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Friday, November 22, 2013


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 11/22 at 05:48 AM • Permalink
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Friday, November 08, 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 11/08 at 04:59 AM • Permalink
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Friday, October 25, 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 10/25 at 04:47 AM • Permalink
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Friday, October 18, 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 10/18 at 03:37 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, October 10, 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 10/10 at 04:17 AM • Permalink
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Friday, October 04, 2013

Utilizing Miracles

When I was a teenager my family and I moved to Australia. Upon our arrival we met a young family. The father had passed away and the mother and her two sons were becoming involved in Yiddishkeit. As it turned out, they were relatives of our friends in Toronto and were very excited that we knew their ‘frum’ relatives, whom they had never met.

My father called the rabbi in Toronto and told him about his long lost cousin who had just enrolled in a new school and was returning to his roots. He asked him to consider attending the upcoming Bar Mitzvah as the surrogate father. The rabbi considered the trip seriously but had to opt out because of the cost of traveling from Toronto to Melbourne (and back).

A few weeks later, the rabbi went to the bank. As he passed through the metal detectors alarms went off and the lights began to flash. He was the one millionth person to enter the bank, and he had won a free trip around the world. Of course, he immediately booked a flight to Australia and arrived in time for the bar Mitzvah on Parshas Noach.

He spoke on Shabbos, as the father would have, and shared the following idea:

We read in the Parsha that after exiting the Teivah and bringing sacrifices Noach set about rebuilding the world. The first act of reconstruction was the planting of a vineyard. Noach was criticized for this move, and it did not end well. He became drunk and shamed and his sons were cursed. We are taught that generations later the ten tribes of Israel were lost from our people as a punishment for Noah’s actions.

It is hard to understand what was so terrible about what Noach did. After everything he had been through he deserved to sit back with a beer. He had just witnessed the destruction of the world and spent an entire year on board the Teivah. Where did he go wrong?

Furthermore, the Targum Yerushalmi tells us that a miracle happened. On the very same day that Noach planted a vineyard, it grew to full maturity, the grapes became wine, and the wine became aged.

Noach was privileged to experience a miracle but with the same act he caused the demise of 80 percent of the Jewish population.

The Dubno Maggid explains this with a parable: a man who had no luck went to his rebbe for a bracha. The Rebbe promised him that his next venture would be amazingly successful.

The man came home and told his wife that he needed some money to invest. He had none but knew that she had some hidden away. She gave him the money, he invested it, and lost every penny. The man went back to the rebbe and complained. He had been promised success.

The Rebbe asked the man to describe exactly what had happened when he went home and asked his wife for the money to invest. It emerged that his wife had been extremely unhappy. They had had a terrific fight and argued the entire night about whether or not he should invest the money.

“That was your mistake”, the rebbe explained, “I gave you a blessing for success in your next venture and you went home and argued with your wife. All of that power and blessing went into your argument. You may have won – but you squandered your blessing.

Noach had witnessed the worst destruction ever, but he had also been given opportunity to rebuild. When we rebuild after destruction we are given tremendous powers and blessings. Hashem wants to help us rebuild, but it is up to us where we focus our energies.

Noach should have put a little more thought in to where he focused his energies. He was not punished for what he did, but for what he didn’t do.

Every time we have a setback in our personal lives, we need to remember that Hashem is there to help us rebuild. We need to recognize the help that Hashem is giving us to rebuild ourselves.  And we need to use the opportunity wisely.

Posted on 10/04 at 11:51 AM • Permalink
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Monday, September 09, 2013

Shabbos Shuva 5774 - The Hardest Part


Many years ago our forefather Yaacov married two wives, Rachel and Leah. He later married their two maidservants Bilha and Zilpah as well. The Torah tells us that Yaacov spent more time with Rachel than with any of his other wives, despite the fact that Leah was the mother of the oldest children and also the bulk of the twelve tribes. Reuvein was bothered by this slight to his mother.

When Rachel passed away, Reuvain was sure that his mother would finally receive the central position that she deserved. He was shocked to find that Yaacov had left Rachel’s tent and moved, not to Leah’s tent, but to the tent of Bilhah. Reuvain took action and moved Yaacov’s possessions to the tent of his mother, Leah.

As Rachel’s children grew older it became clear that Yaacov had a special fondness for them. He taught all of his wisdom to Yosef and Yosef began to tell of dreams in which the other brothers became subservient to him. The situation finally came to a head when the brothers saw Yosef off in the distance and conspired to kill him. It was Reuvain who convinced them not to kill him but to the throw him into a pit instead. Reuvain intended to return and rescue Yosef.

Reuvain’s plan did not quite work out. The brothers sold Yosef and when Reuvain returned to the pit he was no longer there. Reuvain had not been with the brothers at the time of the sale because he had been busy repenting for his sin of moving his father’s belongings from Bilhah’s tent. When he saw that Yosef had disappeared he sat on the ground and ripped his clothing in distress.

The Medrash tells us that Hashem himself consoled Reuvain. “You”, G-d said, “are the very first person in history to do Teshuva. You will have a great-grandson named Hoshea ben Ailah who will call upon the people of his generation to do Teshuva as well”.

On every Shabbos Shuva we read the Haftorah of Shuva Yisroel from the prophet Hoshea ben Ailah, descendant of the tribe of Reuvain. Reuvain was the first person to do Teshuva and it is fitting that his grandson is the prophet who calls upons to Teshuva before the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash and every year at this time.

This Medrash is puzzling. Was Reuvain really the first person to do Teshuva? What about Adam and Chava? They ate from the tree of knowledge and life against the express wishes of Hashem. The Gemara in Eiruvin tells us: “Rav Meir said: Adam was a very pious man. When he saw that he had brought death to the world he sat and fasted for 130 years”. That should count.

Furthermore, the Medrash tells us that Yehudah is credited with inspiring Reuvain to repent. Why does Reuvain get credit as the first?


Before we speak of Teshuva, we need to talk about why it is that people sin. It seems that if G-d had made a perfect world where everyone who did good was rewarded and anyone who sinned was punished, we would have no doubts in our mind and no desire to sin. We sin because we think we’ll get something better. We sin to enjoy ourselves or because we don’t understand why we shouldn’t.

The reality is, and everyone knows this, that our understanding of bad and good is limited. What we naturally think of as good is not truly good or fulfilling.

First of all, we are all going to die. At some point we have to realize that none of that money or fame or even good reputation is going to help us in the grave.

Secondly, we know – even if we don’t like to think about it – that nothing lasts forever. Markets change, job markets change, interests change. Not everybody’s fifteen minutes lasts forever.

Most importantly, the man or woman who has everything never really has everything. We wish we had what he or she has, whether it’s their family, their social life, or their car, but we all know that he or she is never totally happy. The Talmud tells us that nobody dies satisfied.

What then do we have? We have wisdom and knowledge and happiness. We have our state of mind. None of us mind working hard as long as we believe in what it is that we are doing. If we believe in our cause, we are willing to give up our money our jobs, our friends, and even our lives for that cause.

King Solomon said that “to the man who is good before him, Hashem gave wisdom, direction and happiness; but to the sinner he gave a compulsion to collect more and more stuff”.

As mature people, we understand that the very best thing in the world is to have a cause that we can believe in. We’ll do anything and do it happily if we truly believe in it. The Medrash says that Mordechai was that man with wisdom and direction and happiness. Haman was the sinner who was just obsessed with power but was not happy.

Reb Yom Tov Ehrlich sings a song about a Russian General who came through Poland and Germany and attended at a banquet after the end of the war. He rubbed shoulders with the U.S. generals, the French officials, the British Admirals and the Russian leaders. As he looked around at the ball his eyes fell on a statue of Napoleon. He thought to himself, “That’s where I’m going to be. In a few years everyone will forget my name and what I did. When I die a few people will put down flowers and then I will be totally forgotten. At best I will be made into a statue for people to stare at and rest their drinks on”. The general ripped off his medals in disgust and began to reminisce about his childhood in a tiny Russian village. He thought about Shabbos and about his parent’s home. He remembered his father taking him to the rebbe and getting a blessing that he will grow up to be a righteous man. He remembered his mother on her deathbed promising that she will always be with him and he knows that it was true. By the time the orchestra started up a waltz and got ready to honor him, he was gone. He ran away to the United States and became one of the old men who sat at the back of the shul. He said he’d had enough of being a general. He’d rather be a simple drummer in Hashem’s army.

We sin because we forget what is really important to us. We make irresponsible decisions because we want instant gratification. We want to satisfy our laziness or our temper or some other terrible Yetzer Hora that we have.

Hashem doesn’t make it easy for us. He makes it very unclear whether we are headed for anything good. We know that Hashem forgets nothing, but that is not always apparent.

Still, it is worthwhile to be a Tzaddik. The day to day is rough, grueling, even tortuous at times, but we are fulfilled we are connected with something good and we are headed somewhere worthwhile.


We cope with all of the ups and downs and challenges of life because our lives have direction and meaning, but what if we were to find out that we are wrong? What if we suddenly realize that our adamant stance is taking us in a wrong and meaningless direction?

This is why the teshuva of Reuvain was different than any teshuva that preceded him. Adam and Yehuda knew the rules and broke them. They were great people and they knew that they had broken the rules. Regret was easy, penance was natural. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t marry your daughter-in-law or eat from the one tree that G-d tells you not to eat from.

Reuvain’s sin was totally different. Reuvain’s sin was a philosophy. He felt bad for his mother. He felt that Leah was the future of the Jewish people and that she had been wronged by Yaacov. He couldn’t bear to see Bilha taking a place ahead of Leah. He knew that there would be consequences for getting involved, but it was worth it to him. This was what he believed in. If he were to die doing it he would die with a smile knowing that he was fighting the good fight. Even if Yaacov disagreed, he was ready to go forward. He believed in it.

The children of Yaacov were divided into two streams and Reuvain believed that the future lay with Leah. All of the kings would come from Leah. Reuvain, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun came from Leah. They got things done. The children of Leah were not impressed with Yosef or with Binyamin, Dan, Naftali, Gad or Asher. Even Yaacov sent Yehudah ahead to organize Goshen. He wasn’t willing to put it all in the hands of Yosef. This wasn’t about sibling rivalry; it was about the future of the Jewish people. Reuvain was on a mission.

The Gemara says that if you think that Reuvain sinned, you are making a mistake. Even at its simplest level, Reuvain was sticking up for his mother. That’s nothing to apologize for.

Still, in the final analyses Reuvain did not act correctly. He was criticized by Yaacov and later by Moshe and later still in Divrei Hayamaim. He was criticized by history. He lost his birthright and his right to be king. It was probably all worth it.

This was the greatness of Reuvain. He realized that he was wrong. He didn’t do teshuva on his actions; he totally changed his way of thinking. He saw Yehudah regret his physical misdeeds and took it a step further. He said, “I can also do teshuva, not only on my actions, but on my entire being. I can change who I am, what drives me and what I am passionate about”.


You might have part of your family that has been shunned for generations over an argument that nobody remembers.

You might be upset at somebody for their political views or for their apathy.

You might have one weakness that you feel is part a parcel of your being and who you are.

So many of our beliefs are governed by the thirteen principles of faith and those are inviolate. But we have other beliefs too. We need to change some of those. Just because you didn’t need bicycle helmets and positive reinforcement when you were a kid doesn’t mean that it is a mitzvah to keep your minhag going. We all have things that we do because we convinced ourselves that they are right. They are a philosophy, a way of life. Teshuva is actually changing our minds.

Csanád Szegedi was a politician in Jobbik and a member of the European Parliament. He was considered an anti-Semite. He tried to block the Jewish congress from meeting in Hungary, he denied the holocaust and he wanted to register all Jews on a list because they might be enemies of the state. Then he found out that he was Jewish and that his grandmother had been in Auschwitz. Suddenly, he knew that the Holocaust did happen and that his grandparents were there. He realized that Ant-Semitism was unfair and he didn’t feel so comfortable being anti-Israel anymore. He resigned from his party.

That is teshuva. Segedi completely changed his way of thinking. What he did to change his ways wasn’t so important or relevant except to make the story more interesting. The way he thought was the real challenge. But he did it.

Think back to something that you used to believe in. Rethink it. If you don’t believe in it anymore, come to terms with that. Say “I was wrong about Vietnam, or about the Mets, or about organic fruits or unethical people”.

If you still believe it, think about that even more strongly. Why aren’t you fighting for it anymore? Are you above thirty and just going with the flow? Are you too busy, too burned out, or too chicken?
The real teshuva happens in our minds. We need to set a course for ourselves and be willing to adjust it when necessary. If we had expected to have five boys who would be an all-star basketball team and we ended up with three girls who are doctors, we need to adjust our whole way of thinking. There is more to it than just saying, “I’m proud of you”, “I understand” or “I’ll go to the graduation”.

That takes change of thought. It takes a new direction and thinking about things totally differently.

That is what we are obligated to do on Yom Kippur.

Hashem wants us to focus on what is difficult and He wants us to focus on doing what we believe is right regardless of hardship. And when it comes to teshuva, the most difficult teshuva of all is calibrating what we believe is right. The hardest change is changing our minds.


On January tenth, 1992 a shipment of Rubber Duckies was headed from Hong Kong to the United States. There was a terrible storm and 28,800 bath toys were washed overboard. Ten months later, on November sixteenth, the Rubber Duckies started to show up on the shores of Alaska. There were also red beavers, blue frogs and green turtles. They spent about three years circling around with the oceans currents and showing up in Hawaii and Japan. Some made their way through the Bering Strait up to the Arctic Ocean and were actually frozen into the Arctic Drift. Oceanographers got involved and predicted that they would eventually reach the Northern Atlantic. Rewards were offered. Sure enough, the Rubber Duckies spent about six years travelling across the North Pole and started to move southward. They were spotted in Maine and Massachusetts. In 2007 a duck was found on a beach in England. These ducks are faded and covered with seaweed but they have been sold at auctions for over $1000.

The most amazing thing about this story is that he oceanographers were able to predict exactly where and when the ducks would land. The Rubber Duckies made a difficult, heroic, and famous journey, but there was no will power. They are just Rubber Duckies.

Don’t be a Rubber Duckie. Don’t just go where you are told and let the ocean’s currents pull you around. Don’t let yourself go into automatic pilot. Think hard and be willing to change your way of thinking.

(Based on an address by Harav Moshe Feinstein to the Jewish Community of Luban, Shabbos Shuva 1922)

Posted on 09/09 at 11:59 AM • Permalink
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Friday, August 30, 2013

Unesaneh Tokef: Our Breath of Fresh Air

Our Breath of Fresh Air


Rosh Hashanah marks both the creation of the world and our personal judgment day.

Over the centuries, the haunting words of Unesaneh Tokef have become a focal point of our perception of Hashem’s judgment and love on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Many Machzorim record the ancient story of Rav Amnon of Mainz who, as reported in the Ohr Zarua eight centuries ago, was tortured for adhering to Judaism and composed the Unesaneh Tokef just before he died.

Rav Amnon is a mysterious character. Nothing more is known of him or anyone named Amnon from that period and location. His Siluk was popularized by his contemporaries and became a part of the Ashkenazi Machzor.

It is unfortunate that some contemporary Jews are troubled by the “quandary” of Unesaneh Tokef. They recognize the brilliance and centrality of the prose; yet they refuse to believe it.  They question the origins of the poem and the very existence of Rav Amnon.

To my mind, the origin and authorship of Unesaneh Tokef are irrelevant to the message. Every line of the Unesaneh Tokef is based on a Pasuk or a Mishna or a Gemara or a Medrash. It isn’t a presentation of new ideas, it is a remix done to heighten our perception and feeling during the Yamim Noraim.

This essay is an appreciation of Unesaneh Tokef and an attempt to capture its meaning.


Rav Amnon begins his ‘Siluk’ by describing the holiness of the day. He writes of the awe that is felt in heaven as Hashem prepares to judge mankind. The poem is set in Kedusha where we contemplate the Kingship of Hashem, His awesome power and His control over everything. In Kedusha we declare that ‘There is no place where Hashem is not’, and it is on this realization that Rav Amnon bases his U’nesaneh Tokef.

We are given to understand that when the time of judgment comes, even the angels tremble. When the moment of decision comes a shofar blows, and the earth is silent.
The Zohar records that the Satan is given but one day a year to process his claims before the Heavenly court. On Rosh Hashanah, Hashem sits on his throne of judgment and prepares to hear the words of the Satan. He has a list of names and a host of angels waiting to testify. We line up to be evaluated one at a time. Suddenly, a shofar blows and Hashem rises from his seat of Judgment and moves to His seat of Mercy. He doesn’t cancel judgment, but he changes the way in which he judges us.


“Hashem opens up His Sefer Hazichronos and begins to read from it”.

What is the Sefer HaZichronos? We know that there are three books opened on Rosh Hashanah. There is a Book of Tzadikim, a Book of Beinonim, and a Book of Reshaim. Are these the book Hashem opens?

It seems to me that the Sefer Hazichronos is the one mentioned in Pirkei Avos (based on Tehillim) “And all of your actions are recorded in a book”.

The Sefer Hazichronos that is read is the sum total of our own actions. It is the portrayal of who we are and what we are after everything is said and done.

The language “ume’eilav Yikarei” used by Rav Amnon is reminiscent of the Sefer Hazichronos in Shushan which, the Gemara teaches us, was read practically on its own. It forced itself to be read.

In the same way, the actions which are written in our own books do not disappear; everything makes a mark. Our deeds become habits and attitudes and the way we treat and represent ourselves to those around us. At some point those actions surface and they have no choice but to be ‘read’.

There was a Rav in Buffalo named Rav Zukerman. Before he came to Buffalo he was supposed to be a Rosh yeshiva in Torah V’daas, but he got stage fright when he entered the Beis Medrash for the first time and everybody stood up. He was not ready to deal with the reality of the great man who he had become. Moshe Rabeinu was reluctant to go and take the Jewish people out of Egypt, Yonah did not want to go to Ninveh, and Sarah laughed when she heard about Yitzchak. Sometimes our actions hit us in the face and we need to deal with their reality. We all have a mission in this world. Sometimes the only way to fulfill thatmission is to come to terms with our reality and to recognaize how our actions have molded us.

The sefarim teach us that Avraham was the first person to contemplate himself honestly. Hashem began asking “Ayekah” –“Where are you”, at the time of Adam Harishon, but Avraham was the first to take life by the horns by answering ‘Hineini’. This was his final test in preparation for the Akeidah.

We are all asked to do other people favors and to step into roles that we did not plan on stepping into. We question whether we are worthy or whether a particular favor, phone call, or acceptance of responsibility is worth our while.

We are sometimes upset by how we are perceived, by what people see as our purpose, and by the things people ask us to do. We need to consider how much of that perception is of our own making. We need to realize that our actions and thoughts gradually morph into who we are.


Rav Amnon writes that our own signatures are written in the Sefer Hazikaron.

This seems strange, but it is true: We sign our own fate and we are given the ability to disagree with whatever is written there. We can refuse to sign. We can say “No!
That isn’t me – that’s not how I want to be described or portrayed.

We can change the entry on us in the book, but it will always be a composite of who we actually are.

Rosh Hashanah is the day of first impressions. It is our hearing. The Jury will be out making decisions until Yom Kippur or even Hoshana Rabba, but the way that we represent ourselves is the way that we are represented today.

A Divine ‘Google search’ will give a picture of us that we may or may not enjoy. We can play with it and fudge, but ultimately the picture will show through over and over.
Emes Yoreh Darko: Truth Finds it way.


Even if our composite portrait is, G-d forbid, bad, we need to understand that Hashem is not happy either. Rav Amnon writes that ‘Hashem does not desire ‘Mos Ha’mes’ - the Death of the Dead ones”. Most commentaries explain that Hashem does not desire death of those who are destined to die, but a comparison to other sources shows that Yechezkel seems to interchange the word ‘mos’ - death with the word ‘rasha’ - evil. An evil person is considered dead even in his lifetime because he is no longer growing. A righteous person is always growing – he is alive. Toward the end of Nach Hashem promises Yehoshua the Kohein Gadol that he will continue to grow even after his departure from this world. Hashem doesn’t want the ‘dead person’ to remain stagnant. He wants him to do Teshuva and live. We can be dead while we are alive, but we aren’t grateful dead – we are aiming for Techiyas Hameisim.

One of the Brachos of Rosh Hashanah is the newness that comes with it. Hashem recreates the world every Rosh Hashana. On the first Rosh Hashanah Hashem breathed a breath of life into Adam. The Sochatchover writes that on each Rosh Hashanah when Hashem blows His shofar he blows a breath of fresh air into every one of us.
How we accept that breath and how deeply we let it penetrate is largely up to us. We can choose to carry on as we did before, barely noticing the new breath of fresh air that we have received, or we can assimilate the new energy into our systems to become new and better people, to do things that we never before thought possible.
The challenge of Unesaneh Tokef is that we haven’t yet changed. We stand before Hashem on the Day of Judgment and feeling completely inadequate. We are trembling. We know who we are and that Hashem is judging and that there is nothing to do. Rav Amnon guides us with the Midrash of Rav Yudan:  Teshuva, Tefilla and Tzedaka can nullify a decree. By changing our attitudes “Praying before Hashem, beholding His kindness and turning from our evil ways” (Tehillim 17:15), we can change the way that we are perceived.


My earliest memory of Unesaneh Tokef was in Buffalo, NY. I was young enough to be sitting next to my mother, and she had me read the translation in my Machzor. Who will live and who will die? Who by fire? Who by water? Who by strangulation? Who in their proper time? Who before their proper time? Who will be troubled and who will be peaceful?

My mother explained to me that our Chazzan was crying because he had been walking with his two sons during World War II when the Nazi soldiers shot them because they couldn’t keep up. I think of that Chazzan and his tune every single year.

Unesenaeh Tokef is a time to stand in true awe before Hashem. Thankfully, most of us do not have images of brutal death in front of our eyes. It is hard for us to comprehend Hashem’s judgment, His reward and His punishment. but we have all seen suffering and we have all seen joy. There is more to the Unesaneh tokef than just binary life and death and we are all capable of comprehending and striving for a better life. We are all capable of comprehending Hashem’s expectations of us and we have it in us to ask that He guide us in a way of Tzadikim.

Teshuva is a multi-stepped process that takes advance planning and years of work. It is very hard to change our entire lifestyle or even one action on Rosh Hashanah as we are standing before G-d. The best we can do is to get the process started in a solid way. We do this by breathing in the new breath of Rosh Hashana and allowing it to change us.

Even if we do not change what we do or how much we do, we can make a split second decision to change the way we do things. We can take the new Neshama that we are given and apply it to the parts of us that have stagnated. We can put more Neshama into our Tefillos, into our Shabbos, into our relationships, and into everything moment of our lives. We can become enthusiastic about our Yiddishkeit and our roles in this world. We can remind ourselves of what inspired us to do every Mitzvah in the first place.


The story is told of a little boy sitting on a roof top waiting for the President to pass in Marine One. He claimed that the President would be looking out the window through binoculars and that the president would wave back to him, smile, and perhaps drop presents. He was confident in his claims because he was the President’s only son.

Hashem is our King, but He is also our father. He cares about us like a father but has the power of a King.

On Rosh Hashanah we contemplate judgment as we stand before our Father, our King.

May we all merit to breath in the fresh breath of life that we receive on Rosh Hashana. Even if we change nothing at all, may we merit seeing everything we do infused with life, Neshama, and meaning.

May this be The Year that we can look back upon with fondness and satisfaction.

(Based in part on lecture by Rabbi Yaacov Haber, Rosh Hashana 5771)

Posted on 08/30 at 04:00 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, August 22, 2013


The Torah commands us to bring our first fruits to the Beis Hamikdash. As soon as a farmer saw a bud begin to blossom, he would go out to his field and tie a piece of grass – a ‘gumi’ – to the fruit. When the fruit finally ripened he would bring it to Yerushalayim and stand in front of the Mizbe’ach. He would thank Hashem for all of Jewish history, from the time that Yaakov escaped from Lavan through our growth as a nation, our Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, the Land of Israel, and finally this little pomegranate that he was bringing before G-d. The halacha is that a person bringing Bikkurim could bring as much or as little as he wanted. There would be huge parades with gold-plate horned oxen, birds, and baskets of fruits. There would be singing and dancing and musical instruments, but it would all surround a small pomegranate or olive or grape or piece of barley or wheat.

Reb Aharon Karliner was once eating an apple. He picked up the apple, made a bracha with concentration, and took a bite. A Chossid was watching and asked an audacious question. “What is the difference”, he asked, “between you and I? You eat apples and I eat apples; you make a bracha and I eat a bracha. How are we different?”

Rav Aharon Karliner explained: “I wake up in the morning and I see the wondrous creations of Hashem. I see a beautiful blue sky and smell the fresh air. I look at Hashem’s world and I am awed by its beauty and functionality. I notice the apple tree right outside my window. It is a beautiful tree, and it consistently supplies us with apples. Each apple has several seeds, which each has the ability to create another tree with beautiful apples, each of which will have seeds. I am so overcome by the greatness of Hashem that I must make a bracha thanking Hashem for the world and the tree and the apple. I want to say Baruch Atah Hashem…., but I am not allowed. One can’t just make a bracha, he needs to partake of the apple.”

“You”, continued Reb Aharon, “you wake up in the morning and say ‘gevald!’, I want an apple. Of course, you are a Religious Jew so you would not think of eating the apple without making a blessing.”

“Therein lies the difference: you make the Bracha so that you can eat the apple; I eat the apple so that I can make a bracha”

The bringing of Bikkurim is one of the few Mitzvos that must be done with happiness. Rashi quotes the Sifri that we are bringing the fruits and making the declaration to show that we are not ungrateful for everything that Hashem has done for us. As hard as we worked and as small as our crop may be, we still appreciate everything recognize that it is all through the grace of G-d.

The Shulchan Aruch writes that we should make one hundred brachos a day. We make brachos on every little thing. We thank Hashem for every peanut and jelly bean that we eat. We thank him for giving us clothing to wear and a body that works; we make brachos thanking Hashem for the shoes on our feet and for the ground that we walk on.

We need to work on recognizing what Hashem has done for us and what other people have done for us. Somebody taught us how to tie our shoes and ride a bike and drive a car and read. We need to remember who those people were, and thank them. We need to be able able to come before Hashem with a grape and thank Him for everything in our lives and in our lifetimes and in the entire history of the Jewish people that has brought us to this grape.

This is Rosh Hashana: An acknowledgement of Hashem’s role in our lives and of the series of events that have brought us to where we are. This perspective is what we reinforce on Rosh Hashana and what we think about when we envision the coming year.

If we can see our year (accurately) as one in which we know that we will need Hashem and other people, our tefillos will be different. We will be more sincere and more desperate in what we ask of Hashem and we will be more thoughtful and generous when we think about and daven for others.

Kesiva Vechasima Tova

Posted on 08/22 at 11:53 AM • Permalink
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Friday, August 09, 2013

Parashas Shoftim: Royal Retrospection

My father grew up in Buffalo, NY. At one point he decided that he would like to become a Rabbi in Buffalo. He went to Israel and studied in Jerusalem for many years until he was ready to go back and become a Rabbi. Everyone thought he was crazy. “You’re leaving Jerusalem and going to Buffalo? – There are no religious Jews there!”.

Imagine if a young man in Africa decided that he would travel abroad, study, become a doctor and return home to treat Malaria in his hometown. After many years of study we could see his fellow medical students telling him the same thing: “You’re going to North Africa? – There’s Malaria there!”

Unfortunately, many people forget where they came from and why they started out. The Torah tells that every king had an obligation to write two Torah scrolls. He would keep one Torah with him at all times and read from it when he judged, when he rested and while he ate. The other Torah would remain in the Bais Hamikdosh. As he carried the smaller Torah around with him there was a danger that the Torah would lose some of it’s original message. Words could fade, letter could cracks and portions could become damaged. Once a year the king would personally go to the Bais Hamikdosh and consult with his backup Torah Scroll. He would fix the cracked letter and rewrite the faded words, he would renew his personal Torah and make sure that it was consistent with the Torah he had begun with.

Symbolically, this is a way for the king and for every person to make sure that they remain on task and that they don’t forget their original goals and how they started out.

When a young person begins their life, he or she has a good idea of what she wants to look like in coming years. Many people are privileged to have parents, grandparents and other role models who can help them write their own personal mission based on thousands of years of knowledge and experience.

What separates the men from the boys, and the girls from the women, is the ability to look back at that message, that goal, and that determination and purity one year, five years and even twenty years later. Every person needs to be able to regularly pull out their original goals and compare them with their life today. They need to take the time to fill in the blanks, rewrite the faded letters and fix the cracks. Life takes many twists and turns and those who successful are those who able to adapt but not lose sight of their basic goals. It is easy to get caught up in day-to-day living and go years and years and years without looking back at that original set of goals and aspirations.

Yogi Berra said that if you don’t know where you are going – you are sure to get nowhere quickly. We are fortunate to know where we are coming from and where we are going. If we can stick to our ambitions and never lose sight of our goals, we will go even further and make the world a better place.

We begin the year saying that this will be THE year. All to often, twelve months later we find that it has been ‘just another year’. True greatness for ourselves and for the Jewish people comes when the end of year and who we have become matches the beginning of the year and what we aimed for.

Posted on 08/09 at 05:44 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Vacation in Lakewood

Vacation where?!

I get the same response from everyone. Lakewood is pretty intense town. Even during the three week summer break the dress code stays the same: black pants, white button down shirts, jackets and hats. Everyone davens three times a day in serious minyanim with no talking. The study halls aren’t packed but they are still full.

There is a forest behind the Frum development where I am staying. My intrepid nephew led my sons and I over the fence and through the brush to a path and a clearing. After a few minutes we came to a brackish lake, an aging deck jutting out into the water. Out on the dock sits a lone Kollel yungerman enjoying his vacation. We watched as he cast his line and reeled it in, pausing periodically to grab something from the tackle box or the white plastic bucket at his side.

Vacation in Lakewood.

Posted on 07/24 at 03:24 AM • Permalink
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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Good Faith

Several months ago, I received an email from a Navy Officer asking me not to sell his Chometz. He could have sold it to me, but he felt like the buyer would have no access. The Chametz was in an undisclosed and secure location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, or perhaps the Pacific, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, or the gulf. He didn’t want to burn his Chametz because there was no Walmart at sea. So he took the time to learn how to sell the Chametz himself. He explained the procedure to somebody on the boat and went into Pesach feeling confident.

That is Yiras Shamayim - Fear of heaven. It is doing Mitzvos because we believe in them and because it is the will of Hashem. Nobody in the entire world cared what that sailor did with his chametz, but he wanted to do what was right by Hashem.

The Gemara in Shabbos tells us that the sages considered leaving the book of Koheles out of the Tanach. They left it in because of the final verse.

“Sof Davar”, King Solomon writes, “At the end of the day, after everything has been said and done: Fear Hashem and do His mitzvos – for that is the entire person”.

We live in a world where people struggle with labels and expectations and very difficult stories in the news. The truth is very simple. It’s not about how we dress or what we call ourselves or where we live. We need to fear Hashem and do –or at least try to do – His mitzvos.

If a group of bums beats someone up because the way that he or she is dressed – they are not fearing Hashem and doing His mitzvos; if hundreds of people sit by the Kosel all night on Tisha B’av and cry – those people are fearing Hashem and doing His mitzvos.

The Talmud tells us that when we come to Heaven we will be asked six questions: Were we honest? Did we set aside times to study Torah? Did we do our best to raise children? Did we await Mashiach? Did we engage in wisdom? Did we seek to understand things deeply?

Even if we answer ‘yes’ to every one of those questions, we will be asked if we feared Heaven. If the answer is no, then everyone of t the answer is no, then every one of the previous yes’s is almost meaningless.

This is what will matter at the end of days: Did we fear Hashem? Did we do His mitzvos?

Several months back, a friend of mine had made Aliyah and informed me that anything that I do here in America was futile. I’m just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I shared this sentiment with the congregation. Eeryone gave a little chuckle and a sigh but one naval chaplain was furious.

Embracing the nautical metaphor, the chaplain asked what he would do if he was on the Titanic and saw people drowning. Would he leave as quickly as possible? Or would he stay behinds and try to help? How is a rescue mission futile?

The Lelover Rebbe notes that after Moshiach comes and we all gather in the Land of Israel, we bring a gift to Moshiach. What kind of gift could Moshiach possibly want?

The Lelover explains that at the end of days all Jews will come running to the Land of Israel. Some will take longer than others but eventually even the most assimilated and uninspired Jews will come. We will search and search until we find the one Jew who refuses to come. He won’t be able to avoid the miracles and the celebration, but he will stay in Wichita, Kansas eating potato chips and watching reruns.

We will go down to Kansas, pick that Jew up, put him onto an airplane and bring him to the land of Israel. We will make make sure that he too takes part in the unfolding of history. That cold, unspiritual, and uninvolved Jew is the greatest gift that we can bring with us when Moshiach comes.

Fear G-d and do Mitzvos, but remember that Hashem treasures every single Jew.

Posted on 07/23 at 04:47 AM • Permalink
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Friday, July 19, 2013

Competing With Ramadan

About fifteen years ago, I joined a group of ten Yeshiva Bochurim and we went on vacation. We rented a house on Hunter Mountain in Upstate New York and we planned daily activities for ourselves.

There was a tiny, old, shul in Hunter and (even though we had our own minyan) we made our way there for Mincha. The shul was totally empty except a few elderly men who looked like they had been waiting for a minyan since 1950, and Rav Malkiel Kotler, the Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood.

It did not cross our minds that Rav Malkiel was in Hunter on vacation. We approached him and asked if he would be willing to give us a shiur. He good naturedly agreed. That night was Tu B’av, and we gathered in the tiny shul and he gave us brilliant shiur on the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah and the Mitzvah to get married. He explained that one is allowed to push off marriage for the sake of learning, but it is not because one mitzvah is more important than the other (although it might be). It is just that the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is so encompassing that it takes over our entire lives. One who is busy with one mitzvah is exempt from doing another.

He then explained that Tu B’av is a Yom Tov for the Jewish people. It was a day when matches were made and celebrations were had. But, there is also a judgment that takes place on that day. The Mishna tells us that in the months leading up to Tu B’av the people would be busy preparing wood for the Bais Hamikdash. They were too busy to learn. On Tu B’av they would stop preparing wood and, suddenly, their evenings would be free.

Rav Malkiel explained that Tu B’av is a night to reveal our true desires. Our busy lives excuse us from constant Torah study, but when we bump into some extra spare time we need to use it properly. The time is a gift – and a challenge - from Hashem. It is a chance to show where our interests lie.

One of the speakers on the CCHF Tisha B’av video told an interesting story about the Kapishnitzer rebbe. The rebbe once noticed a Jewish fellow sitting and eating in a non-kosher restaurant on Yom Kippur. He opened the the door and walked straight up to the man, looked him in the eye, and said, “es mit apetit”, or “enjoy your meal”.

The rebbe explained that there are two types of sinners. The punishment for those who sin out of spite is much greater than the punishment of someone who just can’ control his desires. He encouraged the man to eat with hearty appetite, thus downgrading the level of his sin.

I suspect that the rebbe had more than a cute loophole in mind. He was encouraging the man to think about what he really wanted that Yom Kippur. Did he want a hamburger or did he want a life of meaning and a connection to Hashem?

One year ago, ninety thousand Muslims gathered on the Temple Mount to begin Ramadan. Just as we were bringing our sneakers to shul and getting ready to sit on the floor and mourn the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, ninety thousand Muslims were standing on the site of the destroyed Bais Hamikdash.

I have no idea what Muslims do to prepare for Ramadan, but I am sure that whatever they did not come close to what ninety thousand Jews did that same week at the Siyum Hashas in Metlife stadium.

Even if you don’t learn Daf Yomi, it was impossible not to be impressed by ninety thousand Jews united to honor Torah and to celebrate the study of Torah.

The height of the siyum for me was the address of Reb Yitzchak Scheiner. “You people have done something amazing”, he said, “now you just need to be nice to each other so that we never have to mourn another Tisha B’av”.

We showed Hashem what we want and what we are capable of doing. In that merit we pray that Hashem will say, “I want those 90,000 people to gather in Yerushalayim, right there on Temple Mount with the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash!”

Posted on 07/19 at 02:03 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Our Battle at Craney Island

On June 19th, 2013, I was honored to share the following words with the graduating class of Toras Chaim elementary school in Portsmouth, VA:

The evil prophet Bilaam went up on a mountain so that he could look down and see how isolated and alone we were. We weren’t surrounded or protected by other nations and allies. We weren’t looking over our shoulders to see what others were thinking. Bilaam intended to curse our nation for our singular and stubborn allegiance to Hashem.

Instead of a curse, Bilaam gave us a blessing. He said “Hein am Lebadad Yishkon” - This nation is one of a kind. They do not get discouraged and they are not bound by “what is usually done”. Every one of them has something unique to offer and they are willing to make their unique contribution to the world.

According to my estimates, each of the students graduating tonight has crossed the Elizabeth River between two and three thousand times to come and study Torah at Toras Chaim. That is Mesirus Nefesh (Self sacrifice) for Torah.

As you cross the river tonight for the last time as a student of Toras Chaim, look off to the left. Exactly two hundred years ago today, some very large and powerful British ships were stationed there ready to attack, destroy and burn the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth. Baruch Hashem, we won that battle and the British gave up on Norfolk and Portsmouth. Instead, they invaded Hampton and Newport News and left behind terrible destruction. We aren’t really happy about what happened in Hampton, but this Shabbos as you leave shul you will hear three twenty-one gun salutes from Craney Island, Fort Norfolk, and Fort Nelson commemorating exactly two hundred years since the victory at Craney Island.

What many people do not know is that the British were supposed to win that battle. They had won most of the battles in the War of 1812 and they were pretty sure that they were going to spend Shabbos in Ghent. They even promised their French prisoners that they could keep or destroy anything they wanted when they got to Norfolk.  Once the British entered the Elizabeth River they would be unstoppable.

Our only chance was to stop the British at Craney Island, but the Virginia Militia called a War Council meeting and decided to give up. The British had three times as many soldiers. We would have to let the British through and prepare for the worst. The vote was thirteen to nothing.

The only person who thought that we could beat the British was Walker Armistead. His brother George Armistead was the commander at Fort McHenry but Walker was just a thirty year old engineer. He told all of those generals not to give up and convinced them to put troops on Craney Island to defend the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth.

It is possible that if the soldiers at Craney Island had remembered to raise their flag or if Francis Scott Key had spent the battle sitting in traffic outside the midtown tunnel, we would have a famous song or poem about the battle. Instead we just have a more interesting ride to school and the knowledge that one person saved the entire cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth from destruction.

“Hein am Lebadad Yishkon” - Our nation is one of a kind. As you leave Toras Chaim tonight, you have your whole lives ahead of you. Every one of you has something that you can do that everyone else thinks is impossible.

Your job as Jews and as graduates of Toras Chaim is to find that area of life where you know that you can be unique. Go on to high school and the rest of your lives looking for that one thing. There is something that everyone else thinks is impossible. Only you know that it can be done.

Posted on 06/20 at 08:27 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Kiddush Hashem

“Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel…” (Bamidbar 20:12)

Moshe was punished because he did not sanctify G-d’s name. He did not make a Kidddush Hashem.

When I was a kid they told us that we had to behave nicely on the bus so that we wouldn’t make a Chilul Hashem. When I got older, they told me that it wasn’t true. Kiddush Hashem - Sanctifying G-d’s name - is not about behaving on the bus. It is about being a good Jew, about following the word of Hashem, and about changing this world and making it holy.

Some people call it activism, some people call it Tikkun Olam, and some people call it making a difference. I’m afraid they might all be wrong.

The Chafetz Chayim had a granddaughter who was not very religious. Harav Shimshon Pincus ZTL once traveled with a different grandchild of the Chofetz Chayim, Reb Hillel Zaks to visit her in Be’er Sheva.

The woman explained that she had grown up in difficult times both physically and spiritually. In 1917, as a teenager, she was dealing with many internal struggles and doubts. She decided to confront the great Tzadik, the Chofetz Chayim, directly. The Chofetz Chayim was, of course, one of the greatest leaders and gedolim alive. She asked the Chofetz Chayim “How can you sit here in this little town of Radin “doing nothing” while in the world around you technology and industry are developing at an unprecedented rate?”

The Chofetz Chayim was not offended. He explained: “You see airplanes flying and you are very impressed, one day they will invent an airplane that can fly to the moon. You hear about bombs blowing up buildings and you are awed, soon they will invent a bomb that can destroy an entire city.

It is true that the world around us is impressive and awesome, amazing advances are being made daily, but that is not my primary concern – I am not in the business of making better bombs or better airplanes. ‘Mir Machen Menchen’ The Torah makes people better and my job is to become a mench. My job is to become a human being who is closer to Hashem. That is what I am doing here in Radin.”

Looking back, we know that the Chofetz Chayim was not “doing nothing”. By coming closer to Hashem the Chofetz Chayim was able to bring an entire generation and generations after him closer to Hashem. He did this by concentrating on growth and by beginning with himself. The Chofetz Chayim is quoted as saying: I set out to change the world, then realized that I could only change my city, as I got older I realized that I could only change those immediately surrounding me, and as I got older still I realized that I need to concentrate on myself.

We get so involved in the big things that we sometimes forget the little things. Our fifth grade teachers were right. We are supposed to act nicely on the bus and on airplanes. We are supposed to be honest, even if it means losing a little money. We need to trust in Hashem.

We need to be polite and courteous and hold the door open for people. We need to be careful about our language and control our tempers and think twice before waking up our neighbors or blocking their driveways.

We need to mow our lawns and return lost items and help old ladies across the street.  We need to speak nicely about people. We need to show the world that the Torah really does refine a person.

All of that is a Kiddush Hashem.

Some people set out to solve the world’s problems, while others help with the dishes. We need to focus inward. We need to look internally and work to change ourselves.

Reb Aron Kotler writes that Korach and his men did not set out to cause a revolution. They set out to come closer to Hashem. That is why they refused to relent: Even after Korach was swallowed up by the ground and the two hundred and fifty men killed by fire the people demanded further proof that Aron was indeed the one chosen by Hashem to be the Kohen Gadol – the High priest. Moshe needed to prove it to them by taking the staffs of each of the tribes and the staff of Aharon and putting them near the Aron – the ark - overnight. In the morning Aharon’s staff had sprouted leaves and fruits. Only then were the people convinced.

Although their objective was noble, it did not work. Rather than focusing on his own growth, Korach obsessed with Moshe’s (supposed) power grabs and cronyism.

After the story of Korach the Kohanim and Levi’im, were charged with the responsibility to guide the Jewish people in their constant quest to come closer to Hashem. The people finally realized that the way to come closer to Hashem was not by changing the structure of Klal Yisroel; it was by using the Torah (of Moshe) to look into themselves and think “how can I become a better person?”.

The Mesilas Yesharim writes that Hashem has placed us in the middle of a heavy battle. Our job is to constantly ask ourselves the same question: what can I do right now that will bring me closer to Hashem?

We are often convinced that is our primary job to change the world around us. We need to remember that our focus is to make Menchen. We need to look inward and make ourselves into people who are constantly growing as menchen and growing closer to Hashem.

We need to make a Kiddush Hashem.

Posted on 06/13 at 09:41 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