07/23 at 12:40 AM • Permalink
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Saturday, July 19, 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 07/19 at 03:04 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, July 10, 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 07/10 at 03:06 AM • 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 08:02 PM • Permalink
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Tuesday, May 06, 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 05/06 at 03:53 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