Thursday, March 11, 2010


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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When Rabbi Uri Zohar decided to leave behind his previous life of glamour and stardom to become Torah observant, his non-religious friends asked the noted comedian if he could tell them one last joke. He replied by telling them the following1:

One day a secular Israeli police officer noticed two religious yeshiva students driving together on a motorcycle. The officer drove his car behind them looking for a pretense to issue the duo a ticket. To his chagrin, they stopped at every stop sign, adhered to the speed limit, and drove courteously. After a half-hour the cop gave up. He pulled them over and said to them, “I don’t get it. I couldn’t catch you doing anything wrong!” The yeshiva boys replied curtly, “That’s because G-d is with us.” The cop jumped up, “Aha! I’m going to give you a ticket. You have three on a motorcycle!”

Before the Torah begins its discussion about the construction of the Mishkan, its vessels, and the Priestly vestments, the Torah reiterates the laws of Shabbos. The AriZal explains that the sanctity of Shabbos and the sanctity of the Mishkan2 are inextricably bound. The sanctity of Shabbos in the realm of time parallels the sanctity of the Temple in the realm of place/space.

In anticipation of the consecration of the Bais Hamikdash, Dovid Hamelech wrote3, “If G-d will not build a house, for naught have his builders toiled in it.” The commentators explain that Dovid was expressing the idea that, all of man’s efforts not withstanding, the greatest Temple structure contains absolutely no sanctity unless G-d allows His Divine Presence to rest there. It is not the grandeur or opulence of a building which creates holiness, but the Presence of G-d! Therefore even if they will construct an august Temple, if G-d will not accede to rest his Presence there, as it were, all of their efforts were futile.

In a similar vein, when the construction of the Mishkan was completed the Torah says4, “Moshe saw the entire work, and behold! They had done it as G-d had commanded, so they had done! And Moshe blessed them.” Rashi records the vernacular of Moshe’s blessing: “May it be the Will that the Divine Presence rest amongst your handiwork.” Moshe too expressed this same sentiment, that even after all of their painstaking efforts, the construction would not achieve its goal unless the Divine Presence rested there.

This seems like an extraordinary concept. Is it possible to have a Bais Hamikdash without the Divine Presence? Could “G-d’s House” exist without His Divine Presence?

As mentioned, the holiness of Shabbos parallels the holiness of the Temple. Thus the question extends to Shabbos as well. Is it possible for there to be a Shabbos without holiness? Could “G-d’s day” be lacking G-d’s Presence?

During one of his lectures about the sanctity of Shabbos, Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus zt’l related what he feels is the biggest issue that the contemporary Torah world faces. He explained that the Torah world today is particular to perform mitzvos with incredible beauty and stringency. We procure beautiful esrogim, our matzah is made with all levels of stringency, we wear quality tefillin, and have beautiful Menorahs for Chanukah. We have more yeshivos and individuals studying Torah today than we have ever had during the exile. From an outside vantage point the Torah world is thriving. But there is one area in which we are severely remiss. We have created a Judaism without G-d! Despite all of our precision and devotion to all facets of Torah observance, G-d is often left out. In the vernacular of Rabbi Pinkus, “We have cultivated a Judaism from which we have left Hashem out of the equation.”

The tragic irony that sometimes we are so busy serving G-d that we forget about G-d. The concept of prayer, for example, should be viewed as an opportunity to simply ‘talk to G-d’. When one prays with devotion and concentration and pictures himself standing before the Almighty Who is fully concentrating on his prayer, it fosters within him a feeling of closeness with G-d. But very often even while we are praying we don’t pay attention to whom we are praying!

Rabbi Pinkus related an anecdote about Rabbi Avrohom Farbstein5, one of the Roshei yeshiva of the famed Chevron Yeshiva. Rabbi Farbstein was a skilled orator and would travel and lecture about living a Torah life to eclectic audiences. He had a decent command of the English language and was careful to translate all the verses and statements he quoted into English.

On one occasion he delivered a very powerful lecture to a crowd of unaffiliated Jews in America. After the lecture a fellow approached him and told him, “Rabbi I want you to know that I really appreciated your lecture and I was emotionally moved by what you said. You really touched my heart and inspired me. However, there was one word you didn’t translate although you repeated it quite a few times during your lecture. What is ‘Hakadoshbaruchhu’6?”

Rabbi Pinkus noted that our Torah observance is somewhat analogous to that man’s understanding of the lecture. We love to perform the mitzvos and be involved in all of the beautiful rituals endemic to Torah observance. But we often forget to contemplate and think about ‘Hakadoshbaruchhu’.

Rabbi Pinkus continued, “We have too much love in our lives! We love our homes, we love our cars, we love our phones, and we love our refrigerator. I didn’t even realize how much I loved my refrigerator until it broke down. Then I realized how attached I was to it and how much it meant to be.”

When we love so many things we cannot think about the more important things that we really love, such as our families, and G-d. The greatness of Shabbos is that on Shabbos everything ceases. On Shabbos there is no phone, no car, no building a house, and no turning on an air conditioner. On Shabbos there is nothing but G-d Himself! On Shabbos we turn off our love for everything else so that we can focus on our love for G-d.

But the tragedy is that one can observe Shabbos and miss this integral point. He can be so involved in the additives of Shabbos – the cholent and kugel, the extra sleep, the family time, and even the melodious prayers - that he doesn’t stop to appreciate that all of those beautiful things are only means to a much higher and important end. That ‘end’ is G-d Himself, Who is truly the beginning and the end!

Prior to the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash the prophets warned the nation that they had forgotten G-d. The Temple itself had become a place of Service to G-d without paying attention to G-d Himself. The prophet Yeshayah expressed G-d’s indignation with the nation’s heartless Service. “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? Says G-d – I am satiated with elevation-offerings of rams and the choicest of fattened animals; and the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats I do not desire.7” The nation would only use the best animals for its offerings, but G-d proclaimed that it was all meaningless because their hearts were not in it.

A few verses later the prophet lamented about their Shabbos observance as well. “You shall not continue to bring Me a worthless meal-offering – incense of abomination is it unto Me; New Moon and Shabbos, callings of convocation, I cannot abide mendacity with assemblage.” Their Shabbos too had become a G-dless experience, despite the fact that they may have still been particular to adhere to the letter of the law.

Today in exile, we no longer have a central Bais Hamikdash. But we have shuls and Batei Medrash8, which play a central role in our lives and observance. The pitfall that our ancestors fell into then is not very different from the challenge we face. Our shuls cannot only be houses of study and prayer. More importantly, they must be places of connection and devotion to G-d!

We are analogous to people who travel to the palace of the king and marvel at the intricate architecture of the physical structure. The guests gawk at the lavishness and beauty of the chambers, and are enthralled by the might of the king. They are delighted to have the opportunity to take part in the elaborate rituals associated with the service of the king. But then they leave without ever meeting the king himself. That is surely an affront to the king!

The blessing of Moshe and the statement of Dovid Hamelech serves as a reminder that ultimately it is not the buildings we build or the services we perform that create holiness, but G-d’s Divine Presence.

The final of the four special Torah readings read during the weeks prior to Pesach is Parshas Hachodesh. The twenty verse reading begins with the words, “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” The following eighteen verses discuss the laws of the offering of the Paschal Lamb offered just prior to the onset of the Pesach holiday.

It is intriguing that the title of the reading is named after the second verse, when most of the reading has nothing to do with the title9. The commentators explain that the point of the Paschal Lamb, as well as the entire Pesach holiday, is to infuse us with encouragement and excitement because it is a time of renewal.

The renewal which we refer to is not in ritual or performance, for we continue to do the same things we have been doing until now (even the Paschal lamb is repeated from the year before). Rather the renewal is internal; emotional renewal of one’s feeling of connectedness and devotion to his Creator. The holiday of Pesach is a celebration of G-d’s love for us, and our role is to embrace that love and appreciate it.

Parshas Vayakhel and Pekudei record the actual construction of the Mishkan. Before commencing its recording of the building the Torah reminds us about the holiness of Shabbos.

Both of these integral mitzvos are connected in the sense that they are primarily granted as a means for connection with G-d. We must always ensure that we have not left G-d outside of our shuls/Shabbos10.

The reading of Hachodesh reminds us that we can always renew our connection with G-d, for in reality it is not He who obscures that connection, but we. With that renewed level of awareness and devotion we can approach the holiday of Pesach with excitement - not merely in order to perform all of the special rituals and mitzvos unique to that nigh - but more importantly, to feel the emotional connection with G-d that those mitzvos can help us achieve!

“If G-d will not build a house”

“And Moshe blessed them”

1 Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus zt’l repeated this story in Rabbi Zohar’s name. He prefaced it by saying, “I love this joke.”
2 and subsequently the Bais Hamikdash in Yeryshalayim
3 Tehillim 127:1
4 Shemos 39:43
5 1917-1997; as a youth he learned in the Mirrer yeshiva in Europe. He married the daughter of Harav Yecheskel Sarna zt’l
6 Hakadosh Baruch Hu – the Holy One, blessed is He
7 Yeshayah 1:11 [This verse is from the haftorah of Shabbos Chazon, read the Shabbos prior to Tisha BAv.]
8 Synagogues and Houses of Study
9 “Hachodesh” means ‘the month’; the letters also form the word ‘hachadash- the new one’ referring to the fact that Nissan, the first of the months, is a time of new beginning
10 Perhaps this is part of the reason why we have the custom to recite an added prayer of kabbolas Shabbos – acceptance of Shabbos. Before we embrace the holiness of Shabbos we need to take a few minutes to mentally prepare ourselves for this great occasion. We need to realize that Shabbos in not just a day with added laws, but it is a different experience completely; a day of connection with G-d Himself!


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