Thursday, July 28, 2011

MASEI 5771

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch


MASEI 5771


World War II was finally over but there was much to be done. Aside from the smoldering ruins of decimated European Jewry, there were many survivors and refugees who needed help.

The Va’ad Hatzolah2 in America was informed that there were twenty four young men in Italy who were in a desperate situation. They had originally been in contact with an influential man, who had agreed to expedite the process of procuring the necessary documents for them to leave Europe. But the man had fallen under suspicion and could no longer help them. The students were now in imminent danger of being deported back to Poland, which was a dangerous place for Jews even post-war.

The Va’ad convened an emergency meeting and came to the conclusion that the only viable avenue of help could come from the Mafia. Contacts were made and a meeting was arranged between Rabbis Aharon Kotler, Avrohom Yoffen, Avrohom Kalmanovitz zt’l, and the Va’ad’s director Rabbi Shlomo Shapiro with Mafia head, Joe Bonnano.

The Va’ad decided that Rabbi Aharon would speak first in Yiddish and then Rabbi Shapiro would translate. They brought along twenty thousand dollars in case the Mafia needed added incentive.

When they arrived in Bonnao’s office he was dressed in a suit and robe and smoking a cigar. “What do you want?” he snapped.

Rabbi Kotler began speaking in Yiddish about the ordeal of the students in Italy. When Rabbi Shapiro began to translate, Bonnano silenced him. “I like the way the Rabbi talks. Let me hear him.”

It was only when Rabbi Kotler completed explaining the entire situation that Bonnano allowed Rabbi Shapiro to translate and explain the urgency of the situation.

Bonnano stared at them for a moment. Then he asked, “Do you want the boys to come by boat or by plane?” Rabbi Kotler turned to Rabbi Shapiro, “Vus zugt ehr – (what did he say)?” When Rabbi Shapiro relayed the question, Rabbi Kotler replied that they had to be rescued in any way as soon as possible, so they won’t be sent back to Europe.

Bonnano nonchalantly replied, “No problem. Today is Wednesday; we’ll have them here by Friday!”

Rabbi Kotler told Rabbi Shapiro to ask him how much it would cost. Bonnano thought for a moment. “Tell the Sage he should give me a blessing instead3.”

In his inimitable genius Rabbi Kotler immediately replied, “Du zolst shtarbin in bet – You should die in bed.” Bonanno was very excited by the blessing. The meeting was adjourned and two days later the twenty four students were safely transported to America. The students later described how they were suddenly rounded up in the middle of the night and taken to the airport.

As for Bonnano, he was in jail once, and shot at on three occasions. Yet he lived into his eighties and died of a heart attack, in his own bed.

Rabbi Kotler’s daughter, Rebbitzin Sarah Schwartzman a’h, related that when her father was criticized for working with a noted secular Jewish leader during the war years he replied, “Ich volt mishtateiach geven far’n Poips, tzu rativin di nuggel fun a Yiddishe kint – I would prostrate myself before the Pope himself to save the fingernail of a Jewish child.”

The Torah teaches that if someone kills another person accidentally, the relatives of the deceased have the right to avenge the murder4. The murderer would only be protected if he fled and remained in one of the six designated Cities of Refuge or any of the 48 Levite cities.

The Torah then warns that we have a responsibility to maintain its laws and decrees of justice. “ולא תחניפו את הארץ - You shall not bring guilt upon the land in which you are, for the blood will bring guilt upon the Land…5

The Sifrei quotes an exegetical understanding of the verse: “You shall not flatter (חניפה) a wrongdoer.” Shaarei Teshuva6 discusses the severity of the sin of flattering a sinner. The most egregious form of sinful flattery is when one tells an evildoer that his deeds do not constitute sinful behavior. If one minimizes the severity of his sin, or worse negates the sin completely, he is in effect encouraging the transgressor to repeat his sin.

A righteous person has an obligation to despise the actions of miscreants and sinners and to promulgate the folly of their views and actions. A leader must feel responsible to stand up and defend the honor of the Torah. The gemara7 states, “Whoever is able to protest against wrongdoings… and fails to do so, is held accountable for his behavior.”

In today’s’ day and age there is much worthy attention devoted to the vexing issue of bullying in schools. There are students who are afraid to walk down the halls of their school or go out to recess because they are subject to physical/verbal bullying on a regular basis.

Experts explain that the chief motivation behind a bully’s aggression is his need for attention. His macho persona and the image of bravado that he tries to foster is usually his unconscious attempt to mask his inner feelings of extreme vulnerability and lack of self-esteem. He attempts to prove to himself that he is not subjected to his inner feelings of inferiority by preying on those who are socially/physically weaker and inferior to himself. That is why 99% of bullying is done in public. The bully seeks a platform so he can garner the attention he seeks to assuage his own bruised self-image.

If that is true, the real focus of our efforts to stop bullying is by targeting the spectators who view the bullying in shameless silence. Quite often the spectators are afraid to defend the victim out of fear that doing so will make them the next target. But even if they are afraid to speak up they can help the victim by walking away and refusing to be part of the viewing audience8.

There is a school with a very unique anti-bullying policy. The rule in that school is that if there is a fight, anyone caught watching the fight is subject to very strict disciplinary measures, sometimes even more so than the fighting parties. It’s an amazing thing to see: As soon as a fight breaks out in the school everyone in the vicinity runs away.

In the world of sports it is common that a team will have a better winning record when they play on their home field/court than they do on the road. When one is playing in front of multitudes of cheering fans it is enthusing and motivating, prompting the athlete to play that much harder. Conversely, playing in front of crowds of people who hope and cheer for the player’s failure and abysmal performance is at least somewhat psychologically debilitating. We play and work harder when we know we are being watched.

In regards to a bully or one who acts inappropriately or sinfully, those who do not protest his wrongful deeds, or at least seek to take away his platform, are compliant in his actions, whether they intend to be or not. It is an unwitting violation of the prohibition to have any connection with flattery.

It is not easy to stand up for what’s right. But when one witnesses or hears someone saying something that is contrary to the Torah’s outlook, or when one hears another shaming a Torah scholar or promulgating false ideas in the name of the Torah, he has an obligation to speak up for the honor of the Torah – sometimes indignantly and emphatically. Remaining silent at such a time is a violation of the Sifrei’s understanding of the verse which forbids one from flattering a wrongdoer.

This summer Rabbi Aryeh Rodin, a veteran and beloved Rabbi in Dallas, Texas, joined the talented staff of learning rabbeim at Camp Dora Golding. At one point, I was walking together with him and I asked him what quick philosophical advice he would give to a younger Rabbi. He replied, “I’ll tell you the same thing that my Rebbe, Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz zt’l, told me when I began my rabbinic career over two decades ago: לא תגורו מפני איש' – Do not tremble before any man’9. Stand up for what you feel is the truth and don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by anyone.”

“You shall not flatter a wrongdoer”

“Do not fear any man”

1 With gratitude to Rabbi Avrohom Jablon who inspired this thought
2 “Committee of Salvation”
3 What blessing should one give a Mafioso?
4 Rabbi Akiva’s opinion (Mishna, second perek Makkos) is that it is a mitzvah for the relative to pursue and kill the murderer if he is outside the City of Refuge.
5 35:33
6 3:187-199
7 Shabbos 44b
8 Of course if there is physical aggression involved it is the responsibility of everyone to try to help for the victim immediately.
9 Devorim 1:17

Friday, July 22, 2011

MATOS 5771

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch


MATOS 5771


Drop a pebble in the water: just a splash and it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples, circling on and on and on,
Spreading, spreading from the center, flowing on out to the sea.
And there is no way of telling, where the end is going to be.

Drop a pebble in the water: in a minute you forget,
But there's little waves a-flowing, and there's ripples circling yet,
And those little waves a-flowing to a great big wave have grown;
You've disturbed a mighty river just by dropping in a stone.

Drop an unkind word, or careless: in a minute it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples, circling on and on and on.
They keep spreading, spreading, spreading from the center as they go,
And there is no way to stop them, once you've started them to flow.

Drop an unkind word, or careless: in a minute you forget;
But there's little waves a-flowing, and there's ripples circling yet,
And perhaps in some sad heart a mighty wave of tears you've stirred,
And disturbed a life was happy where you dropped that unkind word.

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: just a flash and it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on,
Bearing hope and joy and comfort on each splashing, dashing wave
Till you wouldn't believe the volume of the one kind word you gave.

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: in a minute you forget;
But there's gladness still a-swelling, and there's joy circling yet,
And you've rolled a wave of comfort whose sweet music can be heard
Over miles and miles of water just by dropping one kind word.

~James W. Foley (1874-1939) ~

Yom Kippur, the day of pristine purity and contriteness and forgiveness, begins with the prayer of Kol Nidrei. The very words Kol Nidrei seem to stir us. We are reminded of the intensity of the moment when young and old, men and women, are gathered in somber silence. The elders and scholars surround the chazzan clutching the holy Torah scrolls against their chest. There is a palpable tenseness as the congregation awaits the commencement of the ancient haunting melody.

And yet the words of Kol Nidrei seem to be surprisingly basic. The paragraph does not discuss the foibles of man, the greatness of G-d, or our deepest desire to improve and become greater. Not at all! The prayer is merely a reiteration of the annulment of vows that was recited by each individual man on the morning prior to Rosh Hashana. The prayer contains a lengthy listing of all variant forms of vows and oaths expressed in numerous manners. It then concludes with a declaration that all those oaths – uttered willfully or inadvertently from last Yom Kippur until now - should be null and void.

It is only after the paragraph has been recited three times, slowly and meticulously, that we even utter our first impassioned plea that G-d forgive our sins.

Why is Kol Nidrei the appropriate introduction to the great and holy day?

“Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying… If a man takes a vow or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.”

When one vows to do something, or to refrain from doing something, the Torah views that pledge with tremendous seriousness. Violating one’s word is referred to as a ‘desecration of one’s word’.

The Gemara1 relates, “Before a Jew is born an oath is administered to him in heaven charging him, ‘Be righteous and be wicked; and even if the whole world is judging you by your actions and tells you that you are righteous, regard yourself as wicked’.”

Throughout our lives we are adjoined to the oath we accepted upon ourselves at the moment before our souls first descended to this world. Then, when a person leaves this world he must testify whether he fulfilled his original vow or not.

At the moments when we usher in Yom Kippur in a sea of white reminiscent of the purity of the beginning and end of life, we conjure up the subliminal memory of our original oath. All other oaths can be annulled but that original oath can never be negated, and it must remain at the fore of our conscience.

Moreover, our entire service on Yom Kippur is based on our speech. We certainly must change and improve our actions. But the first step is the words we utter with passion and feeling, imploring G-d for forgiveness and accepting upon ourselves to try to be better this year.

In a world which does not appreciate the value of words the Torah reminds us that words are the most precious commodities we have. The world preaches that ‘talk is cheap’, but that is a terribly erroneous statement. In truth, talk may be easy - but its implications and consequences can be extremely expensive and costly.

Before we begin the Yom Kippur service, the ultimate day of prayer, we remind ourselves just how precious our words are. We can create new realities with our words. We can utter a vow which we are bound to observe, though we would have had no such obligation were we not to have said anything. In the time of the Bais Hamikdash, with a mere declaration one could sanctify an animal by declaring it sanctified to be brought as an offering. Were he to then use that animal for his personal benefit he would transgress a serious sin, because of his own words. That realization is vital on Yom Kippur and therefore it is the introduction of the holy day.

Words of Torah, words of prayer, words of encouragement and support – build and rebuild. Malicious words, painful words, hurtful words – destroy and cause irreparable damage.

This lesson is especially pertinent to the Three Weeks. The gemara relates that the second Bais Hamikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred. From the fact that we are still in exile it is apparent that we have yet to rectify that sin within our national soul. The austere laws of vows and oaths remind us of the Torah’s perspective about the value of our words. With our words we can connect to G-d and to others. At the same time, with our words we can sever connections and destroy relationships.

The power is in our mouths!

“An oath is administered to him: Be righteous and not wicked”

“He shall not desecrate his word”

1 The gemara (Niddah, chapter 3) begins with the word “Tanya (they taught in a baraisa)”. The holy sefer haTanya commences with this baraisa. The opening paragraphs of the sefer discuss in detail the meaning of this beraisa, including how one can be expected to think of himself as wicked if our Sages teach that one is not allowed to regard himself as a wicked person.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch




The following story was written by Rabbi Binny Freedman1:

“A number of years ago, I met a wealthy businessman from Caracas, Venezuela who was spending Pesach with his family at a hotel in Florida. Over the course of the festival, we struck up a friendship, and I discovered he was a Holocaust survivor who had been first in the Janowska road camp and later in Auschwitz. Towards the end of the week I summoned up the nerve to ask him if there was anything in particular that stood out in his mind as the reason he had survived. Without hesitation, he responded: "It was one mitzvah; the Sukkot I spent in Auschwitz.

“I guess my face must have registered surprise, because he immediately explained. When he arrived in Auschwitz in the middle of his thirteenth winter, one of the Kapos took a liking to him, and arranged for him to be in charge of the daily rations to be given out to the prisoners at the end of the day. It was a job that would save his life. He spent the days in a small shed attached to the large barracks, responsible for dividing up the bread and soup to be given out to each inmate at the end of the day. In addition to having access to food he was also often put into difficult situations having to respond to prisoners desperate for food....

“One day, while preparing the rations in the dark winter night, he heard banging on the door of the shed, and opened it up to discover a man he knew to be a great Torah scholar and one of the eminent Rabbis of his area before the war, standing in the snow.

“Before he could turn the man away (sure that he wanted scraps of bread), the man stepped into the shed, telling him that he needed a favor.

"You know tonight is the first night of the festival of Sukkos, and I need two whole loaves of bread before you cut them up... so I can fulfill the special custom of making the Hamotzi blessing over two whole loaves in the sukkah."

"I was in shock", he recalled, “at the request. Not only was he asking for two whole loaves of bread, but he was even planning somehow on fulfilling the mitzvah of having a 'meal' in the Sukkah!"

"You have to understand", he explained, “a whole loaf of bread in Auschwitz was like a million dollars today. Can you imagine someone walking in off the street and asking for a million dollars? Even though he promised he would only take a bite, (the equivalent of his own ration) and then return the loaves to me, giving away those loaves would effectively mean I was risking my life."

“Even more intriguing however, was how on earth this Rabbi had managed to build a sukkah in Auschwitz- Birkenau.

“As it turned out, that summer and fall of 1944 the Nazis were bringing hundreds of thousands of Jews2 in a last-ditch effort to complete the 'final solution' before the war would end.

“In the twisted organizational logic of the lager camps world, the Nazis needed to have additional barracks to hold the new prisoners for labor until they could be exterminated. As such, prisoners were dismantling tiers of bunks in the barracks (prisoners there literally began sleeping in piles of bodies on the floor of the barracks) while rows of bunks were being reconstructed in the central parade ground.

“Seeing the rows and rows of bunks outdoors and realizing the festival of Sukkot was coming, this rabbi had managed to secure some s’chach (plant shrubbery) and place it atop some of the boards of the semi-constructed bunks beneath the open sky in such a way as to construct a minimally kosher sukkah (booth) for the festival. However, the mitzvah of living in the sukkah can only be fulfilled by either sleeping (which was out of the question) or eating in the sukkah, which was his aim.

“Seeing the hesitation on the boy's face, and desperate to fulfill this mitzvah against all the odds, the rabbi begged him for the loaves, if only for a few minutes.

"I will give you these loaves", said the boy, “but only on condition you take me with you to fulfill the mitzvah of the sukkah."

“The rabbi, shocked by the impetuous response, began to attempt to dissuade the boy from this condition. He would be risking his life by walking outside after curfew, and again for carrying two whole loaves of bread, and of course for attempting to sit in a sukkah. But nothing he could say would dissuade the boy, so together the two of them, an old Rabbi and a young man, risked their lives and sat, for a few brief moments, in a sukkah in Auschwitz.

“As an interesting post-script, he told me that many years later he was in Chicago on business and got stuck there for Shabbat whereupon his host took him to the Tish of that same Rebbe3, who happened to decide to tell this very story that very same night...”

Bila’am was hired by Balak to curse Klal Yisroel. Although he feigned piety, Bila’am was only too happy to fulfill his impious mission. Along the way Bila’am’s faithful donkey, frightened by the vision of a sword-bearing angel, crushed his foot against the wall. Bila’am, who wasn’t privy to the frightful sight, could not comprehend why his donkey was veering off the road and crushing his foot, repeatedly beat his hapless donkey. Miraculously, the donkey turned to its master and reprimanded him, “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?4

Rashi notes that the donkey’s dialect, as recorded in the Torah, is unusual. When the donkey asked Bila’am why he had struck him three times he used the words "שלש רגלים" instead of the more common "שלש פעמים". Rashi explains that it was an underhanded message to Bila’am. He was setting out to curse a nation that observes the three major holidays5 which would certainly provide them with protection and merit.

After Bila’am’s mission proved to be an epic failure, Balak was exasperated and infuriated. He admonished Bila’am saying6לקב אויבי קראתיך והנה ברכת ברך – To curse my enemies did I summon you, and behold! You have continually blessed them.”

Chasam Sofer, quoting Rabbi Akiva Eiger, notes that the numerical value of the word לקב' ‘ is 132, while the numerical value of the word ‘'ברך is 222. Out of the 354 days on the lunar calendar, there are 132 days when we do not recite the tachanun7 prayer8.

Balak hoped that Bila’am would arouse the attributes of judgment against the Jewish nation to such an extent that even the 132 days of increased favor and compassion for the Jewish nation would become days of intense scrutiny and divine judgment. When G-d transformed the curses into blessing it accomplished the exact opposite, i.e. that even the 222 mundane days then possessed increased divine favor and mercy for the nation.

This is alluded to in Balak’s harsh reprimand to Bila’am, “To curse - לקב(132) - my enemies I summoned you”, i.e. to mitigate the divine favor and closeness of the Jewish holidays, “And behold! You have continually blessed – ברך (222) them”, i.e. even the rest of the year has become spiritually elevated because of your failed attempts9.

It is evident that Balak and Bila’am had a particular abhorrence for the Jewish holidays and were particularly intimidated by them. Indeed the merit of the nation’s observance of the holidays was one of the merits which protected the unsuspecting Jewish nation. What were Bila’am and Balak so fearful of?

Each time Bila’am stood atop a mountain overlooking the Jewish camp in order to curse them he told Balak to first “Build for me here seven altars and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.”10

The Medrash11 notes that Bila’am sought to bring offerings corresponding to all the offerings brought by the patriarchs. “He said ‘From the creation of the world until now, seven altars were built, and I will bring seven (offerings) equivalent to them’”. The Medrash continues that G-d replied, as it were, “Wicked one! If I had wanted offerings I would have said to (the angels) Michoel and Gavriel, and they would have brought before Me. I will only accept offerings from Israel.”

Maharal12 explains that G-d contemptuously rejected Bila’am’s offerings because of his flawed attitude regarding them. Bila’am was under the impression that G-d received personal benefit from the offerings13. The truth is that G-d gains nothing from anything anyone does or says. If G-d really received benefit from offerings he would have the angels bring endless offerings to him with pristine purity.

If so, what is the purpose of offerings? They provide us with a conduit through which we can draw closer to G-d. By fulfilling His Will in bringing offerings, according to His dictated laws and commandments, we are able to feel more connected with G-d. Offerings – and fulfilling any of the mitzvos – are for our benefit!

Bila’am felt that the more offerings he brought the more he could ‘pacify’ G-d and make G-d inclined to hearken to his words. In truth however, G-d was disgusted by Bila’am’s offerings and they had the opposite effect. Offerings create a connection between the one who brings them sincerely and G-d. But G-d wanted to have no such connection with the immoral and dissolute Bila’am.

G-d concluded that He would only accept offerings from Klal Yisroel because they understand that the offering is for them. G-d has pleasure from an offering, as it were, because of the pure desire of the one bringing it.

Today when we no longer have a Bais Hamikdash and cannot bring offerings, prayer takes their stead14. An infinite and omnipotent G-d surely does not need our prayers. But we need prayer as a vehicle for us to maintain perspective of our finite limitations and our need for G-d in every facet of our lives. Prayer serves to keep us balanced and humble, and not become too conceited.

Our holidays afford us added opportunity to draw closer to G-d, with particular blessings endemic to each festival throughout the year. Bila’am and Balak, who sought to sever the nation’s connection with G-d in order to enervate and destroy them, had a particular fear of our holidays.

In parshas Pinchos the Torah details all of the offerings brought during each holiday. Those unique offerings represent the added opportunity for connection and devotion afforded to every Jew during each holiday.

When holidays arrive there is a palpable excitement that pervades the homes and communities of all Torah-abiding Jews. It is not merely an excitement for food and vacation, but for the special mitzvos associated with each holiday. It is a chance to renew our spiritual batteries and recommit ourselves to love G-d and fulfill His Torah and mitzvos.

Holy sources write that the 22 days of the ‘Three Weeks’15 correspond to the 22 days of the major holidays16. The Nesivos Sholom explains that before an artist paints a picture he draws an outline without color, so that when he is ready to draw the actual picture he will only to need to fill in the colors. The Three Weeks are days when we reflect upon our bi-millennial loss, so that it will inspire us to pine for what we cannot achieve in exile. It is a time to take stock of the spiritual devastation ravaging our people and to seek to feel the pain of the Divine presence, of which the overwhelming majority of our people is completely oblivious.

Parshas Pinchos, which contains the laws of the offerings brought during each holiday, is always read the week when the Three Weeks begin. The reading reminds us of what we are missing. The pining which the reading creates hastens the redemption and is the outline of the future Temple. All that is left is for G-d to fill in the colors.

“These are what you shall make for G-d on your appointed festivals17

“Behold! You have continually blessed them”

1 in his Succos edition of “A weekly Byte from Isralight
2 including the remaining 400,000 Jews of Hungary
3 I am pretty sure it was Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels zt’l, the Veitzner Rav
4 Bamidbar 22:28
5 Succos, Pesach, and Shavuos, known as the ‘shalosh regalim’
6 24:10
7 Lit. ‘Supplication’; on any days considered a holiday (even minor) the tachanun prayer is omitted because those days inherently possess greater divine compassion and so the passionate supplication is not necessary.
8 The following is my calculation of the 132 days that have holiday status throughout the year: 52 Shabasos, 2 days Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, 8 days Succos, Isru Chag Succos, 8 days Chanuka, 2 days Purim, 29 days of the month of Nissan, From Rosh Chodesh Sivan until 6 days after Shavuos (13 days), Tisha B’av, Tu B’shvat, Tu B’av, Pesach Sheni, Lag Ba’omer, 12 more days of Rosh Chodesh (not including Tishrei, Teves, Nissan, Sivan which have already been included, there are 8 more months with 4 of them having 2 days of Rosh Chodesh).
9 The Mashgiach, Rabbi Mordechai Finkleman shlita noted that the word לקב is composed of the same letters as בלק. The 132 festival days posed a particular challenge to Balak.
10 23:1, 23:14, 23:29
11 Tanchuma, parshas Tzav
12 Nesiv Ha’avodah, chapter 1
13 In Greek mythology the gods had human emotions and therefore humans had to ensure that the gods were pacified and content, because if they became angry they would cause great damage and wreak havoc on the human world. Perhaps Bila’am had a similarly distorted understanding of G-d, despite his superior level of prophecy.
14 Hoshea 14:3
15 The Three Weeks contains the 22 days of mourning beginning on the fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz and concluding with the fast of Tisha B’av, the day when both Holy Temples were destroyed (the mourning period actually extends to midday of the tenth of Av).
16 Rosh Hashana (2), Yom Kippur, Succos (9), Pesach (8), Shavuos (2). It is interesting that the 22 days correspond to the 22 festival days observed outside Eretz Yisroel (in Eretz Yisroel there are only 19 major festival days).
17 Bamidbar 29:39

Friday, July 8, 2011

BALAK 5771

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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BALAK 5771


At the turn of the twentieth century, two of the wealthiest and most influential personalities in America were Jewish brothers named Nathan and Isidor Straus. They owned R.H. Macy Department Store and founded the A & S (Abraham & Straus) chain. They were multimillionaires and were renown for their philanthropy and social activism.

In 1912 the brothers and their wives were touring Europe when Nathan, the more ardent Zionist of the two, decided that they should visit (what was then called) Palestine. In those days the country was ravaged by disease, rampant poverty, and famine.

The brothers had a strong sense of solidarity with their less fortunate brethren, but after a week of touring Isidor Straus had had enough. Isidor tried to convince Nathan that it was time to leave but Nathan refused. He was extremely moved by what he saw and wanted to be more involved in the settlement and betterment of the Holy Land. He felt a tremendous burden of responsibility and felt he could not turn and walk away when there was so much more he could accomplish.

Isidor tried to convince Nathan that they could send money from abroad but Nathan wouldn’t hear of it. He was adamant that he had to remain longer to personally involve himself in the welfare of the Land and its people.

Finally, Isidor decided to return to Europe with his wife Ida, while Nathan and his wife remained traveling the country, creating programs and investing tremendous amounts of money to help the needy.

After a few weeks Isidor sent an urgent telegram to Nathan. He and Ida were preparing to return to America on an ocean liner for which he had made reservation for Nathan and his wife. “You must leave Palestine at once. If you don’t return here as soon as possible, you will miss the boat.”

Still Nathan tarried. He remained involved in his work until the last possible moment, unable to tear himself away from his feeling of responsibility. By the time he returned to London on April 12 the Ocean-liner had already left the port at Southampton with Isidor and Ida Straus aboard.

Nathan had indeed missed the boat as his brother had warned. The beautiful ocean-liner sailed majestically across the Atlantic without Nathan and his wife… until it hit an iceberg and sunk. Because of his involvement in helping his people, Nathan Straus had missed the Titanic!

Nathan was grief-stricken when he was informed of what occurred. But more than ever he felt a sense of duty and responsibility. The knowledge that he had escaped death permeated his consciousness for the rest of his life and he renewed his philanthropy and commitment to his people with incredible intensity. By the end of his life he had given away most of his fortune to causes in the Holy Land.

The beautiful city of Netanya is named after Nathan1, in memory of a man who learned to prioritize his people over his personal fortune, which eventually saved his life!

The nation of Moav watched in absolute fright as the Jewish Nation advanced through the desert decimating all of their enemies. Not only were they frightened of the might of the young nation which had just ravaged the two most powerful forces of the time – those of the mighty giants Sichon and Og – but they were completely disgusted by the success of the professed ‘Holy People’2.

Balak, the king of Moav, was in a state of panic. He knew his forces were miniscule compared to Sichon and Og and he had no chance of overcoming the Jews with military might. He contrived a novel plan that would call upon the forces of evil to counter the source of the Jewish greatness, which lay in their holiness and purity. He employed the infamous and malevolent prophet Bila’am to curse the Jewish people. Balak understood that Bila’am’s word had tremendous potency and therefore he hoped (futilely) that this would be the solution to his predicament.

“Bila’am went with Balak… Balak slaughtered cattle and sheep and sent to Bila’am and to the officers who were with him. And it was in the morning: Balak took Bila’am and brought him up to the heights of Ba’al, and from there he saw the edge of the people. Bila’am said to Balak, ‘Build for me seven altars and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams’.”

The Aderes Eliyahu points out that while Balak made sure to send an elegant and elaborate feast to Bila’am and his entourage, he only slaughtered to G-d the next day when Bila’am instructed him to. Balak’s approach was contrasted by Yisro. After Yisro rejoined his son-in-law Moshe and the Jewish people the Torah says3, “Yisro… took an elevation-offering and feast-offering for G-d; and Aharon and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moshe before G-d.” Yisro first gave offerings to G-d and only then sat down to feast with Moshe and Klal Yisroel.

Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik zt’l notes that if one wants to understand the spiritual and moral level of a person, he should see what the person prioritizes. What comes first on his personal hierarchy of responsibilities and values? Is his primary concern his spiritual well-being or his physical comfort?

The gemara4 states: “The first hour (of the day is the meal time of) the Ludim5. The second hour is the thieves. The third hour is those who inherit (great wealth). The fourth hour is the meal of laborers. The fifth hour is the meal of all other people… The sixth hour is the meal of Torah scholars.”

Rabbi Zaitchik explains that a person who eats an elaborate meal immediately upon awakening on a regular basis is so self-absorbed that the moment he awakens he can think of no one other than himself and his own gratification. The Ludim were narcissistic to an extreme, and therefore they committed the most horrific of crimes.

Torah scholars on the other hand, are at the opposite extreme. They don’t live for themselves. They begin their day with prayer, study, and chesed for others. Only then do they sit down to eat, in the sixth hour.

My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, related that a man who was becoming Torah observant was learning the laws of a Jew’s daily conduct including reciting Shema in the morning, the time to recite the morning prayers, and the prohibition of eating before praying. In astonishment he asked Rabbi Wein, “Does this mean to say that a Torah observant person can never have breakfast in bed?” Rabbi Wein replied that indeed it does. We have an ulterior set of priorities, and we must thank and pray to G-d before we engage in fulfilling our own physical needs.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin zt’l noted that in the first word of the Torah - “B’reishis”6 – there is a hidden lesson. We often lose focus of our true priorities in life, and what is the most valuable in life often is relegated to a secondary focus at best. Money and material comforts are often prioritized over family, and physical growth is often idealized over spiritual growth.

The word ‘B’reishis’ can be read ’Bais7 - Raishis’, i.e. make what is your bais (secondary) into your raishis (first and foremost). Take what is often secondary (spiritual obligations) and make that into your priority – your ‘raishis’.8

Balak did not think to offer anything to G-d until Bila’am told him to do so. His first concern was to make sure that Bila’am and his cohorts were happy, after-all he needed them to help him carry out his vile plan. Yisro on the other hand, would not partake of a meal, even with the greatest leaders of Klal Yisroel, until he had expressed his gratitude to G-d. Their priorities demonstrate much about their personality and inner essence.

What does one prioritize when he is looking to purchase a new home? What criteria does he use to determine what school/camp to send his children to? What are his primary concerns when he goes on vacation? The answers to these questions tell a great deal about what truly matters to him.

“Balak slaughtered cattle and sheep and sent to Bila’am”

“Yisro took an elevation-offering and feast-offering for G-d”

1 January 31, 1848–January 11, 1931
2 The jealousy, disgust, and revulsion for our successes by our enemies has not changed in four thousand years
3 Shemos 18:12
4 Shabbos 10a
5 Rashi explains that the Ludim are a cannibalistic tribe. They were gluttons and would eat at the first opportunity they had.
6 Which literally means “In the beginning”
7 as in the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet
8 Heard from Rabbi Pinchos Idstein

Friday, July 1, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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Rabbi Chaim Kreisworth zt’l, the beloved Chief Rabbi of Antwerp, related a story from his days as a yeshiva student in Lithuania. In those days the yeshivos lacked funding to provide food for their students so the students would eat their meals at different families in town1.

Rabbi Kreisworth was physically weak and shy by nature. He also loved to learn and having to busy himself with those arrangements detracted precious time from learning.

One day a wealthy man built a beautiful house across the street from the Bais Medrash. He built a private room with a separate entrance at the side of his home which he designated for one student. The faculty decided that Rabbi Chaim was worthy of the convenience. Rabbi Chaim was thrilled with the room that possessed all the amenities available at that time which enabled him to learn as much as possible.

For two years he lived in that room with his learning virtually uninterrupted and worry-free. Then one semester as he settled back into his room, he noticed a blind boy among the new students. Rabbi Chaim went to greet him and asked him about his background. The boy explained that he had just arrived and had no arrangements, nor was he familiar with the system. In an act of supreme selflessness, Rabbi Chaim replied that there was an available room right across the street for him, which would have everything he would need, including three nourishing meals.

The blind boy’s face lit up. He never dreamed he would be able to find such comfortable accommodations and so suited for his particular needs.

Rabbi Chaim himself however, had a very challenging time. After two years of being pampered it was extremely difficult for him to fend for himself. Nevertheless, he never regretted his decision.

Several weeks later the Nazis invaded and the world fell apart. They stormed into the yeshiva and demanded from the office staff a list of every student. As soon as they had it they began summoning each student to the office, one at a time. When the boy entered the office the Nazi asked his name and town of origin. Then he pointed his rifle at the student who barely had a chance to scream ‘Shema Yisroel’ before the officer pulled the trigger.

The remaining boys heard the cries and the shots and understood what was awaiting all 250 of them. The lifeless bodies were cast out the window like slaughtered chickens.

Then a voice rang out “Number 31, Kreisworth, Chaim”. As he walked tremblingly to the office Rabbi Chaim begged G-d to help him in the merit of his sacrifice for the blind boy. As soon as he walked in the officer said to him, “Do you have a father?” He nodded. “Do you have a mother?” In a barely audible voice he replied that he did. In a surprisingly mild tone the Nazi continued, “Do your parents miss you?” Rabbi Chaim nodded again, “Of course they do.”

The Nazi continued, “Do you miss them?”

“Most certainly.”

“When the war ends will you return to your family?”


“Look, I too have parents and I miss them terribly. I can’t wait for the war to end so I can go back home. I understand your plight and I won’t kill you. But there are other officers here, so here’s what I will do. I will shoot a bullet to the side of you. You will fall to the ground and then jump out the window. Make sure you are never seen here again.”

249 young promising students were brutally murdered that day. But “number 31, Kreisworth, Chaim” survived. Rabbi Kreisworth was convinced that it was only in the merit of his sacrifice for the blind student.

The laws of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) are the ultimate Chukas HaTorah, laws of the Torah which are beyond the capacity of human comprehension. This particularly referred to the paradox involved in the offering of the Parah Adumah, in that its sprinkled ashes purified those who were impure yet rendered impure the sprinkler who had been pure. It was about this enigma that the wisest of men declared2, “I said I would be wise, but it was far from me.”

Rabbi Yitzchok of Vorki stated that the essence of Parah Adumah is the mitzvah that one must ‘love your neighbor as yourself3’. His grandson, Rabbi Mendel, explained that the priest who undertook the sprinkling of the ashes understood that by doing so he was going to cause himself to become impure. He understood that he would have to undergo the whole purification process and would be prohibited from entering the Temple and eating the sacrificial foods until the process was done. When someone is willing to altruistically help others even at the cost of his own convenience, that is the greatest expression of love and kindness.

The Mishna4 quotes Rabbi Shimon who said “The world stands on three things: Torah, Avodah (Service), and gemilas chasadim (bestowing kindness).” It is noteworthy that the mishnah does not say ‘gemilas chessed’ in the singular but ‘gemilas chasadim’.

The Me’am Loez explains that whenever one performs an act of kindness for another, the recipient is also helping the doer. Performing acts of kindness affords the doer tremendous merit and no one can know how much blessing he merits in his own life because of an act of kindness he did for someone else.

In addition, whenever we perform an act of chesed for another we are repaying our debt to G-d, as it were, for all of the chesed he does for us. In truth, we are obligated to thank G-d for every breath we take. The way we express our gratitude to G-d is by doing acts of kindness with others. Every act of chesed we do corresponds to the myriad acts of chesed He does for us. For these two reasons, every act of chesed is really a double act of chesed and is so termed ‘gemilas chasadim’.

In parshas Chukas the Torah records the death of Aharon. “When the entire assembly saw the Aharon had perished, they wept for Aharon for thirty days, the entire House of Israel5.” Rashi notes that when the Torah records the death of Moshe it says that the nation mourned6, but it doesn’t say “the entire assembly mourned” because they mourned Aharon even more than they did Moshe.

Aharon was the quintessential lover of his people. He was able to promote peace and unity because he spoke to everyone with pleasantness, respect, and love. It was for that reason that the Mishna7 exhorts us to be from the disciples of Aharon “who loved peace and pursued peace”.

This week Klal Yisroel lost a true disciple of Aharon with the passing of Rabbi Michel Lefkowitz zt’l, the venerable Rosh Yeshiva of Ponovezh l’tzirim. Though he was 97 years old, his passing is a painful and tragic loss. Not only was the Rosh Yeshiva a noted scholar and author of many scholarly works on the Talmud (Minchas Yehuda) he also possessed a deep love for every Jew and made every person in his presence feel exalted and special.

I had the privilege to meet Reb Michel once and I will never forget the respect he accorded me and my friends, as well as his characteristic sweetness and pleasantness. May his memory be for a blessing and may we learn from his legendary example.

“The entire House of Israel”

“Loved peace and pursued peace”

1 This practice was known as ‘teg’
2 Koheles 7:23
3 Vaykira 19:18
4 Avos 1:2
5 Bamidbar 20:29
6 Devorim 34:8
7 Avos 1:12