Thursday, July 30, 2009

Vaeschanan 5769

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Camp Dora Golding

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During a lecture he delivered on Tisha B’av afternoon a number of years ago, Rabbi Fishel Shechter related a personal story that a woman had related to him:

“A number of years ago one of my children died and I was devastated. I became so depressed that I refused to leave my house. I was sure that I would never get over it and would never be able to get on with my life. Two months went by and things did not improve at all; in fact my misery and self-pity only deepened.

“I was invited to a wedding but I told my husband that I wasn’t going. I simply couldn’t. My husband knew how badly I needed to get out and, when he saw that he could not reason with me, he literally pushed me out of the house and locked the door. I banged on the door but my husband would not allow me back in. He called out that my dress and makeup were at a neighbor’s house and that I had to go to the wedding

“Seeing that I had no choice, I begrudgingly got dressed and went to the wedding. When I saw everyone dancing happily I became very upset. I felt that they had no right to be so happy. With a complete feeling of dejection, I walked over to a phone booth and picked up the phone. Tears streaming down my face, I said, “G-d, I don’t want to be here. Please get me out of here!”

“While I was standing there crying, one of the elderly women who was sitting at the door of the hall collecting charity noticed me and walked over to me. She placed her arms on my shoulder and gently asked me, “Mein kint, vos vaynst du- My child why are you crying?” I shot back at her, “You never lost a child!” She gently replied, “Really? I lost ten children during the war! Why are you crying?” I looked at her in astonishment, “And you never cried?” “Oh, I cried! But I learned that there is no point of crying over the past. I learned to take advantage of my tears and to use them to cry for others. Whenever I cry I think about those who need salvation and I pray for them with my tears.”

Then she put her arms around me and said, “No one should tell you to stop crying. But use your tears and learn how to cry! Use your tears to pray for everyone you know who is suffering” Then she walked away.

For a few moments I just stood there lost in thought. Then I picked up the phone again and began to cry profusely. I thought about everyone I know who is going through a hard time and I cried for them. I thought about those who were in the hospital when I was there with my child and I cried for them. I cried for Klal Yisroel and I prayed for the future and for salvation and redemption.

“When I finished crying I never felt so happy in my life. I stepped into the center of the circle and I danced like I never danced in my life!”

נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם" – Comfort, comfort My people – says your G-d.”

The Shabbos following Tisha B’av derives its special name, “Shabbas Nachamu – the Shabbos of comfort” from the aforementioned opening words of the haftorah. After the arduous day of Tisha B’av has concluded and we have recited the numerous Lamentations recounting our myriad pain and suffering in exile, it is appropriate that the period that follows is one of consolation and solace1.

What is the nature of this “national nechama”? How can we be consoled after all that we have spoken about on Tisha B’av?

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’l explains that nechama entails a shift in perspective and perception.

After the death of Yaakov Avinu in Egypt, his sons- Yosef’s brothers - feared that there would be reprisals for what they had done to Yosef. They were concerned that perhaps until now Yosef had restrained himself from avenging his honor because he did not want to cause their father any additional pain. But now that Yaakov was gone there would be nothing stopping Yosef from seeking retribution.

The righteous Yosef reassured his brothers that he had no feelings of malice or resentment towards them. The Torah2 records that Yosef sought to assuage his brothers; ”וינחם אותם וידבר על לבם – And he comforted them and spoke into their hearts.”

Rabbi Hirsch explains that נחם can refer to both consolation and regret, in that they are both a complete change of feelings from the way one felt about something until this point. “Up until now one had considered something to be right and perhaps boasted about it, and then suddenly finds out that one has to be ashamed of it: regret, remorse. Similarly, real consolation is only such, that brings the conviction to one who has suffered pain and grief, that this too leads to ultimate good and everlasting happiness… which awakes the consciousness that if one were able to see through and over all the results and consequences as G-d can and does, one would not alter what has happened even if one could.

“Thus Yosef here tries to show his brothers just the opposite point of view of what happened in the past. He explained to his brothers that, “G-d used you as the instrument to bring about my own, and so many other people’s, good fortune”. And then “Yosef spoke into their hearts”. He did not merely speak “to their hearts” but “into their hearts”, i.e. his words prevailed over their feelings.

נחמה (nechama) is directed not so much to the heart as to the intelligence, and then (once one has presented a new intellectual perspective) he spoke into their hearts (it can effect a change in one’s heart and emotions as well).”

Rabbi Hirsch’s presupposition that nechama implies a change of attitude is apparent from other verses in the Torah as well.

When the Torah describes the decadence and immorality of the pre-flood generation of Noach, it writes, “G-d saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth… And G-d reconsidered(וינחם ה') having made Man on earth” When G-d saw how deceitful and depraved man had become, He regretted His original decision to create Man, as it were. It was then that G-d decided to decimate the world with a flood and recommence creation. In order to express that ‘change of heart’ the Torah utilizes the word נחמה.

In addition, when the newly redeemed nation of Klal Yisroel marched forth from Egypt en route to Canaan, the most direct route would have been through the land of the Philistines. However, G-d purposely diverted the nation from that land in order to avoid the need for immediate war. The Torah explains3, “פן ינחם העם – Perhaps the nation will reconsider when they see a war, and they will return to Egypt.” Here too the Torah utilizes the word נחמה to convey a shift of perspective and attitude, which effected a major decision and outcome.

When, G-d forbid, a person is in a state of mourning for a deceased relative, we seek to console him. The truth is that it is impossible to fully console a person as that would only be accomplished by removing the loss completely, and we cannot change the past or resurrect the dead. The consolation we seek to offer is by helping the mourner see value and purpose in his loss. When he is able to find meaning in the tragedy he has suffered then he is able to reach a level of inner peace, the anguish and pain of his loss notwithstanding.

In the opening story about the woman who lost her child, nothing in her life changed when she went to that wedding. The only change that occurred was a shift in perspective, an internal transformation. She learned to find value in her suffering, despite the fact that her actual pain had not diminished. But that sense of value infused her with fortitude and inner peace to move on.

When a person loses a close relative there is an inevitable sense of loneliness and separation. When friends and loved ones come to comfort a mourner, they sit together empathizing and sharing the mourner’s pain. That itself helps alleviate some of the feelings of isolation and loneliness. The deceased is still gone but the mourner is able to see that he is not alone. That inner psychological metamorphosis is what we call nechama.

Tisha B’av is a day of national, often cataclysmic, tragedy. It is the anniversary of many harrowing and traumatic events in Jewish history, including the destruction of both Batei Mikdash, the expulsion of the Jews from England (1290) and Spain (1492), and Germany’s entry into World War I4. During World War II, the “Final Solution” was signed into law by Herman Goering on July 31, 1941 (the night of the eighth of Av), and was enacted a year later on Tisha B’av 1942 when the first deportees from the Warsaw Ghetto were gassed in Treblinka.

The kinnos recited on Tisha B’av depict a candid portrayal of the tribulations we have encountered. At times it is hard to even read the words. The novel barbaric ideas that our enemies utilized to terrorize us defy belief, and the magnitude of our suffering is mind-boggling. But there is a paradoxical underlying theme that emerges from our pain.

In a famous article in Harpers Magazine, Mark Twain noted that Jewish survival is nothing short of miraculous and challenges all laws of nature and ‘survival of the fittest’. He concludes by wondering, “What is the secret to his immortality?”

The horrors we recall on Tisha B’av help us realize that we are part of an immortal people who transcend natural order. That perspective which “emerges from the ashes” is an integral part of our national consolation. Tisha B’av helps us conceptualize our suffering as being analogous to a prince who is taunted and beaten. Although chagrined, bloody, and bruised, deep down the prince feels a sense of pride. He realizes that he is being targeted because he is noble and special. That realization and shift in perspective helps us find meaning in our inexplicable pain and suffering, and therein lies our comfort.

Every year when Tisha B’av arrives and we descend to the floors, there is a sense of national exasperation and failure; “Another Tisha B’av in exile; another year of dashed hopes.” Yet, at the same time, Tisha B’av helps us see the exile, as well as all the travails and vicissitudes of life, from a new perspective. Through the mask we are able to see the Hand of G-d guiding all the events that have befallen us, for good and for better. Thus, Tisha B’av itself segues into the period of consolation that follows. However, more than consolation for the national calamities we have suffered, Tisha B’av helps us realize that every moment of our lives is guided by the Divine Hand. In our suffering it becomes apparent that it is G-s who has orchestrated all that we have endured5. When one lives with that realization and belief he lives a life of meaning and fulfillment, even with the challenges life thrusts upon him.

“He comforted them and spoke into their hearts”

“Comfort, comfort My people – says your G-d”

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Devorim 5769

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Camp Dora Golding

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week, send their address to:





Fall 1944.

It was already apparent that the German army would be vanquished imminently. The Allied forces were rapidly closing in on the Nazi War Machine from all sides, and it was clear that it was only a matter of time before ‘the Reich that would stand for a thousand years’ would collapse. Nevertheless, the Nazis were determined to promote their nefarious objective of making Europe Judenrein until their final moments. Such was the tragic fate of Hungarian Jewry which was shipped into the crematoriums en masse during the waning months of the war.

One day fifty young yeshiva boys were herded into a ‘bathhouse’ in Auschwitz. It was late enough in the war that the boys were familiar with the Nazi’s ruse. They knew that at any moment the showers would be turned on, but instead of water, noxious Zyklon-B gas would come out, causing them all to die of asphyxiation within minutes.

As they waited for the inevitable, one of the boys called out to his peers, “My brothers; today is Simchas Torah, the day we celebrate the conclusion of one cycle of Torah study and the commencement of a new cycle. Throughout our lives we have tried our best to adhere to the Torah and uphold its every commandment. Now we have one final opportunity to give honor and to glorify the Torah. We have no Torah scroll and we have no books. But they can never take away our pride and our feeling of connection with G-d. So now in our final moments, let us celebrate with G-d Himself, before we return our souls to Him.”

The Nazi guards were used to hearing all sorts of noises emanating from within the death chamber. Screams, prayers, pleading, and banging were all par for the course. But they had never heard the sounds of harmonious singing. The boys had joined hands and were singing “Ashreinu mah tov chelkaynu – Praiseworthy are we! How goodly is our portion!”, inside their sealed tomb.

One of the guards asked his comrade the reason for the delay and demanded that the commandant be summoned to witness the peculiar events. When the commandant hastily approached and heard the singing he was filled with rage. He slammed open the door of the Gas Chamber and burst inside like a madman. He grabbed one boy and viciously pulled him up, “You filthy swine! Explain to me why you are singing!”

The boy looked at the Nazi unabashedly and retorted, “We are celebrating the fact that we are leaving a world where Nazi beasts such as yourself reign. And we are celebrating the fact that in moments we will be reunited with our parents whom you have murdered.”

The Commander was beside himself. “You think the Gas Chamber will be your last stop? I will torture each of you individually and slice your flesh until you die in the vilest manner possible. You will wish you had died the relatively benign death in the Gas Chamber!” He had all the boys removed and placed in a holding block overnight. He planned to begin his torture campaign the next morning.

The next morning, a superior officer drove into the camp. He needed a group of young able-bodied men to perform grueling work. As he walked through the camp he noticed the group of yeshiva men locked up in the holding block. They were exactly what he needed.

The Nazi officer pulled rank on the camp commandant who stood by and watched silently as the young boys were marched onto trucks and driven out of Auschwitz.

Survivors report that all fifty boys survived the war.1

The holy books of the Prophets are filled with many beautiful uplifting prophecies which detail the greatness and loftiness of Klal Yisroel. Conversely, they are also replete with foreboding warnings of the impending doom that would befall the nation if they did not repent and heed the prophet’s words.

As a rule, even the most ominous and portentous prophecies conclude with words of encouragement and consolation. Despite the fact that the road is often replete with pain and suffering, ultimately, the Jewish People prevail and transcend all the travails that befall them.

It is enigmatic therefore, that Megillas Eichah (“The scroll of Alas”) read on Tisha B’Av eve concludes with words of punishment. The final verse reads, “For even if you have utterly rejected us, You have already raged sufficiently against us.” In fact, it is customary to repeat the second-to-last verse, “Bring us back to You, G-d, and we will return; renew our days as of old,” so that we do not conclude our reading of the Megillah on a morbid note. Still, it begs explanation: Why does Megillas Eichah conclude with such harsh and painful words?

Unlike the normal mourning process for a deceased relative where the mourning begins at the time of the tragedy, in regard to Tisha B’av the mourning begins three weeks prior and intensifies as the day approaches. Then on Tisha B’av itself we begin to accept consolation. At midday of Tisha B’av, we don our talis and tefillin and begin to sit on regular chairs. By midday of the day after Tisha B’av all of the laws of mourning abruptly cease. We immediately resume listening to music, shaving, taking haircuts, and doing laundry.2 How can we understand the rapid, seemingly inappropriate, conclusion of the three week mourning process on the day after the most intense mourning of all?

The Bais Halevi3 records the following poignant thought:

The gemara (Chagiga 5b) relates that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania was once in the presence of the Caesar, together with a Sadducee4. While sitting there the Sadducee spitefully turned his head away from Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabbi Yehoshua responded by stretching out his hands.

The Caesar asked Rabbi Yehoshua for an explanation about what had just occurred. Rabbi Yehoshua explained that the Sadducee had turned his head away from him to symbolize that G-d had turned away and spurned the Jewish People. Rabbi Yehoshua immediately responded by stretching out his hands to symbolize the verse5, “עוד ידו נטויה עלינו – His Hand is still outstretched upon us.” In other words, G-d still maintains a connection with the Jewish People.

Then the Caesar asked the Sadducee to explain the exchange between him and Rabbi Yehoshua. When the Sadducee could not explain why Rabbi Yehoshua had stretched out his hands, the Caesar had him executed.

The Maharsha questions Rabbi Yehoshua’s response. The verse Rabbi Yehoshua used actually refers to the retribution and punishment that is meted out against Klal Yisroel for not properly adhering to the Torah. The full verse reads, “And despite all that, His wrath has not been quelled, and His Hand is still outstretched upon us.” Perhaps Rabbi Yehoshua fooled the Cesar, but why did he use the aforementioned verse to prove that G-d has not spurned or rebuffed the Jewish People, when a cursory reading of the verse has the opposite implication?

The gemara (Bava Kamma 26a) discusses the halachic status of one who smashes a vessel which was thrown off the roof a building but did not yet hit the ground. The gemara’s discussion centers on whether we assume that, “מנא תבר תבר – he broke a broken vessel6” or not.

The Bais Halevi questions why this case differs from one who casts his vessel into the ocean ("זוטו של ים"), where the law is unequivocally clear that one who does so relinquishes ownership over the vessel, and another person may immediately retrieve the object and take possession of it. [This is true even if the original owner swears that he still wants the vessel and never intended to relinquish possession of it.] Why should casting a vessel off the roof a building be different than casting it into the ocean?

The Bais Halevi answers that the ocean is endless and, therefore, as soon as something falls into it, for all practical purposes it is lost. Therefore, when one casts his vessel into the ocean he is demonstrating that he no longer cares for the vessel. However, when one casts a vessel off a roof where it will unquestionably smash, he demonstrates that he specifically wants the object to break. If he only intended to relinquish ownership he could have thrown it into a dumpster. The fact that he bothered to ascend to a roof and throw it over the edge indicates that, for whatever reason, he wanted the vessel to break.

The Bais Halevi continues by explaining that the Sadducee turned away from Rabbi Yehoshua to symbolize that G-d had abandoned Klal Yisroel and relinquished ownership over them, as it were. Rabbi Yehoshua replied by stretching out his hands, symbolizing the harsh retribution and punishment that Klal Yisroel has suffered. In effect, Rabbi Yehoshua was replying that the Sadducee had misinterpreted the underlying message of our suffering. It is not that G-d has abandoned us. Au contraire! The fact that G-d continues to punish us so harshly demonstrates that He has not given up on us.

Our suffering is not analogous to an owner who cats his vessel into the abyss. Rather it is analogous to an owner who casts his vessel off the roof with the intention of breaking the vessel. G-d indeed inflicts harsh punishment upon us and we have unquestionably been subject to severe suffering throughout the millennia. But it is because our ‘owner’ knows that doing so is the only way to preserve us and refine us.

With this idea in mind, we can gain a deeper perspective into the mourning period prior to Tisha B’av, as well as to the conclusion of Megillas Eichah. The final verse of the Megillah which speaks of retribution and G-d’s wrath contains the key to our consolation. The very fact that G-d still bothers to punish us shows that G-d wants to preserve us as His Nation. The very fact that He has been so angry with us demonstrates that,” His Hand is still outstretched upon us”, and He has not given up on us.

When one gives up on something and casts it aside, he no longer becomes angry on account of that abandoned vessel. His attitude becomes more apathetic and uncaring towards the forsaken vessel. But our pain and suffering shows that we are still the Nation of G-d and that G-d still loves us deeply enough to not allow us to falter and forget who we are.

This idea also explains why the mourning process which develops gradually until Tisha B’av seems to diminish so quickly. The vast and numerous lamentations that we recite on Tisha B’av evening and morning depict and recount the endless suffering, tears, travails, and persecution that we have been subject to throughout the exile. However, therein lies the roots of our consolation. The persecution we have suffered symbolizes that we are still the Chosen Nation and therefore are held to a higher standard. The mourning of Tisha B’av actually contains the source of our consolation.

Chumash Devorim, the final book of the Torah, records the Moshe’s words to the nation during his final weeks. Moshe began by reviewing all of the vicissitudes and events that occurred to the nation throughout their forty year sojourns in the desert. Moshe not only described each individual event, but he also demonstrated how everything that occurred connected together. Everything was part of a composite bigger picture, dictated precisely by G-d.

Parshas Devorim is always read the Shabbos prior to Tisha B’av. The message is that nothing is random and there is no coincidence.

The rivers of Jewish tears continue to rage with incredible intensity. But there is a purpose and value in every one of those tears. It is a concept we believe although we cannot comprehend. It is that belief that has given us the courage and strength to withstand inquisitions, crusades, pogroms, holocausts, and libels. And it is that knowledge that has given us the fortitude to hold our heads high – sometimes even singing and dancing – in the face of demonic enemies and horrific challenges.

We also know that those rivers of tears will soon overflow and G-d will send Moshiach to herald in the blissful era of the Final Redemption. At that point Tisha B’av will be transformed into a day of joyous celebration. May it be this year!

“His Hand is still outstretched upon us”

“Bring us back to You G-d, and we will return”