Thursday, January 10, 2019

PARSHAS BO 5779


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS BO 5779
“BREAK IN THE ACTION”[1]

Mark Twain famously quipped that “denial aint just a river in Egypt”.
Pharaoh was in denial about his humanity, fancying himself to be a deity. To cover up for the fact that he had human needs, he clandestinely came down to the Nile every morning to imbue the waters with his personal unique ungodly “contribution”. The little-known fact is that during that time, he also secretly met with his therapist, Dr. Ingrid Hyssop[2].
One morning, during one of those secret sessions, Dr. Hyssop asked Pharaoh why he appeared so dispirited and agitated. Pharaoh replied that he was suffering from acute anxiety. He explained that now that the Jews had been duped into becoming slaves and were being subjected to extreme servility and backbreaking labor, he was afraid of a revolution. What could he do to ensure that the millions of slaves don’t mount a coup, and destroy his country?  
Dr. Hyssop replied by explaining to Pharaoh the hierarchy of Dr. Abraham Maslow[3]. Maslow posits that if one’s ‘bottom’ layer basic needs – including security, shelter, and food, aren’t being met, it is impossible to have his ‘higher level needs’ such as emotional connection and love, met. The highest level of all is self-actualization.
Dr. Hyssop suggested that as long as Pharaoh ensured that the nation was so beaten and exhausted and couldn’t take care of their basic needs, they would be unable to bond together to even discuss revolution and rebellion. As long as their sole focus was on survival, they would never have the energy or wherewithal to plan for a different life for themselves.
Pharaoh was greatly encouraged by Dr. Hyssop’s advice and used it as his guide in dealing with the Jewish Problem.

When Moshe appeared before Pharaoh and began speaking about the exodus and the concept of revolution, Pharaoh’s harsh response was that the Jews were lazy and that is why they were entertaining thoughts of redemption and exodus. Mesillas Yesharim explains that Pharaoh’s nefarious solution was תכבד העבודה, the workload should be increased[4]. In this way, he would ensure that the hapless slaves not have the ability to plan, or even dream, about improving their abysmal situation.
This was apparent at the beginning of Parshas Vaera, where the Torah says the nation couldn’t even hearken to the words of Moshe for a greater future, because of “shortness of breath and harshness of the servitude.”
The Medrash says that Pharaoh also decreed that men do women’s work and women do men’s work. From an economic vantage point, that is the worst way to ensure production.
However, Pharaoh’s intent was more focused on ensuring that his workers never have hope for change then about getting anything done.
My father often notes that when women watch their children, they say they are watching their children. But when men watch their children, they often say that they are babysitting. My father argues that it’s not babysitting to watch your own children.
I have often told my father that I disagree. When fathers try to diaper their children, or can’t figure out how to make a bottle (which may entail unscrewing the top and pouring milk in…) you see that they are babysitting. It’s just not their forte.[5] 

Every revolution in history, was the result of many secret meetings and planning by revolutionaries who dreamed, and were courageous to follow through with their dreams, to foster and create change. That’s what happened at the time of the American Revolution when the colonists met secretly under the noses of the British, it’s what happened at the time of the French Revolution, and at the time of the Russian Revolution. It’s what occurred at the time of the revolution when the State of Israel was declared in 1948. The Lechi and Irgun fought the British and relentlessly, and pursued their dream of independence, until it occurred.  It’s also what occurred during the Equality Movement in the 50s, such as with the march of Martin Luther King Jr.
Revolution and change are predicated on hope, and the ability to convene to pursue those goals. But when those wishing for change are so overwhelmed by servitude and oppression, change cannot occur.
The reason understanding Pharaoh’s tactic is so significant is that this is not ancient history.  This is in many ways a contemporary challenge we still face. Being blessed to live in a democracy affords us the ability to accomplish great things. However, we also tend to get lost in the bustle and rapidity of our lives which detract us from pursing our true goals, and from aspiring to be who/what we truly want to be.
My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, often speaks about this challenge, noting that we are so caught up in carpools, deadlines, and other daily pressures that we can hardly focus on our ideals and aspirations.
That problem has been compounded in recent years with our enmeshment with technology and our complete obsession with social media. It dominates our lives, and we hardly come up for air to breathe in reality, because we are so lost in the fantasy world that technology provides.
Almost any time that people are bored in waiting rooms, airports, or on line[6] while shopping, they immediately take out their cell phones. Part of the reason for doing so, is whenever we are in somewhat unfamiliar surroundings, we begin to feel uncomfortable. To resolve that discomfort which we want to avoid, we take out our phones, and immediately connect with the familiar world of our personal social media, containing our own pictures, friends, and likes.
The problem is that some of our greatest innovations and ideas happen when we feel bored, anxious, or uncomfortable. It’s often those feelings that propels us out of our complacency. If we never feeling boredom or discomfort, it is robbing us of that integral impetus for growth, causing us to settle for mediocrity at best. 
The July 3, 2014 issue of The Atlantic contained an article entitled “People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone with Their Thoughts.” The article cites a study, in which individuals were asked to spend a few minutes alone in a room. Before entering they gave their phones and any other potential distractors to someone outside. The only thing in the room was a button which, when pushed, administrated a painful electric shock to the one who pushed the button.
Forty percent of the women, and a far higher percentage of men gave themselves an electric shock while they were sitting in the room. They were so uncomfortable being alone with themselves, that they rather shocked themselves than be alone with their thoughts.

Part of the greatness of Shabbos is that it grants us the ability to rediscover the truth of our world and of ourselves. It is a day when we connect with everything near and dear to us. But, above all, we must utilize the day to think about whether we are being true to ourselves and developing our connection with Hashem.
The word Shabbos literally means a stopping. On Shabbos we desist from the daily bustle of our lives, so that we can reflect inwards, focus on our priorities, and what really matters most to us in life.
Exile means being stuck in place; redemption means freedom to grow and accomplish. Dovid Hamelech declared, “From the narrow straits I called to G-d; G-d answered me with widening (relief).[7]” When we are distressed, we feel constricted by whatever is causing our distress - health issues, lack of finances, etc. When we are granted relief, it is analogous to a widening of the mental/psychological constriction that we felt before.
The word ‘Mitzrayim’ literally means boundaries. In the Egyptian exile we were spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically trapped in the morass of servitude. The redemption granted us the ability to burst forth from the shackles of slavery to become holistic, free people.
In that sense, Shabbos Kodesh is a day of redemption. On Pesach we were freed on a grand national level. Each Shabbos we have the ability to ensure that we remain free, and not get lost in the vagaries of exile.
We should use the holy day well!

“Let the workload become heavier”
“He answered me with widening (relief), G-d.”

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



[1] The following is the lecture I was privileged to deliver at the Las Vegas Kollel in Las Vegas, Nevada, Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Bo 5778. I enjoyed a beautiful Shabbos there with our daughter Aviva, hosted by our friend Menachem Moskovitz and family.
I began my remarks by noting that the one thing which is not a gamble in Las Vegas, is the warmth of the community.
[2] This is a true account which I personally fabricated
[3] Which is quite incredible considering that Maslow wouldn’t be born for over three millennia
[4] Shemos 5:9
[5] The first time I went shopping before Shabbos shortly after I got married (along with all the other men shopping with a cell phone in hand trying to figure out what their wives wanted them to get…) my wife told me to get parsnip, and instructed me that it looks like a big white carrot. So I brought home a horseradish...

[6] Physically on line in a store check-out aisle, not the internet
[7] Tehillim 118:5

Thursday, January 3, 2019

PARSHAS VAERA 5779


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS VAERA 5779
“COMMITTED SOLDIERS”[1]

Tsachi Sasson served in the Israel Defense Force’s armored corps. He loved others and was always looking to help others.
After his years of service, he married and had two children. On Sunday evening, February 11, 2001, Tsachi was driving from work in Yerushalayim to his home in Gush Etzion. As he was driving through the tunnels leaving the city, he was murdered by Arab terrorists. 
After his death, his family publicized a letter that Tsachi had written to his younger brother Gabi, upon Gabi’s inscription to the army in 1989. The letter is entitled "להיות חייל דתי" – to be a religious solider.
In that letter Tsachi wrote[2]: “To daven shachris after a white night[3], to daven ma’ariv after traveling, when there are a few minutes to learn mishnayos even though you are so tired… at times to forgo on the supper you are so hungry for in order to maintain the laws of not eating dairy after meat, to always know when the deadline is for tefilah, because the commander often forgets to tell you… to be careful to never use foul language, because the kippah upon your heard demands that you always speak pleasantly… to never allow anyone to change you, to always be proud to be a religious Zionist…”
Tsachi concluded by requesting that Gabi reread the letter each week to remind him of his priorities and values.  
I have a professional copy of the letter that I keep in my wallet. It reminds me that we are all soldiers with a mission. We are part of an elite people with an elite mission – to sanctify the name of G-d and to be a moral compass for the world.

Mesillas Yesharim[4] notes that every aspect of life contains struggles and tests: “And if he will be a soldier and he will be victorious in all aspects, he will become the complete person who will merit clinging to his Creator, and he will emerge from this anteroom to enter the great banquet hall where he will bask in the light of eternal life. Commensurate to how much he conquered his evil inclination and his desires, and how much he distanced himself from those things which detract him from the ultimate good, will he achieve it and rejoice in it.”
Every Jewish parent wishes for their child that he be a proud solider in the army of G-d, who fulfills his mission with pride and confidence. 

There are two components of this quest of being a loyal soldier that emerge from parshas Va’era.
During the reign of the wicked king Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had an image erected with his likeness and insisted that everyone bow before it. Chanaya, Mishael, and Azaryah chose to defy the command, although they knew that doing so would likely cost them their lives. They were cast into a fiery furnace, and only miraculously did they emerge unscathed.
The gemara[5] asks how they knew to do so? The gemara quotes ‘Todos the Roman’ who explained that they learned that lesson from the frogs during the second plague in Egypt. They reasoned that if the frogs had no obligation to sanctify the Name of G-d, and yet were willing to jump into the ovens to fulfill the Will of G-d in plaguing the Egyptians, then they, who were obligated to sanctify the Name of G-d, should surely be prepared to be thrown into a fire to sanctify His Name.
The prophet Yecheskel had advised Chanaya, Mishael, and Azaryah to hide so they wouldn’t be obligated to bow to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar.[6] They, however, were concerned that other Jews might think it was permitted to bow to the statue. They therefore, chose to jeopardize their lives in order to be an example for the rest of the nation not to bow.
Rav Shimon Schwab zt’l explained that although the frogs had received a general directive to spread out throughout Egypt to wreak havoc and assault the Egyptians, no individual frog had been commanded to enter an oven. Every frog could have chosen to jump around on the beds and eat the fruits. Nevertheless, there were some frogs that took it upon themselves to jump into the ovens in order to fulfill the Will of G-d in this unique manner. Chanaya, Mishael, and Azaryah took a lesson from the frogs that they too should put their lives on the line to sanctify G-d even though they were not obligated to do so.
One of the most important components of being a soldier is to be ready to follow orders on a whim. A soldier is trained to reply “yes, sir!” and follow the instructions of his commander whether he likes it or understands them or not.
No matter what Hashem demanded of our patriarchs, they were always ready to respond “Hineni – behold, here I am!” Life is full of twists and turns. The only predictable thing in life is its unpredictability. The loyal soldier is one who declares “hineni” in whatever situation and predicament he finds himself in. “Hineni” is the opposite of “why me?”
 Our constant question must be – what does G-d want from me now? It’s not always an easy question to answer, and sometimes we may not know the answer. But the question serves as a guide to direct a person’s thinking.
When Moshe stood before the nation and delivered to them the news of their imminent redemption, they did not - could not - hear it. “They did not listen to Moshe due to kotzer ruach (lit. shortness of breath) and hard work.[7]
What is ‘kotzer ruach’? 

Nick Vujicic was born without any hands or feet. As could be imagined, as a child he struggled mentally, emotionally, and physically. There were many times that he wished he could die. With time however, he not only came to terms with his significant disabilities, he embraced it and became a source of great inspiration.
He became a motivational speaker and travels internationally inspiring millions of people, particularly downtrodden and depressed teens. He founded a nonprofit organization called Life Without Limbs.
Today, Nick is married and has two healthy sons.

Kotzer ruach connotes hopelessness and giving up[8]; one who has grown despondent because of his calamitous predicament. He has grown weary of his unfulfilled sanguinity and despairs of his situation improving. In the process he has forfeited his hopes and dreams, the things he once aspired to achieve and become. Kotzer ruach has far more dire consequences even than the painful physical servitude.
Those who are somehow able to maintain a sense of faith and hope even in the worst conditions have far greater endurance and chances of survival.
One of the most important components for a Jew to live a meaningful life is to feel spiritually connected. Spiritually, in the sense that his very spirit is elevated through his observance of Torah and mitzvos.
Towards the end of shachris we recite, “And I – this is My treaty with them – says G-d: My spirit that is upon you and My words that I have placed in your mouth, they will not be removed from your children and from the mouths of your children’s children, from now until forever.”  This is our greatest hope and blessing for ourselves and for our children – that we/they always feel spiritually connected and elevated to such a degree that it is passed on to our progeny.
Before Klal Yisroel could leave Egypt, they had to regain a recognition of their personal greatness and their ability to ascend beyond their current misery.

We are all soldiers in the most elite army, united by our divine directive. To fulfill our roles, we need to maintain a sense of mission and be prepared for whatever is sent our way. We also must recognize the importance of our individual roles as vital members of the eternal nation.[9]

They did not listen to Moshe due to kotzer ruach
“And if he will be a soldier”

 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 Vaera 5777 upon the occasion of the bar mitzvah of our bechor, Shalom. I had spoken at numerous occasions in KNH throughout my years there, including all stages of the circle of life. For obvious reasons, this was one of the most personally special lectures that I gave during my years there. 
[2] In Hebrew it follows a poetic form. Obviously, it loses that significance in translation. 
[3] i.e. a night of no sleep because of army drills or exercises
[4] Chapter 1
[5] Pesachim 53b
[6] In fact, Daniel heeded the advice of Yecheskel and wasn’t present
[7] Shemos 6:9
[8] Ibn Ezra writes that they were kotzer ruach because of the lengthy exile and the harsh servitude
[9] We daven constantly that our son Shalom, along with all of his siblings, always have that sense of personal mission and feel spiritually connected to Hashem, His Torah, and His people. May he always be willing and ready to say “hineni” to whatever comes his way, and may that ruach Hashem envelop him and manifest in his children and children’s children, from now until forever.