Thursday, July 20, 2017

PARSHIOS MATOS-MASEI 5777

STAM TORAH
PARSHIOS MATOS-MASEI 5777
 “LABOR OF LOVE”

Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman shlita, the beloved Mashgiach of Yeshivas Ohr Hachaim in Queens, was for many years the ‘spiritual guide’ here in Camp Dora Golding. Rabbi Finkleman nostalgically related that when he was a teenage bochur he was privileged to have a connection with the previous Skolya Rebbe, Rabbi Dovid Yitzchok Isaac Rabinowitz zt’l[1].

Rabbi Finkelman explained that his maternal grandfather, Mr. Moshe Hilsenrath a’’h, was one of the Rebbe’s attendants in Europe prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. [In fact, his grandfather would accompany the Rebbe to the mikvah each morning while they were under Nazi occupation. Rabbi Finkelman’s grandfather had been a German government worker until the Nazis took over the government. With his blue eyes, blond hair, and government uniform, when Nazis saw him accompanying the Rabbiner each morning, they assumed he was taking him into custody. Incredibly for over a year, he would often accompany the Skolya Rebbe to the mikvah unhindered each of those mornings, right under the noses of the Nazis.]
When the war broke out and the Nazis began their nefarious campaign to destroy Jewry, they primarily targeted the rabbis. The Nazis reasoned that if they destroyed the Jewish leadership it would be far easier to break the resolve of the masses. Because of that the Skolya Rebbe was compelled to remain in hiding for two years.
After more than a year under Nazi occupation, Rabbi Finkelman’s grandfather was somehow able to procure a visa that would allow his family to emigrate to America. He presented the visa to the Rebbe, urging him to escape. Knowing the added danger he personally faced, the Rebbe accepted the gift for himself and his family. He also blessed Rabbi Finkelman’s grandfather that the entire Hilsenrath family (wife and five children) would meet again in America.
Rabbi Finkelman related that when his grandmother recounted the story to him she said, “When the Rebbe gave us that blessing, your grandfather already pictured himself in America reunited with the Rebbe. But I wasn’t as convinced, and I accepted upon myself to die in Europe for the sake of the Rebbe.”
Through a series of miracles, the Rebbe and the Finkelman family were indeed reunited in America, albeit with only four of the five children. But the Rebbe was adamant. “I told you we would ALL be reunited, and with G-d’s help that will yet occur.” It later emerged that the fifth son had joined the British army. While with the army, he was sent to Palestine to help maintain order with the Israeli-Arab tensions. As soon as he could he deserted the British army and joined the Irgun to fight for his brethren rather than against them. Eventually the Rebbe’s blessing was indeed fulfilled and the entire family was reunited.  

Rabbi Finkelman related that at the end of the Skolya Rebbe’s life (he died when he was eighty), he was very frail. He was a holy person, who for many a year never slept in a bed, but would fall asleep in midst of his learning, despite his fragile health. He possessed an uncanny level of devotion and love for Torah, and the Torah lectures he would relate were often lengthy, mystical, and deep[2].
On one occasion Rabbi Finkelman, then a seventeen-year-old teen, convinced a ‘non-chassidic’ friend of his to accompany him to the Skolya Rebbe’s Shalosh Seudos tish[3]. After the Rebbe concluded his discourse, the two young men obtained permission to be present when the Rebbe recited havdalah[4].
When the Rebbe concluded havdalah the two seventeen-year-old boys had an opportunity to ask the Rebbe for a blessing. Rabbi Finkelman’s friend requested a blessing to have a chayshek (intense desire) for Torah study. When the Rebbe heard the request he smiled and replied, “Some people request a blessing for livelihood, so we give them a blessing for livelihood. Some people request a blessing for health, so we give a blessing for health. But Torah is the greatest gift that we possess in this world. One cannot acquire proficiency or erudition in Torah from a blessing. That would be tantamount to selling it cheaply. The only way to love Torah and feel connected to Torah is to learn, even without a feeling of connection and devotion. If one pushes and goads himself to learn even without a desire to do so, he can be assured that eventually G-d will bless him that he will indeed eventually obtain a chayshek and love for learning.

After an arduous forty years traveling through the desert, Klal Yisroel was finally camped on the threshold of the Promised Land. It was at that time that the tribes of Gad and Reuven became concerned that their portion in the land would be insufficient for all of their possessions. “The Children of Gad and the children of Reuven had abundant livestock – very great…They said (to Moshe), “If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage; do not bring us across the Jordan”.”
When Moshe heard their request he was very distressed. He perceived it as a means of exorcising themselves from the need to fight the Canaanites alongside the rest of the nation. The Nesi’im (Princes) of Gad and Reuven quickly clarified that that was not at all their intention. “They approached him (Moshe) and said, ‘Pens for the flock shall we build here for our livestock and cities for our small children. We shall arm ourselves swiftly in the vanguard of the Children of Israel… We shall not return to our homes until the Children of Israel will have inherited…”
Rashi quotes the Medrash which notes an acerbic critique of the character of the tribes of Gad and Reuven. “They were more concerned about their money than their children, because they mentioned their cattle before their children. Moshe replied to them, ‘Not so! Make your primary secondary and your secondary primary. First build cities for your children, and afterwards pens for your flock’.”
Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz zt’l[5] asks how it was possible that the tribes of Gad and Reuven, distinguished members of the generation who were privy to all the miracles of the desert, could have prioritized their money over their children?
Rabbi Leibowitz explained that we must conclude that originally those righteous people indeed prioritized their children far above all else. Their primary focus and desire was to raise their children as righteous G-d fearing Jews. However, to raise children one requires money and resources. As the Mishna[6] states, “If there is no flour there is no Torah”. Therefore, in order to have sustenance with which to provide their families, the tribes of Gad and Reuven raised cattle and invested much time and effort into their properties.
As time passed, without realizing it, they began to become more passionate and more connected to their resources and money. Because of their relentless involvement in their pursuit for resources (which they only invested in so that they could provide for their children) eventually they unwittingly and unknowingly began to prioritize their money even more than their children.
One must realize just how influenced he is through his actions. Whenever one invests in something there is an invariable bond and passion created for that thing, even if one claims not to have any level of added connection.
This idea is very poignant and applicable. Anyone who spends much of his/her day involved in the pursuit of earning a livelihood must realize that by our very nature we become inextricably connected to what we invest in. If the great leaders of the tribes of Gad and Reuven were able to lose a certain measure of their sense of priorities, we surely have to be wary of our own sense of priorities. Undoubtedly most people will assert that their children and families are their priority. However, a rational person who wants to truly be candid with himself must constantly reckon whether he has lost focus of his true priorities. Has his investment in his livelihood blindsided him from what is truly important?
At the same time, one must realize the sense of connection and passion one can foster through investment. In regard to spiritual pursuits and Torah learning, the way to appreciate the sweetness of Torah and love of performing mitzvos, is by investing in them.
To paraphrase the timeless words of Winston Churchill, if we want to love serving G-d, “We have nothing more to offer than blood, tears, toil, and sweat.” The more the investment, the more we will appreciate its timeless greatness.

“If there is no flour there is no Torah”
“First build cities for your children, and afterwards pens for your flock”


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



[1] I thank the Mashgiach for reviewing this text.
[2] Rabbi Finkelman related that when he would take leave of the Rebbe on weeknights after such lectures, the Rebbe would ask him if he taped it, noting that he should listen to it a few times before he would be able to comprehend the full depth of.
[3] Shalosh Seudos, the third and final meal eaten on Shabbos, is a very holy and unique meal, especially in the courts of the Chassidic Maters. The word tish, which literally means table, refers to the Rebbe’s public meal eaten with his Chassidim. The Rebbe often relates deep and penetrating insights based on the weekly Torah portion. 
[4] The Rebbe’s havdalah was a sight to see, as the Rebbe had many interesting customs, based on kabbalah.
[5] Chiddushei Halev
[6] Avos 3:21

Thursday, July 13, 2017

PARSHAS PINCHOS 5777


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS PINCHOS 5777
 “SHABBOS FOR SHABBOS”

A number of years ago, our (then) family’s wonderful neighbor, Scott Kaplan, related to us the following personal story:
“A few months ago, I was invited to a wedding of close friends. Though the bride and groom were from New York they were celebrating their wedding in a resort village in Mexico, south of Cancun. The entire city is comprised only of hotels and beaches, and is absolutely stunning. I, and five other guests who were Shomer Shabbos, together arranged all of our Shabbos needs.
“I called the Chabad Rabbi in Cancun and he told me that as long as food is processed (baked, cooked, etc.) and I do not have raw vegetables or fruits, border patrol should not give us any problems.
“I was carrying most of the baked goods, including challah, kugel, and chicken, in a carry-on bag. When I arrived at Customs and was given the declaration form to fill out, I noticed that the very first question asked about possession of food. I asked the agent if that included processed foods. He replied that I should show him what I had. I opened up my bag and pulled out a challah which was on top and showed it to him. He looked at it and replied, “You have three choices: You can eat it, throw it out, or give it to me.” I looked at him in disbelief, “Are you serious? But I thought…” He coldly repeated his words, “You can eat it, throw it out, or give it to me.”
“I was very upset but I told him that I wanted to finish filling out the rest of the form first. He pointed me towards a table off to the side. I sat down, and began to pray inaudibly that G-d please help us keep Shabbos properly.
“When I finished filling out the form, I walked back to the agent. He asked me for my passport, which I handed to him. As he flipped through it he began conversing with another custom’s agent in Spanish. I could not understand what they were saying but he kept pointing and mentioning Israel (I have been to Israel quite a few times recently).
“In my mind I thought that now for sure he would never let me take the food. But then he looked up at me and said, “You’ve been to Israel?” I nodded. “Are you Moslem?” “No!” “Are you Christian?” “No, I’m Jewish!” “You’re Jewish,? Do you have one of those“… he pointed to his head in a circular motion. “Sure,” I replied, removing my hat and showed him my kippah. He looked at me and said, “You know around here everyone believes in G-d.” I replied excitedly, “I believe in G-d!” He smiled warmly and said, “That’s sababah[1]” “Does this mean we’re okay?” I asked nervously. By now his demeanor had completely changed, “Oh we’re totally okay. He then gave me a high five and waved me through. I grabbed my bag and hurried on[2].
“On two more occasions, I was stopped in the airport and my bags were searched, but both times they waved me on without further incident. The Custom’s agent drastic change of attitude was truly incredible. Never underestimate the power of prayers and the merit of Shabbos!”

Parshas Pinchas contains a listing of the offerings that are brought during each holiday throughout the year, including the daily Tamid offering and the offerings of Shabbos. Compared to the rest of the holidays, the Shabbos offerings are quite paltry. And on the Shabbos day: Two male lambs in the first year… The elevation offering of each Shabbos on its Shabbos…[3]”     
The lexicon used regarding Shabbos is unique. In regard to no other holiday does it use an expression of bringing the offering on its own day. For example, it does not say, “the Pesach offering on its Pesach”, or “the Succos offering on its Succos”. Why is this unique expression used regarding Shabbos[4]?
 Rabbi Chatzkel Abramsky zt’l offered the following homiletical explanation: The offerings of Shabbos are smaller than other holidays, to symbolize that the most important component of the offering of Shabbos is, “on its Shabbos”, i.e. to observe Shabbos properly, by safeguarding its laws, seeking to understand its greatness, and observing the spirit of the day to the best of one’s ability.
This thought is in tandem with the famous quote from Rabbi Shlomo Karliner zt’l[5]: “Master of the World, You gave me fish for Shabbos; You gave me meat for Shabbos; Please give me Shabbos for Shabbos!”
What is the meaning of the Karliner’s prayer?

 “Rabbi Yitzchak said: All of the issues of Shabbos are doubled…. Its offering was doubled (as it says), “On the day of Shabbos two lambs; its punishment is doubled… its reward is doubled…its warning is doubled…its song is doubled…[6]
Why is everything connected with Shabbos doubled?

When the prophet Yeshaya speaks of comforting the beleaguered and aggrieved Jewish nation following their exile he exclaims[7], “Comfort, comfort My people, says G-d!” The Medrash comments[8], “They were stricken doubly, and they were comforted doubly.” Why was the Jewish nation punished doubly, and subsequently required to be comforted doubly?
Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner zt’l explained that mortal man is composed of two diverse components – chomer (physical, tangible corporeal body) and tzurah (intangible life-force, spiritual, personality).
The ultimate goal of man is to raise himself to such a level wherein his chomer is subservient to his tzurah, in that his entire being (including his physical self) is subject completely to the Will of G-d. Such a person’s behavior is dictated by his logic, and he does not allow himself to be blindly drawn after his emotions and desires.
At the time of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, G-d wrought retribution against Klal Yisroel, not only because the nation abused its essence on a physical level and defiled its chomer, but also because as a result of their iniquities their tzurah became sullied and spiritually debased. Not only did they use their physical bodies to sin but they contemplated ways to sin, using their cognitive abilities to think of ways to sin. Thus, the nation sinned on a dual level, and their double punishment reflected that duality. The ultimate consolation must therefore be doubled, in order to console us on a physical and spiritual level; to console both body and spirit.

With this idea in mind perhaps we can understand why every aspect of Shabbos is doubled. The greatness of Shabbos is that the holiness of Shabbos does not only envelope our tzurah - our spirit and souls, but it also affords us the opportunity to elevate and sanctify our chomer – the physicality within ourselves and the world. On Shabbos, we laud G-d for the gift of being able to[9] “Eat rich foods, drink sweet drinks, for G-d will give to all who cling to Him, clothes to wear and bread of allotment, meat and fish and all delicacies.”     
The Gemara[10] relates that on Shabbos we are granted a supplementary soul. Rashi offers a most intriguing explanation of the effect of the supplementary soul. He explains that the special soul grants us “a broadened heart for rest and joy, and to be open wide to be able to eat and drink without his soul becoming repulsed by it.” Normally when one partakes of a particularly filling and fatty meal he feels somewhat ‘animalistic’[11]. But on Shabbos one can indulge more than usual and not worry about that animalistic feeling, because his added soul compensates by injecting him with an added dose of spirituality.
With this idea in mind we can also understand why in our Shabbos prayers there is much mention of the ultimate redemption and our eventual return to rebuilt Jerusalem and the rebuilt Bais Hamikdash[12]. Our descent into exile was inextricably bound to our defilement of our chomer and tzura, both are bodies and our souls. The double consolation which must include both body and spirit is reflected and symbolized by Shabbos, the day of physical AND spiritual bliss.
Shabbos is a window into the euphoric Messianic world when this world will be completely devoted to G-d, on all levels. When we observe Shabbos, we raise ourselves beyond the trivialities and sufferings of exile and focus on a world devoid of physical pain and spiritual sin. It is for that reason that the laws of the Three Weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash are suspended on Shabbos. We sing songs joyously during those Shabbasos, and even if Tisha B’av itself coincides on Shabbos we eat meat and drink wine during that Shabbos.
The exile represents the tragedy of the wandering collective Jewish body and soul, and on Shabbos wherever a Jew is he is at home in the palace of the King.  

The Karliner prayed that he not only merit experiencing the physical delights of Shabbos, but also the spiritual bliss of Shabbos.  At times, one can observe all the laws of Shabbos properly, yet not feel the idyllic sense of elevation that Shabbos provides. One must pray that he merits that greatness, as we state in the Mussaf prayers of Shabbos, “Those who taste it merit life, and those who love its precepts have chosen greatness.”   

“All of the issues of Shabbos are doubled”                             
“Each Shabbos on its Shabbos”


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



[1] An Arabic word, it’s Israeli slang- the equivalent of the American, “Cool” 
[2] Scott added that as he hurried away he worried that perhaps his hasty departure showed a lack of gratitude. He returned to the desk and thanked the agent again, and wished him ‘shalom’. The agent looked at him quizzically, “What’s Shalom?” Scott couldn’t help but laugh that the man was familiar with the word “sababah”, but had never heard the ubiquitous “shalom”.
[3] Bamidbar 28:9
[4] The only exception is in regard to Rosh Chodesh it also says, “This is the elevation offering of each month on its month.” But in regard to that verse the Gemara (Yoma 65b) derives a law from those words.
[5] Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach a’h repeats this thought when he sings about Shabbos
[6] Medrash Tehillim (92); quoted by Rabbeinu Bechaye, parshas Pinchos
[7] Yeshaya 40:1; opening verse of haftorah for Shabbos Nachamu (Vaeschanan)
[8] Yalkut Shimoni
[9] From the song Yom Zeh Mechubad customarily sung on Shabbos day
[10] Beitzah 16a
[11] In Yiddish the word is ‘grub’; it does not translate well into English
[12] The majority of the mystical and beloved song Lecha Dodi speaks about the redemption, and the supplementary Shabbos prayer of Ritzey added to Grace after Meals concludes with a prayer for the consolation of Zion and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.  

Thursday, July 6, 2017

PARSHAS BALAK 5777

STAM TORAH
PARSHAS BALAK 5777
 “TO LIVE WITH DIGNITY”

 “While for the most part I’m in terrific physical shape, I have ten tumors in my liver and I only have a few months left to live.
“I am a father of three young children, and married to the woman of my dreams. While I could easily feel sorry for myself, that wouldn’t do them, or me, any good.
“So, how to spend my very limited time?
“The obvious part is being with, and taking care of, my family. While I still can, embrace every moment with them, and do the logistical things necessary to ease their path into a life without me.
“The less obvious part is how to teach my children what I would have taught them over the next twenty years. They are too young now to have those conversations. All parents want to teach their children right from wrong, what we think is important, and how to deal with the challenges life will bring. We also want them to know stories from our own lives, often as a way to teach them how to lead theirs….
“Both the lecture and this book are my attempts to do exactly that.”[1]

Commissioned by Balak, King of Moav, Bila’am sets out to curse the unsuspecting Jewish nation. But when Bila’am ascends a mountain and peers at the Jewish camp, he is divinely overwhelmed by the holiness and regality of the Jews. Unwittingly he spews the most beautiful blessings, lauding the Jewish nation, and foretelling their eventual triumph over all of their adversaries at the end of days.
During one of his bouts of prophesy Bila’am calls on the Patriarchs with misplaced nostalgia. “Who can count the dust of Yaakov or a quarter of Yisroel? My soul should die the death of the ישרים (upright), and may my end be like his[2].” 
Who are the “upright” whom Bila’am refers to? The Ba’al Haturim explains that the numerical value of the wordישרים   (560) is equivalent to the numerical value of the words אבות העולם (Patriarchs of the world)[3]. When Bila’am eyed Klal Yisroel he envisioned how their founders, the patriarchs, died with tremendous honor and respect. He pined to have similar honor accorded to him when he died.
Seforno, commenting on Bila’am’s words, explains that Bila’am was saying that if he would be able to die like the upright ones he would be willing to die immediately, so that he could merit eternal life in the afterworld.
The Chofetz Chaim notes that Bila’am wanted to die as a Jew, but he didn’t want to live as a Jew. Bila’am recognized that the life of a Jew is fraught with challenges and struggles. A Jew’s life is rigidly regimented with myriad laws and expectations. Throughout his life he is encouraged to never grow complacent with his accomplishments, and is always expected to keep striving.
The believing Jew is catapulted by the knowledge that it is all worth it because when he leaves this world he continues on to the world of truth where he will reap the benefits of his efforts. Therefore, the Jew does not fear death because he knows he is only going home. But to the non-believer death is overwhelming and frightening as he is unable to have the same confidence in his future.
Bila’am desired to die with the serenity and confidence that the patriarchs had when they departed from this world, but he did not wish to alter his life to live with their principles and morals. The Chofetz Chaim concludes, “Ubber es iz nit kayn kuntz tzu shturben vee a Yid; der grester kuntz iz oys tzu lebben aleh yuhrin vee a yid – But, it is no ‘trick’ to die like a Jew; the greatest ‘trick’ is to live all of one’s years like a Jew.”

On another occasion, the Chofetz Chaim quipped, “It’s very difficult to make a living. They say that people need a livelihood so that they have what to live with. But I wonder if they have what to die with!”
In Koheles, the wisest of men states[4] that there is a time to be born and a time to die. Why does he not say that there is a time to live? The Chofetz Chaim explained that life is so short and fleeting that there is hardly any time to live!

One of the most well-known prophecies of Yirmiyahu involved the prayers of our Matriarch Rachel. The Midrash[5] describes the fascinating scene that transpired as the Holy Temple was burning. G-d Himself was weeping, as it were, "Where are my children, my prophets, my priests? I feel like someone whose only son died suddenly under his wedding canopy." G-d then instructs the prophet Yirmiyahu to summon the patriarchs and Matriarchs so that they could intercede on behalf of their exiled children.
Avraham is the first to speak. He rips his hair, rents his garments, and places ashes on his forehead and laments, "Master of the World, You granted me a child when I was a hundred years old. Yet, when You asked me to sacrifice him on the altar I did so without hesitation." But G-d would not hearken to his call. Yaakov then appeared before G-d and declared, "I worked for my duplicitous brother-in-law Lavan for twenty-one arduous years. Upon leaving I was confronted by my brother Eisav who wanted to kill me and my children. Yet I stood before them and was prepared to die to protect them." Still G-d was not pacified. Moshe arose and stated, "I spoke on behalf of Your people for forty years, and yet, I died before entering Israel. Let my death substitute for them and enable them to return to the Holy Land."
Finally Rachel arises and implores on behalf of her children, "Yaakov had initially worked for me for seven years. My father Lavan cajoled me to allow Leah to trick Yaakov. I could not bear the shame that Leah would have experienced had Yaakov seen through the sham. So I gave up my husband to my sister to spare her from shame and embarrassment.” The Medrash relates that it was Rochel’s plea that broke the decree.
What was it about the cry of Rochel that afforded it greater potency then the prayers of other the Patriarchs and Matriarchs? Although they all spoke on behalf of their children, they all focused on their willingness to die for the sake of G-d’s Name. Although their merits were incredible, they were insufficient to alter the harsh decree written against their descendant. Rochel however, argued that she was willing to live to sanctify G-d’s Name. She was compelled to live with the consequences of her magnanimous deed for the rest of her life. She gave up her place as the sole wife of Yaakov, and even in death she was not buried adjacent to Yaakov.
“Thus said G-d: A voice is heard on high, lamentations and bitter weeping - Rachel weeps for her children. She refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone.
Thus said G-d: Stay your voice from weeping and prevent your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your efforts, says G-d, and they shall return from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares G-d: Your children shall return back to their boundaries.[6]"

Parshas Balak is always read the Shabbos before the commencement of the Three Weeks of mourning, which begin with the fast of Shiva Asar B’Tamuz. All the pain we suffer, including the fact that we are still in exile, is testament to the fact that as a nation we are not adequately sanctifying G-d’s Name. There is no doubt that throughout the millennia our ancestors, and we, have sanctified G-d’s Name as they marched to their deaths with “Shema Yisroel” on their lips. But perhaps we have not yet fulfilled our obligation to live our lives with Shema Yisroel on our lips. 

“My soul should die the death of the upright”
“Rochel weeps for her children”

Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah, Teaneck, NJ
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor, NY




[1] Introduction of “The Last Lecture”, by Randy Pausch
[2] 23:10
[3] Ba’al Haturim then adds that the numerical values of the last letter of the name of each of the patriarchs  "אברהם יצחק יעקב" (מ+ק+ב = 142)  is equivalent to בלעם, a reference to Bila’am’s subsequent words, “And let my end be like his”.
[4] Koheles 3:2
[5] Eichah Rabbah 24
[6] Yirimyah 31:14-15

Thursday, June 29, 2017

PARSHAS CHUKAS 5777

STAM TORAH
PARSHAS CHUKAS 5777
 “FATAL ERROR”

Rabbi Yecheskel Levenstein zt’l[1] was once in a taxi in Yerushalayim. The driver was a secular Israeli who had served in the army years earlier. Seeing that he had a distinguished rabbi in the taxi, the driver related a personal story:
After he completed his army duty, he joined a group of non-religious soldiers on a safari trip to South America. One day, while on their trip, the group heard a blood-curdling scream from one of the members of the group. They ran over to help him and saw a horrific sight. A boa-constrictor had wrapped itself around their friend and was slowly squeezing the life out of him. The group began throwing rocks and sticks at the snake, but to no avail. With his last remaining breath, the man yelled, “Shema Yisrael”. As soon as he said those words, the constrictor inexplicably loosened its grip and slithered away. As a result of the miraculous event, the man joined a yeshiva as soon as they returned home, and today is completely Torah observant. 
After listening to the driver’s incredible story, Rabbi Levenstein asked him, “What about you? After seeing such a miracle why didn’t you became Torah observant?” The driver looked at the rabbi incredulously, “Kevod harav, the snake wasn’t wrapped around me!” 

Traveling through the desert for forty years was not only fraught with dangers and external challenges, but there were also many internal confrontations as well. The Torah relates that the nation became restless from their travels and they voiced their dissatisfaction. “Why has He brought us up from Egypt to die in the desert, for there is no bread and there is no water, and our souls are repulsed with the insubstantial bread.”
G-d’s retribution was swift, and the camp was overrun with venomous snakes which fatally bit many people. “And the people came to Moshe and said: we have sinned… And G-d said to Moshe, ‘Make for yourself a venomous snake and place it upon a tall pole, and it shall come to pass that anyone who is bitten, let him look upon it and he will live. And Moshe made a copper snake…”  
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’l explains that the purpose of the snakes was to make the nation realize the omnipresent dangers that surrounded them in the desert. A desert is a naturally hazardous place for any individual, and even more so for an entire nation, of men, women, and children. The nation was now complaining that their life in the desert was uneventful and trite. When the snakes attacked however, the nation realized that the insipidness of their travels was the greatest blessing, and was a result of the protective Hand of G-d.
Rabbi Hirsch continues that G-d informed Moshe that anyone who was bitten must gaze at the copper snake, so that this idea would become entrenched in their mind. The mental image of the snake would help the victim remain aware of the vast dangers that surround him constantly, and that it is only G-d’s Protection that saves him from them.

Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon similarly noted that, unlike the plagues in Egypt where G-d miraculously caused animals to gather en masse in Egypt, during this event G-d did not miraculously bring together snakes from afar as punishment to the Jews. Rather, he merely removed His Divine protection. When that happened, nature took its course, and the surrounding snakes which naturally habituate the desert invaded.
Rabbi Salomon added that we must view our contemporary situation in the same vein. When, G-d forbid, a terrorist attack occurs[2] it is not that G-d allowed the terrorist to penetrate. Klal Yisroel has so many enemies that our daily survival is unnatural and miraculous. Rather, it is that He has removed a certain measure of His Divine Protection from Klal Yisroel. When that occurs and nature is allowed to run its course, tragedies are almost inevitable, heaven forefend.

One of the mainstays in the life of a Jew is reciting blessings. The gemara[3] relates that one is obligated to recite one hundred blessings every day. What does it mean to bless G-d? How can a temporal mortal of flesh and blood bless the Eternal, King of Kings?
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l explained[4] that when one recites a blessing he is espousing his cognizance of G-d’s hidden Hand in this world. “When one recites a blessing over food, for example, he in essence is saying, “Master of the Universe, you are hidden behind a cloud; no one sees you. Yet, as I eat this food, I reveal Your Presence. The very fact that I can eat, that my body absorbs food, that I can digest, indeed the entire biological process behind food consumption and the very creation of food itself is testimony to Your presence. Through this recognition I am removing the obscuring cloud; I am revealing You.”
Blessings are addressed to G-d in the second person: Blessed are You, rather than Blessed is He, in order to affirm G-d’s Presence among us. It as if we are saying that we are testifying about G-d’s Presence through the object which we are blessing. The purpose of a blessing transforms the hidden into Presence. Thus, a Jew becomes a partner with G-d’s revelation of earth, every time he recites a blessing.

Rabbi Hirsch concludes that a person who comprehends this idea, will never be dissatisfied with his lot. He will realize that the mere fact that he is not destroyed by the “venomous serpents” that ubiquitously surround him is itself a tremendous gift from G-d.
The reason why the plague occurred with snakes is because the snake is the symbol of ingratitude since time immemorial. G-d had hidden the venomous snakes of the wilderness, and concealed from the nation the dangers that were ever-present. But when they failed to appreciate that gift, G-d simply removed that shield. The remedy for anyone bitten by a snake was to implant in his mind the image of the snake, which reminded him of G-d’s protection.   
The symbol of modern medicine, the caduceus[5], depicts a short staff entwined by two serpents in the form of a double helix. Although many explanations are purported, it is likely that the original source of the symbol stems from this event in the desert.
In a sense, it is an appropriate symbol. The purpose of the copper serpent was to arouse the people to recognize the miracles that were occurring constantly around them without their realizing it. All the gifts of life – including health - which we so often overlook are all miracles.
The wise person does not wait for tragedy to strike. He realizes and thanks G-d for all he has every day of his life.

“Anyone who is bitten let him look upon it and he will live”
“Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d”


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



[1] Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, known as Reb Chatzkel, (1895 - 1974), was the mashgiach ruchani of the Mir yeshiva in Europe, and later of Ponovezh in B’nei Brak.
[2] Or when the world hypocritically turns against Israel politically…
[3] Menachos 43b
[4] Rosh Hashanah Machzor
[5]