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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 04:41 PM • Permalink
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Friday, May 31, 2013

The First Chareidi

About five hundred years ago Rav Elazar Ezkari of Tzfas wrote the “Sefer Chareidim”. Not directly related to the “Chareidim” of today, Rav Ezkari’s objective was to catalog the obligations of a Jew and organize them according to the various limbs. The Chareidim was a colleague of Rav Yosef Karo, the Arizal, the Alshich and the other great luminaries of Tzfas. He is quoted often by the Mishna Bereurah and other classic halachic works.

In the section of Mitzvos relating to the heart, Rav Ezkari devotes chapter thirty-four to the mitzvah of loving Hashem. He points out that the best way to express love for Hashem is with songs of love. He goes on to record some of the songs that he and his colleagues would sing to express their love to Hashem.

One of those songs is the Yedid Nefesh, which Rav Ezkari himself composed. It is a Kabbalistic song of the yearning and desire of the soul to come closer to G-d.

In the second stanza Rav Ezkari speaks of how the soul is sick with love for HaShem. He begs, “Ana! Refah na lah!” – “Please! Cure her!” – using the words that Moshe used in praying for his afflicted sister.

This seems odd. How does Moshe’s prayer for Miriam’s leprosy relate to our feeling of love toward G-d?

I think that answer lies in the reason for Miriam’s leprosy. When Miriam was young she saw in a prophetic vision that it was not proper for her parents to separate from one another. As a result of her prophecy Moshe was born and the Jews were ultimately redeemed. When she spoke ill of Moshe, Miriam was merely repeating the same sentiment: Moshe should not separate from his wife Tziporah.

Miriam was right in Egypt because she had the benefit of prophecy.  When Moshe prayed for his sister, he went straight to the root of the issue. “Please cure my sister! Please restore her sense of prophecy so that she will not make this mistake again!”

In Yedid Nefesh, Rav Ezkari has all of us praying for the most fundamental cure. We want to reconnect with Hashem. We want to become prophets.

And until we do, we have no right to judge, criticize, or speak ill of one another.

(Based in part on ideas from Rabbi Avie Gold and Rabbi Aryeh Leib Heyman)

Posted on 05/31 at 03:46 AM • Permalink
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Sunday, May 26, 2013

CHARGE! (Memorial Day)

As the home of the world’s largest naval base as well as several important Army, Air Force and Coast Guard bases, our shul is privileged to be host to many veteran and active duty members of the military. As a matter of fact, we even had an admiral come to the kiddush this Shabbos.

In honor of Memorial Day, the following Drosha was dedicated to all of the military personnel, both past and present, in our community:

As the Jewish people prepared to travel through the desert, Hashem commanded Moshe to create silver trumpets. They were used to begin travel and to stop travel. They were used to call meetings and to announce Yamim Tovim. They were also used as a call to war.

Every army in the world has trumpets when they go out to war, but ours were different. The Torah says (10:9) “you will blow on these trumpets and you will be remembered by Hashem”. Every war had to begin with a prayer to Hashem. Just as we stand on Rosh Hashana and think about coming closer to Hashem as we hear the shofar, we need to begin every war with a desperate cry to G-d. On Shabbos, when we could not blow shofar, the Gemara (Taanis 14) says that we would replace the Shofar with loud prayers.

Before we take out the Torah we describe the amazing effect that it would have. Our enemies would scatter and those who hate us would run away. We would blow the shofar and win the war. We blew the shofar and took down the walls of Yericho. When we blow the shofar and acknowledge our faith in Hashem, we can do anything.

The sefarim even say that by blowing the shofar and connecting with Hashem in war we can protect ourselves from becoming inherently violent or uncaring.  We do what we need to do but we are connected to Hashem.

On Thursday night I went to hear David Makovsky at the JCC. He was once in a meeting alone with President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.  They were discussing a “two-state solution” and Abbas couldn’t understand why the Israel Army insisted on staying in the Jordan Valley indefinitely. Abbas just wanted all of the Israelis out. David Makovsky explained that the name of the program is “Land for Peace” not “Land for rockets” and that it was very important that we maintain a military presence in the area. Abbas persisted and asked why we couldn’t use NATO to ensure security. Makovsky explained that we aren’t as confident in NATO as we are in our own sodiers, whereupon Abbas came up with the most impractical solution:

“Why don’t you insist that all of the NATO soldiers be Jewish?”

As impractical as Abbas’ solution was, he does have a point. He understands that all Jews are connected and he understands that when Jews fight we fight differently. Particularly when we are protecting our holy land we will do a better job than anybody else because we are able connect with the land and understand that it is a gift from Hashem.
We all need to take a moment to thank those who have worked hard to revive the Jewish War Veterans organization here at B’nai Israel. The Post and the flag are almost one hundred years old, but they have been in disuse for a while. The post has contacted tens of veterans and really organized something nice here. They have about thirty members who have attended meetings. Some of these veterans might not come to shul and hear a D’var torah otherwise. W have also had several high profile community leaders express interest and even come to meetings. We are still working on getting everyone to come to a meeting at once and also on publicity to recruit more members.

The JWV has had some great speakers. At the last meeting, we had a leader of a marine FAST platoon who returned from a world tour that included training with Israel outside of Gaza. It was clearly the first chance he had to talk about what it meant to be a Jew visiting and helping to protect Israel. He wasn’t allowed to talk about what he did, but it was the first chance he got to talk about how it felt. It was a great experience for everyone.

One of the former members of the JWV was Sonny Werth. Sonny used to go around to all of the Jewish Veteran’s graves on Memorial Day and install flags on their tombstones. He would charge the families a onetime fee of $25. There was no expiration date. Right before Sonny passed away he went to his friend Jim and asked him to take over the flag laying. Jim got up at the JWV meeting and said that he simply does not have the energy to do it all and asked for help.  We will be doing that tomorrow.

All of us have seen the flags on the gravestones. We know they didn’t get there by themselves. How many of us took a moment to wonder who was going around to every Jewish cemetery in the area, installing brackets, and putting flags up to remember people who had been long forgotten?

Flags are not something that is mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch regarding grave stones, but they are mentioned quite prominently in this week’s parsha. Each tribe identified themselves with a flag and each flag represented the uniqueness of those who carried it.

More important than flags, how often do we really think about those people who put their lives on the line to keep us safe? Forget about the cool stories and the big names. Think about the fact that one of our members wore the same socks for two weeks while fighting in Lebanon. Think about all of those sailors who come home to see their newborn babies for the very first time.

We are blessed to live in a country where allegiance to our flag and allegiance to the Torah is not a contradiction. They complement each other beautifully and they allow us to live the lives that we live and allow others to make sacrifices so that we can live the lives that we live.

We honor and remember and thank all of you. May all of those who work and have worked to protect us be blessed with health, with safety and with nachas from their families. May all of continue to move forward in difficult situations, never forgetting about the Shofar that blasts at that most crucial moment to connect us with our Father in heaven.

Posted on 05/26 at 03:13 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, May 05, 2013

Our Secret

I once attended an event sponsored by the Maimonides Society. The speaker was Dr. Howard Jones. One remarkable thing about Dr. Jones is that in 1978, at the age of 67, he was forced into retirement from Johns Hopkins University. He moved to Shirley Avenue in Norfolk where he soon founded the Jones institute and became one of the world pioneers in IVF and infertility treatment. Thirty-five years after Johns Hopkins forced him to retire, he was still going strong. He was103 years old when I met him and while he has not devoted his life to the study of Torah, he is clearly one of the Chachmei Umos Ha’olam – one of the scholars of the world.

In his address on Monday night, Dr, Jones told a story about the time that he was invited to the Vatican to discuss medical ethics as part of the Pontifical Academy for the Sciences. He met with some doctors and several cardinals and was supposed to meet with the pope on Thursday morning. When the pope did not come, he was led to understand that the meeting had gone the wrong way. Dr. Jones had persuaded all of the cardinals to his way of thinking and the pope did not want to hear about it. Needless to say, Dr. Jones was not very impressed with the pope.

I was later told by a member of the EVMS ethics committee that Dr. Jones shares this story on a regular basis because it made such an impact on his life and his view of religion.

After Dr. Jones told this story on Monday night somebody stood up with a question. He said, “I understand that you disagree with the pope on ethical matters, but what is your opinion? When does life begin? There needs to be some answer.”

Everyone was silent, waiting to hear what this eminent 103 year old scholar would have to say to this question.

Dr. Jones leaned forward into the mike. “There are many answers”, he said, “and I myself have sat on dozens of committees and just wrote a book on the subject. Nobody can know for sure. Still, I would have to say that the most cogent opinion is that of Rabbinic Judaism. They have an excellent system of law, they base their opinions on fact and they are faithful to the Bible”.


To be frank, I would not endorse Dr. Howard as the final word on Jewish Ethics. Still, it was a beautiful and proud moment. We have a Torah and we have a system of studying it and applying it to today’s issues. This is our secret weapon. This is our treasure. We need to cherish the Torah. Each and every one of us needs to study the Torah and apply it honestly to our lives.

In this way we will merit the awesome blessings associated with walking in way of Hashem and keeping his Mitzvos. We can teach the world about ethics and we can show the world how G-d wants us to live.

Posted on 05/05 at 04:55 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, April 24, 2013


"Do not desecrate My holy name; I must be sanctified amongst the Jewish People. I am G-d who makes you holy.”

Last week, Moshe gathered all of the Jewish people together in a gathering called Hakhel. All of the Jewish people were there: The men, the women and even the little children. At that gathering Moshe taught us fifty one mitzvos beginning with the commandment: “Kedoshim Tihiyu’ – You must be holy.

This week, Moshe reminds us once again that G-d has sanctified us and charged us to be represent holiness in this world.

We are all familiar with holiness. Hopefully, we’ve been in contact with holy individuals, experienced holy times and visited holy places. Moshe taught us that this was not enough. We need to be holy. All of us.

The Ramban explains that Kedoshim Tehiyu is a Mitzvah that affects the way we live and interact with this world. It is possible for a person to keep all of the commandments and still be a ‘Naval Bireshus Hatorah’ – ‘a disgusting person who follows the Torah’.

Kedoshim Tihyu is telling us that besides for keeping the other 612 mitzvos we need to be sure that we are Kedoshim.

It is not enough to encounter holy people, holy places, and holy moments.  Rather than just being impressed and inspired by what we see and feel, we need to internalize that awe and make it part of who we are.

Last year at this time all of us were shocked to hear about the bombing in Boston. There are so many questions, but foremost in my mind was: How did anyone think that it would be a good? How was planting a bomb at a marathon something spiritual, something brave, something fun, or something smart?

How does any human being or group of human beings come to the conclusion that planting a bomb at a race is a good idea?

Etymologically, the word Kadosh means separate and apart. G-d is Kadosh because he is so above and beyond anything that we can imagine. G-d is perfect because he is not influenced by the emotions and fads and sometimes ridiculous thought processes that human beings go through.

We need to learn to be Kadosh as well. We aren’t evil or wicked, but we aren’t perfect in our decision making either. Every one of us can think back to a decision that we made in the heat of the moment or as a result of intense emotion.

As Kedoshim, we need to learn to rise above that. The Talmud tells us that if a Torah Scholar acts rashly it is because the Torah within him is causing his blood to boil. Impressive, but not ideal. Every Torah Scholar and every person should strive to rise above his or her emotions and feelings. We need to make decisions about how we treat other people and what we say to them as Kedoshim, as holy and unbiased people.

When I was young, there was a rebbe by the name of Reb Mechele who would come to our school. He is still alive and travelling around. He is a holy man and his face would truly glow. Each year he would come to our school and ask everyone to gather in one room. He would speak a little and give out prizes, but before he started and after he finished, he would always the same song. The words were ‘m’darf machen Kiddush oif’n gantze velt’. We need to make Kiddush for the whole world. Just like we sanctify Shabbos with Kiddush and make it holy, we have a mission to sanctify the entire world and make it holy.

At the time, I sang along, but as I got older I realized that his lesson was not so simple. How likely was it that a bunch of elementary school boys were going to sanctify the whole world? How much did he expect us to affect our own school, our community and the city of Melbourne?

Still, Reb Mechele was right. We need to make Kiddush. We need to work on our holiness. We need to fine tune our ability to rise above the fray and act and think in a G-dly way.

When we speak of holiness in Kedusha we jump up and down to mimic the angels. The Reishis Chochma writes that holiness is hard to maintain on a constant basis. We try and we fall and we try and we fall. But we need to try, we need to be holy, and we need to share that holiness with the entire world.

More on Kedusha:

Posted on 04/24 at 09:45 PM • Permalink
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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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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