Thursday, August 25, 2011

RE’EH 5771

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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RE’EH 5771


The peace of a Friday night in Jerusalem was shattered by an eruption of shouting and angry voices. Rabbi Rafael Grossman, the rabbi of a synagogue in Tennessee, peered out his hotel room window and saw a religious Jew blocking a taxi from pulling onto the road. The Israeli taxi driver was leaning out the window, shaking his fist, screaming invectively in response.

Rabbi Grossman went over to the religious Jew and noted that his point about Shabbos had been made and he should not allow the argument to escalate. Then he approached the taxi driver and gently requested that he not speak in such a violent and crass manner. Reaching into the back seat of his car, the driver took out a tallis and siddur and waved them at Rabbi Grossman. "You see this?" he exclaimed. "Tomorrow morning I will go to shul with my children, the way my father took me. I work tonight so I can afford to send my children to religious schools. He thinks he's more religious than I am. He’s wrong; I just don't have any alternative!"

Rabbi Grossman replied that he was moved by the driver’s deep concern for his family’s education. “I would love to get to know you better. Perhaps you and your family can join us at the hotel tomorrow for the Shabbos meal?"

The man was surprised by the expensive offer but Rabbi Grossman reassured him that he would be delighted by his attendance. The taxi driver shook his head and muttered that no one understands him. With that he drove off.

Rabbi Grossman went back to the religious Jew and noted that he should give the taxi driver the benefit of the doubt. But then he invited him to join him for the meal as well. The religious man too declined the offer and left.

The next day, Rabbi and Mrs. Grossman lingered over their meal, hoping that at least one of their guests would show up. They were about to give up when Rabbi Grossman noticed the taxi driver, approaching looking much more relaxed. He explained that he felt Rabbi Grossman was genuine so he and his wife decided to come. He mentioned that they lived far away so it took them some time to walk. Rabbi Grossman was impressed that they had walked, rather than drive.

They sat down and continued the meal together. After a few minutes the religious Jew arrived with his wife and three children.

At first the taxi driver turned away angrily. But with time the atmosphere warmed. The meal lasted for hours in friendly camaraderie.

In due time, the taxi driver and the religious Jew became good friends, and the taxi driver increased his commitment to Torah observance.

Years later, the two families became even closer - when they celebrated the wedding of their children to one another!1

As they camped on the outskirts of the Promised Land, Moshe Rabbeinu reminded the nation that Eretz Yisroel would not tolerate sin, especially idolatry. The nation was obligated to collectively eradicate all traces of idolatry from their midst, and they had to ensure that no one would resort to the idolatry of their predecessors once they entered the Land.

Moshe also warned the nation to be vigilant of false prophets who speak falsely in the name of G-d. There is a specific obligation to scorn anyone who tries to convince him to veer from the path of Torah – even if it’s one’s closest relative.

“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter… entice you secretly saying, ‘Let us go and worship the god of others’… you shall not desire to him and not hearken to him… you shall surely kill him…”2

Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch shlita explains the Torah states that your brother is ‘the son of your mother’ to caution a person not to fall into the trap of the one who tries to ensnare him to sin in a warm, motherly manner. This is the spiritually pernicious danger of one who tries to convince his friend that it is integral for his wellbeing for him to be less observant, or to cease keeping certain mitzvos. He points out the pleasure that he is forfeiting needlessly by observing the Torah. Like a mother wants the best for her child and wants him to be comfortable and successful, the ‘enticer’ tells his friend that he only wants to see him happy.

It is to such arguments that the Torah warns, “You shall not desire to hearken to him.” Rashi explains that the Torah is admonishing him not to even want to hear his friend out. “Although the Torah commands ‘And you shall love your friend like yourself’, this person you shall not love.” Such a person is particularly wily and perilous for he seems to genuinely care for his friend and his approach is full of love and friendship. But the Torah warns that listening to him will lead to spiritual disaster.

Most of the time, the forces of sin do not appear as malicious and dangerous. In fact, the opposite is true. We are attracted to sin because it seems rosy and enticing. Sin appears innocuous, and even inviting. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to remind ourselves just how damaging and dangerous sin is.

On the flip side, spiritual pursuits sometimes appear banal and trite. This causes people to not realize the spiritual fulfillment and inner joy one has when living a proper life based on Torah values. The reason religion appears that way is because that is often how it is observed. Many people go through the motions, lacking feeling and vitality in their observance, and therefore in a sense is indeed banal.

There is much discussion in the world of psychology about saying ‘no’ to a child, particularly to a toddler. On the one hand, a child must be taught boundaries and cannot be allowed to do anything he wants. However, at times a child is bombarded with the constant ‘no’. It seems anything he touches or goes near is greeted with ‘no’.

One idea is when a child touches something dangerous or fragile, instead of merely saying ‘no’, the parent can move the child to a safer area, or give him something he can play with and say “this is better for you to play with.” Doing so, allows the child to learn limits, albeit without feeling trapped.

If one would ask any person with minimal familiarity of the Torah’s account of creation what was the first thing G-d commanded Adam in Gan Eden, he would probably reply that Adam was forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. However, a careful study of the verse reveals that that is incorrect:

“G-d commanded the man saying, ‘From all the fruits of the tree you shall eat. But from the Tree of Knowledge, of good and bad, you must not eat thereof…’3

G-d’s first instruction to Adam was about what he could eat. Adam was told that the Garden was virtually completely open to him to enjoy to his heart’s content. Only then was he instructed to refrain from eating from the one Tree of Knowledge.

At times Judaism is portrayed as a language of “no”. While indeed we have many restriction and prohibitions to maintain, G-d allows – or rather instructs – us to enjoy His creation, albeit according and within the Torah’s parameters. But the Torah should not be observed, or taught, as a list of prohibitions without first demonstrating how we can enjoy and thrive while leading a Torah life4.

The Ten Commandments too begin with five positive commandments which contain a framework for Torah living. It is only the latter five commandments which contain prohibitions against the most cardinal sins from which one must refrain.

The Torah is our guidebook for life and it must be portrayed as such. It is not a book of “no” but a regimented formula for fulfillment in life, spiritual satisfaction, and meaningful living. One does not foster love of Torah by forcing it onto others, but rather through living by example and exuding the love and joy that a Torah life brings.

“If the son of your mother entices you secretly”

“From all the fruits of the tree you shall eat”

1 Story adapted from "VISIONS OF GREATNESS", by Rabbi Yosef Weiss, CIS Publishers
2 13:7-12
3 Bereishis 2:16-17
4 I heard this thought from Rabbi Yechiel Weberman in the name of my friend and mentor, Rabbi Yehoshua Kohl.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

EIKEV 5771

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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EIKEV 5771


Rabbi Yitzchak Zilber zt’l was a legendary leader of Russian Jewry for over three decades. He remained resolutely firm in his faith and practicing of Torah and mitzvos throughout his arduous years behind the Iron Curtain, even in the brutality of a Russian labor Camp. His autobiography “To Remain a Jew”1 is his incredible account of how he remained faithful to G-d even under the most trying circumstances. It is an incredibly inspiring story of a true unassuming Torah hero. The following is just one anecdote from the myriad recorded in the book:

I managed to relay a message to my wife to buy the smallest pair of tefillin that she could buy in Kazan. In October my wife came to visit me in the camp with the children. Sarah, who was then four years old, was permitted to sit in my lap. The three guards did not take their eyes off us. I knew that one of Sarah’s felt boots contained the tefillin for the arm, while the other contained the tefillin for the head. I sat her down on my knees, putting her legs directly above mine (I wore large felt boots). I held my girl and removed one of her boots. The tefillin fell from her boot into mine. I then maneuvered it under the sole of my foot. I repeated everything with the second shoe. Done!

“The visit came to an end and I was searched. They found nothing. The next task was to arrange a hiding place for my precious tefillin. I scouted the entire camp… finally I came across a barracks that housed a huge pile of torn-up felt boots. There was a place – about 30-40 centimeters wide – that was closed off by a curtain. I said to myself, “Hashem prepared this barracks especially for the storage of my tefillin.” I approached the head of this barracks and said, “Mikhail Ivanovich, I want to live in your barracks… It’s your responsibility to wash the floors and bring six buckets of hot water in the morning and six of them in the evening. I’ll take care of the buckets and I’ll help you wash the floors.

“We closed the deal… Every morning I would put on my tefillin there, hiding them afterwards in my coat pockets. Later I would put my coat in a guarded storage area, where the prisoners kept their valuables… So at 5:30 AM I would take my coat, put on my tefillin, and daven, and then return my coat. What they thought of my comings and goings did not concern me.

“As a result of this use for my coat, during the two years I was in the camp, I always worked outside wearing only my jacket, even during the harsh winters of Tataria, when the temperatures would fall to -5F to -30F. My ears and hands suffered terribly, but I never caught a cold. (However, after I left the camp I dressed very warmly – and caught pneumonia.)”

Every morning we pray2 that G-d grant us, “The light of Your Countenance” and we add, “For with the light of Your countenance You gave us – Hashem, our G-d – the Torah of life and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, life, compassion, and peace.”

In a similar vein, every evening we state, “For it (the Torah) is our life and the length of our days, and in them we will engage day and night.”

Why do we refer to the Torah as ‘the Torah of life’ and ‘our life and the length of our days’? It sounds like a lofty sermonic concept. But what is the depth of that terminology?

The Niagara River is a connecting channel between two Great Lakes, Erie and Ontario. The river eventually flows to the majestic Niagara Falls, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. The rapids above the Falls reach a maximum speed of 25 mph, with the fastest speeds occurring at the Falls – at times up to 68 mph. The deepest section in the Niagara River is just below the Falls where the depth equals the height of the Falls above 170 ft.

When one looks at the mighty Horseshoe Falls, it's difficult to imagine any force strong enough to stop this gigantic rush of water - yet it did stop in 1848.

In March of that year, local inhabitants, accustomed to the sound of the river, were greeted by a strange, eerie silence. Niagara had stopped! For thirty long, silent hours, the river was blocked by ice which became lodged at the source of river. It blocked the channel completely causing the Falls to completely cease to flow. Those who were brave enough walked or rode horses over the rock floor of the channel. Then, with a roar that shook the earth, a solid wall of water, cresting to a tremendous height, curled down the channel and crashed over the brink of the precipice, as Niagara Falls roared back to life.

For six months in the summer and autumn of 1969, Niagara’s American Falls were “de-watered”. The USA Army Corps of Engineers conducted a survey of the falls’ rock face, concerned that it was becoming destabilized by erosion. During that period, while workers cleaned the former river-bottom and drilled test-cores in search of instabilities, a temporary walkway was installed twenty feet from the edge of the dry falls, and tourists were able to explore this otherwise inaccessible landscape.

During that time the water was diverted over the main Horeshoe Falls by way of Ontario Hydro Control dams and turbine tunnels.

Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld zt’l3 explained that for certain types of tumah (ritual impurity)4 one must immerse in ‘mayim chayim – living waters’, i.e. water that emanates from a freshwater spring.

When the gemara discusses the qualifications of mayim chayim it explains that its water must flow uninterrupted. If there is a steady stream that flows from a freshwater spring, but stops once in seventy years it is no longer considered mayim chayim. It is an incredible concept. A spring which bursts forth with uninhibited force but stops for just one day, forfeits its title as mayim chayim, because it lacks the necessary consistency.

If the mighty Niagra Falls ceased to flow for six months a mere 42 years ago that would invalidate it from having the status of mayim chayim5. Mayim Chayim are, by definition, waters that are ‘alive’. In regards to our own physical lives, it is our continuous heartbeat which keeps us alive. Living waters too must flow with vibrancy and unhindered force.

The ultimate definition of life is eternity. Anything less is a form or a microcosm of life, but it is not life itself. The Codex Romanus, Roman Code of Law, which governed the mightiest empire in the world for hundreds of years has had a strong influence on European and American culture. But it is not a ‘living code of laws’ because it is largely no longer applicable.

The Torah however is a book of life itself. It is as applicable now as it was when it was given at Sinai 3,323 years ago. It has never stopped ‘flowing’ and will continue to do so until the end of time.

Moshe Rabbeinu exhorted Klal Yisroel to never forsake the words of the Torah. “Hashem, your G-d, shall you fear, Him shall you serve, to Him shall you cleave, and in His Name shall you swear. He is your praise, and He is your G-d…6

Moshe repeatedly told the nation that as long as they remain steadfast in their Torah observance they would be victorious and successful. “It shall be if you hearken to My commandments that I command you today… then I shall provide… For if you will observe the entire commandment… to love Hashem, your G-d, to walk in His was and to cleave to Him. Hashem will drive out all these nations from before you…7

A stream which gushes like a powerful geyser but stops briefly is not deemed living. Similarly the ‘living Torah’ must encircle our lives and encompass every aspect of the way we live - now and forever.

This is what we refer to when we exclaim that ‘it is life and the length of our days’. It is the consistently overriding force in our lives. It dictates how we live, how we conduct ourselves, how we dress, how and what we eat, who we associate ourselves with, and how we raise our families.

Everything else that seems to be ‘life’ is a farce because it is not eternal. But the Torah and its mitzvos stand the test of time, and its observance connects us with true life.

“The Torah of life”

“Him shall you serve, to Him shall you cleave”

1 Published by Feldheim
2 Final blessing of Shemoneh Esrei
3 “In Search of Greatness: The shmussen of Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld”, Judaica Press
4 See Mikvaos 1:8 – a Metzora and a Zav need to immerse in mayim chayim and mayim chayim must be added to the Parah Adumah mixture. Mayim Chayim is the highest level of purification in that it can be used for all impurities.
5 My intention here is to make a point. One would have to question a halachic authority with expertise in this area to know if the Niagra Falls is really not considered mayim chayim. [Perhaps it’s different if the waters were purposely stopped?] I am also pretty confident that no one is using the Falls for purposes of ritual purification. Just this week there was a tragic story about a young Japanese tourist who fell over at the Falls and was swept over to her death.
6 10:20-21
7 11:13-25

Friday, August 12, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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On January 6, 2011, the Gluck family - a wonderful family in our community and personal friends - celebrated the wedding of their daughter Reina to Yaakov Chaifetz of Brooklyn NY, in Ateres Charna in Spring Valley, NY.

During Shabbos Sheva Berachos I met Mrs. Liz Gluck, the mother of the kallah, walking with her family. After I wished her mazal tov, she excitedly related to me the following extraordinary story:

“During the 1970s a young boy named Shlomo was a student in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. When his father died as a young man, his mother simply could not afford to pay Shlomo’s full tuition. She made an agreement with the administrator of the yeshiva to help the yeshiva in any way she could. She would run fundraisers and help organize the yeshiva dinner, etc.

“Throughout those years she would often remark to Shlomo that she was so touched by how the administrator treated her. He never spoke to her disparagingly or made her feel badly about her predicament. In fact, he always smiled when he saw her and warmly thanked her for all of her efforts, according her tremendous dignity and respect.

“The young Shlomo from the aforementioned story is my husband, Shlomo Gluck. This week our daughter married Yaakov Chaifetz, the son of Rabbi Aryeh Laib Chaifetz, the administrator of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. When our daughter first began to date and someone mentioned Yaakov as a potential shidduch1 for Reina the name resonated and we wondered whether Yaakov was related to Rabbi Chaifetz from Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. When we found out that he was we decided to pursue the shidduch above all else.

Rabbi Chaifetz could never have known that the widow to whom he accorded such respect was the grandmother of his future daughter-in-law!”

The oft-quoted gemara2 relates, “During the second Temple era they were engaged in Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds. So why was it (the second Temple) destroyed? מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חינם - Because there was in it (the generation) sinas chinam - baseless hatred3. This teaches us that baseless hatred corresponds (in severity) to the three (most stringent) sins – idolatry, immorality, and murder.”

It’s been noted many times that, if we are still in exile and the Temple has not yet been rebuilt, it is indicative of the fact that sinas chinam is still rampant among us.

The vernacular of the sages is always very precise. Why did they choose to term disunity ‘sinas chinam’? Anyone engaged in a personal feud or who possesses feelings of enmity or resentment for another sect of Jews will counter that they have a perfectly valid reason for their bad feelings. They may even agree that baseless hatred has a pernicious effect on the Jewish people as a whole. But they will justify themselves by claiming that their hatred is warranted, and therefore surely does not fall into the category of ‘baseless hatred’. The sages could have easily referred to it as ‘disharmony’ or ‘disunity’. Why did they choose to refer to it as ‘baseless hatred’ or ‘hatred for/of nothing’?

We offer three different approaches to this question4:

1. The Chofetz Chaim writes that people only speak loshon hora about others because they fail to realize the greatness of the person they are slandering. If one who was about to speak disparagingly about his neighbor suddenly is informed that one of the leading Torah sages has regular correspondence with that neighbor, he would hesitate before relating his negative remarks. ‘If such a righteous person feels that my neighbor is such a worthy person, perhaps I was wrong about what I surmised about him.’

The Torah5 states, “For you are a holy people to Hashem, your G-d; Hashem, your G-d has chosen you to be for him a treasured people above all the peoples on the face of the earth. Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did G-d desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all the peoples. Rather, because of G-d’s love for you and because He observes the oath that He swore to your forefathers…”

The Chofetz Chaim explains that just as G-d loves each and every Jew unconditionally, we must foster such love for each other, because we are all special and holy. If we appreciate how valuable and precious every Jew is we will view others in a different light, even in the face of their personally vexing shortcomings and idiosyncratic annoyances.

A person does not hate someone he admires and reveres. If we have feelings of hatred for others it is because we view them as ‘a nothing’. We fail to recognize their true value and greatness. That is one meaning of ‘sinas chinam’ – hatred that emanates from nothing, i.e. from viewing others as valueless ‘nothings’, by failing to appreciate them.

2. President Abe Lincoln was once asked why he doesn’t destroy his enemies if he has the ability to do so. He replied that he seeks to build a relationship with his enemies and develop feelings of friendship and camaraderie with his enemies. “If I make my enemies into friends, am I not essentially destroying my enemies?”

We do not hate those we love. We may, at times, become very annoyed, and even angry, with our closet friends. We may even hate what they do and be extremely frustrated with their way of life. But we do not hate them personally.

We only hate people with whom we feel no connection, or a negative connection. Such feelings are termed, sinas chinam – hatred of nothing, because there is nothing, i.e. no relationship between them6. If one is able to build a relationship with the person he dislikes it often helps him uproot negative feelings from his heart.

3. Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon shlita offered the following analogy to explain the detriment of sinas chinam: A teacher was delivering a lesson to his class when he noticed one student playing with his pencil, making a big mess and causing a significant disturbance. The teacher warned the student to put away the pencil but he ignored the teacher. The teacher then walked over to the student, grabbed his hand and slammed it into his desk until the bone literally broke.

The next day the irate parents burst into the classroom screaming at the teacher, “What in the world is the matter with you? You broke our son’s hand for no reason?” The teacher looked up incredulously, “How can you say it was for nothing? I made sure he stopped playing with his pencil didn’t I?!”

Rabbi Salomon explained that everyone understands that although the teacher may technically have had ‘a reason’ for breaking the student’s hand, the punishment was so outlandishly harsh relative to the crime it was for nothing. So too, if we understood how detrimental disunity and enmity is to us as a people, and how much punishment and pain it causes us nationally and globally, all of our reasons would fall by the wayside. Our Sages termed disunity sinas chinam to remind us that there is nothing that justifies enmity among Jews.

This all does not mean that we have to love everything all Jews do. It also does not mean that we don’t have a responsibility to protest – at times loudly – against our brethren when we feel that they are desecrating the Torah. There are also extreme situations when it may not be possible to build a relationship with another person for various reasons. Still-in-all, we must strive to love others as people, simply because they are Jews. If someone’s child was, G-d forbid, acting inappropriately and even humiliatingly, the parent would abhor what the child was doing and denounce his acts. However, the parent would continue to love the child. Every Jew is a child of G-d, our brother and sister.

Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita relates a powerful incredible story which demonstrates the power of peace and unity in protecting us from danger:

There were two women who were involved in personal feud for a number of years. One day one of the women attended a lecture she heard about the importance of peace. She was deeply inspired by what she heard and she decided that the time had come for her to end the feud and make peace. She approached her former rival and told her how much she regretted their long standing quarrel. She explained that it was so important to her that they build a relationship that she was inviting her to her daughter’s wedding which was to take place in a few weeks. The second woman was excited by the invitation, but when she heard the date she replied sadly that she would be unable to attend because she was to have surgery that day.

The first woman was so steadfast that her new ‘friend’ attend that she approached a distinguished Rabbi and asked him if it was appropriate for her to push off the wedding so her friend could attend! The Rabbi replied that, not only was it permissible, but it was laudable for her to do so.

The first woman was indeed able to arrange that the wedding be detained so her friend could attend.

Incredibly, the original date and location of the wedding was the Versailles Wedding Hall in Jerusalem on Thursday, May 24, 2001, the exact time and place of the infamous wedding disaster when the third floor of the four story building collapsed, killing 23 people and injuring 380.7

After recounting on Tisha B’av many of the traumatic suffering we have endured throughout the exile, we read the prophet’s clarion call, “’Console! Console My people!’ says your G-d.” It is a national consolation. We have been made to suffer as a people and therefore we can only be comforted as a people. But that depends on whether we are ready to stand united.

It was baseless hatred that was the catalyst of the destruction of the Temple, and it is unequivocal – and oftentimes underserved – love that will bring it back.

“Because there was baseless hatred”

“For you are a holy people to Hashem”

1 ‘match’ for marriage
2 Yoma 9b
3 Literally “Hatred of/for nothing”
4 From the sefer ‘Otzaros Hatorah –Tisha B’av’
5 Devorim 7:6-8
6 It’s a fairly common experience that one who doesn’t like someone else for whatever reason may voice his feelings to another. Then if he becomes friendlier with the person he vilified prior he will feel badly for everything he said before they became familiar with each other.
7 This story in no way minimizes or detracts from the horrific tragedy during the wedding of Keren and Asaf Dror. However, for the woman in our story, her decision to pursue peace saved her and her family.

Friday, August 5, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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Aharon Barnea, a well-known news anchor in Israeli media, related the following story about a high level Palestinian militant leader named Salah Tamari1:

Tamari was a fierce fighter for the Palestinian cause who was caught after the Israeli Lebanese invasion in 1982. He was subsequently held captive in Israeli prisons for almost two years. As he languished in prison he began to lose heart in his cause. He came to the realization that they would never be successful in dislodging the Jews from their state. He decided that the Palestinians’ best option was to cut a deal with the Israelis and try to garner as much land as they could, and be done with the whole struggle. He shared his views with the thirty fellow terrorists who were inmates with him in the prison.

Then on the first night of Pesach he saw one of the prison guards eating a pita bread sandwich. “Aren’t you Jewish?” he asked the guard. The guard nodded that he was. Salah looked at him incredulously, “Then why are you eating pita? Don’t you know you’re not allowed to eat bread on Passover?”

The guard was momentarily stunned by the question. But he quickly gathered his wits and replied sharply, “I have no obligation to commemorate events that happened to my ancestors over three thousand years ago.”

Salah was absolutely floored. He stayed up all night digesting the magnitude of what he had just heard. The next morning he summoned his comrades and told them what had transpired. “If these people feel no connection to the past, if they are willing to disregard their age-old national traditions, then they have severed their roots to this land. I retract everything I told you before. We must renew our mission with vigor and fortitude. We can be victorious over them. We must fight until we achieve victory. There is no room for compromise. They cannot stop us.”

Chumash Devorim, the final book of the Torah, contains Moshe Rabbeinu’s recounting of the experiences and lessons that the nation had learned along their forty-year journeys through the desert. “It was in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, when Moshe spoke to the Children of Israel, according to everything that G-d commanded him to them.2

Moshe described their sojourns from the Sea of the Reeds to Mount Seir, where the descendants of our ancestor Yaakov’s archrival and brother, Esau, lived. “We turned and journeyed toward the wilderness towards the Sea of the Reeds, as G-d spoke to me, and we circled Mount Seir for many days. G-d said to me, saying, רב לכם סב את ההר הזה פנו לכם צפנה - Enough of your circling this mountain; turn yourselves northward’.3

The Medrash explains that when G-d said, “Turn yourselves צפנה (northward)” it is a hidden reference to the Torah4. Moshe conveyed to the nation that when G-d told them to turn northward He was alluding to the fact that the nation should turn towards the Torah.

Rabbi Mordechai Rogov zt’l5 explains that the verse and its Midrashic expounding contain a vital lesson regarding the history and future of the Jewish people. He explains that there have been many times throughout our history when we have sought to ingratiate ourselves with the nations of the world so we could fit in with them. We have symbolically ‘circled Mount Seir’ pondering how to become part of their way of life. We were confident that doing so would provide us with protection and stability.

To our chagrin and amazement however, all of our machinations were futile. The more we sought to connect ourselves with the society around us the more our neighbors seemed to resent us. Their envy and enmity made us loathe in their eyes and they sought to rid themselves of our presence like we were vermin.

It is to that generation that G-d calls out, as it were, “Enough of your circling this mountain!” If you really want the nations to be tolerant of you, or more so, to revere and respect you, there is only one effective manner, “Turn yourselves צפנה - to the Torah.” That is where our only hopes for glory and grandeur lie. Either we are the lodestar of the world or the bane of society. It depends how much we respect ourselves.

In Chumash Vayikra the Torah records G-d’s instructing Moshe about the unique laws endemic to Kohanim regarding ritual purity and the added precautions they must adhere to. The verse begins6, “G-d said to Moshe: Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them: Each of you shall not contaminate himself to a dead person among his people…”

Rashi notes that the glaring redundancy (‘Say to the Kohanim… and say to them’) contains a vital lesson that the elders have a responsibility to teach the youngsters. Moshe was to ‘say’, i.e. instruct the older Kohanim that they had a responsibility to teach their special laws to the younger generation7.

This lesson does not only apply to Kohanim but to all Jews. It is from this verse that we learn that adults are responsible to educate and train their children in the proper modality of Torah observance. The whole concept of Chinuch - educating our children from a young age to observe Torah laws is derived from the ‘redundancy’ in the aforementioned verse.

The Kohanim comprise less than 10% of all Jews. Why is the elementary mandate of chinuch derived specifically from the laws of ritual purity pertaining to Kohanim? Why isn’t it learned out from laws which are universally pertinent to all Jews, such as the holidays?

Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg zt’l explained that one of the most difficult questions a Torah-observant parent must answer to his children is ‘Why do I have to be different? Why do I have to do it if everyone else isn’t doing it?’

He offers the following analogy: A young kohain is heading out to play baseball with his friends one summer afternoon during the time when the Bais Hamikdash still stood. As he grabs his bat and baseball glove, his mother asks him where he’s going. When he responds that he’s going to the park down the block, she shakes her head sadly, “I’m sorry but you can’t go to that park because to get there you have to pass through the cemetery and we’re having terumah8 for supper. He becomes annoyed, “Mom, it’s not fair! All of my friends are going to that park. Last night you didn’t let me go to the other park because there are sheratzim9 there. No one else had those restrictions. Why do I?” The mother responds, “Because you are not like everyone else. You have an elevated status as a kohain. So you have to maintain greater levels than everyone else. You are special!”

That is the attitude every Jew must convey to their children, and that is the fundamental basis of proper chinuch. We must convey to our children that the reason why we perform certain rituals and refrain from doing many things that are the norm in society is because we are special. We have an elevated status and lofty responsibilities and therefore we have to act accordingly. Observing the Torah may be difficult at times, but we must view it as a privilege, and we must impart that feeling to our children10.

In the Kinnos of Tisha B’av11 we state “איכה תפארתי מראשותי השליכו – O how they have thrown the splendor from my head.” With the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, and throughout our prolonged exile, we have lost a great deal of our inherent grandeur and pride. In our time, perhaps we ourselves have cast off a great deal of our own pride. Too often Jews are embarrassed by their differences as they seek to fit in with the rest of society.

There is no doubt that we have to learn how to live with the nations of the world courteously and respectfully. We live among them, maintain business relationships with them, and have dealings with them continuously. But we must not be apologetic for our differences. We must remember that we are different because we are special. Our pride lies in our Torah observance and if we seem peculiar at times we are proud to bear that banner aloft.

Trying to hide our differences in order to be like everyone else is not the solution, but a further deepening of the exile. Anyone who reads the history of our people in Europe prior to World War II will realize how frighteningly true that is. Our pride has been cast aside in exile and our obligation is to reclaim it. We are a nation that stands alone, even while we live among the nations of the world, and we must be proud of who we are.

On Tisha B’av we lower ourselves to the floor and mourn all we have lost. Yet as we shed tears for all of our suffering we gather solace in the knowledge that we have been made to suffer because we are special. That is why, after reciting lamentations in a state of intense mourning for the night and morning of Tisha B’av, at midday we are able to rise from the floor. We don our talis and tefillin12 and recite the ‘nachem’ prayer, beseeching G-d to console the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Through our recounting of all of our sorrow and grief we realize that the reason we are persecuted is because of our exalted status as the Chosen Nation. Through tragedy and tears, Tisha B’av reminds us that we are special. And that itself is the source of our consolation.

“O how they have thrown the splendor from my head.”

“Enough of your circling; turn towards the Torah”

1 Barnea is the author of a book titled, “Mine Enemy” about his friendly correspondence with Tamari.
2 1:3
3 2:1-2
4 Devorim Rabbah (1:19) "ואין צפנה אלא תורה שנאמר 'יצפן לישרים תושיה'(משלי ב:ז)"
5 Ateres Mordechai
6 The opening verse of parshas Emor (Vayikra 21:1)
7 Yevamos 114a
8 Terumah is the special tithed food given to a kohain. It can only be eaten by Kohanim in a heightened state of ritual purity
9 Crawling insects which cause ritual impurity to one who touches them
10 Heard from Rabbi Yechiel Weberman, Camp Dora Golding chinuch va’ad (this week)
11 Kinnah 9
12 Which are not worn at shacharis because of our status in the highest level of mourning – like a relative whose deceased has not yet been buried r’l