Thursday, May 14, 2015


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


The following thought is excerpted from a lecture given by Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau shlita, at St Annes College, on May 7, 2006:

“There was once a conference held with Professor Toynbee[1], of Oxford, and Rabbi Yaakov Herzog[2]. At the conference, Professor Toynbee was arguing that Eretz Yisroel was not a state, but a Jewish sect of people with no real linkage in past statehood, an amalgam of religious people who did not deserve the name of a state. Yaakov Herzog responded to these challenges with a witty allegorical story:
““Imagine that you are on the runway of a Greek airport, watching the disembarking passengers. Out of the plane steps an old man, Socrates. Socrates starts speaking ancient Greek, but nobody understands him because the language of modern Greece is very different. Then Socrates asks to see the Temple of Zeus, but it is no longer there because the country is Christian. Only archaeology can link this small NATO country to the empire it once was.
“The same goes for Italy. Imagine Julius Caesar stepping off a plane in Rome. No temple of Jupiter, but the Pope is now supreme. Nobody speaks ancient Latin anymore, and this Rome bears no resemblance to the Rome of Caesar.
“Now let us go to Ben Gurion Airport. An attendant sees an old man step off a plane. The old man says “Shalom Aleichem.” The attendant answers “Aleichem Shalom” in the same language. The old man says, “Hi, I’m Moshe ben Amram.” The attendant says, “Hello, my name is Moshe also. I was born in Egypt.” Moshe ben Amram says, “So was I. Oh no, I have forgotten to put my Tefillin on. It’s an ancient custom dating back three thousand years…”
““No problem” says the attendant, “I have my Tefillin in the car.” Moshe is astounded. This ancient custom has survived thousands of years, as has the language, the culture and the traditions of the people he sees before him today.”
“Herzog concluded, “If we are not a nation, then what is a nation? Who else preserves it like the Jewish people? How is it that we are not justified in being a state? We are not just a state, we are The Jewish State.””

          The verses of the tochacha (rebuke) in Parshas Bechukosai[3] forebode the horrific and terrifying punishments that would befall Klal Yisroel if they would not adequately adhere to the Torah and mitzvos. It is frightening to note how we have seen the fulfillment of these curses throughout our years of persecution in exile.
          Towards the conclusion of the tochacha the Torah states, “Then they will confess their sin and the sin of their forefathers, for the treachery with which they betrayed me, and also for having behaved towards me with happenstance. I, too, will behave towards them with happenstance and I will bring them into the land of their enemies – perhaps then their unfeeling heart will be humbled and then they will gain appeasement for their sin.”[4]
The commentators question why this final punishment will befall the nation after they have confessed. If they expressed their indignity and regret for their iniquities, why would G-d react by relating to them with ‘happenstance’ and casualness?
Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt’l explained that throughout the tochacha the Torah emphasizes that the greatest sin of all is the fact that their service and attitude to G-d was apathetic and ‘with happenstance’. Their deficient observance of mitzvos and Torah study was not as tragic and deleterious as the fact that ‘their hearts were not in it.’ They approached their duties with triteness, and as a burden that needed to be done. Therefore their service was devoid of meaning. Most notably they lacked a relationship with G-d as it were, and their observance could not create an internal metamorphosis within them.
The greatest danger was that Klal Yisroel did not recognize this. “Then they will confess their sin and the sin of their forefathers, for the treachery with which they betrayed me, and also for having behaved towards me with happenstance.” True they will confess all of their sins, but their overriding sin, i.e. the lack of relationship and full commitment, they will only confess as an aside, “and also for having behaved towards me with happenstance”. The ‘and also’ is indicative of the fact that the nation failed to realize that their happenstance attitude was their core failing. The punishment too is measure for measure; G-d too, will only relate to Klal Yisroel with happenstance.

The Shulchan Aruch[5] rules that a worker hired to perform a job, recites an abridged version of Grace after Meals so that he does not take time away from the job he is being paid to perform. To dispel the question that perhaps he should recite the blessing while doing his work, the Shulchan Aruch adds that it is forbidden to perform any work while one is reciting a blessing.
The Taz explains the reason why one may not perform even a perfunctory activity while reciting a blessing: “For this demonstrates that he is performing the mitzvah without concentration, but with haphazardness and casualness, and this was included in the statement in our Torah, “And if you will go with Me with happenstance”. The words, ‘go with Me’ refers to performance of mitzvos. Even though one is performing the mitzvah, it is being done with haphazardness and casualness.”
It is not sufficient to go through the motions. Rather, each mitzvah we perform, the Torah we learn, and the blessings we recite, must help us build a personal connection with our Creator. The extent of this idea can be understood from this law: It is better for a worker to recite an abridged prayer than to recite the entire prayer without full concentration.   

I would like to illustrate this idea with a personal anecdote that happened recently: For the last few weeks I was experiencing some vexing computer issues with the desktop in my Yeshiva office. Apparently a virus had infiltrated the hard-drive and was severely affecting the computer. The problem became progressively worse until one morning I could not get into my system at all.          
A friend suggested that I wipe out the entire hard-drive and then reinstall Windows and all the other programs. This friend was somehow able to retrieve my files despite the fact that he could not log on. Then he proceeded to delete the hard-drive.
The process of reinstalling windows, and finding the necessary drivers for various programs, was arduous and time consuming. But when everything was installed I had a brand new computer and I was convinced that my computer woes were over.
My naiveté came to an end when a few days later a little box popped up on the bottom of computer which read, “You have 26 days left to activate your computer. Click here to activate now.” No sweat, I thought. I had the 25-character-activation-key printed on a sticker on the side of the computer and it would just take a few minutes to type in. To my utter chagrin however, the computer refused to activate. After verifying that my code was valid, Microsoft claimed that the flaw was with IBM‘s software. IBM in turn insisted that the problem lay with Microsoft and that they could not help me.   
When a friend tried utilizing another program to bypass the activation, the hard-drive was inadvertently wiped out again, bringing me back to square one. After reinstalling everything again the problem returned, only I now had an additional 29 days.
 Another friend insisted that he had a way of programming the computer so that it could fool the computer into thinking it was activated. Amazingly it worked (and you thought computers were so smart). However, after the 29 days were up I found out that although the computer said it was activated, it really wasn’t.
Suffice it to say that by that point I was exasperated and brought the computer to a technician. He too couldn’t rectify the problem, but he made me an offer – he could wipe out the hard drive and reinstall it…..
So now I am sitting at my computer, with its newly installed (for the third time!) hard-drive, hoping that this time it really lasts.
We are trained to believe that everything in life happens for a reason. Aside from the obvious lesson (bring it to the technician the first time), I contemplated what deeper message could be gleaned from the whole episode. The following are my thoughts:
The concept of forgiveness and atonement are integral to Judaism. The idea that one can always return and make amends is central to the spiritual growth cycle of man. The first ten days of each new year are the Ten days of Penitence, that climax with Yom Kippur, and the new year presents an opportunity to begin anew with a fresh start. In addition, in our prayers recited thrice daily we ask for forgiveness and constantly beg for atonement.  However, even after one has been granted forgiveness and his slate has been wiped clean, he has not completed his task. If one does not “activate”, by registering himself in the celestial database, as it were, his newfound spirituality will not last. The problems of the past will quickly resurface and he will end up right where he started.
Activation requires sacrifice and effort. Our database includes our forbearers and predecessors throughout time. If we want to register ourselves in that database we have to be prepared to follow the laborious protocol it entails.

The parshios of Behar and Bechukosai are often read together, shortly prior to Shavuos. One of the themes that traverses both parshios is the idea of commitment. Parshas Behar discusses the laws of shemittah, the sabbatical year. Only one who is truly committed to G-d and the Torah will allow his field to remain fallow for an entire year. In addition it discusses the laws of inheritance and possession of land, which also contains the idea of permanence and commitment to upkeep one’s inherited portion of Eretz Yisroel.
Parshas Bechukosai includes the frightening tochacha that Klal Yisroel suffers when our relationship with G-d is haphazard and lacking commitment. It is not enough to do what we have to do. We also have to become! If we serve G-d without emotion we have failed to register ourselves. That lack of feeling and aloofness towards Torah and mitzvah observance is the primary cause for retribution. G-d loves us too much to allow us to slip out of our eternal relationship with Him.
This vital idea precedes the holiday of Shavuos because it contains one of the most important prerequisites for accepting the Torah. One cannot be a proper Torah Jew with half a heart.  It entails complete submergence and servility to the yoke of Torah. Just as Klal Yisroel emphatically proclaimed, “ נעשה ונשמע – We will do and we will hear”, at the time of the giving of the Torah, so must we make the same mental declaration each year on Shavuos. Activation/registration is indeed required!

“And if you will go with Me with happenstance “
“I, too, will behave towards them with happenstance”

[1] Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) was an important British historian, who through his controversial theory on civilizations found a place in Israeli and Jewish awareness as an "anti-Semite." According to his theory, civilizations, like human beings, have life cycles that are marked by rises and falls. But the story of the Jewish people, who were determined to survive 2,000 years in the Diaspora only to rise again as a modern nation, did not suit his theory. Thus Toynbee described the Jews as a historic "fossil" - not dead, true, but also not really alive.
When he published his theory at the beginning of the 1960s, he was invited to a debate. The person who invited him was Dr. Yaakov Herzog, at the time Israel's ambassador to Canada, son of the former chief rabbi Yitzhak Herzog and the younger brother of Chaim Herzog, a brilliant scholar and diplomat. Many of Foreign Ministry officials were wary of this debate, which was reminiscent of the mythological word battles in the Middle Ages between Jews and Christians. In the end, however, all those who were present at the debate that took place in January 1961 in Montreal were convinced that Herzog had won.
Michael Bar-Zohar, who was Herzog's biographer, related that Pnina Herzog, the ambassador's wife, who sat next to Toynbee's wife, heard her saying to her husband right: "I told you not to take part in this debate!" 
In the wake of that failure, Toynbee indeed moderated the sharpness of his statements about the Jews. 
[2] A rabbi, erudite scholar, and gifted diplomat, Yaacov Herzog served as a close adviser to four Israeli prime ministers, was ambassador to Canada and served briefly as the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. His brother, Chaim Herzog, served as the sixth president of the state of Israel.
[3] and repeated with variation in parshas Ki Savo
[4] 26:40-41
[5] Ohr HaChaim 191:1, 3


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