Thursday, September 28, 2017


L’zecher nishmas Alexander ben Nuteh Yitzchok


                    The great gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef zt’l, was renown in Lithuanian Vilna as an erudite scholar, versed in all areas of Torah. He held many Rabbinic posts, his most prestigious being the head of the Beis Din in Vilna. At the time Vilna was known as the ‘Yerushalayim of Lithuania’, with no dearth of Torah scholars. Yet, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef stood out as a leader.
                    Among his other accomplishments, Rabbi Yaakov’s speeches during the Yomim Noraim were legendary. He had an uncanny ability to emotionally transform an assemblage to tears, with his fiery and passionate oratory.
                    In 1885, the Jewish congregation in New York sent letters to many of the Torah dignitaries of their time including Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik of Brisk (the Bais Halevi), Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon of Kovna, Rabbi Eliyahu Meisel of Pinsk, and Rabbi Chaim Berlin of Volozhin. In the letters, they requested that the Rabbis suggest someone who could become Chief Rabbi of New York City.
At that time, America was a spiritual wilderness. The post required a charismatic person with a dynamic personality, who was also a Torah scholar with an unyielding personality. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef was chosen.
                    Rabbi Yaakov Yosef arrived in America to an unprecedented welcome. Thousands of people came to greet their new Rabbi and, literally, carried him on their shoulders. However, it didn’t take long before Rabbi Yaakov Yosef realized he was fighting a losing battle. Those who had undertaken the arduous journey from ‘the alter heim’ to ‘the Goldeneh Medina’ did so in pursuit of the American dream. Most didn’t want to be hindered by the shackles of religion.  
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef refused to yield to the pressure and resistance all around him. However, it cost him his health. Although he managed to secure some improvements in kashrus and opening a Yeshiva, most of his herculean efforts proved futile. The man who was once the pride of Vilna felt like he had become the bane of New York. Eventually, he became bedridden.
                    Just prior to Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef announced that he wished to deliver a Shabbos Shuva derasha (lecture). Despite the protestations of his doctors, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef insisted that he could not allow Shabbos Shuva to pass without speaking.
When the time arrived for the d’rasha, the shul was filled well beyond its capacity. People were literally hanging onto the windows. There was an unspoken feeling that this would be his final public lecture. That feeling proved to be correct.
                    The crowd sat in utter silence as Rabbi Yaakov rose to his feet and ascended the pulpit. They watched as he mustered every ounce of his failing strength to pull himself up to the lectern. As he began, his voice resonated throughout the shul, “The Rambam writes in hilchos teshuvah (the laws of repentance)”. The crowd leaned forward to hear what the Rambam says, but then, Rabbi Yaakov became strangely silent. The befuddled crowd watched quizzically as he began again, “The Rambam writes in hilchos teshuvah.” But then again he paused, and again there was a period of silence. He began a third time, and then a fourth time. But he did not get past those opening words.  
                   After a minute of complete silence, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef suddenly let out a painful cry. He grabbed the lectern, raised his frail body up on his toes, and called out in a voice that shook the whole shul: “I have forgotten what the Rambam says! I, who was known to be an expert and versed in all areas of the Torah, have become a broken vessel! Look what happens to a person at the end! You have a living example in front of you. Pay heed to this living rebuke and take advantage while you still have the time and opportunity to do so.”
Then, the great Rabbi Yaakov Yosef broke down and wept. Soon, the whole crowd was crying along with him.    

                   The saga of Yosef and the tribes is of the most tragic in the Torah. The tribulations that Yosef suffered when sold by his brothers and ended up alone in Egypt, is painful to read. However, the decision to sell Yosef was not unanimous. The Torah records that Reuven tried to deter the brothers from killing him by suggesting that they cast him into a nearby pit. Reuven planned to return to the pit after the brothers had left to rescue Yosef and bring him home safely. However, the pasuk[1] relates that when Reuven returned to the pit, he was shocked to discover that it was vacant. When, upon inquiry, he was informed that Yosef had been sold to a group of passing travelers, he rent his garments and mourned.
 The Medrash[2] explains that Reuven was not present when they decided to sell Yosef because he had left to continue his personal efforts of repentance.[3] The Medrash continues that when Reuven began his process of repentance, Hashem said to him, “Never in the history of mankind has a person sinned and repented before me. Because you were the first to repent, I swear that your descendant will be the prophet who will exhort the Jewish people to repent, as well.”
The promise was fulfilled when the prophet Hoshea, a descendant of Reuven, called out to Klal Yisroel: “Shuva Yisroel ad Hashem Elokecha ki kashalta ba’avonecha - Return Yisroel to Hashem, your G-d, for you have stumbled in sin.”[4]
The Gemara[5] records that Adam Harishon sat in sackcloth and fasted for one hundred and thirty years as penitence for having eaten from the forbidden fruit. In addition, the Medrash[6] relates that Kayin repented for murdering his brother, Hevel.
If so, how can the Medrash state that Reuven was the first person to engage in repentance, if Adam and Kayin had previously done so?
Rabbi Betzalel Rudinsky[7] explained that there is a fundamental difference between the motivations for the repentance of Adam and Kayin, versus that of Reuven. Both Adam and Kayin repented after they were chastised and rebuked. Adam had been banished from Gan Eden and had been informed that his sins would affect his descendants for all time. Kayin too was reprimanded by G-d for murdering his brother. It was only after they were admonished for their wrongdoing, that they sought to repent.        
Reuven however, was not immediately chastised after he moved his father’s bed. In fact, the opposite is true. The very pasuk that relates what Reuven did concludes by stating that Yaakov had twelve sons. Rashi explains that the Torah’s intent here is to inform us that all twelve of them were equally righteous. The Torah does so to reiterate that Reuven’s act was not considered a blatant sin.
Still, upon reflection, Reuven was bothered by his own action. Therefore, upon his own initiative he engaged in a self-imposed process of repentance. Reuven’s repentance was not to mitigate a punishment but it was to rebuild and rejuvenate his feeling of closeness to G-d.
The Medrash is teaching us that the highest level of teshuvah is accomplished when one seeks to literally, return to G-d, not merely out of fear of punishment or retribution.
Rav Shimshon Pinkus zt’l notes that although many religions believe in G-d and in His Omnipotence, the concept that we can have a binding and intimate relationship with G-d, is uniquely Jewish. The idea that G-d not only listens to our prayers, but that He awaits them and cherishes them, is not espoused by any other religion.[8]
 The Torah views teshuvah as an opportunity for one to reconnect. It is not merely a process where one begs G-d to dispose of his sins, but more profoundly, it is an opportunity to feel revitalized spirituality.
Rav Pinkus relates a parable about a five-year-old boy who accompanied his father to the hustling marketplace one afternoon, to purchase a set of the Four Species for Succos. The boy held his father’s hand as they walked from booth to booth analyzing the various lulavim and esrogim. While the father was analyzing a few esrogim, the son began to wander to the next booth to look at some pretty succah decorations. A moment later, the boy mistakenly thought he saw his father walking away, and he ran to catch up with him. When the boy realized that it was not his father he began to cry out for his father. Meanwhile, when the father turned around he noticed that his son was missing. He began calling his son’s name into the crowd.
After a few minutes of searching, the man walked toward a police officer to ask for assistance in locating his son. Before he had a chance however, his son saw him and excitedly jumped into his arms. At that initial moment, father and son felt extreme love for each other. It was a level of emotion they would not have felt if they had not lost each other. Their momentary disconnection had deepened their subsequent connection.
We are the beloved children of G-d. When we sin, we have not only committed a sin, but we also become spiritually distanced from G-d. When we repent and reignite that bond not only can we again feel close to G-d, but we can reach a level of closeness that would not have been possible to achieve had we never felt the pain of distance. Teshuvah is the conduit that allows us to jump back into G-d’s embrace, as it were.

The pasuk in Amos (3:8) states, “Aryeh sha’ag mi lo yira- A lion has roared; who will not fear?” The commentators note homiletically that the Hebrew word “Aryeh” is an acronym for the four awesome periods and days of repentance and reflection: Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hoshanah Rabbah. These are times of celestial judgment and should cause us to tremble, as we would when encountering a roaring lion.
Rabbi Shlomo Teitlebaum recalled that he had once gone to the Bronx Zoo and, while walking along the flowered promenade, heard a ferocious roar from a nearby lion. Yet, he wasn’t the least bit frightened. Why? Because the lion was in a strong cage and could not inflict any harm on him.
Rabbi Teitelbaum mused: “I deduced from that that if the “roar” of the holy days of Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hoshanah Rabbah do not cause me to become the least bit afraid, it must be because there is a cage - a barrier between me and G-d.” This is why in the concluding prayer on Hoshanah Rabbah we ask, “May it be Your Will… remove the iron partition separating us from you.”[9]

In Elul 5767, the Monsey community was shocked by the brutal discovery that a respected member of our community was selling non-Kosher meat with kosher labels in one of the local kosher markets. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people, who are meticulous to only eat kosher meat, were impacted by the egregious duplicity.
Each Rabbi directed their congregants of what had to be done. Public stations were set up to help people kasher their vessels that had been used to cook the unkosher meat. It included blow-torching and submerging pots and cutlery under boiling water. Handles were removed from pots, grills were scorched, dishwashers were scrubbed, and ovens were cleaned. Aside from the purification of the vessels, the Rabbis of the community scheduled a communal fast as well as a massive communal assembly.
At the assembly, Rabbi Shlomo Breslauer shlita, the Mashgiach of the store from where the meat was sold, explained that until that time, the butcher had an impeccable record, and had been a respected person in the community. No one could have imagined that he was accepting deliveries of unkosher chicken in an unmarked truck during the dead of the night. After unloading the chicken, he would remove the labels, and replace them with kosher labels.
Rabbi Breslauer quoted sources which explained that the innocent consumers who had purchased and eaten the chicken were not halachically liable. Furthermore, the spiritually dangerous and noxious effects that non-Kosher food causes, was also a non-issue, because it had been completely beyond anyone’s control.
Rabbi Breslauer continued, that if that was true, why was there was any need for a public fast or a mass gathering.
He answered that the mere fact that such a terrible event had occurred in our community, was indicative of the fact that G-d was dissatisfied with our observance. It is for that sense of rejection that we must fast and gather en masse.

Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman made the following observation:
“Think about the busiest man in the world. He has relentless meetings, paperwork, deadlines, and pressures. Time is money and every moment is dedicated to its pursuit. Do you want to have a half hour conversation with that man who has no time for anything? Talk to him about how wonderful his child is!
“We approach G-d during the High Holy days, wanting to attract His attention in a favorable manner. G-d is judging the world and preparing the New Year. If we want G-d to notice us, we should talk positively about His children. We need to express our love for Klal Yisroel and our concern for their plight.”
The process of teshuvah and the awesome day of Yom Kippur is not merely spiritual garbage-removal day. The Mishnah[10] records that it is one of the two greatest Yomim Tovim on the Jewish calendar. What makes it such an incredible Yom Tov?
Dovid Hamelech states: “And as for me, being close to G-d is good”[11]. The word Yom Tov literally means ‘a good day’. If Yom Kippur affords us the opportunity to connect with Hashem on a greater level than any other day of the year, than it is truly the ultimate Yom Tov.  
If we seek to tear down the barrier we have created between us and by rededicating ourselves to Torah and mitzvos and love for every Jew, we will be able to reconnect with the ultimate source of life.
“Return Yisroel to Hashem, your G-d”
“A lion has roared; who will not fear?”

Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1] Bereishis 37:29
[2] Bereishis Rabbah 84:19
[3] Following the death of the matriarch Rochel, Yaakov’s bed which had primarily been in the tent of Rochel, was moved into the tent of Bilhah. Reuven felt that this was an affront to the dignity of his mother. He felt that if Rochel had died, surely Leah should take her place as the mainstay and backbone of the home and not the maid, Bilhah. Therefore, Reuven took the initiative of moving his father’s bed into the tent of Leah. When Reuven realized that his impulsive actions were inappropriate, he engaged in a rigorous process of repentance, where he donned sackcloth and ashes and prayed for forgiveness.
[4] Hoshea 14:2
[5] Eruvin 18b
[6] Bereishis Rabbah 22:13
[7] Shabbos Shuva, 5765
[8] Christianity conjured up the idea that G-d has an ‘intermediary’ who is closer to humankind.
[9] Rabbi Teitelbaum is the Rav of K’hal Adas Yereim in Queens. The story was quoted by Rabbi Paysach Krohn
[10] Ta’anis 4:8
[11] Tehillim 73:28


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