Friday, October 9, 2015


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


Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, NY is an upstanding Torah institution, educating hundreds of students. Some of the Rabbeim in the yeshiva, who reside in Brooklyn and travel to Far Rockaway, drive a carpool of students who live in Brooklyn to and from the yeshiva each day. 
The drive from Brooklyn entails traveling through Arvene, NY, which is known as a dangerous crime-ridden area between Belle Harbor and Far Rockaway[1].
One day, Rabbi Leibish Langer, a Rebbe in Darchei Torah who lives in Brooklyn, was driving with a few students under the train-tracks in Arvene when his car suddenly sputtered and stalled. All of his desperate efforts proved futile; the car would not start up again. This was during the pre-cell phone era and Rabbi Langer was quite apprehensive. He told the students to get down on the floor. He then closed the windows and locked the doors, hoping that a fellow Jew would pass by soon and help him out.
A few moments later a burly African-American fellow who was more than six feet tall walked up to the car and knocked on the window. “What seems to be the problem buddy?” Rabbi Langer opened the window a crack. “I don’t know; the car stalled and won’t start up again.” The stranger instructed him to pop his hood. Not knowing what else to do, Rabbi Langer complied. He sat in his seat nervously listening to the clanging going on under his hood.
Suddenly he noticed three rambunctious teens walking towards the car. The stranger noticed them as well and called out to them, “Hey, you get out of here; I’m helping this man!” The teens stared at the stranger for a moment before turning around and walking away.
Within five minutes, he was done. He instructed Rabbi Langer to try to start the car again. This time the engine immediately revved back to life. The stranger turned around and began to walk away. Rabbi Langer hastily opened the door and walked over to the stranger and tried to hand him a few dollars. But the stranger refused the money. Rabbi Langer was incredulous, “Why would you do that for me?” The stranger replied, “Do you know Joseph and Nechama Katz[2]? I worked for them and they always treated me with such dignity and respect. Because of them I promised that if I ever see a religious Jew in need I would try to help him in any way I could.”[3]

There is no animal that has as negative a reputation in the Torah as the snake. Time and again the snake appears as the symbol of evil and malevolence.
Immediately after the creation of the world, it was the cunning snake that convinced Chava to partake of the forbidden fruit, which had a perpetually fatal deleterious effect on all of creation.
Years later, when Yosef was abducted by his brothers, they cast him into a pit. The Sages relate that the pit was devoid of water, but filled with snakes and scorpions.
When G-d first informed Moshe to appear before Pharaoh to command him to let the Jews leave Egypt, the first miraculous ‘sign’ that he performed in Pharaoh’s presence was transforming his staff into a snake. The Sages explain that Pharaoh was unimpressed by the transformation, as all of his servants and children could employ the forces of magic and do the same. However, an undeniable miracle occurred when, after all of their snakes reverted back into staffs, Aharon’s staff swallowed all of their staffs.
Shortly before the Jewish nation entered the Holy Land, towards the end of their forty year sojourns in the desert, the nation sinned. G-d was angered by their insubordination and multitudes of snakes entered the camp killing many. Moshe instructed Aharon to erect a copper snake so that when the nation would see it they would be moved to repent. It was only then that the plague ceased.
In addition, our Sages teach us that the serpent is the symbol of evil - most notably it is symbolic of Amalek - our nemesis and implacable foe.
What is the source for the snake’s unmitigated ‘venomous’ reputation?

When G-d meted out retribution to the snake for causing the primordial sin, it was given two curses, “על גחונך תלך – On your stomach you shall crawl” and “ועפר תאכל כל ימי חייך – Dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”
Prima facie, the snake’s curse does not seem to be all that bad. While man was cursed that forevermore he would be compelled to toil for his sustenance and livelihood, the snake was ensured that he would never have to struggle for food, because there is no dearth of dust anywhere.
The Chiddushei Harim explained that the snake’s curse was in actuality the severest of all. It is analogous to a wealthy man who becomes enraged with his wayward son. One day he calls his son into his room and hands him a tremendous amount of cash, a deed to a mansion in some distant country, and the keys to his new one hundred-thousand dollar car. He tells his son to take it all and to leave and never ever come back.
While it may seem that the son really wasn’t punished for his negative behaviors, in truth he has received the greatest punishment possible. He has been banished from his father who has completely severed all ties with him. What is all the money in the world worth when one is hated and despised by those he needs most?
That is essentially what G-d told the snake. He would have all of his needs wherever he went, so that he would never need to pray to G-d, for G-d was uninterested in hearing the prayers of the snake. Man indeed must suffer and struggle but those struggles force him to turn to G-d, who is only too eager to hear his prayers. Man’s punishment contained the hidden blessing in that it ensures that there will always be an inextricable connection between him and his Creator.
The second half of the curse was that the snake travel on his belly. Because the snake has no legs his only means of transportation is by slithering across its terrain in a zigzag formation. When a person sees another person walking in an un-straight manner he seeks to avoid him. Meandering in a zigzag fashion connotes deviousness and abnormality. The curse of moving in a zigzag serves to distance the snake from the rest of society who seeks to avoid it. When the snake was granted all its needs and banished from society, it became persona non grata, hated and disparaged by all.
The fact that the snake transports itself by meandering perversely, and was the instigator of the most catastrophic sin ever committed, makes it the perfect symbol of evil and perversity.
When Yosef was cast into the snake-infested pit by his brothers and he saw that they did not harm him, he saw in that a divine message that G-d was still with him, for he had maintained the path of straightness and had not succumbed to the perverseness represented by the snake.
Moshe cast his staff onto the impure floor of Egypt and it transformed into a snake, symbolizing the impurity of Egypt. But when the ‘straight staff’ of Aharon swallowed the staffs of the Egyptians, it symbolized that the straight and just Word of G-d would ultimately decimate the perverse land of Egypt
When the Jews were about to enter the Promised Land, they were reminded of this lesson again. Their complaints demonstrated a lack of belief in G-d, a form of perverseness. The snake symbolized their fallacy. They had to strengthen their faith and understanding of the straight path before they could enter Eretz Yisroel.

The Torah exhorts us, “ועשית הישר והטוב בעיני ה' And you shall do what is straight and what is good in the eyes of G-d[4].” A Jew has the responsibility to always ensure that his actions are done with ‘yashrus[5]’. He must make certain that all of his actions and words are with dignity and that he is an example for others.
 “האלקים עשה את האדם ישר והמה בקשו חשבנות רבים G-d made man straight, but he has sought many calculations.[6]” One of the tragic consequences of the sin of Adam was that it caused right and wrong to become befuddled. Our world became a conglomerate of good and bad and it is often extremely difficult to discern them. Our responsibility is to adhere to the Torah, for only in doing so can we ensure that we will remain on the straight path.

In his introduction to Chumash Bereishis, the Netziv notes that the Book of Bereishis is referred to in rabbinic literature as Sefer Ha-Yashar, the Book of the Upright/Straight.  He questions why it was not called “the Book of the Tzaddikim (righteous)” or “the Book of the Chasidim (pious)”?
The Netziv notes that at the end of the Second Temple era, the Jews could be considered tzaddikim and chasidim, because they were constantly involved in Torah study. The problem was that they were not yesharim, and it was that lack which led to the destruction of the Temple.
In his words, “Mip’nei sinas chinam b’libam chashdu es mi shera’u shenohag shelo keda’atam beyiras Hashem shehu tzeduki v’apikores - On account of the enmity in their hearts they suspected anyone who did not act like them in matters of faith to be a Sadducee and a heretic!”  Even though they might have been acting ‘for the sake of heaven’, nevertheless these actions caused the eventual destruction of the Temple.
The Netziv continues that the actions of our patriarchs were the exact opposite. Avrohom, who was called ‘Av hamon goyim –Father of the multitudes of nations’, prayed for the people of Sodom, despite their wickedness. When Yitzchok was dealt with unfairly and unethically by Avimelech he remained courteous and overly accommodating. Yaakov lived in the home of his duplicitous brother-in-law Lavan and yet always maintained his composure and patience.
The point of Bereishis is not merely to teach us that the Patriarchs spread their teachings or that they built a large family.  It is also to teach us how they acted towards others, even with the people with whom they disagreed. “Shehisnahagu im ovdei elilim mechua’rim, hayu imam b’ahavah v’chashu l’tovasam ba’asher hi kiyum hab’riah - They acted with great love towards idolaters, and were concerned for their welfare, because that is what maintains the existence of the world.”
In other words, Chumash Bereishis teaches us how to live as yesharim in a world which stands in stark contrast to those values. It is about being a light unto the nations in a world of moral darkness.
The legacy that our Patriarchs and Matriarchs personified is the opposite of what the snake represents: It is not enough to be tzaddikim and chasidim, we must also strive to be yesharim!

“On your stomach you shall crawl”
“And you shall do what is straight and what is good”

[1] ‘They say’ that if one drives through a red light in Arvene, the cops won’t give him a ticket, because they understand the desire to get out of there as quickly as possible.
[2] Mrs Nechama Katz is the cook in Darchei Torah. She and her husband Joseph are the owners of Elite Caterers, and are known to be very special and caring individuals. 
[3] Story heard from the Mashgiach, Rabbi Mordechai Finkleman shlita, on 17 Tammuz 5769, in Camp Dora Golding
[4] Devorim 6:18
[5] Yashrus literally means straightness, but it connotes moral uprightness, extreme precision to ethics, and dignity. The Yiddish word “mentchlichkeit” is most apropos.
[6] Koheles (7:29)


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