Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch




The following is the text of a lecture delivered by Rabbi Berel Wein shlita in Yeshiva Shaarei Torah to the students on Thursday evening, Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Va’era 5766 (January 1996). I have tried to preserve much of the dialect of the speech, in order to capture his unique style and delivery. Its message is as applicable and poignant as it was when he presented it, 16 years ago:

The conclusion of Parshas Shemos and the beginning of Parshas Va’era involves the subject of disappointments, a universal aspect of human experience. How a person endures disappointment is - to a great extent - a mental and spiritual measure of the person. How does one deal with them? How does one understand them? Kiveyachol (so-to-speak), why does G-d do it to us?

At the conclusion of Parshas Shemos, the Torah relates the difficult experience Moshe had during his first encounter with Pharaoh. Afterwards, Moshe had a personal complaint that he never asked for the job and, in fact, had tried to get out of it. But G-d, so to speak, had cajoled Moshe, “I’ll give you miracles! You’ll transform sticks into snakes, your hand will instantly become afflicted with leprosy, and you’ll transform water into blood.” Moshe was assured and G-d had appointed him to be the emissary to bring about the redemption of Klal Yisroel, so he set out on his mission brimming with confidence.

On the desk in my study at home, I have a clothespin that holds my bills1, and on it is a quote which reads, “Confidence is the feeling you have until you realize the problem!” Very often we are full of confidence until we run into impediments and difficulties.

Moshe appeared before Pharaoh and made his grand speech, insisting that Pharaoh free the Jewish People. But Pharaoh was unimpressed. He mockingly demonstrated that the Egyptians could also perform those tricks. “Who are you? Who is G-d? Why are you coming to distract the people from their labor?”

The pasuk then records Pharaoh’s reaction to Moshe’s plea, “And the King of Egypt said to them, ‘Why are Moshe and Aharon disrupting the people from their work?” Pharaoh was not only unmoved but he was downright angry with Moshe and Aharon. He ordered that the intensity of the already unbearable workload be increased. Now the Egyptian slave labors would not provide raw materials, although the daily quota remained the same.

At that point, the Jewish People weren’t very pleased with Moshe. “And they said to them, ‘May Hashem look upon you and judge, for you have made our very scent abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh and the eyes of his servants, to place a dagger in their hands to murder us.’”

When the Jewish People complained to Moshe, Moshe turned to G-d. “And Moshe returned to Hashem and he said, “Hashem, Why have You made it bad for this nation? Why have you sent me? Why have you done evil to this people? And You have not saved the nation?”” Moshe could not comprehend why G-d did not yet fulfill His part of the deal.

The whole ordeal seems to be one mass depression; no one has any hope left.

G-d then responded to Moshe, “Why are you disappointed? Why have you lost faith? Why have you come to the conclusion that all I have promised you will not come to fruition?” Parshas Shemos concludes with the beginning of G-d’s response to Moshe, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for through a Strong Hand he will send them out, and with a Strong Hand he will drive them from his land.” Parshas Va’era commences with the continuation of G-d’s response to Moshe, “I appeared to Avrohom, to Yitzchok, and to Yaakov as Kel shakkai, but with my name Hashem I did not make myself known to them.”

Rashi explains that G-d’s Name, ‘Hashem’, the name G-d used when He revealed Himself to Moshe, as it were, represents G-d as the One Who carries out His promises, for G-d was now prepared to fulfill His promise to redeem Klal Yisroel. G-d was telling Moshe that although He had revealed Himself to the patriarchs utilizing the same title ‘Hashem’, the Patriarchs never realized the fulfillment of those promises, for the Holy Land was not inherited by their descendants during their lifetimes. G-d admonished Moshe that despite the unfulfilled promises, the Patriarch’s faith in G-d never wavered, and therefore, Moshe too should not be skeptical.

There is an old bad joke told about a Rabbi who approached one of his wealthy congregants and told him that he was collecting money for a destitute family who desperately needed financial assistance. The Rabbi requested that the wealthy man give a sizeable donation to help the collection. The wealthy man replied, “Listen Rabbi, I have a terribly impoverished sister living in Eretz Yisroel and she lives in a run-down shack with her whole family. I have an uncle living in a nursing home and he is about to be evicted because he cannot afford to pay the bills. My neighbor, who has been my best friend for fifty years, has no money and they are about to foreclose on his house. Yet, I am not helping any of them, so why should I help the family you’re collecting for who I never met?”

At first glance, G-d’s response to Moshe seems similar. “I promised the forefathers and they never lived to see Me fulfill My Word, so why are you questioning me?” G-d individually promised Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov the entire country of Eretz Yisroel. Yet, when Avrohom’s wife died, he had to contend with the B’nai Ches and pay four hundred silver shekel in order to purchase a burial plot for her. When Yitzchok moved to Gaza, a land contested until our time, every time he dug a well, the Palestinians filled it up. Yaakov too had to pay one hundred kesitah to purchase land outside of Shechem. Yet, they never complained or became cynical!

G-d seemed to be holding Moshe to task for not learning the lesson of the forefathers to take it all in stride. This seems enigmatic. Why didn’t Moshe reply, “If they decided not to say anything, that’s their decision. But what happened to the promises you made me?”

The truth is that such situations surface frequently and one has to learn how to react and handle the vicissitudes of life.

Many years ago, I had a friend who attended Law School together with me in Illinois. When we finished our studies we prepared to take the Bar Exam. We attended a Bar Review course for three months - June, July, and August, for ten hours a day. The course was a review of all three years of law school packed into those three months. As hard as I worked during the course, my friend worked much harder. He was determined to become a lawyer and he was very excited about it.

On the day of the exam, people were very nervous. Four students fainted from anxiety2. The exam lasted three days for six and a half hours each day. Then, you had to wait three months to find out the results and, even then, they wouldn’t tell you your grade, rather it was published in the Chicago Tribune. Finally, the day came and my name was in the paper and my friend’s name was not. I remember him telling me, “It’s not fair. I studied much harder than you did and we had the same grades throughout Law School…” He was very crushed and upset by it. He took the exam a second time and then a third time, but he kept failing. It became Mount Everest for him; he just couldn’t climb to the peak.

He went into business and started a family. He was successful and today he is a grandfather. Recently, when I was in Chicago I saw him and he reminded me - with all of the emotion still pent up within him - “I wasted three years in Law School! I couldn’t pass the Bar Exam!” Although many years had passed he still can’t get over it.

Disappointments in life are very hard to overcome and it’s not always fair. The great motto of the Jewish People is, “Zeh lo fair!” and the truth is that they are right; it’s not fair and don’t let anyone convince you that life is going to be fair! People jump off the roof because the Chicago Bears are not going to win the Super Bowl. The fact that the person may have everything in the world doesn’t help his depression about the Chicago Bears3.

What is the meaning behind G-d’s response to Moshe? Moshe seemed to have a very valid argument. “I was comfortably working for my father-in-law and I didn’t want to be the leader. But, G-d, you insisted that this was my role and that I was to appear before Pharaoh, and You assured me that You will be with me. But then, when I went, Pharaoh became annoyed with me and increased the workload so that now all of Klal Yisroel is angry with me as well. Then when I questioned what occurred, I was told that the Avos never complained, so what right do I have to complain?”

In Jewish history, there is a great deal for us to complain about. In our time, the situation in Eretz Yisroel is very disappointing. Land that Jews struggled to attain with blood and determination is being given back to our enemies as if it’s worthless.

I read in an Israeli paper that this year many of the major department stores in Tel Aviv will carry Christmas decorations to make the season more festive. Is that why we waited nineteen hundred years to have a homeland, so that we can sell Christian holiday decorations? One must conclude that it is very disappointing.

The Ribbono Shel Olam tells Moshe the story of the Avos because Hashem wants Moshe to realize and understand how he relates to, and runs this world. Things do not happen based on our plans and calculations of how they should proceed. G-d runs the world with a Divine Plan that is - more often than not - beyond our comprehension. The measure of a person is based on how he responds to the situation that arises.

The Avos never complained, “Lo hirharo achar meedosay”. Although the promises were not fulfilled during their lifetimes they had no complaints, because they understood that G-d has His schedule. This was the lesson that Hashem was teaching Moshe. Life often contains difficulties and challenges, but we have to know that G-d runs the world in a specific Divinely ordained manner.

The great Moshe Rabbeinu rises from this incident and learns the lesson G-d is teaching him. Shlomo Hamelech says in Mishley, “Sheva yipol tzaddik v’kom- the righteous man stumbles seven times and he gets up.” If the righteous man stumbles seven times, why is he any better than the wicked man who also stumbles seven times? The answer lies in the final word, ‘v’kom’, the tzaddikm rises. He dusts himself off and learns from his mistakes how to become a better and greater person.

It takes the rest of Klal Yisroel a lot longer to learn this lesson. They are still questioning, and are full of disappointments throughout the forty years in the desert. But Moshe never complains about unfulfilled promises again. Moshe learned that to be the leader you can’t complain because that gets a person nowhere. Furthermore, when a person puts himself in a ‘feel sorry for myself’ mood, he falls into the worst of all emotional maladies, because, if one gives up, what can he accomplish?

When I was twenty-one years old, my wife and I needed some extra money so I accepted a weekend job as an assistant Rabbi of a shul in Chicago. They paid me seventy dollars a Shabbos and I spoke in shul, learned with their children etc.

After six months they fired me4. I thought I was pretty good but they had a different opinion. I was disappointed because we needed the money, but more importantly, my ego was very hurt and I began to feel sorry for myself. My Mother told me not to be foolish; I was young with a wife and a newborn baby. I was going to get a job in a law firm, and I had my whole life ahead of me. But none of that meant anything to me because I felt sorry for myself.

Finally, I went to my Rebbe, Rabbi Mendel Kaplan zt’l. I told him that I felt very disappointed and embarrassed by the whole ordeal. With his sparkling blue eyes and laughing expression, my Rebbe responded as only he could, “Every Rav gets fired once. You were lucky; you were fired the first time. There are Rabbis who are fired at the end and that’s much worse. We all get fired at some time. For you it happened right away. Great! You’ll never get fired again!” But then he added, “If you feel sorry for yourself, you’re worthless. You’ll never be able to accomplish, if you can’t pick yourself up off the floor.”

The beginning of Parshas Va’era comes to teach us this vital lesson. It’s a message that we have to keep in mind constantly. G-d replied to Moshe, “What are you complaining about?! I don’t work based on human schedules or calculations and I don’t seek to placate your agenda. My Word doesn’t have to be fulfilled based on your calculations and schedules. The world is run based on a Divine Plan and things occur exactly when they are supposed to transpire.”

In a sense, this is G-d’s message to each and every one of us. “You want to be a great Talmid Chochom? First I’ll show you fifteen Tosafos that you absolutely can’t decipher. After you have encountered and dealt with that frustration, then we can talk about becoming a scholar.” “You want to get married, I’ll show you three girls who won’t even go out with you5.” G-d isn’t obligated to follow our definitions and interpretations. ושמי ה' לא נודעתי להם"”. The Avos never witness the fulfillment of G-d’s promises. Still, they remained steadfast to G-d and fulfilled G-d’s command, התהלך לפני והיה תמים - Walk Before Me, and be complete.”

If a Jew subjugates himself to G-d’s word and to the mission that G-d has set out for him to accomplish, there is no room for disappointment. “ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש - And you shall be for Me a Monarchy of Priests and a Holy People.” “Ashreinu mah tov chelkaynu umah naim goralaynu umah yafah yirushasaynu. Ashreinu she’anachnu mashkimim uma’arivim erev vavoker v’omrim b’chol yom: Shema Yisroel- Praiseworthy are we and how wonderful is our portion, how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful is our inheritance. Praiseworthy are we that we arise in the morning and go to sleep at night every single day by exclaiming “Shema Yisroel”.” That is the perspective of life! When one recognizes his greatness, he cannot, and must not, feel sorry for himself.

The lesson of Parshas Va’era requires much review. It is a vital message that can only be appreciated by those who believe it and understand it. “The righteous stumbles seven times and he gets up.” It is the ability to start over and not be overwhelmed by the impediments along the way. We must be able to dust ourselves off and proceed by searching and revealing the inner greatness that lies within each and every one of us. This is especially true of those who are, and will become, the leaders of Klal Yisroel.

The Ribbono Shel Olam works by His Schedule, in His time and in His way. When the time was ripe, the redemption came. So too, it will certainly come in our time when we will merit together to witness, “nechomas tzion ub’inyan Yerushalayim- The comforting of Zion and the rebuilding of Yerushalayim.”

1 a rather large clothespin
2 I wanted to get their names so I could sue the makers of the exam
3 And the Chicago Bears are not going to win the Super Bowl
4 They didn’t know they were firing the great Rabbi Wein and the great Rabbi Wein didn’t know he was the great Rabbi Wein
5 and the fourth one that does, you’ll be sorry


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Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Va’era

25 Teves 5772/January 20, 2012

One of the most exciting experiences of my youth was visiting Eretz Yisroel for the first time. I was eight years old and my Aunt Miriam was going to Eretz Yisroel for the unveiling of my beloved Zayde at the end of August. My older brother was away in camp so my parents offered me the opportunity to accompany my aunt for the eleven day trip.

I was enamored by everything along the way. I loved the plane, especially because the seats were so roomy. [The next time I flew a few years later the seats shrunk immeasurably…] When we finally landed, my Bubby, Uncle, and cousin met us at the airport. Bubby was so excited to see me she hugged me and lifted me off the ground (the only time I remember that happening.)

The ten hour flight and all of its excitement were a bit much for an eight year old and at that point I was hungry and cranky. We went to an Italian restaurant in Yerushalayim but I refused to order anything. After a few minutes of negotiations my Aunt finally convinced me to order an Italian Pizza. After all what could be bad about pizza?

When the pizza arrived I promptly announced that I wasn’t going to eat it. My exasperated Aunt asked me why not? “Because”, I explained, “it smells like the shmattas (rags) in Bubby’s house.” My aunt tried to convince me that I was being ridiculous but I was emphatic about my refusal. My cousin took the pizza and sniffed it, whereupon he burst out laughing, “It’s true, it smells like shmattas!” My Aunt took one bite and admitted that we were right. It was real Italian cheese and pizza, not for our American taste buds.

I found something else to order and everyone continued eating. When we finished we noticed that the pizza was gone. Had the waiter taken it back? Bubby shrugged us off, “I don’t know what you’re all complaining about. The pizza was delicious.”

Throughout the years, we periodically laugh about the shamattah-pizza, and how Bubby couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t eat it.

In our home, we teach our children that when you don’t like something you don’t announce, ‘Oh that’s gross!’ Rather you politely say, ‘That’s not my taste.’ It is not only insulting to disparage food that someone else worked hard to make, but it is insensitive to speak negatively about something you don’t like when someone else may enjoy it.

Such an expression does not only apply to food but to anything else in life. Just because you don’t like a game, place, or idea, doesn’t make it wrong or bad. It may not be your taste, but someone else may find it pleasurable.

The idea of tolerance is extremely important. Our society would like to believe that it is politically correct and accepting of difference. But underneath all its social babble, our world is extremely intolerant and impatient with differences of others.

That intolerance infiltrates our camp as well. Our exile began because of intolerance which bred contempt and enmity, and it is apparent that we haven’t rectified that malady yet.

What may be a shmattah to one person may be delicious to someone else. What one person may find inadequate another may find appealing and acceptable. We don’t have to agree with other’s opinions, but we still have to learn to tolerate differences.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum


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