Wednesday, May 22, 2019

PARSHAS BEHAR 5779


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS BEHAR 5779
“WITH CORDS OF LOVE”

The following are my personal notes from the remarks delivered by my rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, at the Torah Umesorah convention, Shabbas Kodesh parshas Behar 5768, May 1998:

The haftorah of parshas Behar relates that just prior to the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash, G-d tells the prophet Yirmiyah to purchase land in Eretz Yisroel. Yirmiyah signs the deed and places it in earthenware so that it will last. Then Yirmiyah asks G-d, “You made the heavens and the earth….לא יפלא ממך כל דברThere is nothing that is too wondrous for You.”
He continues by relating the history of Klal Yisroel- the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, their arrival in Eretz Yisrael, and he mentions the sins of Klal Yisroel. He then says, “Behold! Upon mounds of earth they came to the city to capture it, and the city was handed over to the Chaldeans who are attacking it, in the face of the sword, the famine, and the pestilence; what You declared has happened- and You see it!” With the destruction being so imminent, Yirmiyah asks G-d why He instructed him to purchase land in Eretz Yisroel?
G-d’s response is terse and seemingly redundant, “Behold- I am Hashem, the G-d of all flesh;  הממני יפלא כל דבר-Is there anything too wondrous for me?”
What was G-d’s response? How did He answer Yirmiyah?
The commentators explain that when Yirmiyah made the statement it was out of wonder for the destruction which was imminent. Klal Yisroel didn’t believe that G-d would ever destroy the Bais Hamikdash and throw them out of Eretz Yisroel. They reasoned that G-d had too much invested in them! Yirmiyah warned them repeatedly but they would not listen to him. He asked G-d how it could all happen.
G-d’s response was with the same words. However, whereas Yirmiyah said it out of shock, G-d responded with conviction. “Indeed, nothing is too wondrous for Me!” The Jews would indeed suffer horribly but they would also be resilient, they would rebuild, and their eternity would never falter.

In our time, we have witnessed both forms of the statement. We endured a horrible Holocaust where everything that stood for hundreds of years was destroyed in the most horrific manner. We didn’t believe it could happen. We had too much invested in Europe; we had lived there too long. It couldn’t happen! But לא יפלא ממך כל דבר, we know that it did happen!
On the other hand, we have witnessed the second part as well, הממני יפלא כל דבר. Our rebuilding of Torah is also incredible and defies all logic.

                    When I was the Rav in Miami Beach, I had the opportunity to develop relationships with many great Torah giants. They would come to Miami to collect money during the winter because many wealthy individuals came to Miami for the winter as well. One of those great personalities that I was privileged to become close with was the Ponovezher Rav, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kaheneman zt’l.
                    He once told me that he and his son escaped to Eretz Yisroel in 1941. His family was supposed to leave Lithuania the next week, but the Germans invaded, and their visas were no longer valid. He lost everything in the war. He arrived in B’nei Brak and purchased land to build the Yeshiva.
                   At the time Rommel, the Nazi general known as the Desert Fox, was an eleven day march from Tel Aviv. Until that point Rommel had been virtually invincible and had pushed his way across North Africa. The British were burning their papers and getting ready to move their defenses to Iraq. The final British holdout was at El-Alamein In Egypt. If that fell there was nothing between the Nazi onslaught and Israel. The country was preparing for doom and the Ponovezher Rav bought land in order to build a Yeshiva.
                    When he was asked about it, the Rav explained, “Klal Yisroel needs yeshivos for eleven days too!” Then he added that the land would not fall!
הממני יפלא כל דבר” The doom was horrific and unbelievable, but rebuilding of Torah and the revitalization of Torah in our time is nothing short of miraculous.

The gemara[1] asks about a certain animal[2] how it fit on Noach’s Ark. The gemara first suggests that it was born and brought on the Ark as a little baby. Then the gemara suggests that only its head was on the Ark and the rest of it was outside floating along. Then the gemara suggests that only its nose was in the Ark. Finally, the gemara concludes that it was tied to the Ark, although it was outside.
The Ark represents the Ark of Torah; our only salvation from the torrents and deluge of impurity and defilement that rage throughout our world. Some people are lucky enough to be born on the Ark. They are raised ion a Torah observant atmosphere.
Others aren’t born into it, but they have an intellectual connection. Their heads are in the Ark. They possess an understanding and an appreciation of the depth of Torah.                   
Currently, I deliver a daily shiur in Yeshivas Ohr Somayach. The students there challenge me with questions that really make me think. They haven’t been discouraged by our system, so they are confident and comfortable to ask.
Then there are those who are emotional Jews, they have a “shmeck yiddishkeit”, e.g. a Carlebach Friday Night, enjoyable Shabbos meals, etc.
Finally, there are those who have almost no connection to anything. They are not biologically, intellectually, spiritually, or mentally connected to it. Those people we must bind to the Ark, “bavosos shel ahava- with ropes of love”. We have to show them that we love them and embrace them, so that they maintain a connection with us, and hopefully will one day enter the Ark.

Chazal say, “Push with your left (weaker) hand but draw close with your right hand!”[3] There were great educators, some of the greatest men of all time, who pushed their wayward students too hard and it brought untold destruction to the world.
I once expelled a boy from the Yeshiva three weeks before he was to graduate because he was caught cheating. I called him in and told him, “`I want you to know that I love you because I am going to get a great deal of flack it for this[4]. But if I don’t crack down on you, you’ll go to grad school and you’ll cheat there. Then you’ll go into business and you’ll cheat there, and one day your face will be on the front page of the New York Times. So, I feel that this is what I must do!”
Two and a half years later he came back to thank me.

A Rosh Yeshiva once approached me when I was the head of the OU Kashrus division and asked me how I sleep at night. He asked me if the fact that so many people are eating based on my rulings bothers me; isn’t that unnerving? I replied that everything we did was based on Shulchan Aruch and the rulings of the Halachic authorities. Therefore, I did not feel nervous at all. In fact, I was very confident. “But you”, I told him, “You are a Rosh Yeshiva! You deal with students; you deal with lives! How can YOU sleep at night?”
The Good Lord paid me back by making me a Rosh Yeshiva…. But the fact is that in education we are indeed dealing with nefashos (souls) and we cannot underestimate or undervalue the greatness of what we are doing.    
We must hold on to our students, “bavosos shel ahava”, and we can only do so when we value ourselves and recognize the greatness of what we are accomplishing.
         
          “There is nothing that is too wondrous for You.”

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

 




[1][1] Zevachim 113b
[2] the Re’em- some suggest that it was a rhinoceros
[3] Sanhedrin 107b
[4] he was the son of a board member of the Yeshiva

Thursday, May 16, 2019

PARSHAS EMOR/ LAG BAOMER 5779


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS EMOR/ LAG BAOMER 5779
“NO EXCUSES”[1]

During my late adolescence, I had to make an appearance in traffic court to fight a ticket. My father accompanied me for moral support. After I explained my case about what occurred, the judge asked me for my plea – ‘guilty with an explanation’ or ‘not guilty’. I had committed the infraction, but I felt I had a valid excuse for doing it. So, I naively replied ‘guilty with an excuse’. The judge looked almost apologetic when he replied that once I uttered the word ‘guilty’, even with a valid explanation, legally there had to be a fine and points. I understood that the judge was intimating that I should have pled ‘not guilty’, and then he could have mitigated the consequence, such as dismissing the points.
At the time, I wasn’t aware that traffic court in America is a game, and you gotta know the rules.
A few years ago, during my first trip through a certain town, I received a speeding ticket after being caught by a cop sitting at a speed trap[2]. When I went to court, the prosecutor allowed me to plead guilty to parking at a fire hydrant, which would result in my receiving a fine, but no points. I later realized that almost everyone in that court room was offered the same plea. It was a small village, and I’m not sure if there was more than one fire hydrant in the whole town. If an outsider was watching the proceedings, he probably would’ve wandered why everyone in that court had waited on line to park at the town’s only fire hydrant.  

          At the end of parshas Emor, the Torah relates the tragic story of the blasphemer: “The son of a Jewish mother went out in the midst of B’nai Yisroel; and they quarreled in the camp - the son of the Jewish woman and a Jewish man. The son of the Jewish woman uttered the Name of Hashem blasphemously, and the name of his mother was Shlomis bas Divri.”
          Although the Torah is vague about what occurred, the Medrash[3] relates two possibilities: One possibility is that the mekalel was mocking aspects of the Mishkan and another Jew started arguing with him for being disrespectful. His reaction was to curse Hashem. The other possibility is that the makalel was trying to pitch his tent in the tribe of Dan since that was his mother’s tribe. Some of the other members of the tribe argued that he had no right to pitch his tent on their land, since tribe is paternal, and his father was an Egyptian. When they presented their case before Moshe and Moshe ruled against him, he blasphemed Hashem.
          The father of the mekalel was the Egyptian that Moshe killed in Egypt, which resulted in Moshe’s having to flee Egypt for many decades[4]. The mother of this mekalel – Shlomis bas Divri - was a flirtatious woman[5]. An Egyptian taskmaster forced her husband out to the fields, and then slept with Shlomis. The Egyptian then went to kill the Jewish husband, but Moshe saw the encounter and killed the Egyptian first.
          The Kli Yakar suggests that it is likely that the mekalel harbored a grudge against Moshe for his whole life because Moshe had killed his father.
          It is clear that the mekalel had a difficult life, feeling like an outcast socially and physically. He was the product of the only act of immorality between a Jewish woman and an Egyptian, and he seemed to have no place among the Jewish nation.
          In our society, people often confuse an explanation with an excuse. In a world where people can be acquitted of crimes by pointing to a difficult childhood, or neglectful parents, the punishment of the mekalel seems misplaced. How could they have killed such a person? Shouldn’t they have been more understanding of his difficult upbringing and looked the other way? Doesn’t the Torah promote empathy and tolerance?
          The answer would seem to be that although the makalel’s actions can be understood in the context of his life, that remains an explanation, not an excuse. Cursing Hashem is inexcusable even when a person has a difficult past. Although one must deal compassionately with his fellow Jews and seek to understand them, there are limits that cannot be crossed. As Jews, our foremost responsibility is to Hashem and the ideals of His Torah, irrespective of any other personal challenges.
          Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch notes that there was a more insidious motivation for the mekalel’s actions. When the Torah calls the mekalel the son of an Egyptian man, more than just defining his father’s nationality, it contains the motivation behind his sin. He felt that the culture of Judaism was burdensome, and he wanted to define himself as the son of an ‘ish Mitzri’. He longed for the permissive Egyptian culture and its decadence. In that sense, he was the polar opposite of Moshe, who had initially been identified by Yitro’s daughters as an ‘ish Mitzri’, but had distanced himself, in the extreme, from the lifestyle of the Egyptians. This mekalel longed to return to such a lifestyle.
          Whether the makalel was venting pent up frustration, or if it was a calculated act; it was an inexcusable act. Even in the most difficult of circumstances we are expected to act responsibly and with foresight.[6]

This concept is important to teach our children as well.
In 2013, 15-year-old Ethan Couch, killed four people while driving under the influence. Shockingly, he received no prison time because, due to his family’s great wealth, he was said to suffer from “Affluenza”, an inability to understand that actions cause consequences.
“Affluenza is not about wealth. It is about a generation of parents who want to make their children so "happy" that they fail them miserably. Let's face it, it's so much easier to say yes and throw money at your kid than saying no and meting out consequences. But loving parenting also includes teaching your child this monumental rule of life: You make things happen. Whatever you do kiddo, there will be a reaction; story of our lives. The sooner we let our children in on this life principle, the healthier they'll be.”[7] 

One of the components necessary to be successful in any endeavor, is the ability to take responsibility, and to fess up to shortcomings and failures.
          Successful people recognize the critical difference between an explanation and an excuse. An explanation accepts full responsibility, while an excuse places blame, and minimizes liability, in order to avoid consequences. Explanations can be pivotal to reaching goals; excuses sabotage those efforts.
          Children often blame others in order to shift the blame away from themselves. The problem is that many people never mature from that juvenile approach, and spend their lives blaming everyone else for their problems and challenges. They are the greatest victims of their pedantic self-indignation.
          Shirking responsibility temporarily relieves feelings of shame, guilt, and fear. But in the long run, not recognizing where one could have better, robs a person of the ability to grow and improve.
          Conversely, all great accomplishments are the result of the efforts of individuals who are willing to take responsibility. This is true not only in society and the physical world, but in the world of spiritual accomplishment as well. In fact, the entire transmission of Torah is the result of the incredible tenacity, resilience, and acceptance of responsibility of Rabbi Akiva. After losing twenty-four thousand students in a short time period, Rabbi Akiva would have been justified in giving excuses why he could not go on. Rabbi Akiva understood however, that if he did not begin again the transmission of Torah would end. Rather than offer excuses, Rabbi Akiva told his new students an explanation:
          “Rabbi Akiva said: If you have disciplines in your youth, produce disciples in your old age, for you do not know which ones will endure, these or these… Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand students from Acco to Antifros, and they all died during one period. Why? Because their eyes were pained, these to these. In the end he produced seven students[8]…. He said to them: “My sons, the first ones died because their eyes were pained from one to the other. Pay attention that you do not act as they did.” They stood up and they filled all of Eretz Yisroel with Torah.”[9]
          The holiday of Lag Ba’Omer celebrates the eternity of Torah, a result of the unbroken chain of its transmission. At certain points in our history it seemed like that transmission was in danger, but during those times were always individuals who assumed responsibility and ensured that Torah would never be forgotten.
          Two of these great heroes were Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Both suffered tremendously during their lives and both could have offered excuses why they could not go on. The fact that they persevered and continue to feel responsible to teach Torah had a perpetually vital effect upon the Torah world.  
          Lag BaOmer reminds us that being part of an eternal chain comes with a heavy price tag. Building eternity does not have room for excuses, justifications, or exemptions.

          “The son of the Jewish woman uttered the Name blasphemously”
          “Pay attention that you do not act as they did.”

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





[1] The following is the lecture I gave in Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos KodAlthoiugh tesh parshas Emor 5776
[2] Where the speed limit suddenly drops
[3] Vayikra Rabbah 22:3
[4] see Rashi Shemos 2:11
[5] Her name ‘Shlomis bas Divri’ alludes to the fact that she ‘made peace’ (shlomis) and was chatty (divri) with men
[6] This explanation was based on an essay by Rabbi Maury Grebenau
[7] “Affluenza” by M. Gary Neuman, Huffington Post
[8] One of those students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
[9] Bereishis Rabbah 61:3