Tuesday, October 8, 2019


          Rabbi Fishel Schachter relates:
          I have a friend who struggled with his weight for years. He was constantly trying different diets to manage his weight issues, but he hadn’t been successful for any extended period with any of them.
          Then, at one point, I noticed that he had lost some significant weight. I was close enough to ask him what changed. He explained that he was meeting with a new nutritionist who was helping him. He recounted a conversation they had during their initial meeting. The nutritionist asked him if he was aware that he was three hundred pounds. He nodded. The nutritionist continued, “Do you know that you’re a very handsome person? It’s true - at a hundred and eighty pounds you’re a very handsome person. All you have to do is trim down the excess one hundred twenty pounds.”
          Those words really motivated him. It was the first time that he wasn’t made to feel like a schlub or a glutton. He was told that he was essentially a good-looking person, he just had to rid himself of what was covering it.
          That is the perspective and attitude one must have when he approaches teshuva. The Mishna[2] says, “Do not be a wicked person in your own eyes.” If a person views himself as a lowly person, he will become deflated and not feel like he can be better.
          The truth is that even when one sins, his soul remains untainted and pure. His task is to remove the excess impurities which have become attached to him, so that his inner beauty can once again shine through.

          One of the most well-known components of the Service of Yom Kippur that the Kohain Gadol performed in the Bais Hamikdash involved the two goats. “The two goats of Yom Kippur, they were to be equal in appearance, height, and value, and were to be purchased together.”[3] The Kohain Gadol performed a lottery that decided which of the goats was offered in the Sanctuary, its blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies, and which was dispatched to the Azazel mountain, and pushed off to its death.
          Why was it necessary for the two goats to be so similar?
          Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch[4] explains that the two goats represent two lives, originally completely identical, which proceed on two entirely contrasting paths. Both are placed together before God at the entrance of the Sanctuary. The decision whether to go “toward G-d” or to go to “Azazel” hovers over both of them in exactly the same way. The one designated “toward G-d” is admitted to the Holy of Holies, where the ideal of a Jewish Torah life perfects itself as the bearer of G-dliness on earth. The other, designated for Azazel, remains untouched, at the entrance of the Sanctuary, and is sent out of its precincts, away from the sphere of human habitation into the desert. Having turned its back on the Sanctuary, it ends the uncultivated living it had preserved for itself.
          Each one of us is a “seir” (goat). Each of us has the power to resist the demands made on our will power. It is in the way we use this power that our worthiness or worthlessness depends. We can use it in attachment to G-d in resisting all internal and external temptation and considerations to become a seir to G-d. Or we can use it in obstinate refusal of G-d and His holy laws of morality. This latter recourse is reflected in the etymology of the term לעזאזל – using one’s strength for obstinacy (עז) for no meaningful future (אזל).
          In a similar vein, Maharal[5] explains that goat blood is most similar to human blood[6]. The goat offered “to Hashem” was brought into the Holy of holies, symbolizing the ability of a Jew to achieve the greatest levels of connection with his Creator. Blood is our lifeforce, and the blood of the goat, which symbolizes every one of us, was offered in the holiest place on earth.[7]
          The other goat, sent to Azazel, which was so similar, whose blood also resembles our blood, is representative of our sins and shortcomings. The sins we commit seem to be an inextricable part of our identity. However, we take those components and symbolically cart them off for destruction in the desert. The Azazel service reminds us that our misdeeds, though our responsibility, do not comprise our essence. Rather they are an external cancer that we must exorcise and distance ourselves from through proper teshuva.
          Throughout Yom Kippur, whenever we recite Viduy, we state: “behold I am before You like a vessel of shame and humiliation.” The Belzer Rebbe zt’l explained that we feel tremendous embarrassment and shame over what we have done. But it is like a vessel we are grasping, not a core component of who we are. We are ashamed of what we have done; we are not ashamed of who we are. We know we are better and can overcome the negative and foolish things we have committed.  
          The wisest of men states[8] “The righteous fall seven times, and get up, but the wicked stumble in evil.” Rabbi Chaim Friedlander zt’l noted[9] that regarding the righteous it says he falls, whereas regarding the wicked it stays he stumbles. This reflects an integral difference between the perspective of the righteous and the wicked. The righteous person views his sins as mishaps; a failing and a falling from which he must arise; the wicked views his sins as indicative of being a complete failure!
           When one sees himself as worthy and capable, he will be able to be resilient when he errs. However, one who sees himself as a complete failure will lack the willpower necessary to bounce back from his inevitable failings.

          Rabbi Yisrael Reisman relates that on occasion a yeshiva student cries to him about struggles he has viewing inappropriate things on the internet whenever he comes home for yeshiva for bain hazmanim[10]. Rabbi Reisman notes that the first thing he discusses with the young man is the perspective he must have. If he sees himself as a wicked sinner, he doesn’t have much chance overcoming such a formidable challenge. He needs to realize the truth – that he is a worthy and aspiring ben Torah, albeit who has a serious problem which must be addressed. The negative behaviors he has committed, although spiritually damaging, do not negate all the good he has accomplished and is accomplishing. Only when that perspective is clear, can they proceed by formulating a plan of action and rectification.
          Psychologists note that a person acts in accordance with how he views himself. If I see myself as a good person, I’ll act accordingly, and vice versa. If someone asks a person to perform an act of kindness when its inconvenient for him to do so, his decision to do so or not is very much connected with whether he views myself as “that type of guy” or not. In fact, we act differently in the same situation when different people are involved, because being with certain people may elicit different senses of identity than others.
          The prerequisite for Yom Kippur is the perspective that, despite our sins and mishaps, we are inherently pure and pristine. That in no way exonerates us from rectifying the sins we have committed. However, it does remind us that we are not repenting because we are lowly sinners, but rather because we maintain our sense of greatness and ability to reconnect with our internal greatness.
          “The two goats of Yom Kippur were to be equal”
          “The righteous fall seven times, and get up”

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

[1] Adapted from the derasha delivered in Kehillat New Hempstead, Yom Kippur eve 5773, after Kol Nidrei.
[2] Avos 2:13
[3] Mishna Yoma 6:1
[4] Vayikra 16:10
[5] Derasha l’Shabbos Shuva
[6] That was why the brothers dipped the tunic of Yosef in goat’s blood when they wanted to make Yaakov think Yosef was killed.
[7] "הרי כשהכהן מכניס את דמו לבית קה"ק הרי הוא מכניס בזה את עצם חיותינו לשם והוא מצרף את חיינו לפני ולפנים"
[8] Mishlei 24:16
[9] Sifsei Chaim – Moadim volume 3, page 9
[10] Yeshiva vacation

Thursday, September 26, 2019


          It’s the first day of the new z’man[2] and the new Mashgiach[3] is addressing the yeshiva students for the first time. He explains to them that the yeshiva will be implementing a k’nas (monetary fine) system for students who come late or miss shachris in the yeshiva. One who misses one day would be fined five dollars, twice would be fined ten dollars, and a third time would have to pay twenty dollars.
          At that point, one student stood up and publicly asked, “Rabbi, how much for a season’s pass?”    
          Contrary to what people may think, the celestial courts do not judge us based on a point system. It’s not merely about keeping track of everything we did[4]. In a marriage, “keeping score” is a relationship killer. More significantly, the question is about how much one desires and strives to connect with G-d.  

          The mitzva of Rosh Hashanah is to hear the shofar. Ultimately, we perform the mitzva simply because the Torah instructs us to do so.[5] Still, it helps us to connect with the mitzvah when we understand how to emotionally and logically understand and relate to it.
          The Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as “Yom Teruah – a day of (shofar) blasts”[6], which Onkelos translates as “Yom Yabava – a day of weeping.”[7] The gemara also relates that our custom to blow one hundred blasts of the shofar is symbolic of the one hundred cries that the mother of Sisra wept when she found out that her son was killed in his battle against the Jews.[8]
          Rambam[9] writes that the Shofar is symbolic of a spiritual wake-up call, for us to shake ourselves out of our lethargy and to reconnect ourselves with what really matters in life.
          There is a completely different dimension of the shofar which depict it as blasts that celebrate and mark the coronation of the king. In that sense, shofar blowing elicits a feeling of happiness and celebration.
          Rabbi Chaim Volozhin writes about his rebbe, the Vilna Gaon[10]: “Our Rebbe rejoiced tremendously during the time of the blowing of the shofar. He also would say that one should be in a state of joy and exultation analogous to a country proclaiming a new king and placing the crown upon his head. During the blowing of the shofar we too are proclaiming the Kingship of G-d throughout the worlds that we are part of.”
          On the one hand, the shofar elicits feelings of sadness and brokenness and downright weeping, it is also meant to provoke feelings of urgency to pay heed to the values of life. Yet, on the other hand, it evokes feelings of unbridled joy and celebration. How can such diverse dichotomous emotions be reconciled?
Dr. David Lieberman notes[11]:
“Why can’t people admit that they were wrong?
It boils down to one word: EGO!
The ego wants to protect its self-image. The more genuine self-esteem and more appreciation one has for himself, the smaller the ego.
People think ego is synonymous with self-esteem. In reality however, the opposite is true. The ego is the false self, in contrast to the real self. The less I appreciate me and the less I like me and accept me and acknowledge me, the greater will be my ego to compensate for those personal feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.
It’s very hard for one who is ego-oriented to admits faults to themselves or to others, because doing so would acknowledge weakness and a low self-esteem cannot handle that.
Only a person who has a healthy self-esteem can acknowledge mistakes and thereby move forward.
One who cannot admit to being wrong will always be looking for outsiders to tell them how right and wonderful they are. To such a person being right is more of an emotional priority than doing right!
At times such a person will act against his own self-interest because he needs to prove to himself that he is correct. He’ll twist and contort opinions and viewpoints, even at his own expense, just so he can say that he was right.
The bottom line is that we all want to feel valuable and worthy. If it’s not coming from an internal healthy sense of self-esteem it will have to come from outside validation. If so, then when we make mistakes, we will rather hurt ourselves by proving that we are correct than to help ourselves by admitting and fessing up to a mistake. Our ego just cannot handle it. The pain of accepting that I did something wrong is just too great. I’d rather become angry at you – anything to avoid the debilitating pain of acknowledging mistake.

          When one is a child, he feels and dreams that he can be anything. Ask a child and he will tell you that when he grows up, he will be a policeman, a fireman, and an ambulance man. As one travels the roads of life however, he comes to a painful realization that ultimately, not every road is open to him. More significantly, he is not in control of the events that transpire in the world or even in his own life.
          Some people come to that realization earlier than others, depending on their life experiences and emotional maturity. Others may only come to that sobering understanding during their final moments on earth. But it is a truth that no one can escape from.
          Life forces upon us the realization that, “To Hashem is the world and everything that fills it[12]”.
          A friend related that on one occasion, he and his wife feared that one of his younger children had ingested a medication which could be very dangerous for a young child. After he and his wife brought him to the Emergency Room, the doctor insisted that he would need twenty-four surveillance. An IV was inserted into the child’s arm, and he was transported via an ambulance to a children’s hospital.
          In the end, thankfully everything was completely fine. But the father related that while in the ambulance his son, strapped down to a stretcher, looked up at his father with pleading eyes, not understanding what was happening to him. When his wife met them at the hospital, and he was able to walk away from his son’s bed, he broke down. The feeling of utter helplessness to help his son was overwhelming.
          The shofar elicits within us feelings of helplessness. Like the mother of Sisra, who could do nothing to bring back her dead son, we are not in control over the events of our lives. That’s the penetrating and painful “cry” of the shofar.  
          So where is there room for joy when confronting such a painful truth?

          R’ Ephraim Wachsman recounted that he was at a wedding where Rabbi Moshe Goofitz[13], a son-in-law of the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, related the following story:
          Rabbi Goofitz’s son is a maggid shiur in Eretz Yisroel. Every night a group of successful, semi-retired American businessmen come to learn with great enthusiasm. Over time, they finished a masechta and made a siyum. They were a wealthy group and brought expensive drinks. After a few l’chaims one fellow related his story:
          “My parents were survivors. They came to America with nothing. They totally cast-off religion and wanted to have nothing to do with it. I was born in America and the only thing Jewish that I had was a b’ris milah. I didn’t even have a bar mitzvah. My parents spoke Yiddish, so I knew Yiddish and read Yiddish newspapers, but that was the extent of my connection to Judaism.
          “Time went on and I fell in with a bad crowd who were doing illegal things. I had two non-Jewish partners and I became very wealthy. One day we had a meeting in a restaurant to close a tremendous deal with a few individuals involving illegal means. I walked into the restaurant a free man, and walked out in handcuffs. It was a setup – a sting operation by FBI agents. They had been investigating us and had taped the entire conversation. I was in my early twenties and facing a serious jail sentence and had no idea what to do.
          “One of my partners skipped bail and I never heard from him again. The other turned state’s evidence and agreed to talk. He revealed what I did and got a lesser sentence, and left me facing a sentence of twenty-five years.
          “I didn’t know what to do. I went to most expensive lawyers in Manhattan. When I told a bigwig lawyer my story, he replied that it doesn’t look good. They had me on tape and other incriminating evidence. Still, he said he would do his best. I had to put down a retainer of tens of thousands of dollars.
          “One day, I was walking down the Manhattan streets shivering and crying the whole way. I walked all the way to the east side. I felt hungry so I walked into a diner and ordered a coffee. I was sitting at the table and crying into my coffee.
          “Suddenly an old Jew walks in and sits down next to me. He looks at me and says, “Vats yer problem?” I look at him and asked him what he knows about problems. He rolls up his sleeve and shows me the numbers on his arm and says “I know all about problems. What’s yours?”  So I told him my whole story. He was a bright man and understood my predicament. He told me that I didn’t need a lawyer; I needed a rebba!
          “I didn’t know anything about a Rebba, but I followed him to an apartment building and up six flights to the apartment of the late Skolya Rebbe zt’l. I knew Yiddish so I could converse with the Rebbe, and I poured out my heart to him with tears flowing.
          “The rebbe listened and when I finished, he smiled and said, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. On the day of the trial you should know that your lawyer will come late but don’t be nervous, it will all work out.”
          “On day of court date, everyone was there, including FBI agents. But inexplicably, my lawyer wasn’t there. I could tell that the judge was getting edgy and upset. Finally, the court received message that my lawyer missed his flight and couldn’t make it, but he was sending a replacement momentarily. 
          “I couldn’t believe it. I was facing 25 years in prison and my lawyer sent a substitute. At around 10 am a young man, maybe 21 years old, bursts in jovially and announced that he was sent to represent me. I nearly fainted.
          “The prosecution presented their case along with their evidence. Then the young lawyer stood up and started preaching. After five minutes no one knew what he was talking about. He kept going for almost an hour, rambling on and on. The judge looked very annoyed, and I was bracing for the worst. At long last, my “lawyer” finished. Immediately the judge looked up in a huff and began shouting at the FBI agents and the prosecution, “What’s the matter with you guys? This is how you present a case? You have no concrete evidence. Case dismissed!” 
          “I walked out in shock. I called over the lawyer and asked him what he said. He admitted this was his first case. I couldn’t believe it, until he added that the judge was his grandfather.
          “I went back to the rebbe and asked him how he knew that would happen. He replied, “How I know is not your concern. But one thing I know when someone does you a favor you owe them a favor back.”
          “I agreed and the rebbe continued, “I’m not asking you to keep Shabbos or become religious. I am only asking that you put on tefillin every day!”
          “Putting on tefillin every day was a lot better than being in jail for twenty-five years, so I agreed. But when I went to purchase tefillin, the owners of the seforim stores took one look at me and refused to seell tefillin to me. Then one storeowner told me that if I would go to Crown Heights to a Rabbi Jacobson and learn all about tefillin then he’ll sell me a pair afterwards.
          “I did so and began wearing tefillin every day, and here I am now a religious Jew and my children are learning in kollel.

            The joy of the shofar is in the knowledge that the awesome judgement being meted out by the Supreme King, is my Father! The shofar which proclaims the eternal monarchy of G-d, is blown and heard by us! We are the ones who coronate the Almighty, and that can infuse a person with incredible joy.
          Ultimately, we are powerless over the world and our lives. But there is a Power that does direct the world and our lives, and that Power is our loving Father.
          The process of teshuva is to rebuild and rectify our relationship with G-d, so that we can feel true joy in our connection with Him. If a person feels that he is in control and lives his life with hubris, G-d steps aside, as it were. When the person is confronted with crises, then he’ll recognize his vulnerabilities. 
          That is the dichotomous emotions that the shofar arouses – brokenness stemming from our finitude and puniness, that leads to intense joy in knowing that we are in the Hands of our loving G-d.
          “Praised is the nation who knows the teruah, G-d – by the light of Your Countenance they will go.”[14]  
          The only deficiency with using the aforementioned story as an analogy is, as it has often been said, G-d has no grandchildren!

          “A day of weeping”
          “Joy and exultation… placing the crown upon his head”
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1] Adapted from the derasha delivered at Kehillat New Hempstead, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5776
[2] In the hallowed halls of yeshivos, each semester is called a ‘z’man’.
[3] In yeshivos, the Mashgiach is the spiritual overseer of the students. At times, he is also responsible to discipline recalcitrant students.
[4] Although one is undoubtedly held accountable for every sin he committed and did not do teshuva for.
[5] Gemara Rosh Hashanah 16a
[6] Bamidbar 29:1
[7] See gemara Rosh Hashanah 33b
[8] Shoftim chapter 4
[9] Hilchos Teshuva 3:4
[10] Keser Rosh
[11] from podcast of the Charlie Harary Show – August 29, 2015
[12] Tehillim 24:1
[13] I heard this story from a recorded lecture. I am unsure if I heard the name correctly.
[14]  Tehillim 89:16