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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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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

“Tur Tur”

“The blossoms have appeared in the land; the time of singing has arrived and the call of the turtledove is heard in our land.” (Song of Songs 2:12)

The TurtleDove (Streptopelia turtur) gets her name from her distinctive, purring, gentle and evocative TurTur sound as she brings in the summer months. It is a farewell to winter and a wake up call to new and better times to come.

These sounds are heard throughout the land, but they are directed at us. Hachodesh Hazeh Lachem – this month is for you – G-d says, because it is our chance for renewal. As we welcome Parshas Hachodesh, we witness the rebirth of the moon and experience the refreshing vistas of springtime. We relate to this reality by preparing for Pesach, the Seder, and the anniversary of the day that we were taken by Hashem to be his nation (R S.R. Hirsch, The Jewish Year).

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

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

One of the early Chasidishe rebbes, “The Shpoyler Zaide” (of Dancing Bear fame) once sat down at his Seder and invited his youngest child to recite the Simanim. The youth said. “Kadesh – the father comes home from shul puts on his kittel and makes kiddush”. He stopped. The Zaide asked, “is that it!?” “yes”, the boy replied “that’s all my teacher taught me”. Early the next morning the Zaide approached the teacher in shul: “is it true that you taught the children an abridged version of the text”?! The teacher explained that since the children were young it he felt was enough just to teach them the bare bones of things. The rebbe scolded the teacher: “don’t you realize that everything in the Seder has special significance? Kiddush isn’t just a blessing on wine, it means holiness and sanctification. The father we refer to is Hashem. On the first night of Pesach Hashem comes home from shul with us (so to speak). He is hoping to purify and redeem us as He did thousands of years ago on this day. It is in this hope we ask that the father (Hashem) “put on his kittel” and make kiddush (i.e. make us holy) very quickly. The reason for the rush is because us Jews are like little kids with a very short attention span. For hundreds of years Jews have been begging Hashem: “Make Kiddush quickly before your little children fall asleep. Never leave those words out again!”

Logically we should first wash our hands and then become holy. However, on Pesach (in Egypt and today) we are like Hashem’s small children. We really can’t be expected to wash our hands on our own and we need a little help from Hashem. It is not we who are sanctifying ourselves at the seder, but G-d who is sanctifying us. Every Pesach (and, on smaller scale, every shabbos) we receive a gift of free sanctification from Hashem. Sometimes that holiness is allowed dissipate and get lost, but if we are alert we can ride that holiness and follow it with our own purification, making it last forever.

At the end of the Torah we compare Hashem to an eagle that awakens his young by hovering above them. The Vilna Gaon explains the eagle flies higher than all other birds and carries her young on her back to protect them from any harm. In order to travel safely the birds need to be awake and holding on tight. In the same way, Hashem wakes us up, but it is our responsibility to stay awake and hold on tight.

It is Nissan. Spring is here. The time of singing has arrived and the turtledove is calling.

Wake Up! 

Posted on 03/26 at 11:37 PM • Permalink
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Friday, March 21, 2014

Rules and Reasons - Understanding The “Chok”

A Chok is a Mitzvah without any apparent reason. Some Mitzvos, like kindness, Tzadaka, and not killing are commandments that could have emerged in any thinking society. Other mitzvos, like Shofar and Lulav, are Mitzvos that we do just because Hashem told us to do them.

I would like to suggest that the difference between Chukim and Mishpatim are not as clear cut as one would think. It seems that most Mitzvos contain elements of both Chok and Mishpat – apparent reasons and non-apparent reasons.

The Rambam writes that the Mitzva to blow Shofar is a Chok. It is a rule without an apparent reason. We blow the shofar because Hashem told us to. Still, the Rambam writes that there is an important message in the Shofar: It is a wakeup call, telling us to do teshuva.

The Rambam seems to be saying that there are two levels to every Mitzva: There is the Chok – the fact that we do it just because Hashem said so and then there is the reason that we can relate to, that talks to us, and that we can comprehend.

The Seforno writes that this concept is clear in Tehillim. King David writes: “Blow a Shofar in the new year …. for it is a chok for the Jewish people; and a Mishpat of Hashem”. It is beyond our comprehension and meaningful all at once

Listening to ones parents is another example. It is also called a Chok and a Mishpat: “Sham sam lo Chok U’mishpat”. Usually listening to our parents makes logical sense: we owe them and they are older and wiser than us. Other times, we just shrug our shoulders in bewilderment and listen anyway. In this way, honoring parents is both a chok and a mishpat: logical, but not totally within our comprehension.

Parshas Parah, teaches about a pure chok. The laws of Red Heifer, more than any other mitzvah, defy any level of comprehension. We are taught that if a person becomes impure by coming in contact with a corpse, the only way for he or she to become pure again is to find a pure red heifer, slaughter it and burn it, mix its ashes with water and sprinkle them over a period of seven days. After seven days, the person who is sprinkled becomes pure but the people who purified him need to go to the mikva. Nobody understands how this works. It is a Chok.

The Beis Halevi explains that the role of Parah Adumah is to remind us that every mitzvah has depth. We don’t understand the full depth of any Mitzvah. Still, the Beis Halevi writes, we are obligated to do our best to make the mitzvah meaningful for ourselves.

King Solomon tried to understand the Parah Adumah, “I tried to understand”, he said, “but it was out of my grasp”. We need to work to understand the Mitzvos and make them meaningful, even as we realize that they contain a depth beyond our comprehension.

The Piasetzna Rebbe asks how it is possible for people to study Torah and net be perfect. He was writing for teenage boys and he acknowledged that Torah and Mitzvos don’t always achieve the desired results. We get on a high and act holy for a while, but we also come down and revert back to our old nature. Aren’t the Torah and Mitzvos supposed to make us better and holier people?

The Rebbe explains, based on the Zohar: “The Torah is a garment. Anyone who admires the beauty of a garment but believes that there is nothing within the garment is missing the point.” A person could study clothes all day and learn a lot of important things, but he will not have even begun to comprehend the essence of the person in those clothes.

We can do the Mitzvos properly and perfectly, but if we do not look beyond the rules and into the inner meaning. They will not have the desired effect. It is true that we can’t possibly understand the full depth of all of the Mitzvos and that some Mitzvos, like Parah Adumah, are completely beyond our grasp. Still, we need to try to look beyond the surface and understand what it is that we are doing.

Several years ago, one of my brothers was rushed to the hospital in Israel. They were travelling down Kvish Echad with the sirens blaring, yet some cars refused to move out of the way. The driver explained to my father that everyone had a reason why they weren’t moving. Some were Palestinians who were unconcerned about a Jewish ambulance, others could tell from the way they were driving that this was not a terrible emergency, others knew that even if they moved to the side the ambulance would still be stuck in the traffic up ahead.

As I imagine the scene, I can’t help but think, “just stop making calculations and move over to the side –my brother is in there!”

The truth is, though, that not thinking isn’t a great approach either. A person could move aside dozens of times and never once think about the person inside of the ambulance. That person will have missed an important opportunity to grow. When we hear an ambulance, we should take a minute to think. We can move to the side, we can say a chapter of Tehillim, and we can thank Hashem that you are safe and that if we were injured they would be available to help us. By thinking about what we are doing we can become better people. 

This needs to be our approach to every Mitzvah. We do it because Hashem said so and because that is His will, but that shouldn’t stop us from thinking into the mitzvah, trying to understand it, and doing our best to grow as people.

Posted on 03/21 at 01:58 PM • Permalink
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Friday, March 14, 2014

What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You

Knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially when it is biblical. To know something biblically is to become intimately and personally familiar with it in a way that we cannot separate ourselves from our knowledge.

We grow up knowing that everything G-d does is for the best, that G-d has a plan and that there is justice in this world. G-d gives us glimpses into His plan and we love to tell those stories. The plane that we didn’t make, the job we didn’t take, and the deal that fell through. Those are our “Baruch Mordechai” moments. They are the moments when we thank G-d that there are people like Mordechai and Ester in this world to inspire us and to make sure that every story has a happy ending.

But that isn’t all we know. We know suffering. We know pain. We know hypocrisy and death and illness. We know sadness in ways that make it hard to remember Hashem’s plan and the confidence that it should inspire. Those are our “Arur Haman” moments. They are the moments when we become aware of a Haman, of an Achmedenijad, of illness and suffering and of righteous people dealing with pain.

Those cynicism laced moments of “Arur Haman” do not come from a bad place. They come from intelligence and experience. Our knowledge of evil gets in the way of our acknowledgment that all that G-d does is good.

We are, after all, intelligent people.

We celebrate the Purim story, but was it really that great? Genocide was legalized. The king and his Prime Minister wanted to kill us and the army and police force were making plans. Sure it ended well, but was it a happy story?

There will be people mourning this Purim. There will be people who are sick and people who need to accept those charitable gifts we so generously give. There is plenty of despair to go around. We know.

And for one day a year we are told to forget what we know. We are encouraged to suspend our intimate knowledge of the evil and sorrow that surrounds us and to be drunk with the thought that life is good and G-d is great.

For one day a year our intelligent and experienced and empathetic nation is enjoined to get to a point at which we no longer “know” the difference between “Arur Haman” and “Baruch Mordechai”. We forget everything we know and rejoice in G-d.

Sometimes too much knowledge is a bad thing. This Purim we need to forget some of our knowledge and allow ourselves to get utterly lost in the bliss of G-d’s grand plan.

(Based on Biur Hagra, Orach Chaim 695:3. See also Sifsei Chaim, Vol. II p.233 and Afikei Mayim, ch. 8)

Posted on 03/14 at 12:09 AM • Permalink
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Friday, February 28, 2014

Hot Spot

A few years ago, I worked with my star student Michael on his Bar Mitzva speech for parshas Pikudei.  He did a great job. Michael was talking about himself, but I think that the Bar Mitzvah boy inside each one of us can relate:

This morning, I read to you about the Mishkan that the Jews built in the desert. The Mishkan was a structure dedicated to Hashem. In it, the people could serve Hashem with no distractions at all. Nobody lived in the Mishkan. They all had lives. But they knew that the Mishkan was there for them when they needed somewhere quiet and holy to go.

I have learned from my parents and teachers that Hashem does not demand that we concentrate on only Him 24/7. As long as we are following the Torah, Hashem encourages us to live our lives and have fun as we become productive members of society. On the other hand, I have learned that we cannot spend our whole life running around and living for others. We need to take time out to concentrate on ourselves and our relationship with G-d. The Jewish camp in the desert was enormous, but it could not be complete without the sacrosanct structure of the Mishkan where everything could be forgotten and our souls could be nourished.

As I grow up, I’ve come to realize that life can get very complicated and very busy. Years ago, life was simpler: I would wake up, cry, eat, and get my diaper changed. Now I need to split my time between Shacharis, school, sports, sleeping, eating, learning and beating up my brother.

I have come to appreciate the value of taking “time out” to evaluate and appreciate everything that I have in my life. I have come to realize how important it is to set aside time to talk to Hashem.

Even professional athletes cannot spend all of their time on the court. In the average Basketball game things can get pretty heated up. People get hyper, pressured and sometimes discouraged. Every once in a while it is important for them to huddle together or take some time off on the bench or in the dugout. There is nothing wrong with getting excited, but everyone needs a place where they can cool down and refocus.

Of course there is a big difference between a Dugout and a Mishkan, but the concept of space and time is the same. Every Shul is a Mikdash Me’at, a mini-sanctuary where we can pause and let time stand still as we communicate with G-d.

I am privileged that I have been brought up in a community where I have been taught how and where to come and connect with Hashem.

Thank You.

Posted on 02/28 at 11:45 AM • Permalink
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Friday, February 14, 2014

Choosing The People

Moshe was up on Har Sinai receiving the Torah when Hashem told him, “You need to leave now. Your Jewish people have made themselves a Golden Calf. They have made a wrong turn and are heading in the wrong direction. They are dancing around the calf and worshipping it, saying ‘this is your god who took you out of Egypt.”

It was clear that the forty days on Har Sinai would not end successfully. Moshe would not receive the Torah.

Hashem gave Moshe some advice. “These people are stubborn.” He said, “Let me destroy the Jewish people. Keep the Luchos and start a new nation. I will make you great.”

Now Moshe had a choice: He could forsake the Jewish people and take the Luchos or he could stay with the Jewish people and, necessarily, break the Luchos. (Perhaps, he also had the option to retire).

The logical course of action was to forget about the Jewish people. The Jewish people had been complaining since Moshe first lobbied Pharaoh to let them go. The Jewish people deserved to be destroyed. Moshe deserved better.

Still, Moshe chose the Jews. He descended Har Sinai to join them and he shattered the luchos before their eyes. Over time, he helped them change their ways and finally grow to the point where they were ready to truly accept the second Luchos.

Moshe could have taken Hashem’s advice. He could have chosen the easy and logical way. He could have kept the Luchos and built a nation with his own family. Instead, he risked everything and stuck with the Jewish people.

What was Moshe thinking when he voluntarily left G-d’s presence and descended the Mountain? What motivated Moshe?

If we could ask Moshe this question, we would expect the answer to be profound: ‘My heart is with my people’, ‘I couldn’t see things any other way’, ‘I was blinded by my love’, or perhaps ‘they needed me, how could I forsake them?’

According to the Gemara, Moshe Rabeinu’s thoughts were quite different:

Moshe’s first motivation was logical. Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov had devoted their lives to G-d. G-d promised each of them that He would care for their children. If those promises were not a strong enough to keep a nation alive – there was no way that Moshe be able to successfully build a nation. 

Moshe’s second motivation was shame: “How will it look? People will say that I abandoned the nation I was leading to start a nation of my own”

It is difficult to believe that Moshe Rabeinu made such a selfless decision based on such selfish motives. He was afraid that his new nation wouldn’t work and he was afraid that it would look bad. Didn’t B’nai Yisroel themselves factor in? Weren’t they part of the equation?

About one hundred years ago in Russia there was a young yeshiva bochur who was a bit of a troublemaker. One morning he wanted to have a bit of fun so he tucked a goat in the Aron Kodesh of the bais midrash before davening. It was a day with krias haTorah so when the Aron was opened in the middle of davening the goat popped out and started prancing all over the bais midrash.

It didn’t require much investigation to identify the perpetrator. In short order the case was taken up by the faculty. The overwhelming opinion was to expel the young man but such a move would have drastic implications. Finally, the menahel of the yeshiva, who was the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe met with the boy. The principal asked him some questions and then asked him if there is any reason he should not be expelled from the yeshiva.

The boy responded very cleverly, “If you expel me from the Yeshiva”, he said, “You are not only expelling me. You are also expelling my children and my children’s children and their children for all generations.”

The menahel was impressed with the boy’s answer and allowed him to stay in yeshiva, on the condition that he stay away from all goats.

Moshe Rabeinu realized that it was not important to judge the Jewish people who stood at the bottom of the mountain. He needed to think about the descendents of their forefathers. They had strong roots and they would grow into a strong nation. At the moment it might be logical to abandon them, salvage the Luchos and start his own nation, but as a leader he knew that their past and their future were too powerful to be abandoned based on a momentary lapse.

By looking at the pragmatic realities of existing as a nation, Moshe did more than just ‘stick with his people’, he recognized them for who they were and acknowledged that no momentary situation could justify abandoning them forever.

Hashem offered Moshe the logical choice, but Moshe read between the lines. He recognized our past and helped us realize our future.

See also:

Posted on 02/14 at 06:24 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Har Sinai

The Torah is not just a compendium of rules. It is a lifestyle. It is a value system. It our own personal instruction book and owner’s manual, written by G-d himself. It was the ultimate wake up call to the Jewish soul. A wake up call that we have remembered and forgotten dozens of times through the centuries.

One of the greatest spiritual awakenings in recent times was the Six Day War in 1967.

Today, almost any Jew who visits Israel makes time to go to the Kosel but this was virtually impossible before the Six Day War. There are few experiences that can top going to the Kosel after all those years of waiting and all of the miracles of that war.

Leading up to and during the war, people were scared. Everyone was trying to get on Hashem’s good side. The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggested, in his wisdom, that people put on tefillin as a sign of our relationship with Hashem and that he would defend us against the nations that surrounded us. When the Israeli paratroopers captured the Kosel some actually had their Tefillin with them and put them on. As soon as the Kosel was open to the public Chabad was there with their Tefillin booth.

During that time Ariel Sharon came to the Kosel with a group of foreign soldiers. At the time he was a military commander and a war hero. He was also very secular but when he was asked to put on tefillin he did so after just a moment’s hesitation. The picture was in the next day’s Maariv. When people saw that this secular hero was putting on tefillin at the kosel, it became the thing to do. In the weeks after the end of the war ninety percent of the Jews in Israel were at the Kosel and thousands put on tefillin. That was a big part of making sure that the Kosel became a religious experience and not just a historic, patriotic, or archeological pilgrimage.

There is a merit in that act of putting on tefillin that never goes away. More importantly, there were those holy sparks inside every one of the Jewish People that had to feel some pride during that time. We are a holy nation and after the six day war, everybody wanted to be holy. A famous letter to the editor of the Maariv said, “When will all these miracles stop so we can go back to the beach?”

We have our ups and downs throughout history, but this spiritual pride that we have began with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Why was the mountain on which the Torah was given was called Sinai? Why is the Sinai desert called Sinai?  Some people think that it has to do with the “Sneh”, the burning bush that Moshe found, but the Gemara in Berachos tells us that it is called Sinai because of the Nissim, the miracles that took place there. Also a ‘Neis’ is something that is raised up like a flag. G-d raised us up as His nation at har Sinai.

This is a little strange.  Nes is spelled nun-samech. The Gemara asks why wasn’t the mountain named Har Nisai? What is Har Sinai?

The answer is that not everyone saw the giving of the torah as uplifting and miraculous. Some people were actually filled with hate and Sinah.

Har Sinai, and the desert surrounding it, are named for the hatred and anti-Semitism that our Torah brought into the world.

How awful!

The Noam Elimelech explains this idea in a remarkable way. Everything, according to Chassidus, has sparks of holiness in it. Even the most evil men and women contain sparks of holiness. Those sparks yearn for the Torah and are resentful when they see us living in a G-dly fashion. They hate us because we received the Torah.

Just as a Freudian might point out that there are always underlying psychological reasons for hatred; there are underlying spiritual reasons for hatred as well. The holiest and most hidden parts of the evil people resent that they were not given the Torah. According to Chassidus these are the sparks resenting that they aren’t a part of the giving of the Torah.

Hatred is almost a good thing. It is a manifestation of the holiness and the quest for holiness that lies within a person.

Like any emotion, we can just hate, or we can look deeper into ourselves and get a truer understanding.

We are all holy and proud to be Jewish. Even when we find ourselves hating and spiteful we need to look deep inside and see if that is coming from a place of purity, because even the worst types of hatred came into this world at Har Sinai with the giving of the Torah.

Next time you feel unholy - look deeper.

Posted on 01/23 at 04:54 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Our Song

There are so many elements to Parshas Beshalach: the splitting of the sea, the Mon, and the war with Amalek. Still Shira seems to be the focal point for which the shabbos is named.

Shira can be translated as song, as poetry, or even random sounds. It is an articulation of something that is going on deep in our neshamos.

Shira is not simple. King David wrote the Psalms and somehow he has been the standard bearer for Shirah for over two thousand years. Everyone respects the Psalms of King David.

A life in which we cannot express ourselves and in which we suppress our emotions is a very frustrating life.

The Piasetzner writes in Shalosh Maamaros (2:5) that there are three levels of prophecy. The highest is Ruach Hakodesh, but diectly below that is Shirah. The level right below Shirah is Prayer. The idea is that our souls are full of lofty G-dly ideas. We contain a ‘piece’ of G-d inside of us. We don’t always feel holy because articulating those ideas is tricky and we have so many other thoughts inside of us but when we achieve prayer or Shira we have achieved a measure of Ruach Hakodesh, even prophecy.

I once went to King David’s grave in Israel. Many people say that it is not King David’s grave, the Christians say that it was the site of the last supper and the Muslim’s say that it is theirs, but I felt a need to go so I went.

I went to the sarcophagus and quietly began to say a bit of tehillim from memory. It was the same Tehillim that we say every morning in shul, but this time I was saying it right next to King David. Next to me there was a Breslover clapping loudly and jumping up and down in prayer. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an Israeli teenager walk in. He had no Yarmulke and he looked at the grave and at me and at the Breslover and then he just stood there. He was lost. He couldn’t recite Tehillim from memory and he certainly wasn’t going to jump up and down and clap.

Just then a fourth person walked into the room.

He went over to that Israeli teenager and said “Do you want to pray?” Together they recited – in their native tongue- “Mizmor Ledavid hashem Ro’i Lo Echsar...” – “A psalm written by David: G-d is my shepherd, I shall not want…” I watched as another boy stood by silently waiting his turn. They were Israeli teenagers wandering around the old city. They all wanted to pray and they didn’t know how.

Dovid Hamelech was the heart of all of us. He sang our songs and he wrote our poems. We need to take the time to articulate our feelings before G-d.

If we can do it in prayer, great!

If we can teach others to pray, great!

The main thing is not to let our lives pass us by without learning how to truly access the depths of our hearts – and pray and sing and articulate the holy feelings that percolate inside every one of us.

Posted on 01/16 at 11:27 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Good Intentions

It is interesting to note that Reuvein is given credit by the Torah for saving Yosef. He really didn’t do much. He got Yosef thrown into a pit so that he could come back and save him but when he came back to save him Yosef, Yosef had been sold. According to the Gemara that the pit had snakes and scorpions Reuvein’s heroics are even less understandable.

I think the significance of Reuvein’s role may lie in a comment that Yosef made to his brothers. After Yaacov died, they were petrified that he would take revenge, but Yosef pointed out that everything had actually worked out pretty well for him.

“You thought to do something bad to me but Hashem was thinking good”.

The entire sin of the brothers was in thought. G-d’s plan is G-d’s plan and in the end everything worked out well, but the thoughts of hatred that the brothers felt whenever they saw him were inexcusable. Only Reuvein rose above those thoughts of hatred and tried to save Yosef.

This is such an important lesson for us. We all try to do things. Some work and some don’t. That’s forgivable.  It is unforgivable to think bad thoughts. We need to be the Reuvein who’s first thought is “How can I help this person? How can I rescue this person? How can I make this situation better?”

So much is out of our hands but there is no excuse for hateful thoughts.

I was once at the deathbed of a very elderly person. As is the case in many families, this person did not get along with one of his brothers. That brother called while I was in the room and asked to talk to the dying individual. I was on the edge of my seat. What was there to say to a person who you had fought for decades? I watched with awe as the dying man took the phone and said passionately and simply: “Yankel, I wish only the best for you and you and your family”. And it was true.

We fight, we bicker, we don’t talk. Sometimes we don’t even stay in touch, but deep down where it counts we need to wish only the best for one another. The greatest complaint that Yosef had against the brothers was that in their thoughts they intended to harm him. Reuvein thoughts were about saving Yosef and he gets all the credit.

As we enter the book of Shemos we move from the story of a family to the story a nation. In order to survive as a nation we need to be thinking about others. Moshe went out to see the welfare of his brothers. The midwives risked their lives to save the babies. And G-d said “I also heard the cries of the Jewish people”. When we listened to the cries of our brothers and sisters G-d began to listen to them as well.

We become a nation by thinking only the best about one another.

(Sources: Kaliver Rebbe Shlit”a of Jerusalem and Chasam Sofer. Some details in story have been altered)

Posted on 12/19 at 05:23 AM • Permalink
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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How is it Going to End?

Yosef moved to Mitzrayim when he was seventeen years old. All of the Jews in the world had shunned him and sold him down the river. He was very young and he had no support system. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Yosef he almost succumbed. The Gemara tells us that the last moment he saw and image of his father and ran away, leaving his coat behind. (He looked like his father and some say thathe saw a reflection of himself). Over the next two decades he proved that he could remain faithful to Hashem and succeed in a strange land.

Yosef named his first son Menashe because “Hashem had allowed him to forget his troubles in a strange land”. He named his second son Efrayim because “He had been able to prosper in the land of suffering”.

Yosef and his sons were the first Jews in galus. It is not an ideal existence, but it is an existence. We can forget our suffering and we can prosper.

When Yaacov was on his deathbed, Yosef brought his sons to Yaacov’s bedside. As the sons grew closer, Yaacov lost his divine spirit. “Mi Eileh?”, “Who are these?” he asked.

Of course, Yaacov knew exactly who they were, but he was puzzled. He had seen that Yeravam ben Nevat would descend from Menashe. He would cause the Jewish people to
worship idols. He saw Achav the evil king of Yisroel who would put all of the Neviim to death and, according to Rashi, he saw Yehu who would kill Achav only to continue in his wicked ways.

Yaacov saw the coming generations and did not want to bless them. Yosef fell to his knees and begged “Banai Heim!” These are my children! Even Yaravam who will say “Eilah” is my son. Please bless them.

Yaacov blessed them, but first he hugged them and he kissed them. He blessed them that all future generations would be like them.

Yaacov recognized that galus would be tough for the Jews. We would assimilate we would even worship idols, but we would always have that quality of “Banai”. He blessed us because we would be able to look at where we came from and clean up our act. We would be able to look in the mirror and say – this really isn’t me.

Shlomo Carlbach tells the story of a tankist who was antireligious. He refused to visit his parents’ home until they took down the picture of his grandfather who was hanging on the wall. He was embarrassed to have such ancestors. During the war, he got into a situation where he was running from a line of Egyptian tanks. As he sped up to join his fellow tanks he saw a Jew standing and davening in the middle of the desert. He muttered with disgust but veered to the side. How could he run over a Jew? The Egyptian tank did not detour – and blew up on a land mine.

The Tankist came home and took a good look at the picture. Sure enough, it was his grandfather who he had seen there on the battlefield. It was his grandfather’s prayers and his willingness to sacrifice his life for a fellow Jew that saved his life.

Yaacov blessed all of his children with an eye on the future and on the strengths and weaknesses that would present throughout history. At the end he called his sons together to describe the end of days, but once again the shechina left him. He could picture the future but he couldn’t picture the end of days.

Sometimes the end of days is elusive. It isn’t as easy as looking it up on a Mayan calendar or finding a piece of Zohar. We are coming closer, but we still aren’t sure exactly how it is going to end. We need to survive with the knowledge that as bad as things sometimes look and as bad as Jews sometimes behave, there is hope for the Jew in exile. Yosef survived by picturing his father. Menashe and Efrayim followed his lead and prospered in Galus. Yaacov encouraged us to encourage our children to model themselves after Efrayim and Menashe. In that we way, we too will prosper and, ultimately, we will see the happy ending.

Posted on 12/11 at 10:50 PM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

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

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

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

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