Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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PURIM 5770


The following excerpt is from the memoirs of Dr. Isaac Steven Herschkopf1:

“One summer I was spending a week with my aunt and uncle in upstate Ellenville. Uncle David and Aunt Saba, survivors themselves, as the doctor and nurse in charge of the concentration camp infirmary, had managed to save the lives of innumerable inmates, including my mother and sister. After “the War” they had set up a medical practice in this small Catskill village, where, I discovered, to my amazement, they had one celebrity patient — Rav Moshe.

“My aunt mentioned casually that Rav Moshe had an appointment the next day. Would I like to meet him? Would I? It was like asking me, would I like to meet God.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I agonized over what I should wear. Should I approach him? What should I say? Should I mention that his son-in-law was my rebbe? Should I speak to him in English, or my rudimentary Yiddish?

“I was seated in the waiting room, in the best clothing I had with me, an hour before his appointment. It seemed like an eternity, but eventually he arrived, accompanied by an assistant at each side. He didn’t notice me.

I was frozen. I had intended to rise deferentially when he entered, but I didn’t. I had prepared a few sentences that I had repeatedly memorized, but I sensed that my heart was beating too quickly for me to speak calmly.

“My aunt had heard the chime when he entered and came out of the office to greet him: “Rabbi Feinstein, did you meet my nephew Ikey? Can you believe a shaygitz [unobservant] like me has a yeshiva bochur [student] in the family?”

“Rav Moshe finally looked at me. I was mortified. My aunt was addressing him irreverently. She was joking with him. She had called me Ikey, not Yitzchok, or even Isaac.

“Then it got even worse. She walked over to him. Surely she knew not to shake his hand. She didn’t. She kissed him affectionately on the cheek as she did many of her favorite patients. She then told him my uncle would see him in a minute and returned to the office.

“Rav Moshe and his attendants turned and looked at me, I thought accusingly. I wanted to die. In a panic, I walked over to him and started to apologize profusely: “Rabbi Feinstein, I apologize. My aunt, she isn’t frum [religious]. She doesn’t understand...”

He immediately placed his fingers on my lips to stop me from talking. He then softly spoke two sentences in Yiddish that I will remember to my dying day: “She has numbers on her arms. She is holier than me.”

“Rav Moshe had understood what I had not. Our holiest generation was defined by the numbers on their arms.”


Harav Dovid Schustal shlita, one of the Roshei Yeshiva of the famed Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood NJ, related a thought which he heard from his father-in-law, the late Rosh Yeshiva, Harav Shneur Kotler zt’l. It was a thought Rav Shneur had related numerous times. But it is an especially beloved thought because it was the final Torah thought that Rav Schneur related before his passing2:

Following the Torah’s description of the measurements and dimensions of the vessels of the Mishkan in parshas Terumah, parshas Tetzaveh records G-d’s commanding Moshe about the special Priestly vestments. It also describes the special offerings brought on the day of the inauguration of Aharon and his sons as the priests.

The gemara (Arachin 16a) explains that each of the priestly garments atoned for various sins. “Rav Anani bar Sason said: Why is the portion about the priestly garments placed next to the portion about the sacrifices? It is to tell you that just as sacrifices procure atonement, so do the priestly garments.”

The gemara then proceeds to list what each of the garments atoned for.
“The Me’il3 procures atonement for loshon hora (slander), for the Holy One, blessed is He, said: Let that which emits a sound, procure atonement for an act of sound (i.e. speech).”

What is the connection between the Me’il and slander? What is the lesson of the Me’il which counters the tendency to speak derogatorily about others?

Rav Shneur explained that slander - and for that matter most sources of conflict and discord – is often baseless. It is rooted in a distorted interpretation or view of another person’s actions or behaviors. There is no attempt to delve deeper, to understand the reason behind the act, or to try to understand what occurred in its total context. People who constantly malign others generally do not strive to see the inner good in people or give others the benefit of the doubt. If one understood the real motivation and reason why people do things (which only G-d can truly know) they probably would think twice before speaking negatively about the other person.

The gemara (Megilla 13b) states that “No one knew how to slander like Haman.” The gemara proves its point by citing Haman’s complaint about the Jews, which he presented to Achashveirosh: “Look at the Jews” he said, “They never work! Today they tell you it’s Sabbath; tomorrow it’s Pesach. Every day there is another excuse to get out of working!”

The truth is that the observance of Shabbos and Pesach can be viewed in a very positive light, even for the gentiles. Shabbos reminds a Jew that there is a Creator Who demands morality and ethics, even his business practices and mundane involvements. The holiday of Pesach reminds the Jew that he must maintain the dignity and respect of every person, because - as a former slave - he knows what it is like to be abused and mistreated. Thus the fact that Jews keep Shabbos and Pesach essentially benefits all of society, for it helps ensure that the Jewish workers are honest and cordial.

Haman however, had the ability to distort anything by drawing out the negative and making it seem deleterious. He took what was beautiful and praiseworthy, and viewed it from a hating, distorted, superficial viewpoint. That is why he was described as the ultimate gossiper.

The antidote to such a negative attitude and viewpoint is symbolized by the Me’il. The Me’il was made out of techeiles. The gemara4 explains the significance of techeiles: The blue techeiles reminds one of the sea, the sea reminds one of the sky, and the sky reminds one of the Divine Throne (Kisay haKavod). Thus seeing techeiles prompts one to think of G-d and of his own responsibility to adhere to Torah and mitzvos. When one saw the Me'il, it mentally triggered the thought pattern that is supposed to come to mind whenever one sees techeiles.

The idea of techeiles and its ‘cognitive connection’ with G-d’s Throne of Glory is that it trains us to see beyond the actual physical picture we are viewing, and that we probe deeper. One must realize that whatever he sees is merely the tip of the iceberg and so much more is obscured from view beneath the surface. If one trains himself to view others in this light he will think twice before saying something negative about him. After all, how can one speak negatively about someone when he knows so little about him, or at least about his present situation?5

On Purim, following the reading of the Megillah, we sing the beloved hymn which commences, שושנת יעקב צהלה ושמחה בראותם יחד תכלת מרדכי" – The Rose of Yaakov, cheerful and joyous, when they saw together the techeiles of Mordechai.”

As Mordechai was being paraded through the streets of Shushan by his nemesis, Haman, the Shushanites were confused. Was it really possible that Mordechai was being glorified by his implacable foe? They were only convinced that their eyes were not deceiving them when they saw tzitzis dangling from beneath the royal robes of the person riding the horse. They knew Mordechai would not have removed his tzitzis, and so they were convinced that inexplicably the greatest of ironies had occurred and Mordechai was indeed riding the horse.

Based on the aforementioned thought from Rabbi Kotler zt’l, perhaps we can offer another explanation regarding the connection between their joy and techeiles. Haman’s nefarious powers were rooted in his ability to portray all forces of holiness and spirituality negatively. That is how he was able to convince Achashveirosh to allow the destruction of the entire Jewish nation, despite the challenges and difficulties that would inevitably result from such an indiscriminate sanctioning of mass genocide.

Ultimately Haman was defeated by Mordechai, because Mordechai was a living example of the message of techeiles. Mordechai saw and sought the good of his brethren and loved them as a leader must love his flock. In fact, the final words of the Megillah reiterate this point. “For Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to King Achashveirosh; he was a great man among the Jews, and found favor with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and was concerned for the welfare of all his posterity.6

Haman, who sought to present the superficial negative that emerges from a half hearted cursory viewing is defeated by Mordechai, who appreciated the value and inherent greatness of every person because he respected the fact that there is so much more than meets the eye.

When the Jews saw the techeiles of Mordechai it symbolized to them that Mordechai had the ability to overcome Haman, and that that process had begun.

Haman drew his strength from his ancestor Amalek. After Klal Yisroel emerged triumphantly from Egypt following all the miracles and revelations of the plagues and the splitting of the sea, the entire world trembled in fright, except Amalek. The Amalekites obdurately refused to acknowledge the Hand of G-d. They viewed all the events with a blunted superficial eye; in their mind it was all coincidental and the Jews got lucky. True to his mantra, Amalek refused to see beneath the surface.

The gemara7 records the following exchange: “The disciples asked Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai “Why did… the Jews of that generation deserve extermination (i.e. through the decree of Haman)”? He said to them “You say the reason”. They said to him, “Because they derived pleasure from the feast of the wicked one (i.e. Achashveirosh)”. [Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai replied] “If so, only the Jews of Shushan should have been killed (for only they partook of the feast)?” The students said, “So you tell us the reason.” He said to them, “Because they prostrated themselves to an image.”8

“The disciples then said to him, “(If the Jews committed such a severe sin by bowing to an image) should favoritism be shown in this case (in other words, why were the Jews ultimately saved from Haman’s decree)?” He said to them, “They only performed the act outwardly (out of fear of Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath; but in their hearts they were completely devoted to G-d). Similarly, the Holy One, blessed is He, dealt with them only outwardly (to frighten them into repenting; but G-d never intended to actually allow them to be exterminated).”

Rabbi Meir Yechiel of Ostrovitch explained that although each Jew only bowed externally and in his heart was still completely devoted to G-d, a person could only know that about himself. But no one had any way of knowing that every other Jew who bowed was also only doing so externally. Thus, at that time the Jews all suspected each other of being sinner and idolaters.

When the decree of Haman was publicized however, and the Jews united in prayer and penitence, it became clear that in the heart of every Jew there was still complete allegiance to G-d, and that the earlier prostrations to Nebuchadnezzar were only external. That realization was an integral component in the unification of all the Jews, which was a prerequisite to overcoming Haman/Amalek.

Rabbi Meir Yechiel explains that this is an added reason why there is a mitzvah of,ומשלוח מנות איש לרעהו" - Sending portions (gifts of food) each man to his friend” on Purim. At the time of the Purim miracle they gave each other gifts to demonstrate that they were all friends and no longer suspected each other of treachery or idolatry. Similarly, we give gifts to each other on Purim to demonstrate our feelings of love and trust for each other.

At times we become upset and annoyed with each other. But for one day we cast aside our grievances and look beyond the surface. We acknowledge that there is always another side to the story and that there is so much beneath the surface that we do not know.

On Purim there is a unique mitzvah for one to drink wine, even to a point of intoxication. Part of the idea inherent in this unusual mitzvah is that when one becomes inebriated he is unable to think logically and rationally. Much of the enmity and ill-will that is engendered between people on a regular basis is rooted in logical grievances and complaints. On Purim we forfeit our ability to hold such grudges and anger, so that we can truly feel a sense of fraternity and unity.

The holiday of Purim reminds us to look beyond the surface, to the deepest recesses of our hearts. “When wine enters secrets emerge9”. Purim helps us connect with our souls which yearn to be close to G-d, to love His Torah, and to be unified with His beloved nation. Purim helps us remember that things are not always how they seem. It’s celebration is rooted in techeiles which reminds us that even an ignorant irreligious woman may be exceedingly holy.

To remind us of the old adage that, “You just never know” we joyously - yet spiritually - imbibe until we cannot know!

“Let that which emits a sound procure atonement for an act of sound”

“When they saw together the techeiles of Mordechai”

1. Dr. Herschkopf is an attending psychiatrist at the NYU Medical Center and the author of “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: Embracing Anger to Heal Your Life.”
2. Rav Schustal recounts that Rav Shneur zt'l was sitting in a chair, racked with pain; pitifully weak. He was so weak that he could hardly think, let alone talk. But he forced himself to speak slowly, word after word, until he finished the entire "vort".
3. Loosely translated as ‘Robe’, the Me’il was constructed out of techeiles, blue dye procured from the blood of the chilazon fish. This is the same dye used for the production of the blue string on tzitzis. On the bottom of the Me’il were golden bells and pomegranates, which clang together when the Kohain Gadol walked.
4. Menachos 43b
5. Truthfully, this represents the weltanschauung of a Jew in general. A Torah Jew is always supposed to probe beneath the surface to see the deeper meaning behind everything that occurs in his life – personally, communally, and globally. That is what is represented by the techeiles on the tzitzis. Our discussion is about the techeiles on the Me’il which is inextricably connected with (atonement for) the sin of loshon hora.
6. Esther 10:3
7. Megilla 12a
8. During the reign of the wicked Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, the despot erected a massive image of himself and ordered everyone to prostrate themselves before it. Out of fear for their lives the Jews also bowed despite the fact that it is forbidden for a Jew to prostrate himself before anything/anyone other than G-d. In this case it wasn’t really an idol, but because it resembled one the Jews were culpable for bowing before it.

9. "נכנס ייו יצא סוד"Eiruvin 65a – It is interesting to note that the numerical value of ייו is 70, the same amount as סוד.


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