Thursday, July 11, 2019

PARSHAS CHUKAS 5779


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS CHUKAS 5779
“THE KING’S ROAD”

          The following is based on the lecture I delivered in Kehillat New Hempstead (KNH), Shabbos Kodesh parshas Chukas 5778, June 23, 2018.
          I had the great fortune to serve as rabbi of KNH from 2007-2018. This lecture was the final that I gave in the capacity of being the shul’s Rabbi:

          During one of Abbot and Costello’s classic comedy routines, Lou Costello was the defendant in court. At one point, when Costello made a rude comment, the judge angrily replied, “You can’t speak to me that way, young man. I’ve been sitting on this bench for twenty-five years”. Costello snapped back, “Twenty-five years on the same bench? So you’re just naturally lazy, aren’t you!”
          I’ve been standing at this pulpit each Shabbos and Yom Tov for the last eleven years. During that time, I’ve shared many wonderful occasions with you. I’ve conveyed Torah thoughts on the parsha and yomim tovim, and have spoken during occasions spanning the lifecycle. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking on happy occasions, and I’ve had to give eulogies, which were of the most difficult experiences of my life. And now, after eleven wonderful years, this is the final lecture I will deliver from this wonderful pulpit in the capacity of Rabbi.
          As you all know, I consider myself a student of Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman. For many wonderful summers, Rabbi Finkelman joined us in Camp Dora Golding. During those summers, I had the privilege to hear many inspiring lectures from him, to learn from his sterling example, and gained tremendously from many personal conversations with him.
A few years ago, Rabbi Finkelman did not return to Camp Dora Golding. I missed (and miss) being able to glean from his direct influence and from his insights and unique perspectives.
          A friend related that he too had had such an experience when a rebbe he was close to for years had moved on. He told me that his rebbe had shared with him that when Hashem separates a person from a rebbe or guide, it is indicative of the fact that Hashem wants the person to internalize all he gained from that Rebbe, and to continue to grow without the personal connection he had until now.
          During the past decade, on some level, every member of this kehilla has been a rebbe to me.
          The greatest mashgiach for a parent, is his children, because he feels he must maintain certain spiritual standards in the presence of his impressionable children. In the same vein, the greatest mashgiach for a rebbe is his students, and the greatest mashgiach for a Rabbi are his congregants.
          A fellow Rabbi in this neighborhood would often bless me that I should have nachas from my ba’al habatim (congregants). His beracha was definitely fulfilled on many levels.
          In addition, a rebbe/rabbi is blessed with added siyata dishmaya (heavenly assistance) to live up the high demands of his position. In my years as Rabbi, I have personally gained tremendously in my personal Torah learning from all of you. Firstly, I have learned a great deal from the penetrating questions and wonderful insights that people have shared with me over the years. But in addition, on many occasions, when preparing a lecture, I have found myself realizing a new idea or perspective that I had never thought of before. On numerous occasions I had that experience while doing the arduous trek up Brick Church Road towards shul on Shabbos morning.
          Aside from the friendships and great relationships that our family has forged during the last decade, as I move on from the shul, I will miss all the added components I just mentioned as well.
          On the Final Gemara exam that I gave my ninth-grade students last week, I wrote the following concluding thought at the end: “You have arrived at the end. But every end is another beginning, if we view it in that light.”
          When sharing a final thought, it cannot be merely an insight on the parsha, but it must be a perspective about life and Torah living generally. It must be an idea that can inspire us as we forge ahead on the road of life:
         
          In parshas Chukas, the nation was nearing the end of their long and difficult forty-year-trek through the desert. They were not far from the Promised Land, and were camped next to settled kingdoms and nations. Moshe extended a request to the King of Edom to allow the fatigued nation to pass through his land. The King of Edom summarily rejected the request, even mobilizing his army to ensure that the Jewish nation didn’t traverse his borders.
          The vernacular Moshe used when making his request of the King of Edom contains a poignant perspective for how a Jew is to live his life: “Please allow us to cross through your land, we will not pass through the fields or the vineyards, and we will not drink from the waters of the wells; on the road of the King we will go, we will not veer to the right or to the left, until we cross through your boundary.”[1]
          Essentially, what Moshe asked the King of Edom is what our soul requests of our body in this world. In this world, out soul and body are engaged in an epic struggle for supremacy, and the body has home-court advantage.
          Our soul descends into this world with a sense of mission. It desires to garner merits and fulfill its task so that it can successfully return home, and merit its eternal reward. But to do so, it has to traverse the rugged terrain of this world, where there are temptations lurking on all sides. Our soul seeks to not divert its focus by wandering into the dangerous pastures of iniquitous fields and vineyards, or by drinking from the wells of polluted waters. Rather it pledges to remain on the road of the king, the pathway of regality, ethics, and dignity.
          Our soul begins its journey with a sense of purpose and commitment, but the road is long and serpentine. At every juncture we need to remind ourselves of our mission and not allow ourselves to be lured off course.
          Last week, I had to leave camp to come to the city. When I was an hour out of camp, well down Route 80, I had the terrible realization that I had forgotten my wallet in camp. [In camp, I hardly ever carry my wallet.] It was an uncomfortable feeling to know that I had no money, credit card, or identification on me.
          Although, thankfully, I made it back to camp without incident, it was a stark reminder that whenever we travel and leave our familiar surroundings, we are more prone to ‘forgetting our identity’ and acting in ways we never would when we are at home.  
         
          When Moshe wanted to dispatch twelve individuals to scout out Eretz Yisrael, he chose twelve righteous leaders. Moshe felt confident that they would execute their mission properly and infuse the nation with excitement and confidence to conquer the Land. The problem is that Rashi says that when the spies left they already had evil intentions to malign the Land. If Moshe hand-picked these individuals because of their virtues, how could they have had malicious intentions even before they arrived?
          Rav Yisrael Belsky zt”l explained[2] that Moshe indeed appointed great men for this mission. As long as they remained within the spiritually secure confines of the camp, they were holy and elite. The problem was that as soon as they left the camp and began their journey, they began to entertain malevolent ideas.
          The summer is particularly a time when people leave their communities to vacation and travel. When one is outside his community, it is a particularly challenging time when he is spiritually vulnerable and can easily compromise his standards if he isn’t careful. One must be wary of those challenges and plan accordingly.
         
          When Yaakov Avinu left home to escape the wrath of his brother Eisav, the pasuk says “Yaakov left Be’er Sheva and went towards Charan.”[3] Rashi asks why the Torah says that Yaakov left Be’er Sheva if it already related that fact at the end of the previous parsha? Rashi explains that it’s to teach us that when a righteous person departs from a place, his splendor, beauty, and shine leave with him.
          Rabbi Gedalia Schorr zt”l explained that when man landed on the moon, he essentially carried earth with him. The atmosphere on the moon cannot sustain human life. Therefore, each astronaut had to be completely ensconced in a spacesuit that provided him with oxygen. Although they were on the moon, in a certain sense they were still surrounded by earth.
          When Yaakov Avinu left Yeshiva to travel toward the spiritual desert of Charan, he knew that he would be spiritually vulnerable. Therefore, he made sure to take his own splendor, shine, and beauty, with him. He did so by fortifying himself as best as he could and mentally preparing himself for the challenges he knew he would encounter. Yaakov was physically leaving yeshiva, but spiritually he never left.
          Our challenge in life is to always remain upon the road of the king. That becomes an especially difficult challenge when we are traversing the surrounding vineyards and wells. In those situations, one must be especially wary to make sure he is spiritually prepared for the vicissitudes he is sure to face.

          “Yaakov left Be’er Sheva”
          “On the road of the King we will go”


Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor




[1] Devorim 20:17
[2] Quoted in “Halachically Speaking” Volume 7
[3] Bereishis 28:10

Friday, July 5, 2019

PARSHAS KORACH 5779


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS KORACH 5779
“EACH HIS ROLE”

          This week, on Wednesday morning, our family received the painful and bitter news that our Bubby, my mother’s mother, Rebbitzin Fruma Kohn, passed away.

          Generally, our memories and thoughts turn to the recent past. But for a moment we can turn the clock back to the years before Bubby moved to an assisted living facility in Monsey, before she became a widow from my Zaydei over thirty years ago, to when she and Zaydei arrived in America in the late 1940s.
          During her teen years, Bubby and most of her family endured the painful rigors of Siberia. Terrible as it was, it saved them from an even worse fate at the hands of the Nazis.[1] She met Zaydei, a fugitive orphan, after being released from Siberia, and they married.
          After much travail, they arrived in America. Sometime after they moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Zaydei was offered the position of Rabbi at Anshei Slonim, a prestigious and large shul on the Lower East Side. It was a tremendous opportunity and Zaydei accepted it.[2]
          Bubby, however, wasn’t too excited about being a Rebbitzin. In fact, she was quite upset about it. She had never wanted to be a Rebbitzin and had little interest in assuming those responsibilities. Yet, she became a Rebbitzin. For decades she hosted scorers of people at her Shabbos table in their apartment. She never knew how many guests Zaydei would bring home, and some of the regular guests weren’t mentally stable. Bubby did tremendous chesed, much that we probably didn’t even know about. She served so many people from that diminutive kitchen in her apartment.
          For many decades she remained at Zaydei’s side and supported his efforts.
          After his passing she still figuratively remained at his side from afar, refusing to consider remarrying.
          And now, she is once again at his side, atop Har Tamir[3] in Yerushalayim.

          When Korach and his group challenged the authority of Moshe, demanding greater authority, Moshe was stunned. He replied to them, “Rav lachem b’nei Levi – It is too much for you, children of Levi.”[4] Moshe countered that Korach was granted privileged status, and he should be satisfied with that, and not seek more.  
          In parshas Vaeschanan, Moshe Rabbeinu recounted how he pleaded with Hashem to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisroel with Klal Yisroel. After uttering 515 prayers, Hashem replied to Moshe, “Rav lach - It is too much for you! Do not continue to speak to me further about this matter!”[5]  

          The gemara[6] states that because Moshe Rabbeinu used the vernacular “rav lachem” when rebuking Korach, correspondingly, Hashem told him “rav lach”.
          It seems like Moshe is being called to task for using such terminology with Korach. Wasn’t Moshe’s point to them correct? What did he say that was wrong?
          Rabbi Shimon Schwab[7] explains that throughout the forty years they were in the desert, the nation traveled based on the Clouds of Glory that remained affixed in front of their camp. At any time, the Clouds could suddenly lift, whereupon the trumpets would be sounded, and the nation immediately prepared for travel. The men would rush to their tents to pack up their belongings, disassemble their tents, and ready themselves and their children to proceed.
          The only exception was the Leviim. Instead of the Levite men rushing to their own tents when they heard the trumpets, they would rush to the Mishkan. They would hastily but cautiously disassemble the structure of the Mishkan, cover the vessels, and ready everything for travel. Their wives had to take care of their own tents and families without their husbands. It was a tremendous sacrifice for the Levite men and the women.
          When they finally arrived at their destination, while their wives set up their own tents, the men reassembled the Mishkan. They erected the heavy boards and inserted them in the sockets, etc. It was an arduous task and had to be performed with precision. After performing all the difficult labor, when the Mishkan was finally set up, the Levites had to immediately step aside. The Levites could not be in the “Camp of the Divine Presence” which rested as soon as the Mishkan was set up. After the Levites toiled to set up the Mishkan, the Kohanim took over, offering Korbanos, and doing the required Avodah. It was understandable that the Levites would feel short-changed. Why should they do all the hard work and then have to step aside for the Kohanim?
          Moshe Rabbeinu turned to Korach and the Levites and declared, “rav lachem - it’s too much for you.” He was encouraging them to recognize the incredible merit they have to have been disassembling and assembling the Mishkan. They should feel privileged to have been chosen to perform whatever task had been ordained for them.
          In life, it’s not what one actually does that matters. Whenever one fulfills the role that Hashem has set for him, that is his greatest blessing and gift.
          At the end of the forty years in the desert, Moshe Rabbeinu begged Hashem to allow him to enter Eretz Yisroel. He reasoned to that he had endured so much as leader of the nation. After leading them out of Egypt, and bringing the Torah down at Sinai, and dealing with all the frustrations and mishaps of the nation for forty years, Moshe felt that he deserved to have the opportunity to bask in the spiritual bliss of the Land.
          To that Hashem replied, “rav lach”. He was essentially telling Moshe, “Remember when you told the Levites that they should focus on the merit they have to perform the role assigned to them. You told them that they shouldn’t feel they are lacking, even though others were granted more prestigious positions. Moshe, you need to remember that message as well. You have accomplished incredible things as the selfless leader of Klal Yisroel. Don’t feel that you are being deprived. You have fulfilled your role with such devotion and dedication, and that is your portion. But it is not your destiny to enter the Land.”
          It is a very poignant and beautiful thought, but one that isn’t easy to live by. Hashem has a plan and a mission for each of us, and it doesn’t always coincide with the plan and path we chart for ourselves.
          Moshe’s message to Korach was that it is incumbent upon every person to fulfill his divinely ordained task to the best of his ability. When a person has aspirations, and life takes him in a different direction, it is difficult to forfeit those hopes. But that is his duty.

          When Korach first presented his audacious challenge, Moshe did not reply to his individual points. He did not escalate the confrontation by allowing it to become personal. Rather he “fell upon his face”, a symbol of complete submission before Hashem. His response symbolized that G-d would be the arbiter of justice, and decide positions of authority and holiness. Moshe would not give any campaign speeches, nor seek any votes. In fact, he had never wanted the position, and had tried to exonerate himself from its responsibilities when G-d originally informed him of his mission.
          Moshe had assumed his position because that is what G-d demanded of him. If Korach wanted to challenge that position, he would have to prove that that is G-d’s Will.
          The conflict would be resolved by the offering of ketores (incense). Unlike offerings which were brought to atone and rectify mishaps, ketores was brought solely to honor G-d. The true leaders were those who were completely altruistic, and assumed the leadership of the nation solely to bring honor to Hashem. It wasn’t about self-aggrandizement or self-promotion, but about assuming the role G-d had set for them. Only the true leader’s ketores would be accepted.
          Fulfilling the role we have been assigned, is often a tremendous sacrifice, and is a scent of divine pleasure, as it were.

          As Bubby ascends to the celestial portion she has achieved through her years of chesed and life, may we, her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, learn from her example, and follow in her noble footsteps.

          “It is too much for you!”
          “Each took his fire pan... and placed incense upon it...”

Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor




[1] Her one sister who escaped deportation to Siberia, was killed by the Nazis, along with her husband and baby.
[2] I am in possession of the original letters of congratulations written by Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt”l and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l to the heads of the shul upon accepting Zaydei as Rabbi.
[3] adjacent to Har Menuchos
[4] Bamidbar 16:7
[5] Devorim 3:26
[6] Sotah 13b
[7] Ma’ayan Bais Hashoeivah