Thursday, February 14, 2019

PARSHAS TETZAVEH – PURIM KATAN 5779


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS TETZAVEH – PURIM KATAN 5779
“A BRAZEN CELEBRATION”[1]

Arnie and Ethel were married for fifty-six years. Ethel finally convinced Arnie that fifty-five years after their honeymoon, it was time for him to take her on vacation for a few days. During their vacation, they ate lunch in a restaurant. When they got back into the car and were heading back towards the hotel, Ethel told Arnie that she forgot her glasses on the table in the restaurant. As he turned off to go back to the restaurant, Arnie launched into a diatribe about how Ethel was always forgetting things, and after all these years was still so irresponsible. His speech lasted all the way back to the restaurant. As Ethel got out of the car to retrieve her glasses, Arnie called out, “While you’re in there, I left my hat on the chair!”

The gemara[2] explains that each of the eight bigdei kehuna – vestments that the Kohain Gadol wore, atoned for a different sin. The gemara explains that the tzitz[3] served as atonement for brazenness.
The Shemen HaTov notes that some explain that the tzitz did not actually atone for brazenness, but rather one who saw the Kohain Gadol wearing the tzitz would be so humbled that he would not be able to be brazen and arrogant.  
The Mishna[4] states: “Yehuda ben Taima said: Be bold like a leopard, light like an eagle, run like a deer, and strong like a lion to fulfill the Will of Your Father in heaven. He would say: One who is brazen will go to purgatory, while one who is bashful will go to Gan Eden. May it be You will, Hashem, our G-d, that you rebuild the Bais Hamikdash quickly in our days, and grant us our portion in Torah.”
The Mishna seems very strange. What is the connection between the beginning and the end? In addition, why does the Mishna begin by speaking about what will happen to a brazen person, and then end with a prayer for redemption?
Rabbi Akiva Eiger explains that one cannot excel in Torah without a certain level of brazenness. One who is meek and easily embarrassed will not assert himself and will therefore not ensure that he properly understands what he is learning[5].
The gemara says that the Jewish people are the most brazen of all the nations. We would be unable to keep Torah and mitzvos and stubbornly maintain our values in a society so antithetical to those values, without that chutzpah.
The gemara says that in the generation before Moshiach, chutzpah will be rampant[6]. Rav Tzadok Hakohain explains that before Moshiach’s arrival it will be extremely challenging to maintain one’s faith and to observe Torah and mitzvos according to the demands of halacha. It requires fortitude, confidence, and chutzpah to stand up to society and not submit to its trends. 
It is only when Moshiach will come that the world will recognize the truth that brazenness will no longer be necessary to serve Hashem. Thus, although generally a brazen person will end up in purgatory as the Mishna states, regarding spiritual matters one needs some level of brazenness. But we hope and await the day when that will no longer be a prerequisite. That is why the Mishna concludes with that prayer fro Moshiach.
Shemen HaTov explains that it was specifically the tzitz which contained the words “Holy for Hashem” that atoned for brazenness. Brazenness is generally a negative character trait, but in regard to being “holy for Hashem”, it becomes necessary.

As the Purim story unfolded, the Esther we are introduced to at the beginning of the megillah, seems to be very different from the Esther we are told about at the end of the megillah. When we are first introduced to Esther, she seems very passive. She is the wife of Mordechai, and accepts all instructions from him. The megillah also defines her by her external beauty.[7] She requests nothing and allows things to happen to her and with her.  
Yet, at the end of the Megilla, Esther is the heroine who bravely stands up to her egotistical and volatile husband, and brings about the downfall of Haman. She becomes the catalyst of the entire story.
What brought about the drastic change in Esther?
In the fourth chapter of the Megilla, Mordechai tells Esther that she must violate protocol and approach Achashveirosh, even at the peril of her life. He instructs her that this is her moment, her destiny, and responsibility. Throughout her life until this point, Esther fulfilled her responsibilities, righteously but passively. Now she was told that she was charged with taking an active role, and that the fate of the entire nation rested upon her shoulders. 
We can hardly imagine how difficult it was for Esther to fulfill Mordechai’s instructions. It wasn’t merely the fear of what might happen to her, but also the incredible pressure and challenge of challenging her nature to fulfill her newfound role. She was also a descendant of Shaul Hamelech, who allowed his piety and bashfulness to impede him from fulfilling his mission of destroying Agag, the king of Amalek, generations earlier. Based on her nature and her nurture it was completely contrary to Esther’s very being to fulfill what she was being told to do.  
In our lives, we are occasionally placed in positions that demand us to take on roles that we might not be comfortable with and that challenge our nature. The measure of greatness is when someone can overcome his personality in order to fulfill what is being demanded of him.
Esther did not ask for this mission, nor did she want it. She had been the rebbitzin of one the greatest Torah leaders of her day[8], renowned among her people for her piety, modesty, and adherence to halacha. Suddenly she was instructed to marry an evil despot who hated her people and had sold them to the devil. It entailed incredible brazenness for her to rise to the occasion. 
Many of the incredible chesed organizations in our communities were founded by people who found themselves in challenging situations and instead of resigning themselves to a difficult situation, pledged to help others in similar predicaments.
It’s been said that, “The comfort zone is a wonderful place, but nothing grows there.” Perhaps there was no one who personified this more profoundly than Esther.
Part of the joy of Purim is the celebration that resulted from heroes who fulfilled their divinely mandated roles and embraced the challenges that doing so entailed. Purim is indeed a brazen celebration.
It is also a reminder to us that, until Moshiach comes, we must utilize brazenness to withstand the spiritual challenges being a Torah observant Jew entails.

 “You shall make a tzitz of gold, and engrave upon it the seal: Holy for Hashem”
“Be bold like a leopard”


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



[1] The following is the lecture I delivered at Kehillat New Hempstead, Parshas Tetzaveh 5778
[2] Zevachim 88b
[3] The ‘headplate’ of the Kohain Gadol which had a gold plate with the words “Holy to Hashem” engraved upon it
[4] Avos, Chapter 5
[5] See Avos 2:5
[6] Sotah 49b
[7] The following idea is based on an essay by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt’l in the book, “By His Light”. The essay is entitled, “If you remain silent at this time” 
[8] The gemara says Esther was married to Mordechai before she was taken to the palace

Thursday, February 7, 2019

PARSHAS TERUMAH 5779


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS TERUMAH 5779
“PERSONAL INVESTMENT”[1]

It’s literally the million-dollar question (perhaps more) that every organization, corporation, religious institution, and educational institution constantly grapples with:
How can we get people to be more involved?

In an article that appeared in the Atlantic in February 2018[2], it was reported that Amazon was offering its employees up to $5,000 to walk away from their job with the company. The more obvious reason for the incentive was to encourage unhappy employees to leave. But on a deeper level, it would cause employees to remain with the company for longer than they otherwise might have. By resisting a lucrative offer to leave, the employees that remained would feel more invested, and therefore more committed, to the company.
People do not like feeling cognitive dissonance, and contradictory beliefs. When they are confronted with paradoxical emotions/beliefs, they will try to rationalize one belief to make it fit with the other. Therefore, if a person refused the $5,000 offer, they would then convince themselves that they really enjoy working at Amazon, even if they weren’t completely thrilled before.
So aside for weeding out disgruntled employees, the offer actually increased overall employee satisfaction and commitment to production. 

Parshas Terumah begins with Hashem instructing Moshe, “And you shall take for Me a terumah (donation) from every man whose heart motivates him...” The commentators ask why the pasuk says that they should take a terumah, and not that they should give a terumah?
 The Medrash[3] states: “At the moment they (Klal Yisroel) said na’ase v’nishma (we will do and we will hear), G-d said to them, “And you shall take for Me a terumah”.
What’s the connection?

IKEA is known for its self-assembly furniture. There is a certain level of pride one feels when he puts something together himself, even if he is a complete amateur and was only able to construct it with the included instructions. This is known aptly as the IKEA effect.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted a series of experiments to test the extent of the IKEA effect, to determine how much we overvalue what we make.
Arieli gathered volunteers to make origami models by intricately and elaborately folding paper. He then asked them how much they were prepared to pay to keep their own model. The average response was 25 cents. When he asked other people in the vicinity what they would be prepared to pay for the models, the average answer was five cents.
It demonstrated that people were prepared to pay five times more for something they made themselves. Arieli’s conclusion was that although the effort invested into something does not just change the object, it changes its creator’s perception and how much he values that object. The greater the effort involved, the greater the love for what was made.[4]
Rabbi Jonathon Sacks notes that the construction of the Mishkan marked a turning point for the Jewish nation in the desert. Until that point, the nation had been the recipients of G-d’s magnanimity. He brought the plagues, He split the sea, He brought down the manna and produced the water from the rock, and although they fought against Amalek, it was G-d who ultimately miraculously brought about their victory.
But then G-d instructed Moshe to inform the nation, “And you shall make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them.” Now G-d was commanding them to create something for Him. It was not because G-d needed a home on earth. As the prophet Yeshaya states: “Heaven is My throne and the earth My footstool. What house, then, can you will build for Me?”[5] Rather, it was G-d granting them the ability to create an abode for Him to enhance their own measure of self-worth.
Everyone whose heart desired could contribute: “gold, silver or bronze, blue, purple or crimson yarns, fine linen, goat hair, red-dyed ram skins, fine leather, acacia wood, oil for the lamp, balsam oils for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense,” jewels for the breastplate, etc. Some invested their talents and acumen. Everyone had the opportunity to take part: women as well as men. It was produced by the entire nation, not just the elite.
For the first time G-d was asking them not just to follow, but to be active - to become builders and creators. That made the Mishkan that much more beloved to them.
The word terumah doesn’t only refer to something donated, but also to something that’s raised up. Those who built the Mishkan raised up their gift to G-d, and, in the process, discovered that they themselves had been raised up.

Rav Eliyahu Schlesinger[6] explains that a person loves something that he toiled and invested in. The more time and effort he dedicated to it, the deeper will be his value and connection to it.
At Har Sinai, G-d held the mountain above the nation and told them that if they accepted the Torah all would be well. But if not, they would be buried under the mountain.[7] There was a certain degree of coercion when they originally accepted the Torah at Sinai. One can be forced into physical compliance, but one cannot be forced into emotional compliance. Thus, at Sinai the nation was bound and committed to the performance of mitzvos, but they did not yet achieve emotional and internal connection to their newfound status.
When they uttered na’aseh v’nishma, demonstrating complete allegiance to G-d, G-d replied by telling them to invest in the Mishkan. G-d did not need their contributions, but when they gave the necessary materials, they were taking for themselves the feeling of connection and love for G-d, and there can be nothing greater or loftier.
The haftorah for parshas Terumah[8] relates that when Shlomo Hamelech was commissioning the construction of the first Bais Hamikdash, 30,000 men were drafted, 10,000 of which were dispatched to Lebanon for a month. There were an additional 70,000 porters, 80,000 quarriers, and 3,300 supervisors. By having so many Jews involved in its construction, it ensured that the nation would feel deeply connected with the Bais Hamikdash.    

The month (months) of Adar and the holiday of Purim are a time of deep joy and celebration. The terror of Haman’s threat jolted the Jews out of their auto-pilot performance of Torah and mitzvos, revitalizing and rejuvenating the inner spark within them. They again felt invested and deeply connected to Torah and to each other. That is what we celebrate.

“And you shall take for Me a terumah”
“And I will dwell amongst them”


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


[1] The following is the lecture I delivered at Kehillat New Hempstead, Parshas Terumah 5778
[2] “Why Amazon Pays Some of Its Workers to Quit”, Alana Semuels, February 14, 2018
[3] Shemos Rabbah
[4] Dan Ariely, The Upside of Irrationality, Harper, 2011, 83-106. His TED lecture on this subject can be seen at:  https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_what_makes_us_feel_good_about_our_work
[5] Yeshaya 66:1
[6] Sefer Eileh Hadevorim
[7] Shabbos 88b
[8] Melachim I, 5:26

Friday, February 1, 2019

PARSHAS MISHPATIM 5779


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS MISHPATIM 5779
“BRICKS OF SAPPHIRE”[1]

In his Haggadah, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, relates a personal story.
One year on Pesach, he led a Seder for soldiers of the Israeli air force and their families. There were about one hundred and fifty men, women, and children, including pilots and other army personnel. It was a tremendous challenge to engage such a large crowd for an extended period without a microphone.
Rabbi Lau began reciting the opening paragraph of Maggid, Ha lachma anya, and translating each phrase into Hebrew. As soon as he completed the paragraph, a soldier stood up and raised his hand. Rabbi Lau looked at the base commander unsure whether he should accept the question. They had just begun and still had a long way to go. The commander replied that the soldier was mature and serious, and he should be allowed to ask.
The young soldier began, “Honored Rabbi, as I listened to your explanation of the paragraph, I had the feeling that the words are antiquated and inapplicable. You said, “This year we are here; next year in Eretz Yisrael. This year we are slaves; next year we will be free men” I was born in Eretz Yisrael and have lived my entire life here. I was born into a democracy and never knew of anything different. If those opening words don’t apply anymore, perhaps the entire Haggadah is also outdated and antiquated!?”
Every eye in the room was locked on Rabbi Lau. He calmly replied, “I personally knew Rabbi Lazer Shach, Rabbi Elya Lopian, and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurebach. These great men never allowed an untruth to escape their lips and they were honest to a fault. Yet, with my own ears, I heard them reciting the vidui (confession) prayers on Yom Kippur, “For the sin that we sinned before you”. Each of them then proceeded to list a litany of sins that I am absolutely sure they never committed. Some of the sins they enumerated are so severe that one must sacrifice his life so as not to transgress them. How could such great men have made false statements on the holiest day?
“The answer is they weren’t only praying for themselves. Our problem is that it’s always about me, me, me! But they were praying on behalf of the entire Jewish nation. They did not only worry about their own fate on the day of judgement, but also that of their fellow Jews who may have committed severe sins.
“The same is true about the opening words of the Haggadah. You may have indeed been born into freedom in this Holy Land, but what about the rest of your fellow Jews? What about the Jews in the diaspora who don’t have that privilege? What about Jews living under persecution among hateful enemies? What about the myriads of Jews who don’t have matzah, wine, and a seder plate before them tonight? 
“We have to stop thinking only about ourselves. We are a nation that endures through unity and love for each other. What better way is there than to commence the Haggadah by thinking about our fellow Jews? The Haggadah’s timeless words indeed apply today as much as ever.”
With that Rabbi Lau proceeded.

After the Torah lists the many laws introduced in Parshas Mishpatim, the Torah returns to its discussion of the events that occurred at the time of Matan Torah. There are a couple of cryptic pesukim, which require explanation:
“Then Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders of Yisrael ascended. And they saw the G-d of Yisrael, and beneath His feet were the making of a sapphire brick, and the essence of heaven in purity. But to “Atzelei” (nobility of) B’nei Yisrael He did not send forth His Hand, and they ate, and they drank.”[2]  
Rashi explains that on their lofty level, Nadav, Avihu, and the elders lacked a modicum of reverence when they gazed at the divine presence. Staring at such an incredible revelation of G-d was disrespectful. Truthfully, they should have died immediately, but G-d did not want to mar the joy of that day, so He detained their punishment. Instead Nadav and Avihu died on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, while the elders died at the tragic event of the complainers, detailed in Parshas Beha’aloscha[3].
Rashi then explains the incredible vision they saw when they gazed heavenward. They saw a brick of sapphire, which symbolized the suffering of the Jews during the Egyptian servitude, positioned beneath the feet of G-d, as it were. The brick was symbolic of the fact that G-d did not forget the suffering of His people, even after their redemption. The essence of the heaven in purity symbolized the joy of redemption which was also in the presence of G-d, as it were.
The pasuk is revealing to us an incredible truth. Sometimes when a person suffers, his pain is compounded by the feeling that he is suffering in silence and needlessly. The symbolism of the sapphire brick at G-d’s feet, teaches us that any suffering one feels is not only not forgotten, but remains in the presence of G-d, even long after the suffering has passed. No person ever suffers alone, and no person’s pain is ever forgotten. G-d remembers and cherishes every tear.
On the flip side, our joy comprises ‘the essence of the heaven in purity’. Our celebration is divinely orchestrated, and G-d celebrates with us, as it were.

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch offers a vastly different explanation of these verses. He explains that it is rare for the Torah to refer to G-d as “Elokai Yisroel” (G-d of Yisrael)[4]. When that encomium is used it is at a special occasion and with emphasis to refer to the unique personal relationship G-d maintains with His nation.
At Sinai the nation had forged a covenant with G-d, and it was then that He truly became Elokai Yisrael. When they had been slaves to Pharaoh, the nation had prepared bricks in futile service of Pharaoh. Now, as servants to G-d, they had the opportunity to prepare “bricks” in Service to the Almighty. With every mitzvah they performed another brick was laid. The first brick was created from their national unified declaration ‘na’aseh v’nishma’. “Everything material, earthly, which is brought in faithful service to this building joins itself to the heavenly, becomes permeated with the heavenly, becomes heavenly sapphire.” Every brick is part of “the essence of the heaven in purity”.
Rav Hirsch continues that the expression “Hand of Hashem” is often used to refer to the spirit of G-d which manifests as prophecy. He explains that the word “atzelei” refers to those who are distant.[5] Thus the pasuk is saying that those Jews who were more distant from the mountain, those who were the opposite of nobility, the common Jew, did not merit prophecy at Sinai. Still they had an ‘inner vision” (vayechezu) of Hashem through the mundane components of life – such as eating and drinking. Without being raised above the ordinary, normal, everyday matters, they were able to perceive G-d and draw close to Him. That experience that they had at Sinai is one of the most important ideas in Judaism. Holiness is not only to be found when one divorces himself from this world, but when one engages in this world and elevates it. “They enjoyed the bliss of feeling the proximity of G-d, in the midst of material, earthly life, the highest normal result of Jewish Torah life.”

Parshas Mishpatim commences with G-d instructing Moshe: “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them.” Rashi explains that when a topic begins with the opening words “these are”, it means to exclude and disconnect the new topics from the previous one. However, when a topic begins with “and these are”, the conjunctive “and” connects the new topic with the previous one.
The latter half of Parshas Yisro contained the revelation of Sinai, including the incredible and unprecedented excitement surrounding it. Parshas Mishpatim on the other hand, discusses laws involving mundane life, including laws of personal responsibility and liability involving interpersonal relationships.
There are individuals who are very pious and holy regarding ‘parshas Yisro matters’. They learn Torah with fiery enthusiasm and daven intensely. When they step out of the Bais Medrash however, and when they are involved with monetary matters, it’s a different story completely. They aren’t very good with ‘parshas Mishpatim matters’. The problem is that parshas Mishpatim is inextricably connected with parshas Yisro, and it’s not enough to have one without the other. Kabbolas HaTorah was not only about accepting the excitement of Torah and mitzvos, it also meant accepting all the laws regarding money and personal responsibility.
We aren’t meant to serve Hashem in a vacuum. We are a nation that stands united and bears the burden of being the examples to the world of divinity, morality, and ethics. When a Jew is dishonest, he shames every Jew.  
A Jew must strive to feel the pain of others. Perhaps more challenging - a Jew must also strive to rejoice with others, and not allow jealously to overwhelm him. Above all, a Jew must always strive to live his life in a manner that sanctifies the Name of Hashem.

“Beneath His feet a sapphire brick and the essence of heaven in purity”
And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them”


Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor
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[1] The following is the lecture I delivered at Kehillat New Hempstead, Parshas Mishpatim 5778
[2] Shemos 24:9-11
[3] See Bamidbar 11:16
[4] In fact, it only appears three times in the entire Torah.    
[5] “Aitzel” means next to, meaning there is a division of space