Thursday, December 13, 2018



In his inspiring memoir, Out of the Depths, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau relates the final hours of his father’s life. Along with twenty-eight thousand Jews of Piotrkow, where he served as rabbi, his father was taken to Treblinka. The day that they arrived, another train arrived packed with the Jews of Presov, Slovakia. Eight years earlier, Rabbi Lau’s father had left Presov, where he had served as rabbi. The community did not have another rabbi since then.
 “Those two towns reflected two completely different worlds: the Jews of Presov spoke German and Hungarian, whereas those of Piotrkow spoke Yiddish and Polish. The only thing they had in common was that the last rabbi of Presov was also the last rabbi of Piotrkow – my father. The Jews of Presov, the Jews of Piotrkow, and their chief rabbi all met on the train platform of Treblinka, on their way to the gas chambers.
“Father addressed them by recounting the last speech of Rabbi Akiva, one of the Ten Martyrs of Israel. When the Romans raked the rabbi’s flesh with iron combs, his disciples asked him how he could withstand the tortures. Rabbi Akiva replied by referring to the Shema, the declaration of faith, Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One. “All my life I have wondered about the verse following the Shema prayer, Love your G-d… with all your soul,” mused Rabbi Akiva. “I understood this as meaning ‘Love your G-d even if He takes your soul’. I asked myself, when will I have the opportunity to fulfill this commandment? Now that I have the opportunity, how can I not fulfill it?” Then Rabbi Akiva recited the Shema, prolonging the last word, One, as his soul departed.
“Jews!” Father shouted so that all present could hear his concluding words. “Of all six hundred thirteen mitzvot, we have one remaining mitzvah to fulfill: I shall be sanctified among the Children of Israel – to give up your life for bearing the name of G-d… Come, my brothers, let us fulfill this commandment in joy. The world is null and void, a boiling rain of hatred and bloodshed. The one mitzvah left for us is to sanctify G-d’s Name. Come, brothers, let us do it joyfully. I repeat to you the words of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa: ‘For in joy you will go out- with the power of joy will we leave behind the troubles, the suffering, and the trials of this world.’”
“Then father raised his voice and began to recite the vidui prayer of confession: For the sins we have sinned before You. The crowd repeated it after him. The prayer began in a whisper and ended with the shout: “Shema Yisrael! Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One. G-d reigns, G-d has reigned, G-d will reign for all eternity.”
“I never saw Father again…”
We are taught that the greatness of the Jewish People can only be achieved through unity. Ahavas Yisrael, love for our fellow Jews, is of our supreme values. If so, why do we seem to struggle so much in trying to attain it? Why is there so much disunity amongst us?
When Yosef approached the brothers, dispatched by their father Yaakov to seek the brothers’ welfare, the Torah says, “They saw him from a distance, and before he approached them, they plotted about him to kill him.”[2] The Torah alludes to the source of their enmity and jealousy of Yosef, i.e. that they saw him from a distance. They did not recognize his greatness and could not see the incredible potential within him. They therefore viewed him as a dangerous threat, and therefore felt he had to be eliminated.  
Even years later, when they arrived in Egypt looking for sustenance during the raging famine, when they stood before Yosef, they did not recognize him. They could not fathom that the powerful monarch before them was their younger brother whose dreams they had derided and sought to destroy.
One of the greatest impediments to loving others is that we view others from a distance. We see a fraction of the complete picture and yet we scrutinize and freely pass judgement, based on our limited understanding.
The antidote for that rejection and emotional distance is contained in the opening words of the parsha: “And Yehuda drew close, and he said to him, ‘please my master, let your servant speak words in the ears of my master…”[3]
Yosef reciprocated when, a few moments later, he revealed his identity to his shocked brothers. The Torah relates that Yosef gently called out to them, “”Come close to me”, and they came close.”[4] 
It is only when there is a sincere desire to ‘draw close’ to each other, to overlook our differences and embrace our commonalities, that we can reconcile and achieve true unity. When Yehuda drew close to Yosef, and Yosef summoned the brothers to draw closer to him, they were able to recognize the greatness in each other, and see past their differences to again be a complete family.
It is a painful reality that it often takes tragedy to unite us. The problem is that we are blinded by our differences and the minutiae that separates us. But in the face of tragedy we seem to have momentary clarity that allows us to recognize the more significant components that unite us. We often feel jealous and resentful towards others, which is usually triggered by external factors – such as possessions or social standing. When tragedy strikes, and we are reminded of the futility of status and possessions, and we are able to recognize that real person is his soul, and internally we are all united.
At the conclusion of Sefer Hacharedim[5], the author explains that the three paragraphs of Shema contain the remedy to three prime character defects - jealousy, desire, and the pursuit of honor.[6] Wearing tzitzis quells a person’s desire for honor. The Torah warns “Lest your heart turn away, and you will veer off from the way…” a reference to one seduced by lust.
The Charedim explains that the opening pasuk contains the solution for envy. Properly accepting and declaring one’s unwavering acceptance of the yoke of heaven upon one’s self and upon all of the Jewish people, entails unity, which requires overcoming all traces of jealousy and envy.
In parshas Vayechi, Yaakov Avinu gathered his children prior to his death to bless them. “Yaakov called to his sons and he said to them, ‘Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days. Assemble and hearken sons of Yaakov and listen to Yisrael your father…” Why does Yaakov tell them to gather and then assemble?
The Charedim explains that gather meant that they should physically come together. But then Yaakov Avinu prevailed upon them to assemble, to unite spiritually by ridding any traces of envy, enmity, or resentment from within their hearts.
When we recite Shema, we are seeking to spiritually and emotionally unite with every one of our fellow Jews the world over. Only if we have that understanding can we conclude the verse, “Hashem, is our G-d, Hashem is One.”
This concept is poignantly described by the prophet Yecheskel[7]: And you, son of man, take for yourself one stick and write upon it ‘of Yehuda’… and take another stick and write upon it ‘of Yosef’… And you shall bring them one towards the other, and they will become one stick, and they will be joined in your hand.”

On December 6, 2017, President Trump publicly recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and announced that the American embassy would be moved to Jerusalem. Immediately, 128 countries in the United Nations called for the United States to reverse its decision.
Dovid Hamelech describes Yerushalayim as “the city that connects us together.”[8] Few things bring any semblance of unity to the United Nations more than condemnation of Israel[9]. Our response is by uniting ourselves in our divine eternal mission to spread the sanctification of G-d’s Name throughout the world. In doing so, we must draw together and put aside our external differences.
It is that unity which ensures that our inherent light, symbolized by the lights of Chanukah, will continue to glow brightly until the ultimate redemption when we will be unified perpetually.

“And Yehuda drew close”
 “They will become one stick, and they will be joined in your hand”

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

[1] The following is the lecture I delivered in Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh Vayigash 5778
[2] Bereishis 37:18
[3] Bereishis 44:18
[4] Bereishis 45:4
[5] Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri (1533–1600); the sefer is based on the 613 mitzvos, with each mitzva divided based on the limb of the body that it corresponds to.
[6] See Avos (4:21) “Rabbi Eliezer Hakapar would say – jealousy, desire, and (the pursuit of) honor remove a person from the world.”
[7] 37:16-17; it is the opening verses of the haftorah for parshas Vayigash
[8] Tehillim 123:3
[9] Prime Minister Netanyahu aptly called the United Nations ‘a house of lies’.


Post a Comment