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Sunday, October 09, 2016

How Should We Spend Our Day? A Shabbos Shuva Drosha


Let’s assume for a moment that most of us don’t spend our entire day studying and praying. We have professions, homes, cars, families, and all sorts of things to keep us busy. What should our approach be to those other parts of our life? Are they our purpose for existing and the reason Hashem put us here in the world, or are they necessary evils that we can’t get away with like getting a tooth pulled? Do we work to support our families and give tzedaka, or is the work itself something in which we should strive for excellence and take pride? Where does answering a client’s emails and returning phone calls fit in to our spiritual life?

On the surface it would seem that we should be holy people and that our ideal lives - given opportunity and discipline would be sent in prayer, Torah study, or at the very least volunteering for something. Most people talk about retirement as an ideal which seems to point to the feeling that we’d rather not be working.  Rav Aharon Kotler (Parshas Bechukosai) writes that we were put here in this world to work hard on Torah and he worked very hard to teach his students that nothing but Torah really matters.

On the other hand, even Rav Aharon Kotler agrees that we needed to be born. We were holy neshamos even before we ever came here but the Torah wasn’t given to angels. We were specifically sent here to this physical and mundane world to work hard on Torah.  Arguably, everything that we do is part of that hard work that is evidently needed to acquire the Torah.

The Gemara in Shabbos 152b writes records the following parable: “This may be compared to a mortal king who distributed royal apparel to his servants. The wise among them folded it up and laid it away in a chest, whereas the fools among them went and did their work in them. After a time the king demanded his garments: the wise among them returned them to him immaculate, [but] the fools among them returned them soiled. The king was pleased with the wise but angry with the fools.” The idea here is that those who use their clothes are silly because they aren’t saving themselves for G-d. This is odd. Are we not supposed to use our bodies here in this earth?

The Secular Approach

There are Three Possible approaches to this question, the first is very secular. It focuses on the idea that the body and psyche Hashem has given us needs to have worldly goals and accomplishments in order to survive. A Special Forces admiral put this very well in a famous address that he gave:

“Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the bed.

It was a simple task — mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

Naval Adm. William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command

The Mitzvah Approach

The second approach can be based on the Alter of Slobodka. He points out that the Ten commandments move very quickly from the esoteric to the mundane. We begin with “I am the L-ord your G-d who took you out of Egypt” but quickly move to lying, stealing, murder and jealousy. Obviously, he says, the point of the Torah is to permeate every single part of our world. When we immerse ourselves in our work we aren’t turning our backs on the Torah, we are applying the Torah. There is absolutely no category of life where Torah cannot be applied. This is echoed in Shabbos 88b where Moshe argues that the Torah was clearly not written for angels but for people who run regular lives.

The Mesilas Yesharim

As a third approach I’d like to go out on a limb for a moment and make two assumptions. The first is that we are all doing what we are supposed to do. None of us missed our calling. We wake up every morning without a big choice about how and where we will spend our day. People are depending on us and we have commitments to honor. Let’s assume that we are exactly where Hashem wants us to be. I don’t know that that is true – maybe we made some wrong turns in our lives - but we will work with that assumption.

The second assumption is that somehow everything we do is Mitzvah-related. This means to say that we are helping people have a place to live, put food on their tables, have cars that move, be truthful, do teshuva, whatever it is that you do in your profession. Certainly if you don’t have a profession and take care of your household and your families the mitzvos are innumerable. Even if you spend all of your waking hours taking care of your own well-being, you are engaged in a Mitzvah.

The Mesilas Yesharim writes that man was not created for this world, but rather for the world to come. This world is just a place to get packed up and ready for the world to come. The next world is where all the pleasure and fulfillment is. The Mesilas Yesharim writes that this is a major principal of Judaism and needs to guide us in every decision we make.
On the other hand, the Nesivos Shalom argues – in the tradition of chassidus – that that is not an absolute fact. We do have a mission in this world as well. More significantly, we can actually taste in this world some of the same things that are available in the next world. The prime example of this is Shabbos, which is described as ‘Mei’ein Olam Habah”, something similar to the World-to-come. There is a purpose in our presence in this world beyond our mission to prepare for the next world.

The Mesilas Yesharim continues that a person needs to spend his or her entire life trying to come close to Hashem. Every action should make him or her more spiritual. It seems like the Mesilas Yesharim agrees with the concept that there is an element of purpose right here on this earth, even if the main purpose of our existence is the next world.

The Mesilas Yesharim’s own words describe a “Chovas Adam B’olamo”, a person’s obligation in his world. Every person in history has been placed into a very specific world with unique roles and families and challenges and inspirations. We have an obligation right here on earth and it is a role that nobody else can play for us. That’s not a situation we back into because we need to make a living or stay healthy or keep busy, that’s something we were sent here to do. The Chasiddim and Perushim argued to what extent our mission in this world can be an end in and of itself, but the concept of having a role in this world appears to be universal.

Another way of looking at this is based on the idea in the Talmud (Eruvin 54a) that each one of the Mitzvaos corresponds to one of our limbs. If we ignore a mitzvah, we ignore that limb. This seems self-contradictory, we don’t need limbs in heaven, we need Mitzvos. Why would we do a Mitzvah to sanctify a limb? Again, it seems clear that we were created and put into this world and into physical bodies for an express purpose and that purpose should not and may not be squandered.

Torah vs. Mitzvah

Let’s rephrase the original question: What takes precedence, Torah Study or a Mitzvah? If a person finishes davening in the morning and could either sit down, lock out the whole world and study Torah or he/she could do a mitzvah, which should they choose? Should they help get the kids off to school or help one of their clients or clean the windows in the shul, or should they learn? On the one hand, Talmud Torah K’naged Kulam – Torah study is equal to all other mitzvos both in reward and in value. The Jewish people and the world needs Torah; on the other hand there are mitzvos to be done and we need to do them.

The Halacha is clear that if it is a Mitzvah that cannot be done by others, like carpool, a person should stop learning in order to do it. For the future, they could organize their lives in a way that they will have time carved out for Torah study and perhaps have someone else drive carpool, but at that moment it is the Mitzvah that takes precedence over Torah.

The Tanya

The challenge of triaging Torah vs. Mitzvos and which takes precedence parallels the previous question of whether there is an intrinsic value to this world that would cause me to abandon the greatest mitzvah – Torah Study – for a lesser mitzvah that is only important because of the transient world we are in.

The Tanya in chapter thirty-seven writes very beautifully that Torah may be the highest Mitzvah, but it does not negate the fact that we have a job to do. That’s why Hashem put us here. If He sent us a mitzvah that nobody else can do, that is a clear message that our purpose here in this world is to do that Mitzvah. If I am davening on Rosh Hashana and someone interrupts my davening with a medical emergency or a question about getting the AC turned on or a question about their cholent that only I can answer, then that cholent is now my mission here in this world. Again, we might want to arrange our lives and our time in such a way that we will have time to concentrate on Torah and Tefila without interruption, but the Tanya sees nothing depressing about a person who is totally and completely immersed in this world. That is where hashem put him. (The Baal Hatanya did agree that it is possible for a person to make a wrong turn or two in their life and end up not fulfilling their ultimate role. For our purposes, we are working with the assumption that we are all on the right life path or at least close to it.


Does everyone agree with the Baal Hatanya? Can the students of the Vilna Gaon agree with the concept that sometimes a Mitzva will be more integral to our role than Torah, or is Torah always the way to go and everything else just ‘allowed’, almost a necessary evil?

The truth is that this concept is a Mishna in Pirkei Avos “Lo Hamedrash Ikar elah Hamaaseh” – it is not the study that is the main thing but the action”. That makes sense. You can’t spend your whole life learning about returning lost objects but never return a lost object. In fact, the Vlna Gaon commenting on that Mishna quotes the Gemara in Brachos (17), which bases this concept on the verse “Sechel Tov Lechol Oseihem“ or “Mitzvos makes sense when they are actually performed.

In other words, even according to the Vilna Gaon, Torah may be the primary mitzvah and a person should ideally spend every waking moment studying Torah but that is clearly not how the world is designed.

Again the Chassidim and Non-chassidim are basically agreeing that we have mission in this world but arguing to what extent our activities in this world can be an end in and of themselves.

The Maharal writes something similar and words it in a very interesting way. He makes the point that A mitzvah is an obligation, while Torah is the best thing in the world. Perhaps we would appreciate the best role in this world, but often Hashem gives us a different role and that becomes our obligation in this world. He compares it to bread and wine. Wine is better, but we live on bread.

The Nefesh Hachayim – the primary student of the Vilna Gaon – writes the same thing with a different analogy (Ruach Chaim 2): When we study Torah we are like sons of Hashem; when we do the Mitzvos we are like his servants. We aren’t given a choice about the Mitzvos and we love to fulfill them in our role as servants of Hashem. Still, wherever possible there is a constant overarching state of existence in which we are

Hashem’s children. This is reflected in Halacha. we make a bracha on Torah in the morning and it last all day. Tefilla and other Mitzvos are limited to set times. In other words, we are always connected to Hashem spiritually with temporary distractions thrown at us in which to honor Hashem physically.


The practical takeout is the following: Do something worthwhile with your life.

The Mishna is very critical of someone who make a living off something that doesn’t help the world, like gambling or betting on horses. Each of us has an obligation to figure out how the way we spend our day is constructive to the world. We need to recognize that the responsibilities that we are surrounded by at home, at work, and at the doctor’s office, are all part of the world where Hashem has very deliberately placed each one of us. While we may have a recurring urge on strike and lock ourselves in a room with a Tehillim, that is usually not G-d’s plan for us. We need to embrace everything that we do with an understanding that it is the reason why Hashem has put us in the world.

There is a famous Mishna in Pirkei Avos that if three people eat together and do not share Torah their table is considered disgusting, even idolatrous. Even in our physical existence of eating and drinking we need to realize that it is all part of our mission in this world from Hashem. In the case of the meal we demonstrate our awareness of that mission by sharing Torah, or – according to the Bartenura – at least ending the meal with benching.

A number of weeks ago I was invited to a meeting. The structure of the meeting was such that it was attended by three Jewish members of the clergy and about five professionals who were not Jewish. There was a free lunch. Most of those present ate the lunch but one person didn’t eat, probably because there was nowhere to wash. I was conflicted for a moment but decided that I was hungry and not willing to forgo the free lunch. I discreetly excused myself from the room, washed down the hall, managed to avoid talking on my way back and enjoyed a tuna wrap, an egg salad wrap, a fruit salad, and some iced tea. After such a great lunch I really had to bench, so when everybody else left I went to wash Mayim Acharonim. When I returned to the room to find two of the professionals who had been in the meeting were cleaning up. I thanked them for lunch and explained to them that I would be sitting down for a few minutes, reciting the grace after meals to thank G-d for the food. About a paragraph into benching I realized that the atmosphere in the room had changed completely. The two people I had just met with had stopped cleaning up. They were standing behind me, one on my right and one on my left. Their hands were clasped and their heads were bowed and they were listening to every word of the benching. They stayed that way until I finished the final bracha and then they turned to me with tears and said, “thank you rabbi. We are so sorry we didn’t think to that earlier”.

Here they were meeting with rabbis about an issue of Jewish concern, of course they should be thanking G-d!

That benching was more effective than the entire meeting. It made Judaism more genuine. Next time they are asked by a rabbi to be more attentive to Jewish Law and Jewish sensitivities, they’ll be thinking of the Rabbi who snuck back in to thank G-d for his meal.

Of course there is no way that I would have left that building without benching. That’s a given. But I didn’t have to eat. My friend didn’t. But it was precisely because I was hungry, because I was driven to engage in this world – to eat a tuna wrap and drink iced tea – that I was able to make a very G-dly impact.

Don’t go back to your workplaces and start benching out loud. Don’t start singing pesukim to your kids as you pack them off to school or undertake to end every email with a Torah thought. Those are nice things, but
we can do better. Realize that every time you go to work, drive carpool, or send an email, it is an integral part of our role in this world as servants of Hashem. It may not be the fine wine of pure Torah study, but it is the meat and potatoes of why G-d put us here.

Gmar Chasima Tova!

Posted on 10/09 at 11:55 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