Thursday, October 27, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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A number of years ago our family had the pleasure of hosting our neighbors, the Greenstein family1, for a Shabbos seudah2. I knew that Mrs. Greenstein was born and raised in Moscow, behind the iron curtain of communism, but I didn’t know much else about her life. Never one to shirk away from a good story, I asked her if she would be comfortable sharing some of her experiences. I was particularly curious as to how a Jew from Russia who was completely ignorant of her heritage, ended up Torah observant in Monsey, New York. She obliged to share a few tidbits of her incredible story and she gave me permission to include them here as well.

Communist Russia was built on propaganda and lies. To those who grew up behind the iron curtain, there seemed to be no world beyond the U.S.S.R. Although they knew that there was a world beyond, on television they would broadcast images of long gruesome claws clutching mounds of money to depict the evil American empire and the heinous society of capitalism. The peasant population was truly brain-washed and believed in the greatness of communism and its vast success. The media painted a picture of a utopian society where the sun of joy and prosperity always shone.

Money and food were scarce in Russia. An average monthly salary consisted of about one hundred dollars. Every single day, a member of the family would have to wait on long lines to purchase bread and basic provisions. The infamous NKVD, later known as the KGB (the Russian secret police), was in full force wreaking havoc and instilling terror throughout Russia. Mrs. Greenstein related that her father had a few run-ins with them and they did not have the best relationship. All of their difficulties not withstanding, that was life and they knew of no other way.

The Jews had a particularly difficult life. They were blatantly singled out for physical and verbal abuse in school, at their jobs, and on the street. Because of their individual persecution, Jews developed a deep enmity toward the Communists and they believed that everything the Russians preached was a lie. They believed there was something great and holy about Judaism, although they knew nothing about it. They also believed that America was a land of golden opportunity.

Through G-d’s Hand of Providence, Mrs. Greenstein’s family was able to emigrate from Russia to America (a story of its own), where they settled in Boston, Massachusetts. A local Jewish agency provided them with an advocate to act as their liaison, helping them acclimate to the new country and become familiar with the language and culture.

Mrs. Greenstein decided that, although she had never done so before, she wanted to find a job working with children. Her advocate wrote up a resume for her and gave her the addresses of 160 agencies, schools, and playgroups around Boston. Mrs. Greenstein complained that she didn’t want to waste 160 stamps applying to every single agency, but the advocate replied that this was the only way she would have a chance to find a job.

After Mrs. Greenstein sent out her resume, she waited for some responses. Out of the many places she had contacted, only ten agencies/schools responded and only one of them accepted her. The place that accepted her was the only Orthodox Jewish nursery in the area at that time. She was hired to be the assistant teacher. Her role was to help the children put on their coats before recess and to help them with their projects.

As she sat in the class and the teacher taught the children about the beauty of Shabbos and how to recite blessings properly, Mrs. Greenstein listened intently and internalized every word. When the teacher would lecture about the holidays, Mrs. Greenstein had a hard time doing her job because she so badly wanted to hear what was being taught with such clarity and passion. That was the beginning of her journey to a Torah life. 160 agencies…and she got the job in the only Jewish Orthodox agency.

Three hundred and forty years had passed since the great flood. Noach and his children were still alive, and Avrohom Avinu, who had already, ‘recognized his Creator’ was 48 years old. Civilization was centered around Babylonia, (modern-day Iraq), and the evil Nimrod was their leader.

The Torah states, (11:1) “The whole earth was of one language and of common purpose.” The Torah continues, “They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire… Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed across the whole earth. G-d descended to look at the city and the tower which the sons of man built. And G-d said, ‘….Come, let us descend there and confuse their language, that they should not understand one another’s language’.” The Torah concludes, “And G-d dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it is called Bavel, because it was there that Hashem confused the language of the whole earth, and from there Hashem scattered them over the face of the earth.”

The story of the construction of the tower is intriguing and the Torah seems vague in its description of what transpired. The Sages explain that there were sinister and idolatrous motives behind their actions, but their true motive is unclear from a cursory reading of the verse.

Many commentators3 relate that their sin was a result of their unity. Although unity is a noble trait and, in fact, their harmonious relationship was a source of merit for them4, it was at the root of their sin. What does that mean; how did their unity cause them to sin? What was the purpose of the tower and how did they have the logical audacity to blatantly challenge G-d so soon after the flood? Also, what does it mean that G-d descended to obfuscate their languages?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt’l explains that they rationalized that if they could synergize their strengths and abilities, they would no longer need G-d. They felt that a Divine Power was only necessary to compensate for human weakness and deficiency. But if there was mass unification and a collaboration of all human talent and resources, there would no longer be a need for Divine Intervention on earth.

In other words, their idea was, “Working men of all countries, unite!” They were confident in the flawless abilities of the proletariat and they felt they would be unstoppable. The tower was to be the symbol of their unification; it was to be the representation of what could be accomplished by a combined human effort.

It seems that Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848), was predated by the Dor Haflagah5 by thousands of years. Communism was a repeat of the effort to form what Rabbi Schwab termed, “hamin ha’enushi hamuchad- The united species of man.” The idea that the merging of the sickle and hammer could produce a utopian socialist society was already postulated by Nimrod and his followers in ancient Babylonia.

The flaw in their idea lay in the notion that a world could exist without G-d. In order to thwart their efforts, there had to first be a mass intellectual paradigm shift. If, somehow, they were to recognize that the very idea that a world could exist without a Divine Power was naïve and foolish, they would abandon all efforts to achieve that goal.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’l notes that when G-d said He would descend into this world to see the tower, the verse uses an expression of “v’navlah shum sefasam”. The word ‘navlah’ means to dry up. Thus, in essence, G-d was saying, “We will descend and we will dry up their lips.”

Rabbi Schwab explains that when G-d said that He would descend, it does not merely mean that He would descend into this world. Rather, it meant that He would descend into the psyche of the people. He would help them realize the vanity and absurdity of their idea and, in doing so, He would dry their lips, i.e. they would cease to preach their foolish idea. When that would happen, “they would scatter over the face of the earth.” Not that G-d Himself scattered them, but, once they saw that combining their strengths to overcome G-d was futile, they would return to populating the earth and furthering the cause of society. The first step was for them to realize that the world is meant to be populated with each country living according to the individual blessings that G-d grants it.

The Medrash relates that when a person fell off the tower and plunged to his death, the rest of the builders did not bat an eyelash and they continued working. However, when a brick fell off, they cried and mourned the loss of part of the tower.

Rabbi Simcha Wasserman zt’l commented that although the Dor Haflagah began as an idea, it quickly developed into an obsession. Man is always directed and driven by his goals and aspirations. To that generation, their idea became their god and the source of their motives, and goals. At that point, the only thing that mattered was the furtherance of the idea.

According to the explanation of Rabbi Schwab, the Torah provides us with invaluable insight into the events of our time. Communism too began as an idea with high hopes. Lenin and Trotsky promised, “Peace, land, and bread” for every citizen. But, the dream quickly turned into an obsession. G-d and religion were an obstacle to the new society and all traces of religion needed to be eradicated. The unyielding power of the proletariat that would destroy the bourgeoisie was undermined by the ruthless desire of the regime dictators for power.

In the 1930’s the fickle Stalin murdered over ten million people during the Great Purge. Countless others were sent to the Gulag to suffer inhumane treatment in places like Siberia. Human life became worthless; the only thing that mattered was the success and the development of, ‘the idea’.

With the failed process of Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring), Communism collapsed. “Their lips had dried up”, i.e. they no longer were able to preach their idea. The Russian government’s new policy of glasnot (candor) about the past horrors and crimes of the previous Communist governments made it clear that Marx’s idea was a failure. “And they scattered over the face of the earth!” Almost overnight, dozens of new countries sprang up and declared independence from the former U.S.S.R. The mighty communist empire disintegrated into Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Georgia, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia.

Man can not live without G-d! The Dor Haflagah tried to prove that G-d is superfluous but G-d Himself descended into their psyche and proved them hopelessly wrong. The Communists tried to obliterate all remembrances of G-d from themselves. But the end result was that G-d was there all along, waiting for the right moment to ‘descend’ and uproot their ‘idea’.

“Come, let us make bricks”

“Come, let us descend there and dry up their lips!”

1 Name has been changed
2 It happened to have been the Shabbos of parshas Bereishis, and so the following story was on my mind when I was reviewing Parshas Noach.
3 See Ramban
4 it was the reason they weren’t wiped out like the previous generation
5 The ‘Dispersed Generation’ who constructed the tower



Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Noach /Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan

30 Tishrei 5772/October 28, 2011

Yom Tov is truly a special time. The special tefillos, the meals, the songs, the meals, the camaraderie, the meals, extra time with the family, the meals, and of course the delicious meals. Chol Hamoed also provides a wonderful opportunity for family bonding (pronounced ‘kvetching’) and enjoying spending time together.

One of the many pleasurable moments of this past Chol Hamoed for me personally was watching our three year old son Avi enjoying an arcade that we visited. For our two older children the arcade cost me some money. But for Avi the cost was minimal.

Avi plopped himself down on one of the virtual motorcycles attached to the game and turned the steering wheel with gusto as the car on the screen made the same turns. He gleefully made engine noises as he steered his car through windy roads at dangerously high speeds. He looked a bit confused when some large letters suddenly appeared on the screen and began blinking a few times. However, when the simulated game reappeared a minute later, he went right back to his tenacious driving.

And why should I be the one to tell him that he wasn’t really controlling what was happening? If he cannot yet read the words ‘Insert Coins’ why must I explain it to him? As long as he was content and felt that it was his doing, he was happy and I saved a few dollars.

When he finished one game he went on to another, and the same scene repeated itself.

It was cute and humorous that he thought he was controlling the game when really it was pre-programmed, and had nothing to do with his motions and efforts.

I don’t know if angels laugh, but I wonder if they view us in the same vein? We too feel that we are in control and are running every aspect of our own lives. But in truth it only appears that way, because life and its events are divinely simulated and ordained to occur exactly as G-d sees fit.

We do not see the words “Insert act of Kindness”, “Insert Charity”, or “Insert additional Prayer” flashing before our eyes. Still, we are aware that it is such acts which grant us the merit to remain behind our wheel and continue to drive (or at least appear that way).

The only problem was that in order to procure tickets which are redeemable for ‘serious prizes’, you have to actually play some games. So I did have to shell out some cash and we had to help Avi with a few rounds of skee-ball and basketball shooting.

When we were done he had racked up over 100 tickets! I was pretty sure he had enough tickets to get the 6 days-7 nights vacation getaway package to Miami. But I guess he fell a bit short because he was only able to get the little squishy thing which broke in the car on the way home. At least he still had the free brochure.

Drive safely!

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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“It is Sunday. The line of people waiting to see the Rebbe is very long. After hours, I finally find myself face to face with the Rebbe. At first, I just see the Rebbe’s penetrating eyes. Everything I had prepared to say escapes me. Finally I say, “I have a problem. I have begun becoming more observant, but I am engaged to marry a non-Jewish woman.”

“I have anticipated the response. The Rebbe will likely become upset and tell me what a sin I am committing. He would speak of reward and punishment… But the response I get is completely different. The Rebbe’s face is very serious, yet I think I detect a hint of a smile on his lips.

“I envy your challenge”, the Rebbe says.

“At first I don’t grasp what the Rebbe just said. The Rebbe, the pious Jew, the revered rabbi and Torah genius, world-renowned Jewish leader, envies my challenge?

“The Rebbe continues, “in life there are many ‘ladders’. Each person has his or her own ‘ladder’ to climb. I was never faced with the challenge that you are. G-d has given you a choice, a ladder, the top of which reaches the Heavens. This test is the challenge which will raise you to the greatest of heights.”

I don’t remember what happened afterwards. Several minutes later, I find myself in the synagogue, sobbing like a baby.2

Yom Kippur, the day referred to simply as ‘Yom Hakadosh – the Holy Day’, is a precious gift from G-d. “This shall be to you an eternal decree to bring atonement upon the Children of Israel for all their sins once a year…3” Though the service of the day is unquestionably physically arduous and taxing, it is spiritually, mentally, and psychologically liberating.

The Torah’s directive regarding our conduct on Yom Kippur seems difficult to understand: “But on the tenth day of this month it is the Day of Atonement; there shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall afflict yourselves…”

What is the purpose of fasting on Yom Kippur? Does one day of fasting negate the pernicious effect of all of our sins? What does the Torah mean when it commands us to ‘afflict ourselves’ on this day? How is that accomplished and what is the purpose?

There are two reasons why a person would fast. A person may fast because he is so depressed or emotionally battered that he simply cannot bring himself to eat; he just has no appetite. Another person may want to eat yet deprives himself of food because he doesn’t want the effect that the food will have on him. For example, if one is on a diet he may not eat many delectable foods, not because he doesn’t desire them, but because he doesn’t want the calorie and fat intake.

The Barditchiver Rebbe famously quipped, “On Tisha B’av who can eat; on Yom Kippur who wants to eat!” On Tisha B’av we are in such a deep state of mourning that we should feel as if we have no appetite to eat. On Yom Kippur however, we purposely deny ourselves the pleasure of eating and drinking because we have an ulterior focus and goal4.

What are we are trying to escape from on Yom Kippur, and how is that process abetted through physical abstention?

The mouth is an organ of connection. There are three primary functions of the mouth, eating, speaking, and kissing. All three serve to ‘connect’ two otherwise disparate things.

  • Even the most righteous person must eat and drink in order to stay alive. When one eats the food is transformed into energy, which enables him to serve G-d, learn Torah, and perform mitzvos. Although in actuality eating is a physical process, it is vital for all spiritual growth and accomplishment.
  • Whenever one speaks he is physically expressing himself in a spiritual manner. Speech emanates from the soul and yet is produced by one’s physical lips and vocal chords.
  • Kissing is an expression of love and connection between two different people. Physically each person is completely separate of the other, but the kiss expresses a feeling of emotional inner connection between them5.

On Yom Kippur we don’t eat or drink, not as a form of penitent self immolation, but rather as a means to spiritual transformation and transcendence. We aren’t looking to torture ourselves, but rather to train ourselves. Yom Kippur is not a day of suffering but of rigid discipline.

An athlete must undergo tough trainings, which include a certain measure of deprivation, in order to build endurance and stamina to accomplish his goals. In the same vein, on Yom Kippur we have to enervate the dominant authority of the body in order to reach, and strengthen, our soul.

Throughout the year our Evil Inclination invades our consciousness, convincing us that his voice is our inner voice. When we contemplate things that we want, our thought is ‘That looks good. I want it.” The voice of our wants and desires is audible and pervasive. Our inner spiritual voice of conscience and reason however, seems to be much weaker and quieter. It also speaks to us in second-person. “Excuse me, I don’t think you should do that’; or ‘Perhaps you should learn a little more Torah.’ In our world the voice of truth is almost inaudible, and can only be heard by one who is seeking it.

If someone were to ask us who we are, we would point to our body. We define ourselves based on our physical features and our bodies which everyone else sees. In reality, our driving force is supposed to be our soul, with our body serving as a loyal servant to its needs.

On Yom Kippur we weaken our body so that we can look at ourselves from a different – and more genuine – perspective. On this one day we quiet our usually dominant physical voice, and allow the voice of our soul to be heard.

This is part of the reason why on Yom Kippur we loudly proclaim the usually whispered second verse of Shema: “Blessed is the Name of His glorious Kingdom, for all eternity”. Throughout the year our lives don’t adequately reflect our mission of promoting and sanctifying G-d’s Holy Name, and therefore, we are compelled to whisper these words. But on Yom Kippur when we live in a world of angels the verse becomes our clarion call. On Yom Kippur we have only one focus and purpose: to bless His Name and His Glorious Kingdom. On this one day the truth emphatically rings forth and resonates from our lips.

The Kabbalistic works teach us that there are five ‘levels’ of our soul6. Only the lowest of the five can ‘fit’ into our body. The other four levels of our soul remain in heaven. Shoes are a metaphoric representation of the relationship between our soul and our body. Although only the lowest part of our body rests in our shoes, our shoes support our entire body. So too, although only the lowest level of our soul is actually contained in the body, the entire soul is dependent on that connection for its vitality in this world.

On Yom Kippur when we want to shift our focus to our souls, we remove our shoes. This symbolic act demonstrates that today we are not focusing on the connection of our soul with our body, but only on our soul. Removing our shoes from our feet represents removing our soul from our body so that we can connect internally7.

Yom Kippur is a day of teshuva. The word teshuva means to return and on Yom Kippur we seek to return to G-d and dismantle the barriers we create between ourselves and Him through our sins. But in order to do that we need to return to… ourselves! We need to realize who we really are, and which voice within us is our true voice.

It can be unnerving for certain individuals to think about themselves beyond their physical features and possessions. It is downright frightening for one to peer beyond his body and find that there is nothing there. But on the other hand, it can be extremely liberating for one to realize and recognize how much truly lies within himself, when he sees beyond his extremities, and allows his inner spark to shine.

When Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbos, we miss our lavish meals and the illuminant atmosphere of our Shabbos tables. But Shabbos-Yom Kippur grants us the opportunity to rejoice in the real essence of Shabbos. “They will rejoice in Your Kingship, those who safeguard Shabbos and proclaim it a delight.” On this unique Shabbos the only component of Shabbos we have left is the true essence of Shabbos – to rejoice in His Kingship!

“You shall afflict yourselves”

“Blessed is the Name of His glorious Kingdom, for all eternity”

1 Based on the speech given at Kehillat New Hempstead, before Yizkor on Yom Kippur 5771. The basic theme was adapted from a lecture by Rabbi Akiva Tatz.
2 From a personal account of an anonymous individual with the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt’l.
3 Vayikra 16:34
4 There is an old Jewish saying that on Yom Kippur ‘mir essen b’ta’anis – we eat in our fasting’. In other words, the fast somehow nourishes us in a manner that precludes food.
5 The Bais Hamikdash was the place of connection between this world and the upper world. The three functions of the mouth were omnipresent on a deeper level in the Bais Hamikdash: The korbanos-offerings were a form of divine food which connected heaven and earth, the ‘voice‘of G-d emanated from between the Keruvim atop the Holy Ark, and the gemara (Bava Basra 74a) refers to the Bais Hamikdash as ‘the place where heaven and earth kiss’.
6 nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, yechida
7 In the Bais Hamikdash the priests did not wear shoes to demonstrate that in the Temple their focus was only on spiritual pursuits, and not on the connection between the two worlds.
When a man dies without having begot any children, the act of yibum (his living brother marrying his widow) is a manner of granting the deceased a connection with this world because the child borne of that union is attributed to the deceased. If the living brother refuses to do so, the process of chalitzah is performed which includes her spitting in his shoe, because by not marrying the widow he had denied giving his brother a connection with this world, symbolized by shoes.