Thursday, February 26, 2015


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – ASHAR
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor


          The story was reaching its crescendo. Esther was poised to reveal to Achashveirosh the answers to the mysteries that baffled him for so long. Who was Esther? Where did she come from? Why did she keep hosting parties for him and Haman? And what was the reason for her inscrutable mystique?       
“The King and Haman came to feast with Queen Esther. The King asked Esther again on the second day of the wine feast, ‘What is your request Queen Esther?’… Queen Esther responded and she said, ‘If I have found grace in your eyes King, and if it is good for the King, grant me my life as my request and my people as my supplication. For we have been sold – I and my people – to be destroyed, slain, and obliterated. Had we been sold as slaves and maidservants I would have remained silent, for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s damage.’ Thereupon, King Achashveirosh exclaimed, and he said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is it? And where is the one who dared to do this?’ And Esther said, ‘An adversary and an enemy! The wicked Haman!’ Haman trembled in terror before the King and Queen.”[2]  

Esther’s impassioned plea to Achashveirosh seems difficult to understand. Why did she mention anything about the Jews being sold into slavery? When was there ever any mention about such a proposition, and what does selling the Jews into slavery have to do with Haman’s decree of genocide? Also, why did Achashveirosh angrily demand to know the identity of the promulgator of the decrees; was he not the one who granted Haman full authority to edict those decrees?
To answer these questions, the Apta Rav[3] relates the following extraordinary story: In the time of Rav Sherira Gaon[4] there lived a tremendously wealthy individual. Aside for the man’s extreme monetary affluence he also possessed a rare invaluable treasure, a Torah scroll written by Ezra the Scribe.
When the man died, his two sons had a strong disagreement about how to allocate their father’s possessions. Both were willing to forgo all of their father’s wealth so that they could take possession of their father’s ancient Torah scroll. When they presented their case to the Jewish court, the ruling was that they should cast a lottery to determine who would merit possession of the scroll. The ‘loser’ would receive all of the father’s wealth. After the lottery was cast, as can be imagined the winning brother was ecstatic. His brother however, was crestfallen. All of the money he received was little consolation to him.
There was an iniquitous fellow in the town who was very bothered by what had occurred. He sympathized with the losing brother and was very angry with the court’s ruling. One night he changed his clothes so that he would not be recognized by the townsfolk, and he entered the synagogue which housed the famous Torah scroll. When everyone had left the synagogue, he clandestinely removed the scroll form the Ark. He rolled it to the words which read, “ועבדתם את ה' אלקיכם  - And you shall serve Hashem, your G-d…” He scratched out the letter “ayin” in the word “ועבדתם ” and replaced it with the letter ‘aleph’, so that the verse now read, “ואבדתם - And you will destroy…” With the new blasphemous wording, the entire Torah scroll was rendered unfit for use. The man quietly returned the scroll to the Ark and left.
A few weeks later, when the congregation was reading the portion that contained those words, the ‘mistake’ was realized. One can only imagine the utter shock and devastation of the scroll’s owner. Although the scroll could easily be fixed, the egregious error indicated that the scroll had surely not been written by Ezra the Scribe. The owner was so devastated by the event that he became sick and bedridden.
One night the deceased father appeared to his son in a dream. He reassured his son of the scroll’s authenticity and he revealed what had truly transpired. As a sign that what he was saying was true, the father told his son that he should search underneath the table in the synagogue. There he would find the eyeball of the iniquitous fellow who had committed the deed. This was an apt punishment, based on the verse, ‘ayin tachas ayin’.[5]
When this story was repeated to Rav Sherira Gaon he offered a novel explanation of the aforementioned events in Megillas Esther: When Haman first approached Achashveirosh to malign the Jews and convince the king of their unworthiness, he did not propose genocide as an answer to ‘the Jewish problem’.  He knew Achashveirosh would not agree to such a socially and politically inept idea.  Instead, he suggested to Achashveirosh that the Jews should be enslaved to ensure that they would be kept under control, and could not promulgate their religion any longer. To abet the process, Haman pledged 10,000 silver talents to offset any financial loss his proposition would cause. 
It was for that idea that Haman had procured the signature of Achashveirosh. It was strictly a document of sale stating that Haman had permission, לעבדם – to enslave them.”  
As soon as Achashveirosh affixed his signature to the document however, the wily Haman amended it. He erased the letter ‘ayin’ and replaced it with an ‘aleph’, so that it now read that Haman had permission ‘לאבדם - to destroy them’[6]. He also added a few more adjectives calling for their utter obliteration and destruction.[7]
It was to that original decree that Esther was making reference to. “Were we only sold as slaves and maids I would have remained silent”, for that was the original decree to which Achashveirosh had consented. Achashveirosh had never acquiesced to the decree calling for the complete destruction of the entire Jewish people. In fact he was shocked by it. He demanded to know, “Who is it? And where is the one who dared to do this?” When he found out that Haman had duped him into affixing his signature to a decree he had never agreed to, his rage overcame him. The ever-scheming Haman was hung for treason before he had a chance to say a word.  

Once the structure of the Mishkan was completed, the special clothes of the priests and High Priest had to be tailored. “Now you, bring Aharon your brother near to you, and his sons with him… You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aharon your brother, for glory and splendor.”[8]
This is actually not the first mention of clothing in the Torah. The concept of clothing is discussed in regards to primordial man.
After Adam and Chava sinned by partaking of the forbidden fruit, they suddenly became aware, and embarrassed of the fact that they were unclothed.[9]
After Adam and Chava were banished from Gan Eden, the verse relates, “And Hashem, G-d, made for Adam and his wife (כתנות עור) garments of skin and he clothed them.”
The Medrash[10] comments on this verse: “In the recorded Torah thoughts of Rabbi Meir they found written (a slightly emended text of the aforementioned verse) “And Hashem, G-d, made for Adam and his wife (כתנות אור) garments of light.”[11] 
The Arizal notes that clothing are called by two names: ‘Beged’ which stems from the root-word begidah- treachery, and ‘levush’ which stems from the root-word bushah-shame.
After Adam sinned his body, which now housed his evil inclination, became a subject of shame because of the treachery he had committed. Therefore, G-d granted Adam clothing to spare him that embarrassment. The message of Rabbi Meir was that even after sinning, one’s body need not be a source of shame and humiliation. One has the ability to sanctify himself and transform his body from an object of sin into a conduit/vessel of spiritual light. When one achieves such greatness, his clothing are no longer ‘garments of skin’ but they become ‘garments of light’. Our objective is to transform the ‘ayin’ (כתנות עור) into an ‘aleph’ (כתנות אור).
The clothing that the priests wore while performing the Service in the Temple, symbolized the idea of clothing being ‘garments of light’. They donned their ‘uniforms’ with a sense of duty and responsibility. They clothed their bodies in garments that reminded them of their elite mission and superior status, and it ensured that their bodies remained holy as well.
Why is there a custom to dress up in costumes and masks on Purim?
Haman sought to change the ‘ayin’ into an ‘aleph’ on the document about the Jews. He wanted to destroy every last vestige of the Jewish People, including their dead bodies[12]. Haman recognized that even the lifeless body of a Jew contains holiness, by virtue of the fact that it contained a holy spark. Even after its soul had been snuffed out, a Jewish body had to be disposed of, because it maintains a certain level of holiness.
Our ‘revenge’ against Haman is to replace the ayin with an aleph, albeit in a different venue. We seek to transform our כתנות עור into כתנות אור by recognizing the holiness that our bodies are capable of.

It is appropriate that Haman’s plot was contingent upon one letter for the following reason. In the reading of Parshas Zachor the Shabbos prior to Purim, we recall the original battle that our forefathers fought against Haman’s ancestors, the original Amalekites.
In the final verse of that reading, there is a word which is not clear how it is to be pronounced. “תמחה את זכר עמלק – You shall erase the memory of Amalek”. Some authorities maintain that it is to be read “zecher” while others maintain that it is to be read “zaycher”.[13]
The Torah portion describing the battle with Amalek, itself contains a manifestation of that perennial battle. The difference between the two readings is contingent upon one dot[14]. That one ‘dot’ represents the ‘inner dot’, i.e. the one inner point/spark within the soul of a Jew. It is that dot that Amalek seeks to douse. His desire is to prove that Jews are no different than any other nation, and that they have no added ‘spark/dot’ within.
Amalek challenges the subtleties that Klal Yisroel takes pride in: A letter, a dot, an inner spark. 
Perhaps this is part of the reason why we mask ourselves on Purim. Haman sought to destroy all of the Jews by changing a letter. On the day of our victory over Haman we symbolize his failure by showing that we can un-do what Haman did by changing the ayin back into an aleph. On Purim we declare that our bodies are “כתנות אור”, vessels encasing our holy souls. But our exterior is merely a façade, for our true greatness lies inside. Our clothing and our externals are ‘clothing of light’, i.e. they mask a greater internal. On Purim we hide ourselves, symbolizing the fact that we are always masking our real selves.
A Jew is ‘far more than meets the eye’. His impenetrable greatness lies within and permeates his externals as well.  On Purim we celebrate, not only that inner greatness, but also the fact that our inner greatness manifests itself externally. Our bodies become כתנות אור”, vessels encasing our holy souls.

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner[15] noted that the law is when one purchases a box of wheat, the seller does not have to give the buyer the box along with the wheat. However, when one purchases a barrel of wine, the buyer must give the seller the wine along with the barrel.
He explained that the reason for this difference is that wine improves with age. The betterment of wine is heavily affected by what it is being stored in. A fancy silver case may damage the taste of the wine, while a wooden one will improve its taste. Therefore, the seller must give the buyer the vessel which is holding the wine, since that vessel plays an important role in the value and taste of the wine.
Grain however, does not improve with time (in fact it can spoil and rot if left for too long). Therefore, its casing is irrelevant to the sale.
On Purim, we celebrate the holiness of the Jewish body. The Jewish body is the vessel which contains our souls and, therefore, is itself a vital component of our ultimate level of holiness. On Purim we drink wine because it reflects the essence of our joy on this day. Wine is bound to its vessel as the Jewish soul is bound to the body.  

“For we have been sold – I and my people – to be destroyed”
“G-d made for Adam and his wife garments of light”

[1] Many of the following thoughts are based on the speech delivered by my in-law’s esteemed neighbor, and our dear friend, Rabbi Eli Oelbaum, at our Shabbos Sheva Berachos, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Tetzaveh 5762.
[2] 7:1-6
[3] In his sefer, Ohaiv Yisroel (likutim)
[4] 900 - circa. 1000; Rav Sherira Gaon, father of Rav Hai Gaon, was a scholar of note and the leader of the Babylonian Jewish community
[5] The verse literally means, ‘an eye for an eye’ but here was being translated as ‘an eye for an ayin’ - i.e. the letter ayin, which the man had erased.
[6] Although the decrees were written in Persian (not Hebrew), we can imagine that Haman employed a similar tactic with the Persian letters.
[7] Haman probably reckoned that once the decrees were passed he would be able to convince Achashveirosh to leave them in place. Haman had a gifted tongue and was able to convince anyone, especially Achashveirosh, whatever he wanted. But because of how rapidly the events unfolded after the edict was passed, Haman never had that opportunity. Instead Achashveirosh found out about it from Esther and viewed it as an act of treachery against him.
[8] Shemos 28:2
[9] The commentators explain that, until that point, evil was an external force. Before they sinned, Adam and Chava’s bodies were merely vessels that contained their inner soul. There was therefore no reason for them to cover their bodies. However, when they ate from the forbidden fruit, they ingested spiritual evil along with the physical food. Forevermore, mankind became a conglomerate of dichotomous forces struggling for supremacy within him. The body now became a rivaling faction that challenged the spiritual internal soul.  At that point, the body became a source of shame and Adam and Chava became ‘aware of their nakedness’ and were ashamed of it.
[10] Yalkut Shimoni 34
[11] [Rabbi Meir changed the letter ayin to an aleph and, in so doing, completely altered the meaning of the word.]
[12] See Vilna Gaon on Megillas Esther who explains the decree of ‘l’abayd’ as referring to obliterating their bodies.
[13] In order to ensure that we fulfill both opinions, the custom is to read (either the word or the entire verse) twice.
[14] ‘Zaycher’ is written with a tzayray- two dots next to each other, while ‘zecher’ is written with a segol- two dots next to each other and a third dot below it.
[15] Purim 1972

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – ASHAR
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor


Every now and then a story will circulate that no one really knows its authenticity. The following story falls into that category. Despite whether it actually ever happened or not, its poignant message is unquestionably true: 

There were once two terminally ill elderly men – Moshe and Chaim – who were roommates in an old aged home. Moshe was so weak that he could not even sit up on his bed.  Chaim, who was not quite as weak, had the bed next to the window.
Taking advantage of his situation, Chaim would sit up on his bed and gaze out the window. He would animatedly describe to the very attentive Moshe all the sights he could see: Children frolicking on the nearby playground, couples walking leisurely by the road, the beautiful sunsets, and trees and flowers in full bloom. There was even one child who Chaim named Zevi who came to play each day. Chaim would tell Moshe, “Oh Zevi is wearing a new coat!” or “Looks like Zevi caught a cold.” Moshe, who could see nothing other than the closet facing him, loved hearing Chaim’s long-winded descriptions.
One morning Chaim did not wake up. After his friend’s body was removed, Moshe requested that he be moved near the window where Moshe’s bed had been. As soon as he was near the window, he pushed the button to hoist up the top of his bed. He was shocked by the sight that greeted him. Through that window, aside for a small hint of sunlight, one could see nothing but a brick wall!    

The Mishkan (Tabernacle) was to be constructed exactly as G-d instructed Moshe.  In order to achieve its purpose of being a place where G-d’s Divine Presence could descend, as it were, the building had to be constructed according to the parameters, and utilizing the materials, that G-d Himself instructed.
The sanctuary itself was composed of one large room, divided by a curtain. The bigger half of the room – the “Holy” comprised the golden Menorah, Shulchan (Table), and Incense Altar. On the other side of the curtain was the “Holy of Holies” which housed the Aron - the holy Ark, which encompassed the Luchos (Tablets of Law).

“And the curtain will separate for you between the Holy and the Holy of Holies[1].”
          There is an important lesson about personal growth that can be gleaned from the structure of the Mishkan[2]. Often a person will strive to accomplish certain levels of spirituality. He will expend great efforts and time to meet those self-imposed goals. If he is able to meet his objectives, he justifiably feels very accomplished, and allows himself to bask in the ‘holiness’ that he has achieved.
          One must never lose perspective of the fact that for every “holy” there is a “holy of holies”. In other words, no matter how much one has accomplished spiritually, he should never allow himself to be satisfied with it. Rather, he should recognize and appreciate what he has achieved, and then he should strive for even greater heights.
          Why is it that many people do not take the next step? Why is it that they settle for lesser levels of greatness than they could truly achieve? Because from the “holy” one cannot see the “holy of holies”. It seems too far in the distance. The prevailing thought is, “For such a jump, I am not ready.”  We think if we go beyond the holy we will encounter the proverbial brick wall. In reality however, it is only a curtain that must be traversed.

          It is often said that what motivates the great educator is his/her ability to see a child for what he can be, not necessarily what he is. Educators with that level of foresight relate to their children in a different manner, and the child senses it.
“Children do not become what we think they can become. Children do not become what they think they can become. Children become what they think we think they can become!”
The truth is that this idea is not limited to children. So long as we are alive, we have the ability (and obligation) to strive for higher and greater levels. But we must believe in ourselves! If we can have the requisite foresight to see ourselves beyond the obscuring curtain, we can hope to one day get there. But if we see the curtain as a ‘glass ceiling’ that is as high as we will go.  

          During the unfolding of the events prior to the Purim miracle, the Jewish people felt lost and abandoned. The entire nation had literally been sold out and they had nowhere to escape to. They truly felt they had hit a brick wall. But Mordechai prevailed upon them that they could still persevere. The decree was not yet completely sealed in heaven and there was still hope. The incredible wave of repentance that unified the nation was indeed potent enough to “push aside the curtain”. From that event, the great holiday of Purim was created.  
The Arizal explains that Purim day is tantamount to Yom Kippur, the holiest of all holy days. So in a sense this ‘holiest of holy days’ was truly created because the Jews went ‘beyond the curtain’.   
          The holiday of Purim represents the eternal sanguinity of the Jewish people. Even in the worst of times we are able to hope for a better and brighter future.
          But in order to achieve that level of optimism we have to be ready to adopt the attitude of Esther, “And so I will enter to the king without permission.” She was willing to enter “unchartered territories” at the risk of her life, when she entered the chambers of Achashveirosh uninvited. In order to achieve anything significant one must be willing to take that first daunting step.

 “And the curtain will separate between the Holy and the Holy of Holies”
“What we think we can become….”

[1] (26:33) 
[2] This idea is based on a thought by Rabbi Itzeleh of Volozhin (Peh Kadosh), with a bit of variation. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – ASHAR
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor


          Rabbi Yisroel Ba’al Shem Tov[1], the founder of the Chassidic movement, was legendary as a holy man who had ‘vision’ beyond physical confines. 
          On one occasion[2] the Ba’al Shem Tov was traveling with his young grandson, Reb Boruch of Mezhbizh[3]. When they entered a certain town, the Ba’al Shem Tov announced to the townspeople that he wished to meet with the town’s poritz (landowner). The Jews of the city countered that the poritz was a virulent anti-Semite and would never agree to meet with a Jew. Nevertheless, the Ba’al Shem Tov was insistent that the meeting be arranged. Surprisingly, the poritz agreed to meet with the Ba’al Shem Tov. The townspeople were unaware that the young poritz had become ill and feeble. He had heard that the Ba’al Shem Tov could procure miracles and, out of desperation, he agreed to meet with the venerable sage.
The Ba’al Shem Tov told the poritz that, even though he was a relatively young man, he had become sick because of his hedonistic lifestyle. Chasing after his desires without inhibition had enfeebled his body causing it to deteriorate. The Ba’al Shem Tov told the poritz that if he would exercise restraint and self-control he would recover. The incredulous poritz responded, “What about you Rabbi? How do you deal with desires?” The Ba’al Shem Tov replied, “I’m already an old man. Why are you asking me about desires?” With that the meeting ended and the Ba’al Shem Tov and his grandson left.
When they were back on the coach leaving the village, young Brouch turned to his grandfather, “Zeide, why did you tell him that you’re an old man? Why didn’t you tell him the truth; that you fight your desires and inclinations, and have mastered them?”
The Ba’al Shem Tov shook his head and poignantly replied, “Gay zug tzu a goiy vos iz ah yid- Go tell a non-Jew what a Jew is!”[4]
Years later, when Reb Baruch himself became a leading Chassidic Rebbe, he would relate this story. But, after repeating his grandfather’s quip, he would add, “Oon ich zugg, gay zug tzu a yid vos iz a yid- And I say, go tell a Jew what a Jew is!”[5]

“G-d spoke to Moshe saying: When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, every man shall give G-d an atonement for his soul… This shall they give – everyone who passes through the census – a half shekel of the sacred shekel… The wealthy shall not increase and the destitute shall not decrease from half a shekel…”[6]
The commentators wonder why every Jew was instructed to donate a half-shekel to the Temple treasury? If the purpose of the half-shekel was to have a census of the nation, why didn’t they each donate a full shekel?
Rabbi Avrohom Schorr[7] offers a novel explanation: Our Sages relate that there were certain unique individuals who were ‘equal’ to many others[8]. That is something only one who possesses Divine Spirit can know. Our finite senses only allow us to see a limited amount of a person’s greatness and, therefore, we can never measure the internal value of an individual. In heaven however, they are privy to things that we cannot see. They can realize the true measure of a person, a value that far exceeds what we attribute to others in this world.
Every individual is part of a greater collective group, on two levels. On a quantitative level, he is another body, no different than anyone else in the group. But on a deeper level he plays a distinct role which grants him certain uniqueness. For example, when deciding how many settings are needed at a corporate dinner, the CEO requires a place setting just as the company’s receptionist does. But when establishing the hierarchy of the company and divvying out tasks, the CEO is undoubtedly far more crucial to the company than the receptionist.
When taking a census of the Jewish nation, G-d wanted us to realize that it is merely a quantitative tally. It is a calculation of the physical members of Klal Yisroel. But the other ‘half’ of the nation, i.e. their qualitative value, is immeasurable. No census could possibly reveal the intrinsic value of a Jew, or the Jewish people as a whole.
Our Sages explain[9] that giving the half-shekel tax served as atonement for their participation in the sin of the Golden Calf. The root cause of that sin stemmed from feelings of despondency, inadequacy, and hopelessness. They panicked and declared, “For this man Moshe that has brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him[10].” In fact, the root of almost all sin and impurities stem from feelings of lowliness, sadness, and lack of regard for one’s own greatness.
Therefore, when they contributed the half-shekel, it served as atonement for them because it rectified the root of the sin. The half-shekel symbolized that they could not contribute anything toward their qualitative value, because that aspect was simply incalculable. The greatness of a Jew can never be measured in quantifiable terms.    
The Gemara[11] explains that man contains ‘six similarities’ - three similarities with the ministering angels and three similarities with animals. The half-shekel allows for a count of the ‘half’ of man which is tantamount to quantifiable animals. But our better half, our souls which connect us to the Divine, cannot be calculated. 

The Zohar[12] writes that whoever feels pained about the tragic and untimely deaths of the sons of Aharon[13] will have his sins forgiven.
How can one be expected to genuinely cry over a tragedy that occurred over 3000 years ago? Even had they not died in such a tragic manner, they would be long gone by now?
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz zt’l answers that when a righteous person dies, the world suffers irreplaceable loss. The reason we cry about the deaths of the two sons of Aharon is because the entire world lost out because of it. Had they lived longer they could have had a greater effect on the world. That loss is so great, that it continues to have a negative effect even after 3000 years. Although it may not be discernable to us, the world would be a different place had they not died when they did. That is certainly something to cry about!
Building on this point, we can add that we ourselves do not realize the extent of the heinous evils perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II (as well as all the other myriad tragedies we have suffered throughout exile). When it is said that they murdered ‘six-million’, in a sense, that is only half the damage. On a deeper and more tragic level, they destroyed six million worlds, each greater than the next. That loss is far more painful and irreplaceable.

“Moshe wrote all the Words of G-d… and they brought up elevation offerings, and they slaughtered bulls…. Moshe took half the blood and placed it in basins, and half the blood he threw upon the altar. He took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, “Everything that G-d has spoken (na’aseh v’nishma) we will do and we will hear”. Moshe took the blood and threw it on the people, and he said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that G-d sealed with you concerning these matters’.”[14]
The Jews’ unconditional acceptance of G-d’s commands has become immortalized as the greatest testament of our acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven. Whenever children are taught about the giving of the Torah they are taught to repeat the hallowed refrain, “We will do and we will hear.” The burgeoning Jewish nation pledged to adhere to the Word of G-d, even before fully comprehending the rationale and logic for each commandment.
In a homiletical fashion, we can explain that their commitment to ‘do’ and ‘hear’ refers to two different aspects of our connection with G-d’s Word.
 “We will do” refers to the actions that the nation was obligated to perform, and the prohibitions that they had to be wary of. That component is quantifiable - 613 commandments, and many added Rabbinic precautionary laws.
“We will hear” refers to the internal commitment within the heart of each Jew. In regards to actions everyone is equal and must perform the commandments in basically the same manner. Within one’s heart however, every person serves G-d, and connects with Him, in his own way and on his own level. That vital component of Judaism is not quantifiable.
Both components are necessary. One who is merely a ‘Jew at heart’ is as remiss as one who performs all requirements mechanically, without feeling or emotion. The binding Covenant at Sinai included both aspects.
We can add that this was part of the significance of the fact that Moshe divided the blood. Half the blood was cast on the altar to symbolize the requisite service that had to be followed as commanded. But the other half was sprinkled on the people to symbolize that each of them had to develop their own inner connection with G-d.
The half-shekel, the division of the blood, and the two aspects of “we will do and we will hear”, all symbolize the fact that serving G-d entails a quantitative collective connection, as well as a personal qualitative inner connection. Together they make up the perfect Jew!

“We will do and we will hear”
“This shall they give…a half shekel of the sacred shekel.”

[1] 1698-1760
[2] I heard this story from the Mashgiach, Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman shlita, Staff Orientation, Camp Dora Golding, summer 5764
[3] 1753-1811
[4] In other words, the Ba’al Shem Tov felt that the crass poritz could never comprehend the concept of vanquishing one’s desires and being in total control, something every Torah Jew strives to attain. The most the poritz could understand was to keep his desires somewhat in check.
[5] In other words, we ourselves do not appreciate our greatness and immeasurable value.
[6] Shemos 30:11-16
[7] Halekach V’halibuv
[8] For example, the Medrash states that Moshe was equal to all of Klal Yisroel (Tanchuma, Beshalach, 10). Also, gemara Bava Basra (121) states that Yair ben Menashe was as great as most of the members of the Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court).
[9] See Yerushalmi Shekalim 2:3; see also Tanchuma, Ki Sisa 10.
[10] Shemos 32:1
[11] Chagiga 16a
[12] מגן אברהם, או''ח תרכ''א
[13] See Vayikra, chapter 10
[14] Shemos 24:4-8

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – ASHAR
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor


Rabbi Binny Freedman[1] related the following personal vignette:
“Of all the unexpected visitors I have ever received, none even came close to the surprise I got in the summer of ’94.
“I was teaching a course on Jewish values, deep in the mountains of Pennsylvania, at a camp called Moshava, near Indian Orchard. We were in the middle of an intense discussion on Jewish ethics, when I noticed three fellows standing at the entrance to the lodge. Their features were far eastern; Chinese, it seemed, and they were standing patiently at the door, taking it all in.
“You must understand, we were really in the middle of nowhere… I couldn’t imagine how these three fellows ended up here, especially as they looked like tourists.
““Where are you from?” I asked. “We come from Tibet, though we are living in Nepal right now.” But what really shocked me was their next question: “Are you Rabbi Freedman?” I was amazed. They were actually looking for me, in the wilderness, having arrived all the way from Tibet!
“It transpired that they were followers of the Dali Lama, who, along with 80,000 followers, had been forced to flee Tibet in the early 1950’s, when the Chinese had taken over their country and destroyed the infrastructure of their Tibetan religion.
“Recently, they had begun to come to terms with a new challenge. Having lived in exile for nearly fifty years, a new generation was now coming of age, who had grown up in India, and never even seen the ‘old country’ of Tibet. So they were trying to figure out how to keep the dream of Tibet alive, in the hearts of the children who had never seen, much less experienced, the homeland they still longed for.
“So the Dali Lama decided to consult the experts. Who better to explain how to stay connected to a land in exile, than a people that had managed to retain a dream over 2000 years, finally realizing their goal and coming home after nearly fifty generations?
“The Dali Lama had then sent over three hundred students all over the world, to every major Jewish Organization… to ask for help in learning how to respond to this dilemma. Somehow, after hearing about Camp Moshava, they had been given my name, and had sought out our discussion group, literally in the middle of nowhere.”  

          The Gemara[2] quotes the Amora, Rabba Bar bar Channa, who recounted an unusual experience: “One time we were traveling by ship on the open sea when we noticed trees and sand on what seemed to be a beautiful island. In reality the ‘island’ was on the back of a tremendous fish but we could not realize that. We disembarked from the boat onto the ‘island’ where we began to cook ourselves a meal. After some time, the fish began to feel hot from the fire on its back, and it turned over, casting all of us into the sea. Were it not for the fact that our ship was nearby all of us would have drowned.”
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l explained Rabba Bar bar Channa’s story as a fictional analogy for Klal Yisroel’s repeated experience in exile. Whenever we have been exiled from our homeland we have looked askance and found new lands where we felt we could settle and be content. We ‘unloaded’ our possessions and relegated ourselves to the whims and civilizations of our host countries in our efforts to make ourselves comfortable.
After some time however, we realized that the island was not an island at all, but that we were precariously riding on the back of a tempestuous fish. As soon as the ‘fish’ sensed that we were becoming too comfortable on its back, it began to ‘feel the heat’ and promptly dumped us off, into the abyss of the ocean. “Were it not for the fact that our ship - the ship of Torah, faith, and the knowledge that we have a distant homeland – was nearby, all of us would have drowned.”
Rabba Bar bar Channa was prophetically depicting a tragic scene that we are all too familiar with. After the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash, Klal Yisroel built a vibrant Judaic infrastructure in Babylonia. Replete with celebrated Yeshivos and Torah scholars, the Jewish community in Babylonia flourished for 1500 years.
From there the Jews heavily immigrated to the Iberian Peninsula. They remained in Spain and enjoyed a ‘golden age’ for almost one thousand years. Jews maintained positions of tremendous affluence and political power until their expulsion in 1492[3].
Jews were welcomed to Poland in 1334 by its ruler, Casmir III, to help populate the sparsely settled area. The Jews would wistfully state that “Poland” was a combination of the Hebrew words, “Poh lin- Here we will sleep”, i.e. here we will sleep out the exile in comfort and tranquility[4].
There was no more cultured and enlightened country in all of Europe than Germany in the early 1900s. Jews had fought valiantly for the fatherland in WWI and had achieved great prominence and distinction throughout the country.
Yet, each time, the fish eventually turned over, leaving us in the vast ominous ocean without recourse, except to find our way back to our ship. In a sense, our adversaries have ensured that we never lose sight of our ship and never forget where our true allegiance lies.

“Yisro, the father-in-law of Moshe, took Tzipporah, the wife of Moshe after she had been sent away; and her two sons, of whom the one was named Gershom, for he had said, ‘I was a sojourner (ger) in a strange land’; and the name of the other was Eliezer, for “the G-d of my father came to my aid (ezri), and He saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”[5]
With the explanation of Rabbi Soloveitchik in mind, we can explain that Moshe named his children with the future destiny of Klal Yisroel in mind[6]. Moshe called his first son Gershom to symbolize the fact that Klal Yisroel were originally strangers in Egypt. But then they became acquainted with their new ‘homeland’. In fact, Moshe was raised in Pharaoh’s palace. As an infant, Moshe would delight Pharaoh by frolicking on his knee. Yet when Moshe was apprehended for killing an Egyptian, all of his ‘connections’ were worthless and, were it not that, “the G-d of my father came to my aid,”  he would have perished.

The gemara[7] relates that Rabbi Yosi once entered one of the ruins of a synagogue in order to pray. While he was praying Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet) arrived and waited for him in the doorway. When Rabbi Yosi completed his prayers, Eliyahu asked him why he had entered one of the ruins of Jerusalem when it was forbidden to do so? Rabbi Yosi replied that he was traveling and needed a place to pray. Eliyahu countered that he should have prayed along the road. Rabbi Yosi defended himself, “I was afraid that if I prayed along the road I would be interrupted by passersby.” Eliyahu replied that he should have prayed an abridged version. Reflecting upon that incident, Rabbi Yose stated that he learned three things from that encounter: One shouldn’t enter a ruin; one is permitted to pray along the road; and one who prays along the road should pray an abridged version.
Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner zt’l explained that their conversation was not simply halachic pondering. It was actually a philosophical debate that involved the outlook of a Jew and his purpose in exile. Rabbi Yose lived two generations after the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash. The fact that Rabbi Yose decided to pray in a ruin represented his view of exile as a purposeless endeavor. By choosing to pray in a ruin he was beseeching G-d to bring His People back home so that they would not atrophy in exile. Essentially, he was seeking to hold onto the past.
Eliyahu taught Rabbi Yose that exile is not G-d’s way of wrathfully casting His People away, Heaven forbid. G-d exiles His Nation so that they can build and develop themselves through the challenges and travails of exile, in order that they will be worthy of redemption and salvation. The proper prayer of a Jew in exile is that G-d should grant him the wisdom and insight to grow through the exile, and not be impeded by it.
The fact that Rabbi Yose didn’t want to pray along the road, symbolized his fear that Klal Yisroel would not be able to withstand the long bitter exile. He feared that they would be unable to maintain their connection with G-d if they no longer had a centralized Temple and its endemic service. How could a nation without a land endure?
Eliyahu countered that one must pray along the road, even though doing so entails praying an abridged prayer. In exile G-d allows us to connect with Him ‘with less’.
When the Bais Hamikdash stood our responsibility was to serve G-d by performing its Service. But when we are in exile our responsibility is to serve G-d utilizing whatever modalities He has provided. We must learn to pray along the road, even if it is only an abridged prayer.  

Moshe gave his children names that reflected his perseverance and durability in exile. A few generations earlier, when Yosef Hatzaddik was alone in Egypt, he named his children utilizing this same approach. He named his sons, Menashe, because G-d helped him forget (nashani) his travails and pains, and Ephraim, because he was fruitful (hifrani) despite his exile. Both Yosef and Moshe were progenitors and ‘Founding Fathers’ of Klal Yisroel. They demonstrated that a Jew views exile as an arduous challenge, but one which one can - and must - grow from.

It is intriguing that the Torah portion which contains the most seminal event that ever occurred - the giving of the Torah – is titled parshas Yisro. Yisro, the father-in-law of Moshe, was a world leader, one of the three top ministers of Pharaoh[8].  He subsequently gave it all up because he recognized G-d as the true Creator. Amidst ridicule and condemnation, Yisro publicly proclaimed the veracity of Torah and that Klal Yisroel was the Chosen People. This was all despite the fact that doing so caused him to be shunned from his previous posts of prominence.
Yisro’s legacy includes the ability to thrive and grow even in exile and after willingly forfeiting greatness. This is a lesson Klal Yisroel has internalized and personified throughout the ages.

We have retained our identity despite millennia in exile because we have never wandered too far from our ship. We know that exile is an integral part of the journey, a part of the circuitous road that will eventually lead us home.         

 “I was a sojourner in a strange land.”
 “The G-d of my father saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”

[1] in his weekly Torah thoughts “A Weekly Byte from Isralight” for parshas Vayechi
[2] Bava Basra 73b
[3] This includes the great sages Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid and Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel. Rabbi Abarbanel held one of the highest positions in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Abarbanel decided to leave all his wealth and prominence behind to leave with his brethren in 1492.
[4] The beginning of the decline of Polish Jewry was in 1648-1649 (Tach V’tat) with the egregious Cossack pogroms led and incited by the infamous Bogdan Chmielnicki. Until then the Jews in Poland enjoyed relative comfort and protection. Although the decimation of Polish Jewry didn’t occur until  World War II, the pogroms set that tragic trajectory in motion.  
[5] Shemos 18:2-3
[6] I heard this thought from Rabbi Alfred Cohn, Rabbi of Congregation Ohaiv Yisroel, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Yisro 5766
[7] Berachos 4a
[8] see Sotah 11a