Wednesday, August 3, 2016


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


Drop a pebble in the water: just a splash and it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples, circling on and on and on,
Spreading, spreading from the center, flowing on out to the sea.
And there is no way of telling, where the end is going to be.

Drop a pebble in the water: in a minute you forget,
But there's little waves a-flowing, and there's ripples circling yet,
And those little waves a-flowing to a great big wave have grown;
You've disturbed a mighty river just by dropping in a stone.

Drop an unkind word, or careless: in a minute it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples, circling on and on and on.     
They keep spreading, spreading, spreading from the center as they go,         
And there is no way to stop them, once you've started them to flow.              

Drop an unkind word, or careless: in a minute you forget;
But there's little waves a-flowing, and there's ripples circling yet,
And perhaps in some sad heart a mighty wave of tears you've stirred,
And disturbed a life was happy where you dropped that unkind word.

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: just a flash and it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on,
Bearing hope and joy and comfort on each splashing, dashing wave
Till you wouldn't believe the volume of the one kind word you gave.

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: in a minute you forget;
But there's gladness still a-swelling, and there's joy circling yet,     
And you've rolled a wave of comfort whose sweet music can be heard         
Over miles and miles of water just by dropping one kind word.              

~James W. Foley (1874-1939) ~
Yom Kippur, the day of pristine purity and contriteness and forgiveness, begins with the prayer of Kol Nidrei. The very words Kol Nidrei seem to stir us. We are reminded of the intensity of the moment when young and old, men and women, are gathered in somber silence. The elders and scholars surround the chazzan clutching the holy Torah scrolls against their chest. There is a palpable tenseness as the congregation awaits the commencement of the ancient haunting melody.
And yet the words of Kol Nidrei seem to be surprisingly basic. The paragraph does not discuss the foibles of man, the greatness of G-d, or our deepest desire to improve and become greater. Not at all! The prayer is merely a reiteration of the annulment of vows that was recited by each individual man on the morning prior to Rosh Hashana. The prayer contains a lengthy listing of all variant forms of vows and oaths expressed in numerous manners. It then concludes with a declaration that all those oaths – uttered willfully or inadvertently from last Yom Kippur until now - should be null and void.
It is only after the paragraph has been recited three times, slowly and meticulously, that we even utter our first impassioned plea that G-d forgive our sins.
Why is Kol Nidrei the appropriate introduction to the great and holy day?

“Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying… If a man takes a vow or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.”
When one vows to do something, or to refrain from doing something, the Torah views that pledge with tremendous seriousness. Violating one’s word is referred to as a ‘desecration of one’s word’.

The Gemara[1] relates, “Before a Jew is born an oath is administered to him in heaven charging him, ‘Be righteous and be wicked; and even if the whole world is judging you by your actions and tells you that you are righteous, regard yourself as wicked’.”
Throughout our lives we are adjoined to the oath we accepted upon ourselves at the moment before our souls first descended to this world. Then, when a person leaves this world he must testify whether he fulfilled his original vow or not.
At the moments when we usher in Yom Kippur in a sea of white reminiscent of the purity of the beginning and end of life, we conjure up the subliminal memory of our original oath. All other oaths can be annulled but that original oath can never be negated, and it must remain at the fore of our conscience.
Moreover, our entire service on Yom Kippur is based on our speech. We certainly must change and improve our actions. But the first step is the words we utter with passion and feeling, imploring G-d for forgiveness and accepting upon ourselves to try to be better this year. 
In a world which does not appreciate the value of words the Torah reminds us that words are the most precious commodities we have. The world preaches that ‘talk is cheap’, but that is a terribly erroneous statement. In truth, talk may be easy - but its implications and consequences can be extremely expensive and costly.
Before we begin the Yom Kippur service, the ultimate day of prayer, we remind ourselves just how precious our words are. We can create new realities with our words. We can utter a vow which we are bound to observe, though we would have had no such obligation were we not to have said anything. In the time of the Bais Hamikdash, with a mere declaration one could sanctify an animal by declaring it sanctified to be brought as an offering. Were he to then use that animal for his personal benefit he would transgress a serious sin, because of his own words. That realization is vital on Yom Kippur and therefore it is the introduction of the holy day.

Words of Torah, words of prayer, words of encouragement and support – build and rebuild. Malicious words, painful words, hurtful words – destroy and cause irreparable damage.
This lesson is especially pertinent to the Three Weeks. The gemara relates that the second Bais Hamikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred. From the fact that we are still in exile it is apparent that we have yet to rectify that sin within our national soul. The austere laws of vows and oaths remind us of the Torah’s perspective about the value of our words. With our words we can connect to G-d and to others. At the same time, with our words we can sever connections and destroy relationships.
The power is in our mouths! 

“An oath is administered to him: Be righteous and not wicked”
“He shall not desecrate his word”

[1] The gemara (Niddah, chapter 3) begins with the word “Tanya (they taught in a baraisa)”. The holy sefer haTanya commences with this baraisa. The opening paragraphs of the sefer discuss in detail the meaning of this beraisa, including how one can be expected to think of himself as wicked if our Sages teach that one is not allowed to regard himself as a wicked person.

MASEI 5776

World War II was finally over but there was much to be done. Aside from the smoldering ruins of decimated European Jewry, there were many survivors and refugees who needed help.
The Va’ad Hatzolah[2] in America was informed that there were twenty four young men in Italy who were in a desperate situation. They had originally been in contact with an influential man, who had agreed to expedite the process of procuring the necessary documents for them to leave Europe. But the man had fallen under suspicion and could no longer help them. The students were now in imminent danger of being deported back to Poland, which was a dangerous place for Jews even post-war.
The Va’ad convened an emergency meeting and came to the conclusion that the only viable avenue of help could come from the Mafia. Contacts were made and a meeting was arranged between Rabbis Aharon Kotler, Avrohom Yoffen, Avrohom Kalmanovitz zt’l, and the Va’ad’s director Rabbi Shlomo Shapiro with Mafia head, Joe Bonnano. 
The Va’ad decided that Rabbi Aharon would speak first in Yiddish and then Rabbi Shapiro would translate. They brought along twenty thousand dollars in case the Mafia needed added incentive.
When they arrived in Bonnao’s office he was dressed in a suit and robe and smoking a cigar. “What do you want?” he snapped.
Rabbi Kotler began speaking in Yiddish about the ordeal of the students in Italy. When Rabbi Shapiro began to translate, Bonnano silenced him. “I like the way the Rabbi talks. Let me hear him.”
It was only when Rabbi Kotler completed explaining the entire situation that Bonnano allowed Rabbi Shapiro to translate and explain the urgency of the situation.
Bonnano stared at them for a moment. Then he asked, “Do you want the boys to come by boat or by plane?” Rabbi Kotler turned to Rabbi Shapiro, “Vus zugt ehr – (what did he say)?” When Rabbi Shapiro relayed the question, Rabbi Kotler replied that they had to be rescued in any way as soon as possible, so they won’t be sent back to Europe.
Bonnano nonchalantly replied, “No problem. Today is Wednesday; we’ll have them here by Friday!”
Rabbi Kotler told Rabbi Shapiro to ask him how much it would cost. Bonnano thought for a moment. “Tell the Sage he should give me a blessing instead[3].”
In his inimitable genius Rabbi Kotler immediately replied, “Du zolst shtarbin in bet – You should die in bed.” Bonanno was very excited by the blessing. The meeting was adjourned and two days later the twenty four students were safely transported to America. The students later described how they were suddenly rounded up in the middle of the night and taken to the airport.
As for Bonnano, he was in jail once, and shot at on three occasions. Yet he lived into his eighties and died of a heart attack, in his own bed

Rabbi Kotler’s daughter, Rebbitzin Sarah Schwartzman a’h, related that when her father was criticized for working with a noted secular Jewish leader during the war years he replied, “Ich volt mishtateiach geven far’n Poips, tzu rativin di nuggel fun a Yiddishe kint – I would prostrate myself before the Pope himself to save the fingernail of a Jewish child.”

The Torah teaches that if someone kills another person accidentally, the relatives of the deceased have the right to avenge the murder[4]. The murderer would only be protected if he fled and remained in one of the six designated Cities of Refuge or any of the 48 Levite cities.
The Torah then warns that we have a responsibility to maintain its laws and decrees of justice. “ולא תחניפו את הארץ - You shall not bring guilt upon the land in which you are, for the blood will bring guilt upon the Land…[5]
The Sifrei quotes an exegetical understanding of the verse: “You shall not flatter (חניפה) a wrongdoer.” Shaarei Teshuva[6] discusses the severity of the sin of flattering a sinner. The most egregious form of sinful flattery is when one tells an evildoer that his deeds do not constitute sinful behavior. If one minimizes the severity of his sin, or worse negates the sin completely, he is in effect encouraging the transgressor to repeat his sin.   
A righteous person has an obligation to despise the actions of miscreants and sinners and to promulgate the folly of their views and actions. A leader must feel responsible to stand up and defend the honor of the Torah. The gemara[7] states, “Whoever is able to protest against wrongdoings… and fails to do so, is held accountable for his behavior.” 

In recent years there has been much worthy attention devoted to the vexing issue of bullying in schools. There are students who are afraid to walk down the halls of their school or go out to recess because they are subject to physical/verbal bullying on a regular basis.
Experts explain that the chief motivation behind a bully’s aggression is his need for attention. His macho persona and the image of bravado that he tries to foster is usually his unconscious attempt to mask his inner feelings of extreme vulnerability and lack of self-esteem. He attempts to prove to himself that he is not subjected to his inner feelings of inferiority by preying on those who are socially/physically weaker and inferior to himself. That is why 99% of bullying is done in public. The bully seeks a platform so he can garner the attention he seeks to assuage his own bruised self-image.
If that is true, the real focus of our efforts to stop bullying is by targeting the spectators who view the bullying in shameless silence. Quite often the spectators are afraid to defend the victim out of fear that doing so will make them the next target. But even if they are afraid to speak up they can help the victim by walking away and refusing to be part of the viewing audience[8].
There is a school with a very unique anti-bullying policy. The rule in that school is that if there is a fight, anyone caught watching the fight is subject to very strict disciplinary measures, sometimes even more so than the fighting parties. It’s an amazing thing to see: As soon as a fight breaks out in the school everyone in the vicinity runs away.
In the world of sports it is common that a team will have a better winning record when they play on their home field/court than they do on the road. When one is playing in front of multitudes of cheering fans it is enthusing and motivating, prompting the athlete to play that much harder. Conversely, playing in front of crowds of people who hope and cheer for the player’s failure and abysmal performance is at least somewhat psychologically debilitating. We play and work harder when we know we are being watched.
In regards to a bully or one who acts inappropriately or sinfully, those who do not protest his wrongful deeds, or at least seek to take away his platform, are compliant in his actions, whether they intend to be or not.  It is an unwitting violation of the prohibition  to have any connection with flattery.

It is not easy to stand up for what’s right. But when one witnesses or hears someone saying something that is contrary to the Torah’s outlook, or when one hears another shaming a Torah scholar or promulgating false ideas in the name of the Torah, he has an obligation to speak up for the honor of the Torah – sometimes indignantly and emphatically. Remaining silent at such a time is a violation of the Sifrei’s understanding of the verse which forbids one from flattering a wrongdoer.

A few summers ago, Rabbi Aryeh Rodin, a veteran and beloved Rabbi in Dallas, Texas, joined the talented staff of learning rabbeim at Camp Dora Golding. At one point, I was walking together with him and I asked him what quick philosophical advice he would give to a younger Rabbi. He replied, “I’ll tell you the same thing that my Rebbe, Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz zt’l, told me when I began my rabbinic career over two decades ago: לא תגורו מפני איש' – Do not tremble before any man’[9]. Stand up for what you feel is the truth and don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by anyone.” The words of the pasuk contain the most poignant lesson of all.

“You shall not flatter a wrongdoer”
“Do not fear any man”

[1] With gratitude to Rabbi Avrohom Jablon who inspired this thought
[2] “Committee of Salvation”
[3] What blessing should one give a Mafioso? 
[4] Rabbi Akiva’s opinion (Mishna, second perek Makkos) is that it is a mitzvah for the relative to pursue and kill the murderer if he is outside the City of Refuge.
[5] 35:33
[6] 3:187-199
[7] Shabbos 44b
[8] Of course if there is physical aggression involved it is the responsibility of everyone to try to help for the victim immediately.  What I refer to here is what sadly happens when people gather to see a fight for their entertainmen, sometimes even cheering on the fighters. 
[9] Devorim 1:17


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