Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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The intensity of the holy day of Yom Kippur embraces us in a spirit of sanctity and otherworldly transcendence. The stirring prayers and ancient rousing melodies evoke within us paradoxical feelings of dread, apprehension, excitement, and passion. As the day wears on we ignore the pangs of hunger and fatigue that gnaw at us as we propel ourselves into a realm of another world.

And then the sun’s descent reaches the treetops, casting a luminescent glow upon the horizon. The physical day is fleeting and the spiritual gates are closing. There are just precious moments left - but what moments! G-d Himself sits in final judgment affixing His Diving Seal to the written judgments for the upcoming year.

The final prayer uniquely endemic to Yom Kippur – Ne’ilah – is our last ditch attempt to plead our case. On other fast days by this time we are all but spent, counting down the final moments until the fast is over. But on Yom Kippur we somehow procure a surge of spiritual energy. The intensity of the prayers reverberates from the walls as beads of perspiration trickle down faces covered by talleisim and onto kittels. Tears are unabashedly shed until the final cries of “Shema Yisroel” and “Brouch Shem” are proclaimed.

The Dubner Maggid related a stirring parable to explain why we are naturally moved to tears during the ‘signature’ moments of Ne’ilah:

The King and Queen were beloved and revered by their subjects. But alas, for many years they were not blessed with a child. When a daughter was finally born to them the whole kingdom celebrated. From far and wide all came to express their good wishes upon the birth of the princess.

Years passed by and the princess grew into a fine and mature young woman suitable for marriage. The king spared no effort in trying to find a young man who was worthy of his daughter. When he finally found a suitable young man the king’s joy was boundless.

The wedding was celebrated with tremendous pomp and fanfare. How beautiful the young couple looked with radiant eyes full of optimism and vitality.

When the festivities were over, the young couple tearfully bid the king and queen farewell as they set off on their long journey to the distant town where they would live.

As soon as their home was set up and arranged the princess realized that her husband was not quite the man he had shown himself to be. He began to treat her disrespectfully, degrading her, and relegating her to perform debased chores. The princess’s life became a living nightmare. Her husband all but abandoned and ignored her, treating her like a lowly maid while he lived up the good life.

After eleven months of utter misery for the princess, a letter arrived at their home announcing that the king was journeying to their town to visit them for two weeks. From the moment he read the letter there was a marked change in the prince’s behavior. He began to treat her with respect and dignity, running to fulfill her every request.

When the king arrived he was duly impressed with the manner in which the prince treated his daughter. He spent two beautiful weeks with the young couple, enjoying meals and deep conversations. The king was proud of his dignified and courteous son-in-law who possessed such acumen and wisdom.

The day of the king’s departure finally arrived and the king was gathering his last belongings before heading out to his waiting coach. Suddenly the princess burst into his room crying bitterly. “It’s a farce”, she sobbed, “it’s all an act. My husband is not who he appears to be. He treats me terribly and I live a life of abject misery. As soon as you leave everything will go back to the way it was. Please father! Please don’t leave me this way! I cannot bear it any longer!”

The Dubner Maggid explained that our soul is a princess of pristine purity and holiness. G-d dispatches our souls into this world to be housed in a corporeal body. The body has tremendous potential; it is the ‘prince’ who will house the ‘princess’. The body’s mission is to care for the princess, helping her develop and become even greater. But as soon as we arrive in this world we quickly forget our mission and the holy soul within ourselves. We abuse our soul, relegating it to second-fiddle at best, as the body indulges in the hedonistic pleasures of this world.

Then the month of Elul arrives. The shofar is blown heralding the imminent arrival of the King of kings to visit and judge each of us. There is an immediate change in our behavior as we seek to elevate our actions and be more particular to laws and stringencies.

Yom Kippur arrives and we stand in fervent prayer, like angels beseeching the Almighty for a year of blessing and goodness. Then in the waning moments of the day, when our body has been enervated to the point where our motivation is soul-driven, we burst into tears before our Father in Heaven, “It’s a farce! It’s a fake! Things are not as they should be! During the year we forget about our soul and abuse it, as we allow ourselves to become subjugated to every vapid whim of society and our Evil Inclination.”

That was the beautiful parable of the Dubner Maggid. But it seems fitting to add to the parable1. How does the king respond to his daughter?

He looks into her eyes with tears streaming down his face, “My dear daughter, I love you and feel your pain so deeply. However, I cannot take you away from your husband. This marriage is your destiny and you must embrace it. Still I cannot leave you this way. I will speak to the prince and I want both of you to travel with me, back to the palace. We’ll spend a week together and your husband will see how I treat the queen with dignity and devotion. Maybe it will have an effect on him and when you return home afterwards things will be different.”

In a similar vein, G-d replies to us, “Come into the succah. Spend a sublime week living in the shadow of My embrace, where everything you do – eating, drinking, sleeping – will be holy and sanctified. Then, when you re-enter your homes on Shemini Atzeres perhaps things will be different. Perhaps this year what you gained during these Holy Days will remain with you so that when the routine of life returns you will not forget about the pure soul within you.”

On the final day of his life, Moshe taught Klal Yisroel the “Shiras Ha’azinu”. He introduced the magnificent song by calling on heaven and earth to bear witness to his words: “Give ear O heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth2.”

Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin3 noted that one’s attitude, mindset, and conduct are different when one is in praying in shul than when he is in the street conversing with friends. When one is immersed in prayer he feels humbled before his Creator and recognizes his inferiority. When he leaves the synagogue however, his attitude quickly changes as hubris and feelings of self-importance return.

The point of prayer and repentance is to create an internal transformation that occurs while we stand before G-d not be fleeting and transient but that we genuinely internalize that growth

The prophet states, “Take words with you and return to G-d.4” The prophet was exhorting the Nation to take the words of prayer that they uttered with them when they leave the synagogue, so that their repentance will be sincere and complete.

Moshe Rabbeinu was urging the Nation to be a holy people even involved in their mundane pursuits. His opening words are to be the mantra for every Jew: “Let the heavens give ear,” i.e. let my spiritual heavenly pursuits be so dominant and internalized that, “the earth will hear the words of my mouth”, even my earthly physical pursuits will be elevated.

In the psalm recited each day throughout the month of Elul and until Shemini Atzeres5, Dovid Hamelech beseeches G-d, “One thing I asked of G-d, that I shall seek: That I dwell in the House of G-d all the days of my life; to behold the sweetness of G-d and to contemplate in His Sanctuary.”

As the king Dovid led many wars, and had to avail himself constantly to the needs of the nation. How could he request that G-d ‘keep him in His House all the days of his life’ if he had many responsibilities outside the Study Hall?

Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz shlita6 explained that Dovid Hamelech was asking G-d to enable him to feel that he is always in the House of G-d, even after he left its confines. Dovid wanted to be able to always picture himself as being in the presence of his Creator even when he was far from the Study Hall, in the throngs of his mundane responsibilities.

When the time came for the Tabernacle to be constructed, G-d told Moshe, “They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amidst them7

The Alshich notes that the verse does not say, “I will dwell within it”" but “I will dwell within them” - i.e. within each and every one of them.

G-d enters wherever we allow him to enter. Our goal is to make ourselves a conduit for His Presence throughout or lives.

The goal of our efforts during this most sublime time of the year, is that we achieve permanent growth that we are able to maintain throughout the year. Long after the melodies and frenzied tension of Yom Kippur has faded, the spiritual growth of the day must continue to resonate - throughout the year and throughout our lives.

“May the earth hear the words of my mouth”

“That I dwell in the House of G-d all the days of my life”

1 The following addition is from a grahmen by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman
2 32:1
3 L’Torah ul’moadim
4 Hoshea 14:3; It is the haftora for Shabbos Shuva
5 Psalm 27 “L’Dovid Hashem Ori”
6 Tiv Hamoadim – Elul/Tishrei
7 Shemos 25:8


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev2 was known as the ‘defender of Israel’. No matter the situation, he always seemed to find merit in the actions of even the most blatant of sinners.

On one occasion he met a Jew who was smoking on Shabbos. The rebbe turned to him and asked, “Perhaps you forgot that it is Shabbos today.”

The man replied, "No Rebbe, I know that it is Shabbos.”

“Perhaps you did not realize that you are smoking.”

“And how could a person not know that he was smoking?”

“Perhaps you forgot, or perhaps you never learned, that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbos.”

“Of course I know that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbos.”

At that point, Reb Levi Yitzchak turned upwards and called out, "Master of the World, who is like Your people Israel? Even when I gave this Jew every opportunity to lie in order to mitigate his offense, he refused to do so. Where is such scrupulous honesty to be found?”

On another occasion he saw a man outside the Shul during Davening, donned in his tallis and tefillin, oiling the wheels of his buggy. The Berdichever looked heavenward and proclaimed: “Master of the World, look at your wonderful children, even while oiling the wheels of his buggy, this man wears his tallis and tefillin.”

Blia’am stood atop a hill gazing at the Jewish camp intending to curse them bitterly. G-d however, miraculously altered his words so that Bila’am instead lauded the nation with beautiful blessings.

Bila’am admiringly noted the depth of the love G-d has for His people. “He perceived no iniquity in Jacob, and saw no perversity in Israel. Hashem his G-d is with him, ותרועת מלך בו - and the friendship of the king is in him.”

Bila’am used the word ‘teruah’ to refer to the ‘friendship that G-d has with Klal Yisroel, as it were. Bila’am was enamored that because of the friendship and love G-d does not notice the sins of the Jews.

This verse is absolutely astounding. We have been in exile for almost two thousand years. During that time we have endured pogroms, holocausts, inquisitions, blood libels, and massacres. Does G-d really not see any of our sins? If that is really true why are we still languishing in exile and subject to the derision of the world?

Moshe was the consummate leader. His name is forever associated with the title ‘Rabbeinu – our master.’ It was under his leadership that we left Egypt, the transition of Torah came through him, and it was he who came to the defense of the nation repeatedly in the desert. Yet the great Moshe never merited entering the Promised Land.

The Torah states that Moshe was barred entry because of what occurred at the incident of Mei Merivah. The commentators offer numerous explanations in trying to acertain exactly what specifically did Moshe do wrong. One opinion is that Moshe was punished because, in the heat of the moment, he lost himself and derided a group of scoffers3.

As the nation stood amassed around the rock thirsting for water in the parched desert, the scoffers began to mock Moshe that he was be unable to draw water from the rock. Moshe turned to them and replied4, “Listen now O rebels, shall we bring forth water to you from this rock?” Moshe was held accountable because in a tense moment of incredible pressure he referred to Jews as rebels.

It is therefore almost shocking that Moshe Rabbeinu seems to have not learned his lesson. Twice in Chumash Devorim, which contains Moshe’s lengthy final discourse to the nation prior to his death, he seems to repeat the same mistake:

“Remember, do not forget, that you provoked Hashem, your G-d, in the wilderness; from the day you left Egypt until your arrival at this place, you have rebelled against Hashem.5

“For I know your rebelliousness and stiff neck; behold, while I am alive with you today you have been rebellious against Hashem, and surely after my death.”

Additionally, it doesn’t seem that Moshe was held accountable for the two times that he referred to the rebelliousness of the Jews in Chumash Devarim. Why was he punished so severely at the debacle with the rock, yet was not held accountable when he repeated it in Devorim?

Rabbi Shlomo Ostra zt’l6 explains that there is an integral difference between what Moshe said at the incident with the rock and what he said to them in his last will and testament. The difference is that at the rock Moshe called them rebels, whereas later on he made reference to their rebellious nature.

The difference can be understood with the following analogy: A young child watches how whenever his parents want something, they go to the local store, take out some money from their wallet, and hand it to the cashier who happily allows them to take whatever they need. One day the child decides that he wants a chocolate bar. When his mother refuses to buy it for him, he sneaks into her room, takes a few bills out of her wallet, goes to the store and buys it for himself.

When the child’s parents realize what he did they have two options of how to respond: They can scream at him for being a thief, in which case the child will hear that he is a thief and thieves steal things from others. Or they can gently explain to him that being that he is such a good boy it is not befitting someone like him to take something that doesn’t belong to him. That would be stealing and good boys don’t steal.

In the first approach the parents have labeled their child as a stealer. In the second approach they have called his attention to the fact that he stole, but that he himself is better than that.

This is a vital principle in education: Define the problem, but don’t label the child! If we label a child he will live up to the label. If we delineate the problem however, we can help him work to eliminate it.

When Moshe addresses the nation shortly prior to his passing he warns them that their conduct has been rebellious and unbecoming. He implores them to improve by explaining to them that as the great Chosen People they must be wary of their imperfections. At that point Moshe does not label them. Rather, as a loving teacher, he points out to them how they can, and must, improve.

At the debacle with the rock however, Moshe responded with a subtle tinge of anger. There he referred to them - and labeled them - as rebels. In his frustration Moshe defined them as people who were intrinsically flawed. On his lofty level, Moshe was held accountable for that momentary subtle loss of control, and for that he was denied entry into Eretz Yisroel.

One of the passages that we recite in vidui (confession) during selichos and throughout the Yom Kippur prayers states, “סרנו ממצותיך ומשפטיך הטובים ולא שוה לנו - We have turned away from your commandments and from Your good judgments, and it was not worth it.” Simply understood, we are declaring that the benefit we had from sinning wasn’t worth it. It is a declaration of regret and apology.

Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch zt’l explained that there is another understanding of these words: We declare that we turned away from the commandments and judgments, “and it wasn’t equal to us7”. In other words, we now realize that it was unbecoming and unfitting for us to commit such sins.

Part of repentance entails a realization that although we committed many sins, we are not inherently sinners. Our sins do not define us. In the recesses of our souls we are still loyal and committed. It is only our Evil Inclination which overwhelms us and leads us astray.

This is not merely a nice thought but a vital understanding. If a person views himself as a lowly sinner, than of what use is his repentance? Why should he even bother to confess and undergo the process of repentance? If he’s a lowly creep by nature it is not in his purview to change who he is.

But if one understands that his sins – numerous as they might be – do not comprise his essence, than he will strive to nullify them from his conscience, and begin anew.

Bila’am did not declare that G-d does not see any sins that the Jewish Nation commits. [In fact one is not allowed to believe that G-d does not take note of everything that occurs8.] Rather, Bila’am stated that G-d ‘perceived no iniquity in Yaakov’. In other words, G-d sees and notes every sin they commit. However, He views our sins as extrinsic because intrinsically, “My G-d, the soul You have placed within me is pure.”

As a People we have committed many sins which we need to rectify. However, G-d does not see them as being ‘in Yaakov’, as part of us. Rather, he view our evil deeds as extraneous and not comprising our essence.

It is for that reason that G-d judges us even more harshly for our sins. A fool who acts foolishly can hardly be held accountable for his folly. But a prince who acts like a fool is held to a higher standard, and therefore his punishment is with added severity.

Why does G-d view us in this manner? Because “ותרועת מלך בו - the friendship of the king is in him.” G-d loves us and sees us as a close friend views a comrade who has made serious mistakes. Although the friend is certainly aware of his friend’s culpability, he still remains dedicated to helping his friend because he knows the goodness that his friend possesses, and that he is better and above the mistakes he has committed.

Throughout our prayers we invoke the merits of our ancestors. In doing so we are declaring that, although we are sullied and mired in sin, we want G-d to recall our genealogy. Our greatness is in our very genes and therefore we pray that G-d grant us the opportunity to rectify what we have done. In so doing we will be able to reconnect with our true selves and the greatness which lays dormant within us.

The day of Rosh Hashanah is termed ‘Yom Teruah’9. This does not only refer to the blowing of the shofar, but as in the context of Bila’am’s words, a day of Divine closeness and friendship, as it were.

G-d sees us as transcending our sins. The question is if we have as much confidence in ourselves as our Creator10?

“We have turned away and it was not worth it”

“The friendship of the king is in him”

1 Based on the speech given at Kehillat New Hempstead, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5771. The core idea is based on a beautiful lecture by Rabbi Zev Leff.
2 1740-1809
3 Rambam, Shmonah Perakim (his introduction to Avos)
4 Bamidbar 20:11
5 Devorim 9:7
6 Disciple of the Rashba
7 The word שוה literally means equal or worth it
8 Gemara Bava Kama 50a– “Whoever says that G-d is a ותרן (loosely translated as a ‘pushover’) let his life be pushed over”
9 Bamidbar 29:1
10 The question is also if we see the negative qualities of our fellow Jews as being extrinsic or intrinsic? That is a very poignant question!

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch zt’l was once in the Chicago train station with a few of his students, waiting to board the Pacemaker to New York. A few feet away stood the Sunshine Express to San Francisco. Rabbi Bloch asked his students, “How far apart are these two trains?” They speculated whether there was a distance of eight or ten feet between them. Rabbi Bloch disagreed. “These two trains are 3,000 miles apart; because one is headed to California while the other is headed to New York.”

Moshe Rabbeinu stood before his beloved nation on the final day of his life and cautioned them to remain faithful to G-d:

“Perhaps there is among you a man or woman, a family or tribe, whose heart turns away from being with Hashem, our G-d, to go and serve the gods of the nations; perhaps there is among you a root flourishing with gall and wormwood.”

Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz zt’l asked that it seems as if Moshe grouped together two vastly different individuals. The first individual is a pagan idol-worshipper who has completely renounced his faith, while the second individual merely has a ‘bad root’ within him. In fact, Ramban explains, that at the present moment he is still an observant Jew. His only flaw is a spark of rebelliousness stirring in his heart.

Rabbi Leibowitz explained that the Torah juxtaposes them because there indeed exists a much deeper connection than what appears. If in the heart of the believer there is a slight yet unchecked feeling of treachery and rebelliousness he indeed deserves to be grouped with the idolater. They may appear to be worlds apart but if the mindset of the believer has veered he has placed himself on a path which leads to the gravest sins. Perhaps at this moment he has not done anything wrong. However, the Torah – the guidebook to life – understands human nature. If he is headed in the wrong direction and does not immediately seek to rectify his erroneous attitudes and mindset he will end up as an idolater.

Moshe Rabbeinu was warning Klal Yisroel that if a ‘bad seed’ is allowed to germinate in someone’s psyche, even if only subconsciously, although it may remain dormant for years, eventually it will sprout.

In the epic story of Megillas Rus, after Rus and her sister Orpah’s husbands died, both sisters decided to return to Israel with their mother-in-law Na’ami. Na’ami tried to reason with them that it was pointless for them to remain with her. Both Orpah and Rus wept along with Na’ami but Orpah eventually hearkened to Na’ami’s words and returned home while the determinedly resolute Rus remained.

The name Orpah means ‘turned her back’, because of her reaction at that juncture. Rabbi Leibowitz notes that the tears of Orpah and Rus were both genuine. However there was ‘a root flourishing with gall and wormwood’ within Orpah which led her astray at that most critical moment.

Although to the naked eye it may have appeared as if Rus and Orpah were both standing together alongside Na’ami, in truth they stood worlds apart. The distance between them was as vast as the distance between their descendants, Dovid and Goliath.

The gemara Succah1 relates, “Rabbi Yehuda expounded: In the future G-d will bring the Evil Inclination and slaughter him in view of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it (the Evil Inclination) will appear like a high mountain; to the wicked it will appear like the hair of a needle. These (the righteous) will cry and these (the wicked) will cry. The righteous will cry and proclaim, ‘How were we able to conquer this high mountain?’ The wicked will cry and proclaim, ‘How were we unable to conquer this hair of a needle?’ Rabbi Yose said: the Evil Inclination at first appears like the thread of a spider, and at the end he appears like cart ropes.”

Rabbi Shalom Schwadron zt’l explained this gemara by relating a personal story: “On one occasion I was traveling on a boat when we approached a city well known for its grandeur and beauty. As we neared the passengers amassed on the deck to get their first glimpses of the city.

“I trailed slowly behind them to see if there was anything special to see. When I was able to see the city I was bothered by the many houses of worship that I saw and I quickly returned to my cabin.

“Some time later I was again traveling when my boat neared that same city. This time when there was an excited rush to the deck I felt more of an urge to join and again see the city. I realized that when I saw the city the second time I wasn’t as repulsed by it as I had been the first time.

“The third time I was on a boat passing that city I was surprised to find that for a moment I too was marveling at the beauty of the city along with everyone else.”

Rabbi Schwadron noted that the incident brought to mind a thought he heard from the Brisker Rav. When Moshe Rabbeinu warned Klal Yisroel about the dangers of falling prey to idolatry he says, “For you know how we dwelled in the land of Egypt and how we passed through the midst of the nations through whom you passed. And you saw their abominations and their detestable idols – of wood and stone, of silver and gold that were with them.2

The Brisker Rav explained that, in his carefully chosen words, Moshe was warning the nation of the rapid progression of sin. When the nation was first exposed to idolatry no doubt they were repulsed by what they viewed as “abominations and detestable idols.” But with time when they became more accustomed to the notion of idolatry the idols were no longer as horrid to them as they once were. At that point they seemed like harmless pieces of ‘wood and stone’. Then, as more time passed, they came to respect and revere the idols until they became valuable like ‘silver and gold’.”

Rabbi Schwadron explained that his experience - which parallels the Brisker Rav’s explanation of the verse - reflects the workings of our Evil Inclination. He knows he cannot lure us into sin in one fell swoop. So he lays his traps in steps. “Today he says do this and this; until he says to serve idolatry3.” In his crafty and wily manner our Evil Inclination enervates our resolve and deceptively entices us into sin without us realizing that he has ensnared us down a slippery slope.

This is what the gemara is conveying. How are the righteous able to desist from the machinations of the Evil Inclination? It is because they are acutely aware of the danger of doing those things which ‘aren’t so bad’. True, the act itself may not be so terrible, but the righteous look ahead and contemplate the potential effect such an act can have.

There are certain drugs which are dangerous, not as much because of their own inherent dangers, as it is a ‘gateway drug’. Taking that first drug more often than not leads to taking other drugs which are far more damaging and perilous.

In that same vein our Evil Inclination employs the usage of ‘gateway acts’. He leads us to commit acts which may not even be considered a sin, however, can easily lead to more sinful behavior.

The wicked live in the moment. They seek to enjoy the hedonistic gratification available now, and do not contemplate the long-term consequences of their actions. Such a mindless attitude ensures that even a simply avoidable act can quickly metamorphose into ‘mountains’ of sins, which become almost insurmountable.

Thus, in the future when the truth becomes evident, the wicked will morbidly and regretfully look and contemplate the original actions they performed and see how much simpler it would have been if they had restrained themselves before their actions grew progressively worse.

Perhaps the shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah symbolize the crying of the righteous and wicked in the future. The tekiah - the elongated single blast - represents the pure tears of the righteous who weep in reverent joy for their ability to remain pure and unsullied in sin.

The shevarim and teruah blasts - which are fragmented and intermittent - represent the tears of the wicked who allowed their lives to become fragmented by blindly following the whims of their Evil Inclination.

On Rosh Hashanah, all blasts commence and conclude with a tekiah to represent that even if one has fallen prey to his Evil Inclination, and even if he is mired and sullied with sin, as long as he is alive he can repent and rectify. He can still join the ranks of the righteous whose tears are complete and whole. The first step is to make sure he is heading in the right direction.

“A root flourishing with gall and wormwood”

“How were we unable to conquer this hair of a needle?”

1 52a
2 29:15-16
3 Shabbos 105a

Thursday, September 15, 2011

KI SAVO 5771

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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KI SAVO 5771


Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt’l would often relate that what he felt was the key to everlasting happiness could be understood from the following story:

“Imagine someone is standing on the ledge of the seventieth floor of the Empire State Building in New York, perching to jump.

“You scream to him, "Stop! Don't do it!"

“He turns to you and says "Why shouldn’t I? My business went bankrupt and I’m under indictment for fraud. My wife left me and my children won’t talk to me. All my friends turned their back on me and left me all alone. And this morning the doctor told me I have a rare form of cancer. And to top it off I’m blind from birth. So tell me why should I go on living?"

“You freeze not sure how to respond. Then suddenly the man lets out a cry of joy. “I can see! I don’t know why, but suddenly I can see!”

“Do you think he’ll still jump?

“Of course he wouldn’t” explained Rabbi Weinberg. “He would be so taken and transfixed by the beauty of the world and the joy of seeing that he would be excited by the idea of just walking and staring at every thing in sight. None of his many troubles have gone away and his situation is still grim. But the sense of wonder and exhilaration would make it all worth it.

“And therein lies the secret of eternal happiness. It is hidden in the sense of wonder and excitement of everything we have at our disposal regularly.

If you really appreciate your eyesight, the other pains are insignificant. But if you take it all for granted, then nothing in life will ever truly give you joy.”

In parshas Ki Savo, Moshe Rabbeinu related the tochacha, the ninety-eight foreboding and terrifying curses that would befall the nation if they do not observe the Torah properly. But the parsha also repeatedly mentions the obligation for one to be happy:

“You shall rejoice with all the good that Hashem, your G-d, is giving to you.2

“And you shall slaughter peace offerings and you shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before Hashem, your G-d.3

“Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with joy and a good hear, from an abundance of all.4

In Harvard University, the most widely-attended class is a course about happiness - what it is and how to achieve it. It is taught by an Israeli-born professor of psychology, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. The first such seminar, which he conducted in 2002, began with eight students. Within five years, the course’s attendance burgeoned to 1,400 registered students.

In his bestseller, “What is Happiness?” Ben-Shahar notes that Psychologist Phillip Brickman analyzed the level of happiness people felt after winning the lottery. Within as short a time as a month, lottery winners returned to their base-level of well being. If they were unhappy before winning they were again that way shortly after. Similarly, and perhaps more surprisingly, accident victims who became paraplegics were often as happy as they were prior to the accident, within as little as a year after the accident.

In addition, Psychologist Daniel Gilbert extended these findings to demonstrate how poor we are at predicting our future emotional states. We think a new house, a promotion, or a publication would make us happy, when in fact these achievements only lead to a temporary spike in our level of well-being. The same applies to negative experiences. The emotional pain that comes with the end of a relationship, losing our job, or the failure of our political candidate does not last long – we soon return to being as happy or unhappy as we were prior to the experience.

Dr. Ben-Shahar describes how, at age 16, he won the Israeli national squash championship, an event that brought the subject of happiness into sharp focus in his life.

During the five years while he was training for the event he felt that something important was missing from his life. He was sure that winning the title would alleviate that empty feeling and help him achieve real happiness. In his words, “After all, it seemed clear to me that the mental and physical exertion were necessary to win the championship. Winning the championship was necessary for fulfillment. Fulfillment was necessary for happiness. This was the logic I operated under.”

When he won the championship, he was indeed ecstatic, happier than he had ever imagined feeling. Following the final match he went out with his family and friends, and celebrated together.

He goes on to describe that after the celebration, he went to his room, sat on his bed and wanted to savor that feeling of supreme happiness. Then suddenly, without warning, the bliss disappeared, and the feeling of emptiness returned with a vengeance. The tears of joy shed only hours earlier turned to tears of pain and helplessness. He tried to convince himself that he was feeling a temporary low following an overwhelming high. But as the days and months unfolded, he did not feel happier; in fact, he was growing even more desolate as he began to see that simply substituting a new goal would not in itself lead him to happiness. It was that experience which compelled him to seek a deeper understanding about happiness.

People often believe that we will truly be happy if they had just a little more. Psychological studies confirm what the Torah taught us long ago – happiness is based on an attitude of appreciation and acceptance, not on how much one owns or how prominent one is. In fact, our Sages warn us that the more one has the more one wants5. Therefore, the truly wealthy person is the one who is happy with what he has6.

Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt’l once quipped that, “People are always looking for the city of happiness, but they don’t realize that happiness is a state of mind!”

The gemara7 notes that Ezra Hasofer enacted that the harsh verses of rebuke be read shortly prior to Rosh Hashana so that ‘תכלה שנה וקללותיה - the year should end along with its curses’.

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky zt’l asks how Ezra could be sure that every year would have curses? He made this enactment when the second Temple was first being built. It seems like a dismal prediction to say that we must read the curses at the end of the year because every year will have curses? Is it not possible that there would be a year of prosperity when there would be no curses?

Rabbi Galinsky answers that the definition of blessing and curse is very objective. What one person sees as a wonderful blessing another person may view as a terrible curse.

He explains that when he was a prisoner in Siberia they had hardly any food and suffered terribly from pangs of hunger. The winters were absolutely frigid and the only clothing he had was inadequate to protect him from the brutal cold. He, and the other prisoners, lived with the constant danger of becoming frostbitten.

As Rosh Hashana approached their dream of ‘the year ending with its curses’ meant that they would have a little bread so they wouldn’t starve, and a full set of shoes that weren’t ripped. And if G-d really wanted to shower them with blessing, He would allow them to somehow procure a coat with a warm lining and a scarf. That would be the greatest blessing.

Then, when G-d saved him from Siberia and he returned to more of a life of normalcy where he had enough food to survive, and clothing to at least keep him warm, the definition of blessing and curse changed. At that point ‘the year ending with its curses’ entailed that the following year he would have more money and better food.

The next year such a person could desire a bigger house with a nicer coach, etc.

Mankind will always feel that there are curses, no matter how much one is blessed with. Unless one trains himself to appreciate what he has he will always be dissatisfied and see his ‘lack’ as a curse. It is that negative outlook that we hope we will be able to eradicate from within ourselves as the new year concludes. In that sense it’s up to us.

One person may view a certain lifestyle as a curse, but if that person is able to feel happy with what he has, it is he who is rich!

There was once an acknowledged artist who invited his friends to his gallery to witness the uncovering of his new painting entitled “The Door to Happiness.” When he presented the painting the assemblage marveled at the beauty and color, the wood grain captured on canvas, and the outstanding craftsmanship. The painter announced that there was a flaw in the painting and he wanted to see who was keen enough to notice it. Try as they might no one could find any flaw in the masterpiece, until one clever observer remarked that there was no handle on the door. Everyone gasped when they realized the now glaring omission. The artist smiled confidently, and explained, “This is the door to happiness. It is opened from the inside.”

“You shall rejoice with all the good that G-d is giving to you”

“May the year end with all of its curses”

1 Based on the speech given at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Ki Savo 5770
2 26:11- when a farmer would bring his bikkurim (‘first fruits’) to the Bais Hamikdash
3 27:7 – when setting up the altar on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival
4 28:47 – the reason the curses befall the nation
5 See Koheles Rabbah 1:13; 3:10
6 Avos 4:1
7 Megillah 31b

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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One day during this past summer our family visited Quiet Valley Historical Farm in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. It is a historic farm preserved exactly as it was in the early 1800s after a German Lutheran family settled it in the late 1700s.

The tour was especially meaningful because so many concepts mentioned in the Talmud relating to agriculture and production of textiles came to life. Many of the 39 forbidden categories of labor on Shabbos are directly related to primitive methods of farming and making clothes. It is generally difficult to visualize those concepts in our world of modern technology when most people no longer live on farms. But as I listened to the guides discuss and demonstrate their way of life I saw the words of the Talmud come to life1.

In one home the guide described the process of making clothes. She described how after they sheared the sheep, they dyed, combed, and spun the wool. She also described the process of making linen from the flax plant. The seeds are removed (rippling), the outer stalk is retted to get to the strong inner fibers. It is then crushed (scotching), and the fibers straightened by pulling them through a metal comb (hackles).

She then demonstrated how the wool and linen was mounted onto the loom, one as the woof, the other as the warp. At that point I asked why they preferred to use a mixture of wool and linen (called linsey woolseys). She replied that the linen provided greater strength while the wool provided greater warmth. Then she quipped, “Now I know some of you don’t mix plant and animal. But we German Lutherans do!”

It took me a moment to realize that she was referring to the Biblical prohibition of wearing sha’atnez: “You shall not wear combined fibers, wool and linen together.2” I was intrigued by the fact that she referred to the prohibition as being a mixture of plant (linen, a derivative of the flax plant) and animal (wool, which comes from sheep). I had never thought of sha’atnez in that manner and I wondered if any of the commentaries explained it as such.

I found it indeed explained in that vein by Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch. He explains that within man’s makeup there is an ‘element’ of plant and an ‘element’ of animal. A plant is a source of nutrition which contains within itself the ability to reproduce. An animal has the added ability of perception and mobility. An animal utilizes its unique capabilities of perception and mobility in its quest to gratify its vegetative desires of nutrition (food) and reproduction.

Man however, must subordinate his plant-like needs to his animalistic abilities. In other words, he must use his superior perception and mobility to control his base desires through his ability to understand, distinguish, and conceptualize. Rabbi Hirsch explains that man is a pyramid containing certain components of plants and animals. His goal is to elevate those components so he can stand upright before G-d. His plant-like abilities subordinate themselves to his animalistic capabilities, which he in turn subjugates to the fulfillment of his responsibilities as superior man.

The prohibition of sha’atnez symbolically reflects this idea. Wool represents the animalistic element within a human, while linen represents the vegetative element in man. In man, the animalistic abilities of mind and will power, must not be inclined toward the vegetative urges for reproduction and food (nutrition). Rather, these two components must be separated so that it is not used “downwards towards vegetative sensuality, (but) upwards towards the pinnacle of Mankind.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner zt’l offered a beautiful explanation for the universal custom that a groom gives his a bride a diamond ring. At the time of Creation, mankind was charged with the maintenance and furtherance of the world. “Let us make man in our image… they shall rule over the fish in the sea, the birds of the sky, and over the animal, the whole earth, and every creepy thing that creeps on the earth.3” When G-d initially created the world, “He saw that it was good4”. But after He created Man, “G-d saw all that He had made, and it was very good5.”

There are four levels of life in the world: inanimate, plant, animal, man. Plant and animal serve Man by providing him with food and clothing. How do minerals and the inanimate serve Man? One way is that man wears precious stones and diamonds as ornamental jewelry. The beauty of the human countenance is enhanced by the evocative quality that gems and diamonds provide.

When man dons inanimate objects as jewelry it is the greatest demonstration of man’s ability and responsibility to elevate all of creation. It symbolizes that the highest level of being in this world elevates even the basest level of being in this world.

At a wedding the second of the seven special blessings recited is “Blessed are You… the fashioner of the Man.” When a man and woman bond in marriage they are embarking on a journey to produce the next generation of mankind. Therefore, at the moment when they agree to commit themselves to that process, he gives her a diamond to symbolize that through their marriage they have the ability – and responsibility - to elevate all of creation6.

Twice a year – on Tisha B’av and Yom Kippur – it is forbidden for a Jew to wear shoes made from leather. What is the reason behind this prohibition?

The Divrei Shaul7 explained that man wears leather constructed from the hides of animals as a symbol of his dominance over animals. With every step he takes he asserts his superiority and dominance over all of creation.

However, during two days we are removed from that symbolic dominance. On Tisha B’av when the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed, and we were shamefully banished into exile, we lost our superiority over creation. Thus we remove our shoes to symbolize that loss of greatness and status. On Tisha B’av we forfeit our elevated status.

On Yom Kippur we seek to temporarily divorce ourselves from our physical selves so that we can spend the day focusing in spiritual meditation. On Yom Kippur we remove our shoes to symbolize that on this day our focus is not on dominating this world but on living an other-worldly life, divorced from our animalistic urges and drives.

In a sense on Tisha B’av our shoes were removed from us; on Yom Kippur we remove our shoes willingly8.

A Jew is charged with elevating, not only the plant and animal components within himself, but also to elevate all of creation. He does so by adhering to the laws of the Torah and mitzvos. Through his deeds and actions the whole world merits blessing and prosperity.

May we indeed be the conduits to merit such blessing and goodness.

“You shall not wear combined fibers, wool and linen together”

“Let us make man… they shall rule the whole earth”

1 When I mentioned this to one of the guides, she retorted, “You know, you’re the fourth person today to tell me that!”
2 Devorim 22:11; also in Vayikra 19:19 “And a garment that is a mixture of combined fibers shall not come upon you.”
3 Bereishis 1:24
4 Ibid 1:4
5 Ibid 1:31
6 Note: he cannot give her a diamond ring under the chuppah because at that point she is agreeing to a halachic acquisition through her acceptance of the ring. She must therefore know about how much the ring is worth, otherwise she can claim that she only agreed to the marriage on the assumption that the ring was worth much more. To avoid this problem, under the chuppah she is given a ring which she has a relative idea of how much its worth. At the engagement however (or sometime thereafter), the custom us to give her a diamond because of its symbolism.
7 Derush l’Shabbos Shuva 5631
8 The Divrei Shaul utilizes this idea to explain why chalitzah is performed with the removal of the Yavam’s shoe.

Friday, September 2, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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I have heard the following story related by Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman shlita, the beloved Mashgiach of Yeshivas Ohr Hachaim in Queens1, quite a few times:

There was a fifty year old man whose health had been becoming progressively worse for a few years. His eyesight was blurred, and his hands and legs became less and less coordinated causing him to lose his balance, even as he walked in the street. Finally, his doctor told him and his wife his grim prognosis: He had a debilitating disease and had only six months to live.

As can be imagined, they were extremely distraught. The wife called a young man who she knew had a relationship with the previous Skolya Rebbe, Rabbi Dovid Yitzchok Isaac Rabinowitz zt’l, and asked him to please speak to the Rebbe on their behalf.

When the young man recounted to the rebbe what the doctor had said, the rebbe became very agitated. He exclaimed that on the Torah’s words2 “He shall provide for healing” the gemara3 expounds, “From here a doctor was granted permission to heal”4. “A doctor only has permission to try to heal someone. But who gave him permission to rule about death?” The rebbe asked the young man if the patient was an eved Hashem (servant of G-d)? The young man replied that the man went to shul to pray three times a day and had a fixed time to study Torah every day. “In that case”, replied the rebbe, “there is a verse in the Torah that applies to him. “You shall worship Hashem, your G-d, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I shall remove illness from your midst”5. Tell the patient’s wife to prepare for him a piece of bread and a glass of tea. He should recite a blessing and eat them, and G-d will bless him with longevity.”

The wife did so, and within three days of his eating the bread and the tea he began to feel better. With time he regained most of his eyesight and the use of his hands, although he never really regained the usage of his feet.

Rabbi Finkelman would conclude the story by saying, “I don’t know what happened to the doctor. But I know that the patient is still alive, still going to shul each day and learning Torah.”

That is the way I heard the story from Rabbi Finkelman on a number of occasions. Last Sunday morning, Rabbi Finkelman’s father, Mr. Shmuel Finkelman passed away. In his eulogy during the funeral, Rabbi Finkelman recounted the story and then added:

“I never related who the story was about for fear of causing an ayin hara (evil eye). But now I can say that the patient in the story was my father, and I was the one who went to the Skolya Rebbe at the request of my mother. My father lived 35 more years after the rebbe’s blessing.”6

May his memory be for a blessing.

Moshe Rabbeinu instructed the nation7, “Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves.” Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita8 notes that to some degree every person naturally craves a sense of subjugation. It gives a person a certain measure of comfort aND inner security to know that he can turn to, and has to answer to, a higher authority. It is also comforting for a person to have someone to guide and instruct him, so that he does not feel alone. Although we all crave independence and chafe excessive authority, too much freedom can lead to anarchy if it’s not harnessed and controlled. When a person becomes completely lawless and ‘free’ he feels wild and animalistic and cannot attain inner fulfillment.

This is a very poignant concept in education. Children resist authority constantly and struggle mightily against structure, chores, and rules. But deep down they feel loved when they are granted guidelines and limits. Conversely, children who are granted too much freedom and lack structure are emotionally unstable and lack self confidence9. They begin to feel that they are uncontrollable, and they act accordingly.

Thus the obligation that one imposes judges and officers is not only for the sake of maintaining peace and judicial law. It is also so that one has mentors and teachers to whom he turns to for guidance and direction in life.

Our Torah leaders do not merely teach us the Torah’s laws and matters of policy. They direct us how to live our lives according to the dictates and within the parameters of the Torah. They show us how to live within the spirit of the law, and not merely the letter of the law.

The Torah instructs us to adhere to the word of the sages even if we feel they have erred. “According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left.10” Sifrei expounds, “Even if they will tell you about the right that it is left, and the left that it is right (you must hearken to their instruction)”.

It is noteworthy that the Sifrei’s example – regarding right and left - is a matter of direction and perspective, for one person’s right is on the left of the person standing opposite him. On a deeper level, the Sifrei is teaching us that if our leaders tell us right is left, they are teaching us that we are viewing the matter backwards. We are seeing right and left inversely because we are viewing it from the wrong persepctive.

If one were to enter the Mishkan11 the Shulchan12 would be on his right side while the Menorah13 would be on his left. It seems incongruous that in the Holy Temple the vessel representing physical success was on the right side (symbolizing priority), while the vessel representing spiritual greatness was positioned on the left?

The Bais Halevi explained14 that the vessels were only positioned in that manner when one entered the Mishkan. However, after one had walked through the Sanctuary and experienced the embrace of G-d’s Presence, as it were, and then turned to leave, the Menorah that was on his right while the Shulchan was on his left. The experience of being in such proximity to holiness was sufficient to shift one’s perspective and priorities.

Iyov said15, “When you speak a decree it shall be fulfilled for you; and a light will shine upon your path.” The gemara16 explains, “The righteous one decrees it and the Holy One, blessed is He, fulfills it.” Our greatest leaders are granted a measure of Divine Assistance to even alter celestial decrees.

In the center of every town in Europe there was a clock hanging from a tower17. Most people would rationalize that the reason why the clock was so high up was so everyone could see it. Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner zt’l noted that there is an added reason why the clock was so positioned. If the clock was lower and more accessible, a passerby may notice that the clock was two minutes faster than his watch. So he would walk to the big levers behind the clock and simply move it two minutes ahead. A minute later another fellow would walk by and see that the clock was three minutes slower than his watch. So he too would reset the clock to match his watch. Throughout the day the time on the clock would constantly be changing, as every person ensured that the clock was set correctly according to his own watch.

But if the clock is high up and inaccessible, a passerby who notices that the time on the big clock does not match the time on his watch will have no choice but to change his watch to match the time on ‘the big clock’. Because of its position the big clock sets the standard, and not vice versa.

Rabbi Hutner explained that this is the perspective we must have of our leaders. A Torah leader is not a politician who alters his rulings and tailors his speeches to pander to the fancies of his constituents. He is not seeking votes or the candidacy for office. A Torah leader is interested only on the unadulterated pursuit of truth. Therefore, his followers have to subjugate their views and opinions to his, and not vice versa. He is the proverbial clock that towers above all else and therefore everyone else lifts their gaze towards him.

Our leaders, like the Sanctuary itself, teach us how to shift our weltanschauung from society’s view to the vastly different perspective of the Torah. It is in their shadow, and according to their direction, that we live our lives.

“Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves”

“You shall not deviate right or left”

1 I am privileged to consider myself a talmid of Rabbi Finkelman who is also our ‘spiritual guide’ in Camp Dora Golding
2 Shemos 21:20
3 Berachos 60a
4 From the fact that the Torah obligates one who inflicts a wound on another to pay his doctor bills, we see that a doctor is allowed to practice medicine. This is the source which permits (and obligates) one who is sick to go to a doctor.
5 Shemos 23:25
6 During the shiva, Rabbi Finkelman’s brother, Rabbi Shimon, related that after his father began feeling better their mother sent him back to the rebbe to tell him the good news (Rabbi Shimon was not yet married and was still living at home). The rebbe became very excite with the good news. He explained that people often come to him and relate the pain on their hearts. But very rarely do they return to tell him the good news. [I have heard this sentiment expressed in the name of other tzaddikim as well].
7 16:18
8 Aleinu L’shabayach
9 There is much empirical (and anecdotal) evidence to support this
10 17:11
11 Technically speaking, as only the Kohain Gadol was permitted to enter the Sanctuary on specific occasions
12 Table which contained the twelve Showbreads and represented the livelihood of the Jewish people
13 Whose light represented the light of Torah
14 Note that I heard this beautiful thought in the name of the Bais Halevi but was personally unable to find it in the sefer
15 22:28
16 Kesubos 103b
17 When we went to visit my sister and brother-in-law in Waterbury CT this week, and saw the large clock in the center of the city which is visible from their porch it reminded me of this thought which I shared with them.