Friday, August 5, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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Aharon Barnea, a well-known news anchor in Israeli media, related the following story about a high level Palestinian militant leader named Salah Tamari1:

Tamari was a fierce fighter for the Palestinian cause who was caught after the Israeli Lebanese invasion in 1982. He was subsequently held captive in Israeli prisons for almost two years. As he languished in prison he began to lose heart in his cause. He came to the realization that they would never be successful in dislodging the Jews from their state. He decided that the Palestinians’ best option was to cut a deal with the Israelis and try to garner as much land as they could, and be done with the whole struggle. He shared his views with the thirty fellow terrorists who were inmates with him in the prison.

Then on the first night of Pesach he saw one of the prison guards eating a pita bread sandwich. “Aren’t you Jewish?” he asked the guard. The guard nodded that he was. Salah looked at him incredulously, “Then why are you eating pita? Don’t you know you’re not allowed to eat bread on Passover?”

The guard was momentarily stunned by the question. But he quickly gathered his wits and replied sharply, “I have no obligation to commemorate events that happened to my ancestors over three thousand years ago.”

Salah was absolutely floored. He stayed up all night digesting the magnitude of what he had just heard. The next morning he summoned his comrades and told them what had transpired. “If these people feel no connection to the past, if they are willing to disregard their age-old national traditions, then they have severed their roots to this land. I retract everything I told you before. We must renew our mission with vigor and fortitude. We can be victorious over them. We must fight until we achieve victory. There is no room for compromise. They cannot stop us.”

Chumash Devorim, the final book of the Torah, contains Moshe Rabbeinu’s recounting of the experiences and lessons that the nation had learned along their forty-year journeys through the desert. “It was in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, when Moshe spoke to the Children of Israel, according to everything that G-d commanded him to them.2

Moshe described their sojourns from the Sea of the Reeds to Mount Seir, where the descendants of our ancestor Yaakov’s archrival and brother, Esau, lived. “We turned and journeyed toward the wilderness towards the Sea of the Reeds, as G-d spoke to me, and we circled Mount Seir for many days. G-d said to me, saying, רב לכם סב את ההר הזה פנו לכם צפנה - Enough of your circling this mountain; turn yourselves northward’.3

The Medrash explains that when G-d said, “Turn yourselves צפנה (northward)” it is a hidden reference to the Torah4. Moshe conveyed to the nation that when G-d told them to turn northward He was alluding to the fact that the nation should turn towards the Torah.

Rabbi Mordechai Rogov zt’l5 explains that the verse and its Midrashic expounding contain a vital lesson regarding the history and future of the Jewish people. He explains that there have been many times throughout our history when we have sought to ingratiate ourselves with the nations of the world so we could fit in with them. We have symbolically ‘circled Mount Seir’ pondering how to become part of their way of life. We were confident that doing so would provide us with protection and stability.

To our chagrin and amazement however, all of our machinations were futile. The more we sought to connect ourselves with the society around us the more our neighbors seemed to resent us. Their envy and enmity made us loathe in their eyes and they sought to rid themselves of our presence like we were vermin.

It is to that generation that G-d calls out, as it were, “Enough of your circling this mountain!” If you really want the nations to be tolerant of you, or more so, to revere and respect you, there is only one effective manner, “Turn yourselves צפנה - to the Torah.” That is where our only hopes for glory and grandeur lie. Either we are the lodestar of the world or the bane of society. It depends how much we respect ourselves.

In Chumash Vayikra the Torah records G-d’s instructing Moshe about the unique laws endemic to Kohanim regarding ritual purity and the added precautions they must adhere to. The verse begins6, “G-d said to Moshe: Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them: Each of you shall not contaminate himself to a dead person among his people…”

Rashi notes that the glaring redundancy (‘Say to the Kohanim… and say to them’) contains a vital lesson that the elders have a responsibility to teach the youngsters. Moshe was to ‘say’, i.e. instruct the older Kohanim that they had a responsibility to teach their special laws to the younger generation7.

This lesson does not only apply to Kohanim but to all Jews. It is from this verse that we learn that adults are responsible to educate and train their children in the proper modality of Torah observance. The whole concept of Chinuch - educating our children from a young age to observe Torah laws is derived from the ‘redundancy’ in the aforementioned verse.

The Kohanim comprise less than 10% of all Jews. Why is the elementary mandate of chinuch derived specifically from the laws of ritual purity pertaining to Kohanim? Why isn’t it learned out from laws which are universally pertinent to all Jews, such as the holidays?

Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg zt’l explained that one of the most difficult questions a Torah-observant parent must answer to his children is ‘Why do I have to be different? Why do I have to do it if everyone else isn’t doing it?’

He offers the following analogy: A young kohain is heading out to play baseball with his friends one summer afternoon during the time when the Bais Hamikdash still stood. As he grabs his bat and baseball glove, his mother asks him where he’s going. When he responds that he’s going to the park down the block, she shakes her head sadly, “I’m sorry but you can’t go to that park because to get there you have to pass through the cemetery and we’re having terumah8 for supper. He becomes annoyed, “Mom, it’s not fair! All of my friends are going to that park. Last night you didn’t let me go to the other park because there are sheratzim9 there. No one else had those restrictions. Why do I?” The mother responds, “Because you are not like everyone else. You have an elevated status as a kohain. So you have to maintain greater levels than everyone else. You are special!”

That is the attitude every Jew must convey to their children, and that is the fundamental basis of proper chinuch. We must convey to our children that the reason why we perform certain rituals and refrain from doing many things that are the norm in society is because we are special. We have an elevated status and lofty responsibilities and therefore we have to act accordingly. Observing the Torah may be difficult at times, but we must view it as a privilege, and we must impart that feeling to our children10.

In the Kinnos of Tisha B’av11 we state “איכה תפארתי מראשותי השליכו – O how they have thrown the splendor from my head.” With the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, and throughout our prolonged exile, we have lost a great deal of our inherent grandeur and pride. In our time, perhaps we ourselves have cast off a great deal of our own pride. Too often Jews are embarrassed by their differences as they seek to fit in with the rest of society.

There is no doubt that we have to learn how to live with the nations of the world courteously and respectfully. We live among them, maintain business relationships with them, and have dealings with them continuously. But we must not be apologetic for our differences. We must remember that we are different because we are special. Our pride lies in our Torah observance and if we seem peculiar at times we are proud to bear that banner aloft.

Trying to hide our differences in order to be like everyone else is not the solution, but a further deepening of the exile. Anyone who reads the history of our people in Europe prior to World War II will realize how frighteningly true that is. Our pride has been cast aside in exile and our obligation is to reclaim it. We are a nation that stands alone, even while we live among the nations of the world, and we must be proud of who we are.

On Tisha B’av we lower ourselves to the floor and mourn all we have lost. Yet as we shed tears for all of our suffering we gather solace in the knowledge that we have been made to suffer because we are special. That is why, after reciting lamentations in a state of intense mourning for the night and morning of Tisha B’av, at midday we are able to rise from the floor. We don our talis and tefillin12 and recite the ‘nachem’ prayer, beseeching G-d to console the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Through our recounting of all of our sorrow and grief we realize that the reason we are persecuted is because of our exalted status as the Chosen Nation. Through tragedy and tears, Tisha B’av reminds us that we are special. And that itself is the source of our consolation.

“O how they have thrown the splendor from my head.”

“Enough of your circling; turn towards the Torah”

1 Barnea is the author of a book titled, “Mine Enemy” about his friendly correspondence with Tamari.
2 1:3
3 2:1-2
4 Devorim Rabbah (1:19) "ואין צפנה אלא תורה שנאמר 'יצפן לישרים תושיה'(משלי ב:ז)"
5 Ateres Mordechai
6 The opening verse of parshas Emor (Vayikra 21:1)
7 Yevamos 114a
8 Terumah is the special tithed food given to a kohain. It can only be eaten by Kohanim in a heightened state of ritual purity
9 Crawling insects which cause ritual impurity to one who touches them
10 Heard from Rabbi Yechiel Weberman, Camp Dora Golding chinuch va’ad (this week)
11 Kinnah 9
12 Which are not worn at shacharis because of our status in the highest level of mourning – like a relative whose deceased has not yet been buried r’l


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