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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 10:37 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 12:58 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, March 13, 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 03/13 at 11:09 PM • 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 10:45 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: http://www.torahlab.org/outoftheloop/choosing_the_people/

Posted on 02/14 at 05:24 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 03:54 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Our Song

There was a time when the rabbi would return from a trip to Israel and invite everyone to come over and see his slides of the Kosel, kever Rachel and the Banyas. Those times are over. Many of you have bee to Israel more times than I have. If you haven’t, you’ve already seen the slideshows. Still, I’d like to share my reflections.

Eretz Yisroel is beautiful. The stories that we read in the news may be true, but I read too many of them. I expected to come to a world of fighting, infighting, politics, poverty and hatred. Instead, all I found was beauty.

G-d is everywhere. Religious people are all over. Even the people without the Yarmulkes speak of G-d, our holy land, and chessed. People are proud to be part of the historic process and thankful of the government that facilitates it. There is a feeling of family and of safety that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Last week was Shabbos Shira. 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 went to King David’s grave during my trip to Israel last week. 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 10:27 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 04:23 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 09:50 PM • Permalink
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Friday, November 29, 2013

Chanukah: Culture Shock

The Medrash tells us about a man named Yosef Meshisa. He may have lived at the time of the Roman invasion, but the context of the Medrash makes it sound like he lived at the time of the Greeks. He was what we would call a traitor. He joined the Greeks, adopted their culture, and assisted them in military strategy. When the Greeks invaded the Bais Hamikdash (Temple), they sent him in first. They told him to choose one item that would be his to keep.

Yosef Meshisa entered the Bais Hamikdash and grabbed the Menorah. When he came out it was immediately confiscated by the Greeks.

“This is too pretty”, they said. “It’s too nice for you. A simple man like you cannot own something like this”

The Greeks told Yosef Meshisa to go back into the Bais Hamikdash and choose something else. He refused. They offered to make him a tax collector for three years if he would go back in. He still refused. Finally, they threatened to kill him if he did not re-enter.

Yosef Meshisa reamined defiant. He said, “I angered my G-d once. I will not do it again.” And he was put to death.

What happened to Yosef Meshisa? He couldn’t have been too holy if he was willing to go into the Bais Hamikdash and take the Menorah. What caused him to repent?

The Ponevizher Rav explains that the very space of the Bais Hamikdash had the power to change a person. Yosef Meshisa was a different man because he had spent time in the Bais Hamikdash. This is an awesome thought, but still does not totally answer the question. If he repented inside the Bais Hamikdash, why did he come out carrying the Menorah? 

Perhaps it was his conversation with the Greeks that put him over the edge. Yosef went into the Bais Hamikdash and was, perhaps unexpectedly, overwhelmed by its holiness. He was drawn to the Menorah and all that it embodied and represented. This Menorah was the focal point of the entire Jewish nation in their service of Hashem. It was constantly lit and represented the light that Hashem asked us to share with the world. The Menorah was holy. Yosef Meshisa grabbed the Menorah because, deep inside, it meant something to him.

When he came outside to his friends, he encountered a culture shock. The Greeks said he couldn’t have the Menorah because it was too beautiful, too fine a work of art and he was too simple to appreciate it. They couldn’t see the spirituality in the Menorah or holiness that it brought. They couldn’t see that it was meaningful to him. All they saw was a beautiful candelabra.

It was at that point that Yosef realized that he had fallen in with the wrong crowd. The Jews weren’t against the beauty, the mathematics, or the art of the Greeks. They were against the attitude that everything in this world is tangible and that an invisible G-d and spirituality have no place.

Yosef Meshisa realized that there was far more the Menorah than what the Greeks were able to recognize. He realized that there was far more to Yosef Meshisa than he himself had been willing to recognize. He had a soul and it was far more important to him than any honor or riches or culture that he had been willing to exchange for it.

One of the edicts of the Greeks was that every Ox horn must be engraved with the statement “we have nothing to do with Hashem”. The Greeks knew what they were doing.

Imagine a Jew walking behind his ox plowing his field or bringing goods to the marketplace. He realizes that as hard as he is working, he is relying on Hashem to make him successful. The Greeks wanted to put a stop to that. They wanted us to spend all day staring at anti-god bumper stickers.

The lesson of Chanukah and of Yosef Meshisa is that there is more to the world than what the Greeks were willing to see. There is a spiritual component and G-d is with us in everything that we do.

Several years ago I joined the Lost Tribe on another one of their motorcycle rides down to Surrey, VA. As I sat enjoying the thrill of sharp turns at 70 mph I felt particular close to the asphalt and knew that we would need to say Tefillas Haderech (the traveler’s prayer). We made a stop in the quaint village of Isle-of-white, parked our bikes and stood in a semi-circle. I explained that we would be asking G-d to keep us safe and healthy and out of harm’s way. The group nodded appreciatively and treated me to a resounding “Amein” when I finished.

Two statements from the riders told me that Tefillas Haderech had been a good idea:

‘If that is how fast all of you services are”, one fellow said, “I’m becoming Orthodox”.

The second fellow was a little more reverent. “So, will G-d be joining us on our ride now?” he wanted to know.

The idea of G-d coming along on our bike ride is still bouncing around in my head. G-d comes along with us, no matter who we are, where we are, or what we are doing. It should be obvious to us, but it sometimes isn’t.

We need to use the days of Chanukah to refocus and connect to the purity that powers our lives and has the ability to give meaning and depth to everything that we do. Whether we are holding the Menorah, leading an ox, sitting behind a desk, or riding a Harley, G-d is with us. He is on our side and an integral part of our lives.

Posted on 11/29 at 10:56 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Jealousy

Reuvein was the least likely candidate to save Yosef. Reuvein was the rightful heir to the throne. He was the oldest and he had championed the cause of Leah too often to stand idly by while one of Rachel’s children took the reins in the next generation.

Of all of the brothers, why did Reuvein choose to save Yosef’s life?

Rav Aharon Kotler explains by quoting a Medrash that is astonishing in its simplicity. Reuvein, the Medrash says, knew that he had sinned in moving his father’s bed. Later Yaacov would tell him that he had acted rashly. Knowing that historically not everyone had made it into the forefather club, Reuvein feared that he had lost his edge. He feared that he would go the way of Yishmael, Eisav and the Bnei Keturah. He spent his days repenting.

Reuvein’s glimmer of sunshine came when Yosef had his first dream. Yosef saw eleven stars bowing down to him. Everyone else was upset about the elevation of Yosef, but Reuvein was busy counting stars. He was still in!

Reb Aharon Kotler explains that this attitude saved Reuvein from becoming jealous of Yosef. He was too happy to be jealous. He didn’t take his own position for granted and he certainly had no aspirations for Yosef’s position.

This was Reuvein’s secret and it needs to be our approach as well. If we don’t have shoes we need to be happy that we have feet. The Shtefenishte Rebbe used to say that if we had a chance to walk into a room and choose a burden in life we would all choose our own. We should spend time being grateful for the life we have, rather than being jealous of the life the other person is leading.

Posted on 11/21 at 10:48 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, November 07, 2013

Surmountable Odds

Yaacov Avinu was able to uncover the well for Rachel when all of the shepherds could not. He cared for her and he wanted her to be able to water the sheep and go home.

How did he do it? Rashi tells us that he had superhuman strength. He was able to lift the stone like someone might pop a cork out of a bottle.

Yaacov did not lift the stone with his muscles; he lifted it with his heart. In Tefillas Geshem we say “Yichad lev v’gal even m’al be’er mayim”. He united his heart and all of his concentration into lifting the stone from atop the well. It was an impossible task but he did it because he wanted to with all his heart.

We come across so many impossible tasks in life. There are so many things that we just can’t do. Have we really tried? Have we ever given it all of our undivided and undiluted effort? There is no guarantee that we will succeed, but we will be rewarded for trying.

We ask Hashem to send us rain thousands of years later because Yaacov tried really hard. Trying is a really big deal and, in Yaakov’s case, it worked.

Reb Zalman Volozhiner was once sitting in his Beis Medrash learning when he realized that he needed to look something up. Unfortunately, the sefer was on a high shelf and was blocked by a heavy piece of furniture.

“Ribono shel Olam”, he said, “you did not put the Torah in the heavens or across the sea. You put it right here in this room for my benefit. Please give me the strength to get that sefer down to where I need it”.

He said this over and over before he was able to get up, move the bookcase and reach the sefer.

We would all do well to remind ourselves of our strength and to do things with our entire heart.

Good Shabbos.

(Based in part on an essays by Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz and his son Rav Avraham Shmuelevitz) 

Posted on 11/07 at 09:59 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Days of Sarah

The Medrash tells us that Rebbe Akiva was once sitting with his students when he noticed that they were falling asleep. He decided to wake them by changing the subject. “Why is it”, he asked, “that Queen Esther merited ruling over 127 countries?”

He went on to explain that this was in the merit of Sarah. Sarah had lived for 127 years and her granddaughter ruled over 127 countries.

The Torah tells us that Sarah’s life was full. All of her years were equal in goodness. She lived each day to its utmost and fulfilled her role in this world on each day that was given to her.

The Vilna Gaon once said that when we come to heaven our days come to heaven with us. Each day testifies about how we spent it and whether we used it well. Each day that Hashem gives us is a gift to allow to become better people and to carry out our unique role in this world.

In the Shaar Hatzion on the laws of Yom Kippur the Chofetz Chaim departs from a discussion of halacha to make a point in mussar:

Some people deal with daily struggles but give up. They figure that if they don’t do what they need to do they will just get punished or perhaps die. The Chofetz Chaim explains that this never works. If we come up to heaven without fixing what we need to fix – and it is different for every person – we will be sent right back down. Even in this world, Hashem gives us each day as a gift and another chance to become better.

Several months ago I was sitting in Pepe’s when a stranger walked in. He clearly hadn’t intended to enter a Kosher Pizza shop and he spent a few minutes talking. It became clear from the conversation that he had once kept kosher but did not keep kosher any longer. He left the store and went to eat lunch somewhere else. I was shocked, besides for missing out on some really good pizza, the man lost a great opportunity. Here he was, struggling with kashrus, and G-d gave him another chance. He was out of town on a business trip with a partner and of all stores he walked into a kosher one. How much more of a sign do you need?

Hashem gives us new chances every day. Sarah took advantage of every one of her days. They were all equal in goodness.

Esther did the same. She was given a chance to save the Jewish people, but she could have just retreated to her royal suite and said nothing. Someone else would have saved the Jews.

Every day is an opportunity. We can use it to grow or to do teshuva, but we cannot allow it to go to waste. This was Rabi Akiva’s lesson to his sleeping students. It should be a lesson to us as well.

Posted on 10/24 at 10:47 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thinking Bigger

Rav Ovadiah Yosef was once rushed to the hospital. Israel’s top surgeons examined him and determined that the only solution was a risky surgery. They scheduled it for that afternoon. Since there were three hours left until the surgery, Rav Ovadiah asked to be taken home and brought back in three hours.

There was a woman – an agunah - whose husband had disappeared. Halachically it was unclear if she would be able to remarry. Rav Ovadiah was in the middle of researching and writing a ruling that would allow her to get remarried halachically. He knew that if he died ‘under the knife’ there would be nobody else with the authority and the knowledge to write the ruling to help that woman.

That is what it means to be a dedicated rabbi and a concerned human being.

That is what it means to care about someone, in this case to help a woman remarry.

There is a modern phenomenon called the ‘Google bubble’. Technology has gotten to the point where we only see what want to see and only find about things that affect our immediate circle of associates. That is how Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp survive. Even an innocuous Google search knows what you are interested in and shows you the results that you want to see. The aim of Google news is to show you only the news that you really care about and only the opinions that you want to read.

This is great from a technological perspective and it is also great for people who want to avoid certain parts of the internet. It is not a great trend for the world. What kind of a world would it be if we only saw the news that our friends were posting a liking? What kind of people would we be if we only read the opinions and thoughts that we want to hear.

Hashem told Avraham Lech Lecha. Go for yourself and for your own good. He went for himself and for his own good but he went about that by opening his tent on all four sides. He even brought Lot with him. Lot was not a good person and Hashem did not talk with Avraham as long as Lot was with him. Still, Avraham tolerated him for a long period of time. After they finally split and Lot got into trouble, it was Avraham who went and rescued him. That is what it means to think about others.

I just finished reading a book about a Bedouin who is a diplomat on behalf of the state of Israel. He talks about how he left Israel as a young man and came to America with just one phone number in his pocket. It turned out to be a wrong number. Stranded in New York, the Bedouin started to look for Jewish people. He found one and he helped him get food and a place to sleep. Eventually, the Bedouin moved to Boro Park because the people there were the most hospitable. Today he is one of the few Muslims in the political word that represents and defends Israel and the Jews. Bedouins pride themselves in their hospitality but when this Bedouin needed hospitality himself he looked for the Jews. That is the reputation that we need to have and the people we need to be.

I was privileged to meet Rav Ovadiah and receive a blessing from him.  On one occasion I attended a class that he gave each Motzei Shabbos in the Yazdim shul.

It was Parshas Vayera, almost exactly fourteen years ago. Rav Ovadiah was famous for making political statements at the end of his shiur and as he wrapped up everyone started to lean forward. He made one point about Ethiopian Jews and a second point about coming on time to davening. His third point was from the Parsha:

“We need to be careful”, he said, “to treat our guests well”.

In Parshas Vayera, Avraham was approached by three men who appeared to be idol worshippers. He was sick and he was in the middle of a conversation with G-d but he ran to greet those strangers. Sarah started to bake a loaf of bread and Avraham went and slaughtered three cows so that he could serve tongue to each one of them. In the words of Rav Ovadiah: “Avraham didn’t run to get falafel for his guests, he ran to get steak”.

We need to think of others and we need to help others. We need to look outside of our own lives and into the lives of the people around us.

Posted on 10/17 at 09:37 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Own It

This year I noticed something interesting at the end of Parshas Noach. Terach took his wife and children and set out on a trip from their homeland of Ur Kasdim toward the land of Canaan. They stopped in Charan where they settled.

In this context it is a little bit difficult to understand the great test that Avraham was given to leave his birthplace, his family, and his land. According to the Ibn Ezra, Avram may have received these instructions when he was still in Ur Kasdim. Why was it such a big deal to go to Canaaan when he was practically on his way there anyway?

There is a famous Kabbalist who had a relative that was not religious and was sadly addicted to some very dangerous substances. The Kabbalist, who is a great Talmid Chacham asked my father to learn with him. At one point they made a ‘Tikkun’ for the man’s Neshama and it worked. The relative treated his addiction and became religious.

Many years later, the relative regressed into his old habits. He moved out of Israel and basically disappeared off the face of the earth. My father asked the Kabbalist, “Did the Tikkun have a time limit?!”

The surprising answer was that, yes, there was a time limit. All a Tikkun can do is jumpstart somebody’s neshama. It can give them a surge of holiness that can change their lives. But, like a car, they are not truly charged until their engine starts running on its’ own.

Avraham had already left his nation and his birthplace. He was already on his way to Eretz Yisroel, but it was just a family trip – an ethnic migration. Hashem said to Avraham “Lech Lecha!” Go for yourself! Make it our own. Own it. Make it a part of you, not just a part of where you’ve been shlepped.

The Medrash at the end of Noach tells the story of Haran. He was watching when Avraham stuck up for G-d and was thrown into the fiery furnace. He decided that if Avraham survived, then he too would jump into the furnace. He did, but did not survive. The Torah wasn’t his - it was just something that he was doing because it seemed to work for Avraham. It’s like telling a joke that you don’t get, because somebody laughed last time.

Haran’s son Lot had the same problem. He was Avraham’s closest companion, but he just didn’t get it. He allowed his flocks to graze in private fields and made a bad name for Avraham. Eventually he settled in Sedom. Lot also left his homeland to follow the commandments of Hashem, but he didn’t ‘own it’, he was just tagging along.

For Avraham it was Lech Lecha; for Lot it was ‘Vayelech Ito Lot’.

The lesson from Avraham and Lech Lecha is that we need to do the right thing, but we need to also do it for the right reasons. We need to put thought and intent into every action that we do.

We need to Own It.

Posted on 10/09 at 10:17 PM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

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

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

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

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