Thursday, January 16, 2020

PARSHAS SHEMOS 5780


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS SHEMOS 5780
“PAY ATTENTION”[1]

          One day Josh, a young successful executive, was driving hastily down a neighborhood street in his new sleek, black, 12-cylinder Jaguar XKE.
          Suddenly, something smashed into his car. Josh immediately slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car. A brick had clearly been thrown at his car. He turned to find a young boy standing nearby. He grabbed the boy, pushed him up against a parked car, and with his eyes bulging with rage Josh began screaming, “Just what did you think you were doing? That's my new Jag you threw the brick at. You know this is going to cost your parents a lot of money!”
          The boy’s voice quivered as he meekly replied, "Please mister, I'm sorry!  I didn't know what else to do!  I threw the brick because no one would stop to help when I waved my hands at their cars."
          Tears were streaming down the boy's face as he pointed around the parked car.  "It's my brother, sir." he said, "He rolled off the curb and fell out of his wheelchair and I can't lift him up."  Sobbing the little boy asked Josh, "Would you please help me get him back into his wheelchair?  He's too heavy for me."
          Josh tried desperately to swallow rapidly the lump building in his throat. He bent down and lifted the young man back into the wheelchair and took out his hanker-chief to wipe not only the brother’s tears, but his scrapes and cuts as well. Then he watched the grateful younger brother push him down the sidewalk toward their home.
          It was a long walk back to the dented Jaguar.  Josh never fixed the side door.  He kept the dent to remind him not to go through life so fast that someone has to throw a brick to get his attention.

          Chumash Shemos introduces Moshe Rabbeinu, the quintessential leader.
          After escaping death in Egypt, Moshe became a shepherd for his father-in-law, Yisro. One day while shepherding in the desert, Moshe encountered a wondrous sight. A thorn-bush was aflame, yet it was not becoming consumed. Moshe declared, (3:3) "I will turn now and see this wondrous sight; why is the bush not becoming consumed?" When he approached, G-d called to Moshe from within the burning bush, and thus began his unwitting rise to leadership.
          My Rebbi, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that Moshe’s reaction symbolizes one of the qualities of Moshe that made him worthy of leadership.
          Life and world events are often unusual and intriguing. Most people take note of things that occur and then move on. We are too busy to invest any extra time or energy to contemplate the events. Life is fast paced, as well try to juggle seemingly endless responsibilities and expectations. We don’t have time to "stop and smell the flowers".[2]
     The Kotzker Rebbe noted that others may have seen the burning bush. But no one else stopped to ponder and analyze it. They may have snapped a picture and posted it on their social media page, but then had to rush back to work or pick up carpool. Moshe was the only one who declared “asurah nah – Let me turn now” to ponder the unusual occurrence. That was the first indication that Moshe had the qualifications of leadership. A leader must always be attuned to his people and his surroundings. He can never be so busy that he doesn’t recognize things happening around him.

     After World War Two ended, along with many other high-ranking Nazis, the infamous Nazi Adolph Eichmann escaped to South America after the war. The Israeli Mossad tracked him down and in May 1960, in a daring raid, they abducted Eichmann and brought him to Israel to stand trial for his innumerable war crimes. In 1961 after a fourteen-week trial, Eichmann was indicted and hung.
          During the trial, agents guarded Eichmann around the clock. The sadistic villain who nonchalantly watched adults and children being gassed, had become a reserved, even somewhat intellectual, person. The evil was all hidden beneath the veneer of German etiquette.
          Eichmann once declared to one of his guards “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad". He explained to the shocked guard that if you want to beat your enemy you have to know your enemy. During the war he wanted to understand the religion he was destroying and so he learned what those words – the words he heard cried out so many times as Jews were going to their death - meant.
     Pharaoh also understood the Jewish spirit. He knew that there was one guaranteed method to keep the Jews under his jurisdiction. Mesillas Yeshorim[3] explains that when Moshe began declaring the imminence of redemption to the nation, Pharaoh responded by commanding "tichbad ha’avodah – Let the work be heavier upon the men and let them engage in it and let them not pay attention to false words."[4] Pharaoh did not grant the Jews any respite so that we would not be able to even fathom or entertain any notion of liberation or revolution.  
     In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led a 200,000-man march on Washington to protest segregation and racial inequality. He is most remembered for his now famous words, "I have a dream".
     Pharaoh ensured that the servitude was so complete and restricting that his Jewish slaves could not even entertain a dream of better times and redemption. If there is no dream, there is no hope!

     The first curse of the tochacha (‘rebuke’) of Parshas Bechukosai, is that of ‘behala’.[5] Simply translated, behala means panic. It includes the curse of lack of equanimity, of constantly running and never feeling calm and settled. Our daily lives are often filled with a modicum of behala[6]. The antidote for "tichbad ha’ovodah" is "asura nah v’ereh", to pay attention and to contemplate life as it happens, and not allow everything to pass by aimlessly.
     This week I had the privilege to participate in a Hachnosas Sefer Torah.[7] It was quite chilly as the procession made its way up the local street that was blockaded by the police. As we danced in front of the Torah, singing and dancing I couldn’t help but think about the contrast of the events of the previous night. One night earlier in Manhattan a far greater gathering had taken place. Tens of thousands of people braved the winter cold to watch the ball fall in Times Square as the secular New Year was heralded in.
     There are always things in life for which one is willing to sacrifice time, money, comfort, and sometimes even health and well-being. The question is what those things are. It’s up to us to decide, not only based on what we say we value, but based upon our actions.

          “Let the work be heavier”
          “I will turn and I will see this wondrous sight”


Rabbi Dani Staum LMSW
Rebbe, Heichal HaTorah, Teaneck, NJ
Principal, Ohr Naftali, New Windsor NY



[1] This essay was from the second year that I sent out Stam Torah in 2001/5761
[2] Rabbi Wein quipped that one should talk to himself periodically. He adds that when he personally does so, those conversations are sometimes the only meaningful ones he has all day.
[3] chapter 2
[4] Shemos 5:9
[5] Vayikra 26:16; “…I will assign upon you behala….”
[6] Part of the greatness of the priceless gift of Shabbos is that it affords us a reprieve from the endless running of the week, so that we can rejuvenate body and spirit and reconnect with what really matters.
[7] This was in January 2001. It was a Hachnosas Sefer Torah in Edison, NJ in memory of Mrs. Dina Eisner a”h, mother of my friend, Moshe.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

PARSHAS VAYECHI 5780


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS VAYECHI 5780
“ME OR WE”[1]

             A cruise ship was traveling across the Pacific Ocean when it was suddenly enveloped by a massive storm. Sadly, the boat sank and most of its passengers drowned. Two Jews survived by holding onto boards and floating until they landed up on a deserted island. As the initial joy of surviving faded, the reality of their hopeless situation set in. One of the Jews began to pray with all his heart, reciting every psalm he knew from memory. He was stunned to find his friend relaxing peacefully against a palm tree. He looked at him incredulously, “How can you be so calm? Don’t you understand that we may be spending the rest of our lives on this forsaken island?” The man smiled, “Two years ago I gave a million dollars to the Jewish Federation. Last year I gave two million and this year I pledged three million. Don’t worry... they’ll find me!”

          When Yaakov felt that his life was nearing its end, he summoned his twelve sons to bless them. When he completed his blessings the pasuk[2] states, “All these are the tribes of Yisroel- twelve- and this is what their father spoke to them and he blessed them; each according to his blessing he blessed them.” The end of the pasuk seems grammatically incorrect. The pasuk begins by addressing each tribe individually, “each according to his blessing,” but it concludes by referring to the collective group, “he blessed them”?
          People are naturally selfish. A baby cries whenever it wants something, without taking into account how tired its parents are, and whether they have to wake up early to head out to work the following morning. Part of maturity entails being able to transcend that natural selfishness. But there are many people that never overcome that selfishness.
          Based on Yaakov’s respective blessings, each of the tribes understood that he had a responsibility to focus on his specific blessing and to develop his potential to the utmost. But ultimately, they had to utilize their individual strengths for the sake of national welfare. On the one hand it was “ish asher k’birchaso,” each received his own personal blessing. But on the other hand, the ultimate goal was “bayrach osam,” for them to realize that the blessings had to be used for the sake of Klal Yisroel.

          In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie relates that some years ago, the New York Telephone Company performed a detailed study of phone conversations to find out which word was most frequently used. The study showed that the personal pronoun “I” was by far the most commonly used word, repeated 3,900 times during 500 telephone conversations.
          In English, the possessive is expressed by using the authoritative capital letter, “I”. In Loshon Hakodesh however, it is the complete opposite. The possessive is expressed with a small letter “Yud” appearing at the end of the word[3]. The language of the Torah stresses humility even in the letters it uses.

          In Parshas Vayigash when Yosef finally revealed himself to the brothers, he told them to return to Canaan and bring Yaakov down to Egypt. Yosef sent wagons with the brothers to transport Yaakov. When the brothers returned and told Yaakov Yosef was alive and well in Egypt, he did not believe them.[4] It was only when Yaakov saw the wagons that Yosef sent him that he finally believed them.
          Rashi explains that the last Torah topic Yaakov and Yosef learned together twenty-two years earlier was that of “Eglah arufah- the calf whose neck was broken”[5]. Yosef sent the “Agalos- wagons” to symbolize that last topic.
When Yaakov saw the wagons, he understood the covert message and was convinced that Yosef was still alive, for only he could have known what they had learned privately together.  
          What was the meaning of this hint that Yosef was sending Yaakov? “Agalos” and “Eglah” may sound alike but one means a calf and one means wagon?
          Da’as Z’kenim Miba’alei Hatosfos differs from Rashi and suggests that the final Torah topic Yaakov and Yosef had learned was not that of “Eglah Arufah” but rather about the “Eglos haNesi’im”, the wagons that the princes of Klal Yisroel donated to the Mishkan which were given to the Levites to transport the vessels of the Mishkan.
          When Yaakov saw the wagons, he understood that Yosef was sending him a direct reminder of the last topic they had learned together, i.e. the wagons of the princes. But there was a deeper symbolic message represented by the wagons.
          Minchas Oni explains that a person has two roles to fulfill. On the one hand, he has an individual mission, as the Gemara says that one must think ‘the world was created for me’ in the sense that each person must fulfill his role. On the other hand, a person is obligated to be part of the community, to see himself as part of the public and be part of their efforts[6].
          One is tasked to fulfill both these roles. The struggle is maintaining that delicate balance.  
          When the princes donated the wagons, the pasuk states that it was, “One wagon for every two princes and an ox for each one.”[7]
          Seforno explains that, “This was an indication of the brotherhood existing between them, through which they would be worthy that the Divine Presence would rest between them…”
          Each prince brought his own personal ox on the altar as his own sacrifice. Together with that ox, he partnered with another prince to donate a wagon to the communal cause.
          Yosef was afraid that Yaakov would not believe the brothers when they told him that he was still alive for two reasons. Firstly, Yaakov knew that the brothers had feelings of animosity towards Yosef which had initiated the whole ordeal. Therefore, Yaakov would never believe that this same Yosef who had been on the brothers’ “Most Wanted” list was now inviting all of them to peacefully descend to Egypt and be reunited. Secondly, even if Yosef was truly still alive and well, if he was living in Egypt for so long, there was no way he was still a proper Jew. Therefore, he would surely be embarrassed for his holy father to see him in such a state and would never summon him to come.
          To disprove both of those doubts, Yosef sent the wagons to symbolize the wagons of the princes. Yosef was relaying a message to his father that just as there was unconditional love between the princes though they each retained their own levels of individuality, so too Yosef was still able to feel a love for them as a collective group, “the Children of Yaakov”. Also symbolizing the last topic they learned demonstrated that Yosef had retained his learning and was still a devout Jew.  

          Parshas Vayechi marks the end of an era. Chumash Bereishis closes with a family rapidly developing into a nation. At this point the tribes could no longer only be individuals. At this point, they had to learn how to merge into a group called “Klal Yisroel”.
          In the world of sports, it’s been said that the name that it says on the front of a player’s jersey, is far more important than the name that it says on the back of the jersey.[8] While very player must strive to play his best, his goal cannot be for his own aggrandizement and accomplishment. His ultimate goal must be to contribute and to sacrifice for the sake of the team’s success.[9]
          We are all individuals with tremendous potential and a specific mission. However, we are also part of a “team” called, “the Jewish people”. Throughout our lives we must seek to use our individual talents for the sake of our people and for others. That is the ultimate fulfilment of the blessings of Yaakov Avinu.

          One wagon for every two princes”
          “Each according to his blessing, he blessed them



Rabbi Dani Staum LMSW
Rebbe, Heichal HaTorah, Teaneck, NJ
Principal, Ohr Naftali, New Windsor NY




[1] This essay was from the second year that I sent out Stam Torah in 2001/5761
[2] Bereishis 49:28
[3] e.g. “halachti”, “yashavti”
[4] See Bereishis 45:27
[5] see Devorim 21:1-9
[6] see Avos 2:5
[7] Bamidbar 7:3
[8] On the front it says the team name; on the back it says the individual player’s number and last name.
[9] It is well-known that there have been many sports teams comprised of many stars who did not win a championship. The key to winning is in teamwork and being able to use every individual’s strength to help the team.