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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Avoiding Pitfalls

The Gemara in Bava Kammah (50a) speaks about digging pits. It is illegal to dig a pit and leave it uncovered and accessible. If there are any damages, the digger is liable. However, if the person digging the pit donates the pit to the public, he is free of all responsibility. This was the practice of Nechuniah Chofer Boros. He would dig wells and donate them for public use. The rabbis praised Nechuniah for his actions, despite the danger that they potentially posed.

One day Nechuniah’s daughter fell into a pit that he had dug. The people ran to Rav Chanina ben Dosa and asked him to pray for her. “Don’t worry”, he said, “she’s fine”. An hour passes and the girl hadn’t been rescued so they came to Rav Chanina again. “Don’t worry”, he said, “she’s fine”. Another hour passed and again the people returned. “Don’t worry”, he said, “they just pulled her out”.

Indeed, the people raced back to the pit to find the girl safe and sound. She explained that an old man with a ram had come by and rescued her from the pit.

Terribly impressed by Rav Chanina ben Dosa, the people began to call him a prophet. “I’m not a prophet”, he corrected them, “it was just obvious to me that the girl would not be harmed by a pit that had been so generously and meticulously dug and donated by her father. How could the daughter come to suffer from a mitzvah that her father has done”.

The story could end here with a beautiful thought about the reward and protection that comes from fulfilling mitzvos, but it does not. The Gemara is painfully honest. Rav Acha shares with us that although Nechuniah’s daughter was saved miraculously from a well, his son actually died of thirst. This is to teach us that Hashem protects those who do mitzvos, but he is still very exacting in his judgement.

The commentaries struggle to reconcile the confidence of Rav Chanina ben Dosa and the fate of Nechuniah’s son, but I think that the lesson here is very simple:

We hear and experience many wonderful stories about people who are saved as a direct result of their good deeds. We ourselves do many good deeds.  Still, we do not have a license to sit back and relax. We need to constantly examine and re-examine our actions.

Nechuniah had dug wells around the whole Yerushalayim. He had rabbinic endorsement and blessing. He even had a miracle to back him up. Still, he was not immune. Even as he was out digging wells, his own son died of thirst. Something went wrong.

We are in a period of mourning for the students of Rabi Akiva. They were sages, scholars, and righteous men. Yet they were punished all the same.

We can never be complacent. There is always room to examine and to grow.

Posted on 04/18 at 10:05 PM • Permalink
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Friday, March 15, 2013

Getting Started

Last year I had the privilege of traveling to Israel to attend the wedding of my brother Shalom and his wife Deena. I was honored to speak briefly at the wedding meal and shared the following words:

In Tehillim (84), King David speaks of Israel and particularly of the Bais Hamikdash (Temple) in terms of intense endearment. He says, “מַה-יְּדִידוֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶיך י-ה צְבָאוֹת, נִכְסְפָה וְגַם-כָּלְתָה נַפְשִׁי לְחַצְרוֹת ה: “Your dwelling places are like a good friend to me - Hashem; I yearn and I pine for Hashem’s courtyards.”

The usage of the word ‘Nichsefa’ or ‘kissuf’ to describe King David’s yearning is both interesting and unique. The commentaries understand it to mean that King David’s life was simply not complete without the Bais Hamikdash (temple). King David felt that he literally could not survive any longer without coming closer to Hashem by building a sanctuary to Him.

The Medrash writes that idea of Kissuf (intense yearning) applies to marriage as well. When a Chassan (groom) realizes that his life cannot go on without his kalla (bride), and a kalla comes to the realization that her life cannot continue without her chassan, that couple has experienced a very valuable type of yearning. The yearning of the chassan and kallah has the power to become the foundation of a very beautiful relationship.

During the first days of the month of Nissan Jews around the world refrain from saying tachanun in celebration of the inaugural sacrifices brought by the nesiim, the leaders of each tribe, to the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

Outwardly, the daily gifts of the nesiim look identical but the Medrash Rabbah tells us that each one of the nesiim had distinct and unique intentions when he offered his gift.

The nasi for the sixth day of Nissan was Elyasaf ben Deu’el of the tribe of Gad. Everything that he brought to the Mishkan was meant to symbolize an aspect of our redemption from Egypt and our entry into the land of Israel.

The very first gift that Elyasaf brought was a silver platter – a ‘kaaras kesef achas’. The Medrash reveals that this Kesef (literally, silver) symbolized the Kesef - the yearning - that existed between Amram and Yocheved, the parents of Moshe Rabbeinu. According to the Nasi of Gad, the marriage between Amram and Yocheved was the catalyst for the entire Exodus and, eventually, our entry into the land of Israel.

I gave my humble bracha to the chassan and kallah that the yearning, the ‘kisuf’, that brought them to their wedding day continue to grow and develop. The mutual appreciation and need that a bride and groom feel for each other is the beginning of many special blessings. Their relationship will surely play a role in alleviating some of the suffering in the world and, eventually, in bringing all of us to the land of Israel speedily in our days.

Just three days after sharing this idea at my brother’s wedding, I boarded a home-bound El Al flight out of Tel Aviv. My seatmate for eleven hours was a fellow named Amram who explained to me that he was not very religious. He had made a firm decision to marry a Jewish woman and was returning from a trip that he had made to Israel for the express reason of meeting a potential bride. The woman he met is more religious than he is and he hopes to rise to her level. We said Tefillas Haderech together as we took off and as as the plane inched it’s way across the Atlantic we had several discussions about G-d, Kashrus, and Eretz Yisrael. As the plane landed, I told Amram about my brother’s wedding and about the original Amram in Egypt. We discussed how Amram’s desire to marry Yocheved had been the first step in our long trek out of Egypt and into Eretz Yisrael. We shared a mutual prayer that the desire - the kissuf - of the Amram sitting next to me to marry the right woman and to grow spiritually would bring only great things for him and for his wife-to-be. Like the Amram thousands of years before him, he has the power to change the face of the Jewish people.

May we continue to share only Simchos.

Chag Kasher V’same’ach.

More on Pesach:

Posted on 03/15 at 10:29 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Articulation - The Language of Prayer

One of the most difficult aspects of Tefillah is language. Why do we always say the same words? Why do they need to be in Hebrew?

The truth is that both of these questions have simple answers. We can pray with any words we want and in every language we want. In fact, the philosophy of Breslov encourages Histapchus hanefesh at any time and in any form. It is just that we are also obligated to cover certain pre-set prayers and procedures.

This answer is not sufficient, because the end result is still that there is no denying the emphasis in Jewish prayer on Language and liturgy.

In “To Pray as a Jew”, Rabbi Donin gives several reasons for using Hebrew in our liturgy:
1. Unity
2. Familiarity with classical sources
3. Perpetuation of Hebrew Language
4. To fight assimilation

There are also strategic values in praying in the ways of forefathers. What worked before may work again and perhaps with more holiness and nostalgia applied. Reb Aharon Kotler, the Alei Shur and Rav Hircsh also speak of molding our minds through the words of our prayers.

All of these reasons are good but I would humbly submit that none of them really scratch the surface.

The Hebrew word Tefila cames from the word ‘pilul’. Pilul means judgment but it is more accurately an articulation of judgment. The Torah uses the word Hafla’ah when referring to vows and indeed the Rambam’s book on vows is called ‘Sefer Haflaah’.

A vow is a way of articulating a thought that is within us. It may not be something we do or even something that we will do, but it is – ideally – something that we really want to do. Words are the quill of the soul.

With words we are able to articulate our innermost feelings. People who do not have words do not have articulated feelings. Roget writes in his introduction to the thesaurus:

“The use of language is not confined to its being the medium through which we communicate our ideas to one another; it fulfills a no less important function as an instrument of thought; not being merely its vehicle, but giving it wings for flight. Metaphysicians are agreed that scarcely any of our intellectual operations could be carried on to any considerable extent, without the agency of words… Into every process of reasoning, language enters as an essential element. Words are the instruments by which we form all our abstractions, by which we fashion and embody our ideas…”

Our cultures are shaped in many ways by language and our language is shaped by our culture. Some cultures have many words for snow; others have many words for pasta. Language forms a large part of who we are. Ester refers to “every nation and their language”, in describing diverse cultures. Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen (Kometz Mincha 20) writes that the tongue or the language is the quill of the heart. Just as the Quill is able to take thoughts and transcribe them onto paper, there is a step before this where the emotions of the heart are transcribed into words. Language is to the heart what a pen is to the mind. The Chovos Halevavos (Bechina 5) writes:

“Now think about the good which has been given to man through the power of speech and articulation. For with them he can present that which is in his soul and inner recesses, and with them he can understand the feelings of others. The tongue is the quill of the heart and the agent of his hidden thoughts. If man would not be capable of speech, we would be entirely unintelligent and animalistic. Speech is what separates Man from all other species; with it we make pacts among ourselves and with G-d, with speech we beg forgiveness, which is the highest indicator of our intelligence.”

In 1984, a large part of Orwell’s “utopian” society is based on the introduction of a new language:

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees … but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever… words such as honor, justice, morality, internationalism, democracy, science, and religion had simply ceased to exist.”

In much the same way, the entire story of the Tower of Babylon centers on speech. When people spoke one language they were united. When G-d wanted to divide them, he had them speak different languages.

The Jerusalem Talmud records an argument between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan, one said that they actually spoke seventy languages, while the other understood that they spoke only Hebrew.

Both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan had difficulties with the idea of everyone speaking the same language. One resolves it by saying that perhaps they spoke the same language, but it was only a “Safah” from the lips outwards, inside they all had completely different emotions, which just hadn’t been articulated in to individual languages. Rabbi Eliezer preferred to take the verse at face value; at one point everyone was truly unified, it was only after this unity was used for the wrong purpose that we were split.

In linguistics there are two schools of thought, one believes that all men are created equal and it is only the culture and nuances of society that cause us to be different than each other. The other, more realistic view is that we were all created different and it for that reason that many different languages and slang has evolved. Even if theoretically we could all speak one language and thus all think in the same way, there would be peace on earth but it last for only a short time because ultimately the uniqueness within us would awaken and new languages would emerge.

Another way to look at this is as a form of prophecy. The Piasetzner writes in Shalosh Maamaros (2:5) that there are three levels of prophecy. The highest is Ruach Hakodesh, below that is Shirah, and below that 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. “Our hearts run after G-d like a gazelle runs after a water hole”. We don’t always feel holy because articulating those ideas is tricky. We have so many other thoughts inside of us.

Holy people like King David knew the language of the soul. They knew how to articulate the emotions that all of us feel and they were able to put all of our thoughts into words. Perhaps more effectively than we could ourselves.

In halacha we find that one may daven in any language that he or she understands, or in Hebrew. The Mishna Berurah explains that there is a fundamental difference between Hebrew and all other languages. Hebrew is a Lashon B’etzem – an Objective language. Light is not just called Ohr – it is the word G-d used to create it. We can make Gematria’s and find deeper meaning in the word “ohr”. The word ‘light’ is simply a function of an agreement among men.

The Nefesh Hachaim writes (2:13) that no two Shemona Esrei’s wil ever be the same. The words have so much wisdom that they are able to encompass the thoughts and emotions of all people and all generations. He recommends (2:14) that we concentrate on each word and make it meaningful to us by pouring meaning into it from the depths of our own souls. The Yesod V’shoresh Ha’avodah (Shir, ch. 3) writes that the Psalms of David were written for all Jews in all generations. It sounds unbelievable, but it is worth a try.

We emerge from our discussion with a nusach of Tefila that cannot be duplicated and that is second to none in a language that is able to articulate the deepest of our emotions and the holiest parts of our souls. On the other hand, we have here a prayer that we don’t understand. “A prayer without Kavana is like a body without a soul”.

Kabbalistcally, there is no better way to pray than by expressing our innermost feelings in verbal form. The prayers that we have been given in our siddurim are simply a rendering of the thoughts in our souls. We may not be in touch with those thoughts or even aware of them, but they are part of the fiber of our being. As a community, we shy from losing the richness of the original Tefillah.

As individuals we are free to express thoughts in our own ways. We want to understand what we are saying. This choice is given to us.

In conclusion, I share a thought that is not found in any sefarim but made a profound difference to my prayer. I heard it from a neighbor of mine many years ago who had become a Baal teshuva and was very connected to the spirituality of tefillah. He couldn’t help but notice that most of the people around him were not quite as into tefilla as he was. At first he was bothered, but then he said this:

“That sixteen year old boy has no idea what he is doing. He knows the words and the language and the tune better than I do, yet he has been saying Shemona esrei three times a day all is life without having kavana. His prayer may be meaningless, but – one day he will be in trouble. One day he will need to pour out his heart and talk to G-d. He will know how to do it.”

We have explored prayer as a baring of our souls, a chance to stand before G-d and a chance to articulate our thoughts. Too often, we do none of the above, but it is a tool in our arsenal. One day we will need to pray, and we will know how.

This is the Third in a series on prayer. The second essay is available at

Posted on 01/17 at 11:34 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Because I Love You

When Yaacov first met Rachel he cried. The Medrash says that he cried because he would not be buried with her.

Before his death, Yaacov apologized to Yosef for not burying Rachel in Me’aras Hamachpeila. He had buried her by the side of the road outside Beis Lechem. He had no excuse, the weather was good and the distance was not too far, but he did not make the trip like he did for Leah and like Yitzchak and Avraham did for their wives.

Why didn’t Yaacov just bury Rachel in Me’aras Hamachpela? Rashi brings a famous Medrash that Yaacov wanted Rachel to be available to greet the exiles as they were leaving for Bavel, but the Seforno gives a much simpler explanation: Yaacov was just too sad. The loss was too much for him to bear. He was not able to make the trip.

When Rabin was Prime Minister of Israel, there was some question about the land surrounding Kever Rachel. At one point it was supposed to fall under full Arab civil and military control. Chanan Porat who was a member of Knesset went to speak with Rabin and try to change his mind. As he was walking to Rabin’s office, Rabbi Menachem Porush who was the head of Agudah at the time asked to join in the meeting.

Many years earlier, right after the Six Day War, when we regained access to Kever Rachel Rabbi Parush had been one of the first to arrive there. He came with R’ Aryeh Levin (“the tzaddik of Jerusalem”) and Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz. He marked the spot with a piece of cardboard that said: ‘Here is the Kever of Rochel’. That was when Reb Chaim Shmeulevitz famously cried “Mama, Hashem told you to stop crying – but I say Keep on Crying for your children”.

Now, several decades later, the two members of Knesset made strong arguments based on politics and security to preserve Jewish presence at Kever Rachel. Rabin was not convinced.

Then Rabin noticed that Menachem Porush was crying. He gave in and we have access to Kever Rachel to this day. 

Sometimes, emotions are an excuse. Yaacov told Yosef that he feels bad asking for a favor that he had not done for Yosef’s mother. He had no excuse other than emotion, but that is ok sometimes.

Posted on 12/30 at 05:21 PM • Permalink
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Mechilas Yosef

I had occasion to visit the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth this week. It was not very hard to get in, but there was serious security and I did need to prove to them that I belonged there. As soon as I was cleared by security, I entered and noted a very large billboard with the message “Hand Hygiene Saves Lives”. Indeed, as I walked through the hospital, hand hygiene was clearly the theme of the month. When I reached the room where I was going I was ordered by a very stern nurse in fatigues to make a sharp right upon entering the room and use hand sanitizer.

Here I was, surrounded by some of the toughest people in the world who have met face to face with some of our most dangerous enemies and they were obsessing about these little tiny invisible germs. Sissies!

At the end of our Parsha the brothers approach Yosef with a message from Yaacov: “forgive us”. This is odd because we have no record at all of Yaacov making this request. On the contrary, there are many indications that Yaacov had no idea that there was anything to forgive. Nobody ever told him the story. Rashi tells us that the brothers were bending the truth.

Clearly, the brothers thought that Yaacov knew but that they had not told him. They suspected Yosef of telling him. Yosef on the other hand had kept his silence all these years. When the brothers came to him with their untruth he cried because they clearly did not understand what he was all about. They thought that he was like Eisav, waiting for his father’s death do that he could kill them.

The Medrash Tanchuma writes that when the brothers were on their way back from burying Yaacov, Yosef made a detour at the pit where the brothers had thrown him. He made a blessing thanking Hashem for saving him on that day.

The brothers were petrified; they thought that Yosef was working himself up for revenge. In reality he was just thanking Hashem for everything that had happened.

Rabbeinu Bachaye writes that Yosef never actually did forgive the brothers. We suffered in later generations because of that forgiveness that never took place. We say on Yom Kippur that the ten martyrs were a result of that sale. Reb Elchanan writes that the blood libels may have been residual punishment for the dipping of Yosef’s coat in goat blood. Who knows how much infighting the Jews have gone through as a result of the sale of Yosef and the fact that it was never resolved.

We can’t just ignore things and sweep them under the carpet. We need to recognize that they are germs that can cause terrible disease. We also can’t assume that we understand what the other person is thinking. The brothers thought that Yosef would plot revenge and Yosef thought that the brother’s knew him better than that.

We need to time things right and be careful about bringing up the past, but we also can’t assume that we know what is going on in another person’s heart.

(Based in part on “Teachings” by Rabbi Asher Brander)

Posted on 12/30 at 05:15 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Regards From Down Under

With report cards due this week I realized with chagrin that, once again, my Middle School students had achieved straight A’s. Where is my bell curve? Where are my weak kids? Why don’t my students dread their weekly tests?

The answer lies in an email that I received yesterday from my eighth grade rebbe. He had come across some of my teaching material online and sent me a compliment and a bracha. He added an interesting post script: “I always knew”, he wrote, “that you would be a great rebbe”.

My mind rolled back to eighth grade. I had switched schools about a year earlier and was still catching up. In my last school we learned about one parsha a year; here we were expected to know the entire parsha every week – and it wasn’t even our main subject. The classes were in Yiddish and I was behind in many skills.

Rav Hochhauser gave me my first 100%. I remember, because I burst into the house that night and woke my mother to tell her the news. It was not the 100% of a teacher who had mercy or taught to the test. It was the 100% of hard work and determination.

Rav Hochhauser truly loved me and wanted me to succeed. I sat right next to him for the one hour Chumash & Rashi class each night and I probably pestered him for the other twenty-three hours of the day. He never complained and I took him for granted. No matter where he was, he would stop to explain a Rashi again. He would go through my tests with me and show me where I had gone wrong. He fully expected me to get a 100% one day - and I did. It was a tiny test and probably not a very hard one, but none of that mattered. I had gotten 100% on the same test as everybody else. I had caught up.

It was the day that I stopped being the ‘kid from Buffalo who is behind’.

When I began my career as a teacher, I attended a class by Rabbi Liebenstein of Chicago. Rabbi Liebenstein insisted over and over again that the most important job of a teacher is to ensure that each student ‘achieves success daily’. I thought of Rav Hochhauser and knew that he was right. Success is the most powerful tool available in Chinuch and it is the greatest gift that a teacher can give to a child.

I measured my success by grades, but many students do not. Students are thrilled to be able to read a posuk, give an original answer, ask a good question, or help a friend with a worksheet. It is cruel to allow a child to sit in school for eight hours a day without helping him or her feel at least one moment of success.

Rav Hochhauser taught us that “מען טאהר נישט אויפהערען מיט א שלעכטע זאך”. It is forbidden to end learning with a bad taste in our mouths. We would never end class with a sad Pasuk. Rebbe would just keep on going until we found something happy. I have tried to follow his advice. I keep teaching my students until they have all succeed in some way. Perhaps I will merit to give them Rav Hochhauser’s confidence and their own priceless feeling of success.

Posted on 12/20 at 10:59 PM • Permalink
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Friday, November 30, 2012

Standing Before G-d

About twenty years ago, my father was on his way to a meeting with a prominent philanthropist. On the way he stopped at a red light and happened upon Rabbi Avigdor Miller, who was taking a walk. Somebody chose this moment to introduce my father to Rabbi Miller and they got into a very involved conversation. The light changed to green and to red and back again and my father mentioned that he was late for a meeting, but Rabbi Miller just kept on asking questions as he tried to get to know my father. Finally my father was dismissed and he came to his meeting apologizing profusely. “Don’t say a word!” the man said, “Rabbi Miller just called me and explained.”

That man became one of my father’s most generous supporters, but I have always had trouble understanding Rabbi Miller’s actions. I still don’t understand them, but I can say this: when Rabbi Miller did something he did it with his entire being. He wasn’t looking around and thinking about what he was going to do next or how to solve the world’s problems. He was talking to you. Perhaps the price to pay was the need to pick up the pieces afterwards, but at the time of the conversation he was totally and completely focused.

As I tell my students, undivided attention means just that: undivided attention.

In Jewish thought our beings are split into four parts: our actions, our emotions, our intellect, and our Neshamos. When we deal with other people we are often tempted to use just one facet of our being. Sometimes we just go through the motions of saying hello and being nice. Sometimes we become emotionally involved in their lives. Sometimes we spend a lot of time analyzing them and understanding them intellectually. Sometimes, especially in the case of siblings and other relatives, we are content to just be soul mates. We don’t feel that any other gestures are necessary.

The truth is that all four facets of our being need to be in play when we are communicating with another person. We need to show interest, feel interest, be interested and – ideally - connect on a soul level.

Rabbi Krohn says, “If you marry a girl for her money you will lose interest quickly”, and it is true. If we are only connected on one level (maybe) it is obvious that the relationship will not go very far.

When we wake up in the morning and thank G-d for our eyes, our hands, our feet, our clothing and our bodily functions we are connecting with Hashem on a very physical level. That is important and necessary. We live a physical life and we need to make sure to be thinking about Hashem as much as possible. Still, we cannot be content with connecting to Hashem in this physical world. We need to take it up a notch. We need to become emotionally involved and recite poetry to G-d. We do this by reading the Psalms of Pesukei Dezimra. We take a few minutes out of our day to get poetic with Hashem.

Several years ago I attended a beautiful wedding. At the end of the wedding I happened to notice a rabbi call the caterer over to his table. He complimented the food and the setup but complained that the ice cream had been too frozen. The caterer had placed bowls of hot water next to the ice cream to heat up the spoons and the rabbi felt that was lacking in propriety.

I don’t know what bothered me so much about this encounter but it may have had something to with the fact that I had been in this rabbi’s shul the shabbos before and his drosha had been on the importance of kugel.

To be sure, it is important to honor shabbos with kugel and to celebrate weddings beautifully, but it can’t stop there. We need to bring our hearts into it. We need to rise above the food and enjoy the wedding and the Shabbos meal for what they really are.

After connecting to G-d on both practical and emotional levels we make our way up to intellect. We say the Shema in which we discuss G-d’s oneness, reward and punishment, and the eternal covenant that we have with Him.

When we deal with people we often have the luxury of not connecting on an intellectual level because it is just too painful or inconvenient. With Hashem, it is important that we take time each and every day to go over the philosophy of our relationship and the basics of Judaism that are contained in Shema.

Finally, as we finish the Shema, we are ready to go beyond the actions, the emotions, and the intellect. With the words of Shemona Esrei we are totally soul. We have a spiritual connection with Hashem that transcends anything that we have discussed. It goes beyond kugel, beyond poetry, and beyond philosophy. It is where we try to become one with Hashem. We stand absolutely still and try not to be involved in this world at all. There is nothing but us and Hashem. It doesn’t matter if a snake crawls up our ankle or a sefer falls on the floor. We are no longer of this world.

Within Shemona Esrei we deal with the physical, the emotional, and the logical, but the general stance is one of total Neshama.

The Shulchan Aruch (98) writes that we need to daven Shemona Esrei as if we are facing the Shechina. We need to rid ourselves of all outside thoughts and envision Hashem standing before us. We need to imagine that we are in heaven. The ‘chasidim harishonim’ were able to shed all physicality and rise to the level of prophecy.

We say Shemona Esrei quietly because we do not want to disturb the people next to us. Kabbalistically, there is another reason. By whispering the words of Shjemona Esrei we are engaging as little of our body as possible. In fact, the repetition, in which we don’t even speak, is considered to be an even higher plane above the spoken Shemona Esrei.

These four levels of prayer correspond directly to the worlds of Atzilus, Briah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah. If G-d is in the world of Atzilus and we are in the world of Asiyah, the aim of our davening is to rise through the worlds and stand before G-d.

Kabbalistic Siddurim outline this clearly. At the top of each page is a header reminding the person which world he finds himself in. To daven properly is to experience each of these worlds in our relationship with Hashem.

As we finish Shemona Esrei and tachanun we go down the same way we came up. We read say the Kedusha again, followed (in Nusach Sefard) by the Tehillim of the Shir Shel Yom and finally Aleinu. In Aleinu we acknowledge that there are great heights to be attained but we are of this earth and we are here to bring Hashem into the world of Asiyah.

The Maor Vashemesh writes that the bells on the garments of the Kohein Gadol were designed to bring him back down to this world after the intensity of the Avodah. I once heard from the Nodvarna Rebbe that Avraham sat outside his tent when speaking with G-d because he knew that he would need passersby to bring him back down to reality.

Rav Shimshon Pincus tells a story about the kabbalist Soliman Mutzafi. Chacham Mutzafi would sit in Zichron Moshe and daven for hours as minyanim came and went. One time, he was attending a minyan when the Chazzan finished Shemona Esrei and began Kaddish without taking three steps back. He began to yell, “You are still in Atzilus!” The chazzan was probably lucky to remember that he was even in shul, but to Chacham Mutzafi it was all very real.

Another parallel to these four worlds is the Beis Hamikdash. As the Kohen entered through the Temple Mount, the courtyard, the Heichal, and the Holy of Holies, he would rise through these four stages and come closer to G-d. That is why we often repeat things three times in Davening. We are raising ourselves upwards toward G-d and simultaneously inwards toward our Neshamos.

When I walk down my block, I try to say hello to all of my neighbors. They all know me and enjoy saying hello. In most cases we are just going through the motions of being good neighbors, but in some cases there is the emotional element too. I helped one guy find a job, one guy was my neighbor in Buffalo, another spoke to me through the death of his parents and his divorce, another came to us for the seder. When those people say hello, we are actually connecting on an emotional level. The bochur across the street is an entirely different story. We used to be chavrusos. We have spent hours discussing philosophy and there is an intellectual connection when we meet. There has been a meeting of the minds. And then there is my family. We connect at the soul level. Even if we wouldn’t talk or emote or think together we would still be connected. This connection, especially in the company of the other three facets of our beings is the strongest connection on the block.

When we daven we need to make sure that we are connecting on every level. We can’t just wave to Hashem, but we can’t just levitate to heaven either. We need to go through the motions of thanking Hashem for our physical well-being, following it up with the poetry of Dovid Hamelech, rising to the intellectual world of Shema, and finally trying to lose it all and connect heart to heart with Hashem.

The Chassidim Harishonim would spend an hour preparing for prayer, and hour praying, and an hour coming down form prayer. If we can get that Heart to heart connection for just a moment, all three hours of prayer are worth it.

Posted on 11/30 at 04:37 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Real Men

Yaacov was an Ish Tam. He was a very simple and straightforward man. Yet he tricked Eisav into agreeing to the worst deal in history.

How could he have known that Eisav would agree to such a ludicrous deal?

Rav Nachman Levovitz explains that from the moment that Eisav came in from the field demanding the lentil soup, Yaacov understood that values were meaningless to Eisav. Yaacov understood that the role of the bechor is to represent G-d in this world. To stand up for what is right and what is G-dly no matter the price.

Eisav was willing to act like an animal because he was hungry. He demanded the lentil soup raw and he wanted it to be poured down his throat. He had no self respect and certainly no desire to represent G-d. He couldn’t relate to the bechora at all.

There was no cunningness in Yaacov’s deal. Once Eisav was ready to sell the bechora for a price, he would sell it for any price at all.

We, who understand the idea of values won’t give up our values for anything.

Over the past two weeks (November 2012) we have witnessed two major tragedies. Last week there was a hurricane and, despite the lack of electricity, I had had constant updates from my sisters who had lost electricity and my sister who was evacuated from her home. I heard about the schools that closed down and the schools that may never be able to use their buildings again. I heard about the young couples who had their uninsured basements and cars flooded and lost all of their belongings. My sister described walking down streets strewn with waterlogged pieces of clothing that had floated there from all over New York.

This week my siblings in Eretz Yisroel started talking. They talked about the safest place to go for shabbos, about sitting in their homes and listening to riots and yelling from the arab neighborhoods and waiting to see who would be called up next from miluim. Less than one hour before shabbos everyone in Yerushalayim entered their bomb shelters for the first time since the Gulf War.

I was touched by the amount of support that the people in New York are getting and the amount of hochnosas orchim and tefilla that the evacuees and soldiers in Israel are getting, but I was most touched by the way these issues transcended oceans. For the entire week after the hurricane, my siblings in Israel were describing the concern that everyone in Israel was feeling. For the past few days I’ve been watching how people in the United States are mobilizing davening, petitioning congress members and worrying about their relatives.

That is what we do. That is why we are Yaacov’s grandchildren; we value people, we value life, and we hate to see suffering. We do what we can to alleviate it.

That is what is going on right now in Gaza. The Israeli army spends millions of shekels developing technology to take out the really bad guys without hurting their wives and children and best friends. In return we just get more indiscriminate rockets. It would be easier to treat them as they treat us. But we can’t. It isn’t what we do. It is against our values. There is no price in the world that was cause us to fire indiscriminately when we have a way of sparing the lives of Palestinians.

Rav Shach used to say that we are not fighting a normal enemy. Usually when you kill the enemy you have won. In their book you can win by dying. They can win by having their wives and children shot by Israelis and by having their neighbors homes destroyed. A bombed hospital is a victory for them, and the worse the conditions are for their people the more they have succeeded. These are the people that the Israeli army needs to fight. And it is hard because we won’t stoop to their level. We can’t stoop to their level and we don’t have it in us to stoop to their level.

That is what Yaacov had that Eisav did not. Eisav had no self respect. He had no values. He had no problem demanding food and demanding that it be poured, raw, down his throat. Yaacov understood that a man like that had no problem giving up his role as G-d’s ambassador to the world. Once he had a price, any price would work.

We need to be proud of our people. We need to be proud of the organizations in New York who have helped Jews and non-Jews with dignity and alacrity and self-sacrifice. We need to be proud of communities all over Israel who are opening their homes to evacuees from the cities and regions of Beersheba, Ashdod, Hof Ashkelon, Ashkelon, Shear Hanegev, Ofakim, Sderot, Eshkol and Kiryat Malachi, and we need to be proud of our soldiers and government who refuse to stoop to the level of their enemies.

Most of all we need to be proud of our grandfather Yaacov who stood up to Eisav. We need to be proud of our position as G-d’s chosen people and His ambassadors in this world.

Eisav was willing to give up his values for a pot of soup; we won’t give them up if our life depends on it.

May we share only shalom and good news.

Posted on 11/22 at 04:32 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, November 04, 2012

Look Not Upon the Storm

G-d came to visit Avraham Avinu. We tend to assume that G-d appeared to Avraham all the time but Avraham was one hundred years old and this was only the sixth recorded conversation.

As they were speaking, Avraham noticed three travelers in the distance. They looked like pagans and idol worshipers and they tried to avoid Avraham. They clearly were not desperate. Yet, Avraham asked Hashem to wait a moment so that he could run after the three arabs.

We know that when we come to shul we are supposed to run, but when we leave shul we are not allowed to run. When we get an Aliyah we make sure to go up the short way, but when we go down we take the long way. Here Avraham was talking to Hashem. He was sitting down because he was weak, yet when he saw the guests he literally ran away from Hashem to help some some nomads who, in all likelihood denied G-d’s existence.

The Gemara learns from here that greeting a guest is more important than greeting the shechinah.

Hashem did not put Avraham into this world to talk to G-d. Avraham didn’t have to be born for that. Avraham’s mission in this world was to do kindness and to spread the word of G-d. As long as there were no guests around Avraham was “content” to transcend his physical reality and speak with G-d. But now that he had an opportunity to fulfill his true mission, Avraham knew that Hashem would prefer that he speak to the guests.

Sometimes we encounter a person suffering and our first thought is to try to think about whether this person deserves to suffering. Avraham taught us that this is not our role. Our job is to help the people.

Everyone is talking about hurricane Sandy. Some people talk about why Hashem sent the hurricane and how we are too confident in ourselves and too dependent on technology and gasoline. Other people talked about how to help all of the families that were evacuated and lost their belongings.

It is true that the Gemara says that “Hashem created thunder in order to show us His might and His power”, but that can only be our focus when there is nobody who needs help. If someone needs help, we need to focus on how to help them. When everyone is helped we can go back to philosophizing and becoming frummer.

There was major controversy in many shuls this week. People were coming to davening to recharge. They would plug their phones into the outlets, warm up, drink some coffee, schmooze, and also daven a little bit. Didn’t they learn their lesson? Couldn’t they survive without their cellphones and blackberries. Wasn’t Hashem teaching us to have more respect for His “home” and come to daven, not shmooze and steal electricity?

Of course, but all that comes later.

Avraham taught that as long as we are within halachic parameters, our first responsibility is to help others.

Related article:

Posted on 11/04 at 08:40 PM • Permalink
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Monday, October 29, 2012

Who Won?

The Torah describes a prolonged war between four kings and five kings. It is apparent that the four kings were stronger than the five, but after they attacked Sedom and kidnapped Lot, Avraham did not hesitate to go after them. He won the war and returned with all of the Sedomi prisoners and treasure. The Medrash is clear that the victory was miraculous, but even from the simple text of the Chumash, there is no question that Avraham came to the rescue.

Bera, the king of Sedom came to Avraham with a deal:

“Give me the people and keep the property for yourself”.

Militarily, Avraham had every right to both the people and the treasure, but he refused Bera’s deal: “I will not take a string or a shoelace from you. I don’t want you to say ‘I made Avraham wealthy”.

Avraham came and saved the king of Sedom from total defeat in a war he had been fighting for twenty five years, yet there was a real danger that the king of Sedom would take all of the credit, not only for his victory, but for Avraham’s wealth.

Avraham, who had accepted gifts in the past, was very wary of this “gift”. He wanted to make clear that his good fortune came from Hashem and not from man. He showed his allegiance to Hashem by refusing the money and was rewarded with the mitzvos of Tzitzis and Tefillin which attest tour personal connection to Hashem.

Avraham was also punished. Rav Yochanan says in Nedarim that Avraham was criticized for giving away the people. When the king of Sedom said: “Give me the people and keep the property for yourself”. Avraham should have responded: “you can take the property, but I am going to keep the people”.

Avraham had a way with people and a lesson to teach people. He should not have let them go so fast. He could have shared one piece of Torah, one lesson, or one act of kindness with them. That might have changed the face of Sedom for years to come.

If Avraham had held onto the prisoners of Sedom, things could have turned out differently. We might have no dead sea, no salty desert, and no booths in the mall. But we would have fertile lush ground and a new and improved Sedom.

Avraham recognized the evil of the people in Sedom. He accepted gifts from Avimelech and Malki Tzedek but not from Sedom, because he understood that Sedom was different. Sedom would deny Hashem’s help and take all of the credit for themselves. He chose to give up the wealth and strengthen his faith in Hashem.

Still, according to Rav Yochanan, Avraham had a chance. He had those Sedomi prisoners that he had just rescued. He could have changed them.
Rav Yochanan had a Chavrusa who was a former bandit. He jumped over the Jordan to see Rav Yochanan as he was bathing. He spoke crudely to Rav Yochanan, but Rav Yochanan offered to learn with him Bechavrusa.

They became brothers-in-law and together they taught an entire generation. They appear on virtually every page of Gemara.

We are not allowed to give up on anybody. If Avraham had not given up on Sedom, he might have saved himself some bargaining later. We need to take every chance we have to teach people about the beauty of Judasim. Share a Torah thought, explain what you are doing, or just set a good example.

We may not make any tangible changes, but we will know that we have represented Hashem faithfully to the world and not given up on a single soul.

(Based in part on ”Reflections” by Rabbi Asher Brander)

Posted on 10/29 at 04:49 PM • Permalink
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Friday, October 26, 2012

When Different Isn’t Done

I met a frum pirate the other day.

He has never boarded a ship with intent to plunder, but he will be following a full size pirate ship from port to port for the next few months. He gives tours, exhibits cutlasses and puts on a pirate costume every now and then.

When I first saw the yarmulke on his head, I assumed something was wrong with him. Guys with black velvet yarmulkes don’t sign up with Long John Silver. They certainly don’t keep parrots. They don’t dress up. It just isn’t done.

There are other things that aren’t done.

When I was learning in the Mir there was a guy called The Tie. Other people also wore ties, but they were all old (above 35) or on staff. The Tie was one of us, except that none of us showed up daily with a clean shave, an attache case, and a Tie. It just wasn’t done.

One day, The Tie tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to learn with him. He was one of the best Chavrusos I ever had. People would identify me in the hallways as the guy who learned with The Tie. I remember visiting The Tie at home, fully expecting to meet a Mrs. Tie and a bunch of Little Ties running around in diapers (they weren’t).

One day a random fellow walked over to our seat and popped the question:

“Why do you wear a Tie?”

It may have been my imagination, but I think I heard all 5,000 students in Mir hold their collective breath and move forward in their seats. Why Did he wear a tie?

“Well”, The Tie said simply, “If I worked in a bank I’d wear a tie. Learning Torah is more important than learning a bank”.


I’ve often thought about The Tie. He went on to bigger and better things, but he taught me an important lesson: Don’t be a wimp. If it isn’t done - do it anyway.

A special man that I knew turned around his entire life to become frum. Holy things were dear to him and he filled his life with holy things. He built a beautiful household, grew a beard and peyos, and sent his children to the best yeshivos. He even moved to Yerushalayim.

Fifteen years later, his Yerushalmi son came home from Yeshiva with some news.

“Dad”, he said, “I want to cut my Peyos off. The good guys in the Lithuanian yeshivos don’t have long peyos. It just isn’t done.”

Dad’s answer should be in the textbook of every father:

“You can do what you want”, he said, “but I want you to know that those peyos and the holiness of the mitzvah that they represent inspired me to turn my life around. I gave up my lifestyle for those peyos. Those peyos inspired me to raise you to be the frum Jew and Torah scholar that you are. That isn’t done where I come from - but I did it anyway.

That son kept his peyos, but so many of us aren’t unique and special because “It just isn’t done”.

When I was a youngster in Buffalo, I was one of a handful of boys who wouldn’t walk four steps without a yarmulke. My classmates would take advantage of my limitations and grab my yarmulke for a game of Kipah-way while I stood helpless in the sidelines.

One day I went home and cried. My father shared with me that in his day he was the only boy his age in Buffalo with a yarmulke. Even his teachers would politely “remind” him to remove his Kipah. Keeping that Kipah on was tough, but it made him strong. That Kipah would never come off.

My father made me feel good about my Yarmulke. He also gave me some father-to-son strategy. The next day in school I didn’t just stand there with my hand on my head. I reached nonchalantly into my right pocket and took out a backup yarmulke. I walked away smugly while my oblivious friends continued to hoot and toss the Kippah to and fro.

I had a third yarmulka in my left pocket, but I never needed it. I don’t know whether my friends felt like losers because they had been outsmarted or they began to respect my conviction. I do know that they never played Kipah-way again. When Rosh Hashana came they asked for forgiveness and we all ended up a little bit smarter.

Avraham Avinu lived in an age when the whole world gathered together to build a tower and fight G-d. Avraham went in the other direction. He built a tent and taught the beauty of Monotheism. He did what wasn’t done.

Lech Lecha - Go for Yourself:

If you have convictions, stick to them. If someone knocks you down because you are a little bit different, just ignore them. Put on another Kipah, wear a nicer Tie, grow your peyos longer, be a pirate.

It’s done. And it’s the only way to get anything done.

This Dvar Torah is dedicated by my friend Dr. Jeff Zucker in the memory of his beloved mother, Ita bat Shalom, A"H, who shares her Yortzeit with Rochel Imeinu.  May her neshama have an aliya.

Posted on 10/26 at 01:10 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, October 21, 2012


Last week, as my wife and I walked the streets of Chincoteague, we met a man named Barry. Barry had built a boat and was raffling off tickets for ten dollars apiece. He shared with me that he had been working as a deckhand off the shore of Chincoteague when the Marine Electric went down in 1983. There were 31 deaths and only three survivors. He saw and heard it all and was personally aware that the Marine Electric had not been built and maintained properly.  He fought for several years to ensure that the accident would be remembered and not repeated until, while he was in the middle of a presentation, a second boat sank due to ill maintenance. Barry decided that he had enough; He quit his job as a fisherman and went to school to become an engineer and build his own boats.

I complimented Barry on his proactive approach to the world’s ills and shared with him the idea of ‘Benching Gomel’. According to Jewish law, anybody who has survived a voyage across the ocean must come to shul, get an Aliyah and Bench Gomel in front of a Minyan. This is based on the verse in Tehillim and a Gemara in Berachos. It is important to have a safe boat, but it is equally or more important to remember who sends the storms.

When Noach left the Ark he realized on his own that the very first thing to do would be to thank G-d. He built an altar and thanked Hashem. In apparent response, Hashem appeared to him and said that never again would there be a flood. Noach knew how to react to disaster.

Later in the Parsha we encounter people with the exact opposite approach. Nimrod and his men thought that they saw another flood would be coming. They figured there would be one every 1,650 years or so. They didn’t consider asking G-d for help. Instead, they built a tower. They wanted to use the tower to stop the flood, but in the end the tower destroyed them. It would have been easier to just recognize G-d.

Barry was blown away by the idea of Gomel. He had me write it down so that he could paint it on the side of the boat in both English and Hebrew. Later in the week, Barry emailed me that he had been thinking it over and he doesn’t think it would be proper to put the words on the boat. The raffle is to raise money for a memorial and he wants to carve Hagomel into the granite at the bottom of the statue.

Besides for making Emma Lazarus proud, there is an important lesson to be learned here: We need to know how to react to disaster. We need to build better boats and watch the weather report, but at the same time we need to realize that it is G-d who saved us and that it is G-d who will prevent disaster from happening again.

Posted on 10/21 at 10:20 PM • Permalink
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Thursday, October 11, 2012

How Far Can We Grow?

On Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos, we say a special Hoshana from Rabbi Menachem ben Machir who lived about 1000 years ago. He is also the author of some of the Kinos that we say on Tisha B’av and of the ‘Reshus’ for the Chassan Torah on Simchas Torah.

In the first couplet of the Hoshana we ask Hashem to forgive us and save us on Shabbos just as he saved Adam, the first man, on Shabbos. In the second couplet we ask Hashem to save us just as He saved the Jewish people in Mitzrayim by allowing us to rest on Shabbos.

The Medrash Shocher Tov (92:1) notes that when Adam ate from the Tree of knowledge he should have died. After all, Hashem had said: “on the day that you eat from the tree you will die”. Adam ate from the tree on Friday afternoon and Shabbos began before the death sentence had been carried out. The day of Shabbos stood before Hashem and complained that if Adam were to die, Shabbos would always be remembered as the day on which death came to the world.

Hashem agreed and mankind was allowed to survive.

The very word Shabbos shares the root of Teshuva (repentance). Shabbos is a day on which we return to Hashem. The teshuva of Shabbos is specifically not through confessions and regrets, but rather by stopping for a moment to allow ourselves to rest. We use Shabbos to remind ourselves who we are and why we’ve been rushing all week.

One might say that Shabbos is our weekly reminder of where we are really holding. On Yom Kippur, we celebrate Shabbos Shabbason to get in touch with our souls and we continue throughout the year to observe each Shabbos in an attempt to strip away the many distractions in our life and spend the day with Hashem.

A little bit later in human history Adam encountered his son Kayin. Kayin had just committed the world’s first murder. When Kayin told Adam that his repentance had been accepted, Adam sang ‘Mizmor Shir L’yom Hashabbos”. The Nesivos Shalom explains that when Kayin was given the curse of roaming the earth he complained to Hashem. How could he possibly survive the curse of ‘na v’nad tihyeh b’aretz’, that he would be homeless and wandering? How could he survive without being grounded somewhere and connected to something? In response, Hashem gave kayin an ‘os’, a sign. We usually understand the sign to be some sort of physical mark, but the Nesivos Shalom writes that the sign was Shabbos. By coming back to his roots and remaining grounded and focused every Shabbos, kayin was able to survive (see Bereishis Rabbah 22:13).

The same thing happened in Egypt. The Jewish people were losing it, we had no sense of identity and no sense of focus, but Moshe saved us by convincing Pharaoh to let them rest every seventh day. (Shemos Rabba 1:28)

I was recently talking with someone who was helping me out. I commented on how gracious he was being. The young man told me in all seriousness that he had an ulterior motive. “I try to get as many mitzvos as possible in right after Yom Kippur”, he said, “Because in my experience I won’t be doing too many good things by the time the year is over”. That is an honest, but unfortunate arrangement to have with G-d.

Imagine a rowboat that is tied to a pier. You can row and row all day with all of your strength, but the rowboat will only go as far as the rope will allow it. We are the same way with Yom Kippur, how much can we accomplish if all of our best moments are on Yom Kippur? How long can Yom Kippur last? How far can we really grow before the holiness of Yom Kippur wears off?

This is where Shabbos comes in. By revisiting ourselves and who we have discovered ourselves to be each and every week, we can untie that rope and allow the spiritual high of Yom Kippur to stay with us and allow us to grow long after Yom Kippur is over.

Posted on 10/11 at 04:45 AM • Permalink
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Friday, October 05, 2012

Step Outside

After going the various steps of Teshuva, the Rambam explains the ways of a Baal Teshuva. He writes that a Baal Teshuva should be involved in constant prayer, Tzedaka and ensuring that past Aveiros will not be repeated. A Baal Teshuva should also change his or her name as if to say ‘I am a different person’. And a Baal Teshuva should consider galus, because Galus is conducive to humility.

Based on this idea, the Yalkut Shimoni writes that the reason why Succos is in Tishrei and not after Pesach is because it is possible that our decree after Yom Kippur was to be exiled. By leaving our homes to enter our Sukkah’s it as we were exiled to Babylon. 

On the surface this makes a lot of sense, after all we are leaving our homes to be in a wooden shack. Even the most fancy Sukka is prey to the elements because there is no roof, yet the Sukka remains intact and dry only by the grace of G-d.

However, upon further thought, this is strange. It is a Mitzvah to decorate the Sukkah. It is forbidden to bring earthenware pots and pans into the Sukkah because it does not look nice. If the idea here is Galus, One would imagine that exile would mandate that we have Spartan lodgings without all of the creature comforts. Yet the Gemara tells us time and time again, teishvu k’ein Taduru, treat it as you would your home.

Reb Sheinberg takes very practical approach to answer this question. He explains that the idea is to leave our “dwellings of permanence” and work with something different, something new. Sukkos is a time to begin anew and assess everything that we do. Of course, Just rethinking whether we really like our dining room set or insulation may not change our lives, but once we get into the habit of leaving our Diras Keva, our “state of permanence”, we will have a tool to use for life.

Perhaps we can take this idea one step further: although our main purpose in this world is to prepare for the next world, we are also capable of bringing holiness into the world we live in. 

On Succos we are given a great opportunity. The Mitzvah of sukkah does not apply to just eating and drinking; everything we do should be done in the Sukkah. Everything we do becomes a Mitzvah. That is why, unlike Pesach, we make a leisheiv Besucca daily. According to many, even just walking into the Sukkah is a mitzvah and worthy of a bracha. This is our training ground for incorporating Hashem in our lives for the remainder of the year and forever.

Reb Ahron Kotler writes that we spend Rosh Hashana and the ten days following declaring G-d’s kingship in the world and the great kindness and benevolence that he affords us. After Neilah we are excited and ready to rejoice in the presence of G-d. We want all of our actions to be reflective of this feeling of closeness. We build ourselves a Sukka where we are constantly doing Mitzvos and coming as close as we can to the bliss of G-dliness. We are then able to stretch that holiness throughout the year by appraising every one of our actions and effectively building a sukkah for ourselves in which everything we do is the will of G-d.

Until Shemini Atzeres we quote Dovid Hamelech’s praise for Hashem: “for you hide me in your Sukkah and protect me in its shade”. May we be Zoche to experience the Simcha and closeness to Hashem that is inherent in the Sukkah.

Posted on 10/05 at 02:34 PM • Permalink
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Friday, September 14, 2012

The Teruah

A new Teshuva of Rav Moshe Feinstein is published in ninth volume of his responsa. It concerns an event that happened at least fifty years ago.Apparently enough time has passed since the story that the family is no longer worried about anyone being identified.

The Teshuva describes a situation in which the Shochet in New Orleans became very ill and needed to be replaced. There were no national companies like Empire, and New Orleans needed a new shochet.

Many years earlier a man had immigrated to New Orleans and worked as a Shochet for a short time. He realized that he was making very little money and that he could make more money if he opened a store. He made the unfortunate decision to keep the store open on Shabbos.

Now, with the community desperate for a shochet, this man came forward and offered to take the job.

The community refused to accept the man as a shochet because he was not Shomer Shabbos. Worse, he openly violated Shabbos by working in his store and was disqualified for shechita.

The man accepted their rebuke and admitted that he had erred. He would close his business and return to shechita – even if it meant going back to a lower salary and a more difficult job.

The question was presented to Rav Moshe. Rav Moshe acknowledged that the man truly realized the errors of his ways. He sincerely regretted opening the store and working there on Shabbos. He wanted to turn back the clock and return to shechita because it was the right thing to do.

All the same, Rav Moshe recommended that the community not accept the man as a Shochet. The man talked earnestly about change, but he had not yet changed. His was still working in his store. He was a Mechalel Shabbos B’farhesya and not fit to be a shochet.

On the surface, Rav Moshe was concerned with the verse in Yeshaya which states “an evil man should leave his ways … return to Hashem”. The power of Teshuva is awesome, but it is not without effort. Talk is cheap and planning is relatively easy. We need to take actual steps in the right direction. The Rambam writes clearly that one of the key steps of Teshuva is ‘Azivas Hacheit” – Leaving the sin. As long as this man was only willing to change, his Teshuva would not be accepted. He needed to actually change. Until then he is like a man who immerse in the Mikva while holding an object of impurity.

This may have been what Rav Moshe had in mind, but I would like to suggest something deeper based on two other ideas from Rav Moshe’s writings.


The Mussaf of Rosh Hashana is made up of three sections: Malchuyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros. In Malchuyos we describe Hashem’s dominion over the world, In Zichronos we describe Hashem’s unerring accounting of our actions, and in Shofaros we describe the Shofar. As we say each of these sections, we blow a Tekia, a Teruah, and Tekia. There are different customs regarding the Teruah, so we blow Tekia-Teruah-Tekia, Tekia-Shevarim-Tekiah, and Tekia-Shevarim/Teruah- Tekia.

In the first volume of Igros Moshe, Someone asked Rav Moshe what the halacha would be if a person said Malchuyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros but said them out of order. Would he need to repeat the Shemona Esrei?

Rav Moshe quotes the Magen Avraham and the Mishna Berurah that Shemona Esrei must be repeated, but acknowledges that there is no apparent reason. The mitzvah is to contemplate an acknowledge Malchuyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros. The order should not be an important factor.

Cryptically, Rav Moshe suggests that the ruling of the Magen Avraham may be related to the Shofar. The Torah gives a specific sequence for the Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah. They may not be blown out of order. Perhaps, Rav Moshe says, the same rule extends to the Malchuyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros.

Rav Moshe ends his teshuva with this thought, but leaves us perplexed. The Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah is a sequence described in the Torah for the Shofar blasts sounded whenever the Jewish people travelled.  Why would this be a source for the sequence on Malchiyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros? The Gemara says: “Say Malchuyos before me in order to make me your king, and your Zichronos will be remembered favorably before me. Do this with the Shofar”. If anything, the Gemara indicates that the order is not important.


Before explaining these two teshuvos, I’d like to share a thought process that I went through recently.

There is a shul that I used to daven in that opened in a new neighborhood and drew up plans for a grand building. They were denied a permit by local zoning board but they repealed the ruling all the way up to the highest court in the state. Their battle to build a shul was so intense and justified that they were featured on the front page of the New York Times. This was fifteen or twenty years ago.

The funny thing is that they never built their new building. Over the summer I had occasion to visit the shul and as I walked through the door, I couldn’t help but notice that nothing had changed. They were still davening in the same garage with the same chairs, the same tables, and the same venetian blinds. All of the same people sat in the same seats and sang the same tunes. They were just a little bit greyer and a little bit bigger.

On one of the walls of the shul was a picture of the projected building. It wasn’t the old blueprint that I remembered from the original building campaign; it was a new and crisp rendering, prepared with the latest in Computer Graphics engineering. The people in the shul had gotten nowhere in the past fifteen years – yet they were still working on the plans for their new building. Their picture was growing sharper and sharper and more and more glamorous.

At first I wanted to laugh out loud, but then I caught myself. ISome respect was in order. These were people who had a picture in their minds and were determined to get there. They had begun with high hopes and they still had a rosy vision of the future. It was only the present that was temporarily bogging them down.

When Rav Moshe was in his thirties and forties he was a Rav in Luban, a city in Russia. When the Bolshevik Revolution came to Luban, the Jewish community began to slowly fall apart. In 1921 there was a pogrom and many people did not survive. Other people left for America, or succumbed to the pressures around them. It was a very hard to be Jewish in Luban. Even those people who were not won over by the idea of Communism abandoned Judaism to put bread on their tables.

Rather than outlaw rabbis, the government pressured them to step down. Every rabbi who left his post would be publicized as an example of the religious leadership crossing over and becoming a part of the communist dream. Rav Moshe refused to step down and insisted on leading his people when they needed him most.

When the shochet in Rav Moshe’s town finally left, Rav Moshe learned the art of shechita himself, when the town had no Mikva, Rav Moshe found a way to make the local municipal pool into a Kosher Mikvah. Everything was a struggle and every religious item was taxed unfairly. At one point they used one Lulav for two years – and shared it with a neighboring community.

In 1929, Rav Moshe spoke to his people about the blasts of the Shofar. He explained that in life we often expect a Tekiah. We expect a clear uninterrupted blast of good fortune and ease. We know that we are on the right path and we expect everything to go easy and unchallenged. We are looking for a long run, a winning streak an uninterrupted play.

Rav mosehe explained that this is not reality. Life is actually a broken up Teruah. We start and stop and start and stop and start and stop again. Like the Teruah, we ourselves are broken up and divided. As a people, we can’t seem to get along and nothing seems to ‘just work’. In the desert, the Teruah was only blown when the people moved from one encampment to the next. It symbolized their broken-up forty-year journey to Eretz Yisroel.

The only comfort that we have in this reality is the assurance that eventually things will get better. Whether it takes a day, a week, or a lifetime, there will come a time when things will work out and we will be able to enjoy success. One day Hashem will blow a final Tekiah. He will give us direct routing to the land of Israel. All of the dead will come back to life, all of the problems will go away and we will finally be unified as one.

The first Tekiah is like the starting trumpet in a race and the last Tekia is the triumphant win. The challenges and interceptions that we experience along the way are the Teruah.

Rav Moshe writes that these three stages are reflected in the three Berachos of Malchiyus, Zichronos, and Shofaros:

Malchiyos – the dominion of Hashem - represents the stark truth and knowledge of Hashem’s will that gets us started on our journey. We are confident and feel like we can’t go wrong because we are doing the will of Hashem. We feel like we are unstoppable.

When we do experience hardship – “the Teruah” – we can find comfort and reassurance in the Zichronos. Hashem is keeping a perfect accounting of every loss and triumph that we achieve and experience. Nothing is unnoticed and nothing is forgotten.

Finally, we are promised that in the end everything will work out. This is Shofaros. Whether it is at the end of a day, the end of a project, the end of our lifetime, or the end of days, everything will work out. Hashem will blow a Tekia that never ends and never fades away. The world will be perfect, we will be one, and the will of Hashem will be fulfilled because the knowledge of Hashem will be everywhere.

Rav Moshe explained in his Shabbos Shuva Drosha that the people in Luban were much the same. Some people lived by the first Tekiah. They believed and understood that Hashem created the world and that He has certain expectations from us. They became flustered when they encountered difficulty. They succumbed to pressure’ but they were still firm in their beliefs. They excelled in Malchiyos – recognizing the dominion of Hashem but had trouble carrying through.

The Communists excelled in Zichronos. They were obsessed with the idea of accounting for all actions and making sure that everybody was got what they deserved. They were caught up in the Teruah of society and did not look for the master plan of Hashem. They were good at Teruah, but their confidence an allegiance to farness and perfect accounting did not have much meaning when it was separated from an acknowledgement of Hashem’s plan.

The final Tekiah was forgotten by all but a few special people. The men and women of Shofaros and the final Tekiah were the men and women who stayed strong in their Judaism with faith and knowledge that one day the sun would shine again. Communism would not last forever and the suffering would come to an end, even if they had to wait for the Shofar of Moshiach.


Rav Moshe taught his people that everyone is holy in their own way, but our ultimate goal needs to be the mastery of Malchuyos, Zichrons, and Shofaros.

Like the Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah, Malchiyos, Zichronos, and Shofaros are in a specific order because they reflect this world and our lives. If they are blown or said out of order, they must be repeated.

There are many people who become inspired with an awareness of Hashem and a desire to do His will, but that is just Malchuyos and it is not enough. It is certainly a virtue to be convinced of Hashem’s will and desire to follow it, but until someone has actually experienced the Teruah, the challenges, the parts where there is no smooth sailing, he has not truly done Teshuva.

The Shochet in New Orleans was looking for a Tekiah. He was convinced of G-d’s will and of what was right, but he wanted to move seamlessly from one career to the other with no uncertainty in between. He was willing to make major changes, but he was waiting for the free ride. Rav Moshe was not impressed. The Shochet was talking the talk, but he had not yet walked the walk.

May we merit a year in which we achieve a strong beginning, relentless determination, and ultimately, the final blast of the Tekia when everything is perfect and the world is run according Hashem’s Ultimate plan.

Posted on 09/14 at 04:59 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