Friday, October 9, 2020

PARSHAS V'ZOS HABRACHAH

 

"STAM TORAH - TANKE FRA KOBENHAVN"

PARSHAS V'ZOS HABRACHAH

"LIFE WITHOUT END"[1]

 

          The Chassidic Master, Rav Boruch of Mezhibozh would say: "I may appear to be ninety-six years old, but in truth I am merely three young men of thirty-two."

 

          For forty years Moshe had led Klal Yisroel.

          For forty years Moshe had dealt with every need of the Jewish people.

          For forty years he led his flock with incredible dedication and love.

          For forty years his unparalleled leadership never faltered, despite ceaseless complaints and challenges.

          And now at the foot of Eretz Yisroel, Moshe was informed that that he was going to die. "And Moshe the servant of Hashem died there, by the word of Hashem in the land of Moav...Moshe was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his vision did not dim and his freshness did not wither.”[2]

          It is axiomatic that every letter of the Torah is measured and timeless. Why does the Torah inform us that Moshe's physical capabilities did not diminish at the time of his death?

          Rav Shmuel Rozovsky zt’’l was a noted scholar and Torah leader. He delivered a popular daily shiur in the Ponovezher Yeshiva in B’nei B’rak. During his final Succos, just prior to his death, he sat weakly in his succah, knowing that his life was ebbing away. He requested that he be brought a talis so that he would be able to recite the bracha one last time.

          As it was being brought, he told those around him the famous words of the Vilna Gaon. As the Vilna Gaon he lay on his deathbed, there were tears streaming down his cheeks. His students sought to comfort him by reasoning that he surely had no reason to fear the imminent celestial judgement. He had lived his life with incredible righteousness. The Gaon replied that the reason he was crying was because he was leaving a world where, for just a few coins, he could purchase a pair of tzitzis and earn himsslf eternal reward just for donning them.

          Rav Shmuel Rozovsky continued that often, as one grows old and begins to weaken, he begins to lose his spark and vivaciousness for life. He is no longer able to act the way he did or accomplish things that were once second nature to him. That loss may cause him to feel morose and like he is a living burden on others.

          One who focuses on his soul, however, never feels he has nothing left to live for. does not have this difficulty. Even until one takes his last breath he can think about G-d and raise himself to even greater spiritual levels.

          “The Vilna Gaon was such a man”, explained Rav Shmuel. “His sole objective and motive in this world was to increase the honor of Hashem. Therefore, when he realized his end was near it pained him. He recognized that he would no longer be able to bring honor to Hashem, and therefore he wept.”

          Perhaps, this is the idea that the Torah is conveying to us about Moshe Rabbeinu. The Torah eulogizes Moshe as the ‘servant of Hashem’[3]. His every move was only to increase the glory of G-d. Moshe accomplished this feat to such a degree that it actually became part of his very existence. Moshe actually became the master of his breath and had full control over his life. The evil inclination had no dominance over Moshe for as long as Moshe served Hashem, he gave himself new life and added strength. It was only because Hashem Himself removed Moshe’s soul that he physically died.  This is the message that the pasuk is trying to impress on us: If one lives a spiritual life, his old age will not seem like a curse but rather the greatest of blessings. He will come to a new understanding of life that is not bound to physical limits but rather can be an opening to spiritual infinity.

          Moshe Rabbeinu was a hundred and twenty years old. He had gone through a complete life full of difficulties and frustrations. Yet he still retained his vigor and strength. His goal and desire in life was not completed until he had breathed his last breath and therefore until then his vision did not dim, and his freshness did not whither.     

 

           Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l, the beloved Torah-leader of the previous generation, compeltely dedicated his life to serving Hashem and His people. Just a few hours before Purim 5746/1986, Rabbi Moshe lay in an ambulance speeding off to the hospital. He declared in Yiddish, “Ich hob mehr nisht kein koach- I have no more strength”. Those were to be his final words.

          As long as he had another ounce of strength, he continued his life’s work. It was only when his last remaining strength was depleted that he closed his eyes and left this world.

 

          Over the last week and a half that I have been here in Copenhagen, I have had some unforgettable experiences and have met some extraordinary individuals. However, I think the most touching story was that of ‘Gavriel’. Gavriel visits the Copenhagen Jewish Academy each day and helps clean the building. He walks around with a warm smile, singing an upbeat tune, and making warm comments to each student. On the second day of Succos, as we walked together through the beautiful streets of Copenhagen, he told me his story:

          Gavriel was born and raised on a kibbutz in Eretz Yisroel with no connection or knowledge of Torah. There on the kibbutz, he married a non-Jewish Danish woman. After a few years, they left Eretz Yisroel together to move back to her native country of Denmark. One day as he was walking with his wife holding her hand in the streets of Copenhagen, he saw an old, holy looking angelic Rabbi. Gavriel paused to look at me as he told me his story and said, “I am not crazy, but I promise you the Rabbi had a shine from his face which struck a chord within me.” He pushed away his wife and ran over to the Rabbi, begging for a blessing. The Rabbi acquiesced and then continued on his way.

          A few weeks later on Rosh Hashanah, Gavriel asked his wife where he could find a synagogue. On these few holy days, he had always gone to the synagogue and he wanted to continue his custom. His wife told him about the famous local shul in Copenhagen, a majestic building, and Gavriel davened there on the first day. After davening, one of the congregants approached him and told him that he had noticed Gavriel’s devotion and concentration during davening. However, his long hair and untraditional dress showed that Gavriel was not too familiar with the services and unusual prayers. The congregant suggested that Gavriel go to the other shul for the next day’s tefilos where others would help him with the davening.

          Gavriel followed the advice and the next day traveled to the second shul. When he walked in, he immediately noticed the shining face of that same Rabbi he had seen on the street weeks earlier. After davening, Gavriel followed the Rabbi home and knocked on his door. The Rabbi opened the door with a tremendous smile and welcomed Gavriel in. Gavriel, who told me that he is emotionally very strong and never cries, was overcome by inner feelings and burst into tears in front of the Rav. They sat and talked for some time and arranged to learn every day.

          Gavriel’s eyes lit up as he told me “For a few years I had the opportunity to learn one-on-one with one of the Gedolei Haodr.”

          The Rabbi was Rabbi Moshe Jacobson zt”l who led the Copenhagen community for many years. That learning seder was the key to Gavriel’s becoming a ba’al teshuvah and his inspiration to accept Torah and mitzvos despite the fact that it was very difficult for him.

 Unfortunately, Rav Jacobson passed away two months ago and I did not have the merit to meet him. It struck me that Rav Jacobson’s pure and holy countenance had such a profound effect on a wayward Jew.  [Gavriel is no longer married to the Danish woman and hopes to move back to Eretz Yisroel and enroll in a yeshiva soon.]

Rav Jacobson was already an older man when Gavriel first saw him walking on the streets of Copenhagen. Denmark does not boast a large Jewish community and aside for the fairly small Jewish congregation in Copenhagen, Rav Jacobson possessed no overwhelming position; yet his face shone with an appreciation for life and love of Torah.

Great people seem to always maintain their spirit of youth, even when they are physically advanced in years.

As we conclude the Torah, we proclaim that Moshe’s strength was unwavering for his every day bore new levels and growth. The moment we complete the Torah we restart it. This is the essence of spiritual life. There are always new opportunities and new ventures to deal with. Until the final heartbeat when one’s strength is completely gone, his responsibility to Torah and Klal Yisroel continues.

 

              CHAZAK CHAZAK V’NISCHAZEK!!!

 

 

               

 



[1] This d’var Torah was written on Chol Hamoed Succos, October 2010. That year I had the fascinating experience of spending Succos in Copenhagen, Denmark. At the time there was a yeshiva there for Russian students, led by Rav Mike Jacobs (now Mashgiach in Medrash Shmuel in Yerushalayim). Each year for Succos, the yeshiva would fly a few yeshiva bochurim to Copenhagen to help infuse some ruach in the yeshiva for the Yom Tov. I have left the text largely how I wrote it then.

[2] Devorim 34:5,7

[3] Devorim 34:5

Thursday, January 30, 2020

PARSHAS BO 5780


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS BO 5780
“BEYOND THE CALL”[1]

           A couple gets married amidst tremendous joy and excitement. A few weeks later they have their first argument. The young husband leaves home to learn in his Kollel very upset. He thought married life would be blissful, and now just a few weeks after getting married they already had a major spat.
          The Mashgiach notices immediately that something is wrong. He approaches the young man and asks if he could help. When told him about the argument, the Mashgiach smiled knowingly and replied that on his way home, he should stop at the local florist, and buy his a bouquet of flowers, which he should present to his wife when he arrives home.
          The man did as he was told. When he walked into his house holding the bouquet, his wife’s eyes lit up and filled with tears. He handed her the bouquet and said, “the Mashgiach told me to give these to you!”

          Nine plagues ravaged Egypt, yet Pharaoh remained obdurate in his refusal to recognize G-d and admit to his folly and error.
          G-d informed Moshe, “One more plague I shall bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall send you forth from here... Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request of his fellow and each woman from her fellow silver vessels and gold vessels.”[2] Rashi comments, “‘Please speak’ is an expression of request. G-d said to Moshe, ‘I request of you Moshe to direct Klal Yisroel carefully regarding this (to ask the Egyptians for their wealth) so that that righteous man Avrohom should not say, "He (G-d) fulfilled the decree: “They will enslave them and they will afflict them”[3] but He did not fulfill the second part of the decree, “And afterwards they will depart with great possessions”.”
          Why would Avrohom particularly have a complaint if G-d had not fulfilled the promise about wealth? If G-d had promised it, every Jew should justifiably have the same complaint? In addition, why would G-d only fulfill His word so that Avrohom shouldn’t have a complaint; wouldn’t be expect no less from any honest person?
          Hashem had promised wealth to the children of Avrohom after four hundred years of slavery. The nation was now gearing up for the exodus one hundred and ninety years early. Therefore, G-d was justified in not granting the nation wealth at that time. If they had not yet completely fulfilled the prediction about slavery which was for four hundred years, they were not yet entitled to the fulfillment of the promises of redemption, which included leaving with great wealth.
          However, there was someone who would have a complaint. Avrohom Avinu dedicated his life to performing altruistic and selfless chesed. On the third day after his circumcision when he was a hundred years old and in excruciating pain, Avrohom sat outside in the unbearable heat searching for an opportunity to perform chesed. Such behavior was surely not mandated or expected. But Avrohom lived beyond expectations, always seeking to help others in any way he could.
          Therefore, Avrohom would reason that even if the nation may technically not have deserved the wealth at that point, since this was the time of redemption, G-d should grant it to them anyway. Since Avrohom lived his life beyond obligation, G-d should do no less for his progeny.[4]
          Perhaps this can also explain the words we recite each morning[5]: “You fulfilled Your word, for You are righteous. You observed the suffering of our forefathers in Egypt and their outcry You heard at the Sea of Reeds.” These words seem troubling - does G-d only fulfill His word because He is righteous?
          The truth is that at the time of the redemption, because the predicted years of servitude were technically not fulfilled G-d was not bound to take Klal Yisroel out of Egypt. But in His righteousness and love for His nation, He hearkened to their cries and did so anyway.
          Our mandate as the descendants of Avrohom is to perform chesed beyond the call of duty, even when inconvenient. Dovid Hamelech states, “Olam chesed yiboneh- A world of kindness you shall build.”[6] Similarly, the Mishna[7] quotes Rabbi Shimon, who described chesed as one of the three pillars that upholds the world. During the generation of Noach when the masses did not consider the feelings of others and did not respect their rights, the world could not endure, and had to be destroyed. Avrohom Avinu taught the world by example to be selfless and caring; he built a world of chesed.

          In the early years of the Lakewood Yeshiva a grandson of the Chofetz Chaim joined the Yeshiva. Some time passed and the Mashgiach, Rabbi Nosson Wachtfogel, noticed that the grandson often came late to davening or missed davening in Yeshiva completely.
          The Mashgiach called the bochur into his office and reprimanded him. "What would your saintly grandfather have said about this?" The young man replied, "Rebbe, I would love to come on time. But there is a woman with several children and every morning as I am about to leave, I hear her children crying. One needs a bottle, another needs help getting to school, and a third can’t tie his shoes. There is no one else to help her and I feel it is my obligation to assist. At times I can still make it to Yeshiva but other times it’s so late that I have to daven somewhere else completely."
          The Mashgiach was touched by his sensitivity. “Who is this woman? Is she a widow? Maybe I can help her too." "Chas V’sholom," replied the grandson, "the woman is my wife!"

          The Aizer Mekudash (55) explains that a Chupah is open on all sides is to symbolize the tent of Avrohom and Sarah which had openings on all four sides, as a sign to travelers that they were always welcome. The goal of marriage is to construct and foster a home built on the foundation of Avrohom and Sarah, with love and selfless devotion.
          The reality is that it is easier to perform chesed outside one’s home where people admire and compliment his kindness. In the privacy of one’s own home, no one is aware of what he does except for his own immediate family. No one is honoring us at a dinner or extolling our praises for making supper, bathing children, doing homework with children, driving carpools, shuttling children to appointments and various other never-ending events, patiently giving time to speak with a child (or spouse) despite having so much to do, striving to be a better parent, waking up for a crying child at 2 a.m. despite having a full schedule the following day, attending parent-teach conferences (that can be unpleasant or uncomfortable), or for shedding copious tears davening for our children. That’s exactly why the ultimate chesed is what we do in our own home. We need to remind ourselves that we are living lives of chesed, especially when it doesn’t seem or feel that way.

          Please speak in the ears of the people”
          “A world of kindness you shall build”


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] Shemos 11:1-2
[3] Bereishis 15:14
[4] I heard this idea from my rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Heimowitz
[5] In the paragraph of וכרות עמו הברית  at the end of פסוקי דזמרה, from Nechemia 9:8
[6] Tehillim 89:3
[7] Avos 1:2

Thursday, January 23, 2020

PARSHAS VAERA 5780


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS VAERA 5780
“DRINK OF ETERNITY”[1]

           In November 1974, Yassir Arafat, placed a pistol on the lectern of the UN podium and declared: "We have entered the world through its widest gate. Now Zionism will get out of this world- and from Palestine in particular- under the blow of the people’s struggle. We shall never stop until we can go back home, and Israel is destroyed. The goal of our struggle is the end of Israel, and there can be no compromise or meditations. We don’t want peace, we want victory. Peace for us means Israel’s destruction, and nothing else." 

          On the wall of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel, there is a quote from Jakob Wasserman, a noted author. In 1921 he wrote: “I am both - and equally - a German and a Jew and one must not separate one from the other."
          History would prove him wrong - very wrong!

      After 210 years of unbearable oppression and slavery, Hashem instructed Moshe that redemption was imminent. Hashem utilized four different expressions when describing the stages of redemption: "Therefore, say to the Children of Israel: ‘I am Hashem, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I shall take you to Me for a people and I shall be a G-d to you."[2]
      Seforno explains that the four expressions of redemption represent different levels of redemption. "I shall take you out" was accomplished when the plagues began, and the nation was ‘taken out’ of physical servitude. “I shall rescue you" was accomplished when Klal Yisroel physically left the confines of Egypt at the time of the exodus. "I shall redeem you" was achieved at Kerias Yam Suf when the army of Egypt was eradicated. The climactic point of, "I shall take you" was accomplished at Har Sinai when Klal Yisroel accepted the Torah and became the Chosen Nation.  
          At the Pesach Seder, we drink four cups of wine, to commemorate those four expressions of redemption.
          The question is why we specifically drink four cups of wine to commentate the four expressions? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to have four matzahs on the Seder table?              Meshech Chochma explains that more than any other food or drink, wine symbolizes the uniqueness of a Jew. A bottle of wine may not be touched by a Non-Jew, otherwise it is forbidden for a Jew to drink that wine. For that reason, wine must be supervised from the time its produced until its consumption. In addition, the Gemara[3] states when Haman maligned the Jewish people to Achashveirosh he said that the Jews, "eat, drink, and mock the throne. If a fly would fall into one of their glasses, they would spill out the fly and drink the wine. But if my master, the king, would touch their glass of wine, they would spill it on the ground and not drink it." 
          G-d redeemed our ancestors from Egypt solely so that they would serve Him. When G-d appeared to Moshe in the burning bush during their first encounter, G-d told him, "This is the sign that I have sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship G-d on this mountain (i.e. Har Sinai)."[4]
          The purpose of the redemption from Egypt was so that the nation could come to Sinai and accept the Torah, and thereby become “a rose among thorns"[5], and "a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation"[6].
          Being that the purpose of the exodus was to elevate them into a holy and unique nation, it is appropriate to commemorate the redemption which culminated with “I will take you to Me as a nation” at Har Sinai, on wine which symbolizes that uniqueness and separateness.
          During the Seder, we recite the beloved paragraph, ‘והיא שעמדה’ - in which we note that despite the fact that in every generation we have encountered enemies who seek to destroy us, we have always prevailed because Hashem has saved us from their hands.
          While reciting this paragraph, it is customary to raise the cup of wine. Generally, we only lift the cup of wine when we recite a blessing on it. Why should we lift the cup now in the middle of recounting the exodus?  
          The paragraph begins: “It is this that has stood by our fathers and us”. Simply, “this” refers to G-d’s promise and assurance that He would preserve us. That promise has stood by us in all generations. But it can also refer to the cup of wine in our hands. We lift the cup and declare “it is this” - this cup of wine, which symbolizes our uniqueness - “that has stood by our fathers and for us.” We have survived and thrived because we never forgot the lesson of wine which symbolizes that we are unique from the rest of the nations.[7]
          Tragically, it is when we have forgotten who we are that our enemies have reminded us. There is an adage that “when the Jews try to make kiddush with the goyim, the goyim make havdalah”[8]. When we try to be just like them, they remind us that we aren’t just like them.
          Rabbi Berel Wein relates that the last 2500 people gassed in Auschwitz were people whose great grandparents converted to Christianity. We may try to forget who we are, but G-d will always remind us.         
          In 1897, Mark Twain wrote in Harpers’ magazine: "If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought never be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contribution to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor; then faded to dream stuff and passed away; the Greeks and the Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"
          The answer to Mark Twain’s question is symbolized by the cup of wine. The secret of our immortality lies in the eternal covenant G-d made with our ancestors that we are, and will always be, His Chosen nation.    

          I shall take you to me for a people”
          “It is this that has stood by our fathers and us”


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] Shemos 6:6-7
[3] Megillah 13b
[4] Shemos 3:12
[5] Shir Hashirim 2:1
[6] Shemos 19:6
[7] I heard this thought from my rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Heimowitz
[8] In this adage kiddush is used to symbolize mingling, such as what occurs at a kiddush. Havdala means separation, as in the prayer we recite after Shabbos and Yomim Tovim declaring the separation between the holy day which just ended and the upcoming weekdays.