Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch/Ashar


The great Chassidic Master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, related the parable about a chassid from Cracow, Poland named Reb Eizik who had the same dream every night for a week straight. He dreamed that if he traveled to the city of Prague and dug next to the bridge adjacent to the king’s palace, he would find a priceless treasure. Reb Eizik was so intrigued by the repeated dream that he decided to undertake the journey to dig next to the bridge in Prague.
When he arrived there he was dismayed to see that the bridge was carefully guarded by the king’s soldiers. There was no way they would allow him to dig anywhere in the vicinity of the bridge. Reb Eizik stayed in a nearby inn overnight and came back the next day to see if there was any lapse in the soldier’s shifts when he might be able to quickly dig. But the next day proved no better and Reb Eizik could do nothing more than wander aimlessly near the bridge and contemplate what he would do with the treasure.
After a few days of wandering near the bridge, one of the soldiers demanded to know what he was doing there. Reb Eizik decided to tell the soldier the truth. The soldier burst out laughing. “You silly Jew, are you so naïve to believe in dreams? Why, just last night I had a dream that if I traveled to Cracow and found a Jew there named Eizik, and I dug underneath the oven in his house, I would find a priceless treasure. Do you think I am going to run to Cracow to dig under his oven, because of a silly dream?!”
Reb Eizik was stunned! He had come all the way to Prague to find out that the treasure he was seeking was in his own home. He immediately returned home and dug underneath his oven. Sure enough, he found an incredible treasure buried there. Reb Eizik became instantly wealthy. He used a portion of the money to build the famous, “Eizik Shul” in Krakow.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim noted that people are constantly looking for all sorts of treasures. Some people search for meaning, some people search for blessing, and some people search for G-d. They travel to foreign countries and to remote places, to seek counsel or to discover some novel ‘truth’. But, when all is said and done, the greatest treasure lies in his own backyard. Every person himself holds the key to the greatest blessings and accomplishments if he only recognizes his potential and ability. As the verse states, “It is not in heaven… Nor is it beyond the seas… For it is very close to you; in your heart and in your mouth to accomplish it[1].”

“See that I have placed before you today, life and good, and death and evil…And you shall choose life” (30:15, 19). The commentators are puzzled by the Torah’s seemingly superfluous directive. If good is associated with life and bad is associated with death, what kind of imbecilic fool would choose the latter? Why does the Torah need to tell us to choose life? 
The Shemen Hatov explains that the Gemara[2] states that when Klal Yisroel were assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai to accept the Torah, G-d hoisted the mountain above their heads like a barrel and declared, ‘If you will accept the Torah all will be good; but if not, there will be your burial’.
Sefas Emes explains that G-d did not literally hoist the mountain above their heads and offer them an ultimatum. Rather, G-d’s revelation was so intense and the truth became so clear during the revelation at Sinai that they lost their ability to ‘choose’. After having such open exposure to G-d’s Presence and feeling the euphoric bliss of that connection, their free choice was analogous to someone standing near an open flame. While he indeed possesses free-choice whether to stick his hand into the fire, he will hardly be tempted to do so because he is aware of the results[3].
Shemen Hatov explains that this is the message that the Torah is trying to convey. Although it is surely true that the fulfillment of G-d’s Will bears life and goodness, while transgressing the Will of G-d leads to death and evil, that is not how it appears to us. To us a life of sin often seems gratifying and enjoyable. Therefore, the Torah exhorts us to not be duped by the machinations of our evil inclination but to choose life.

 “Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah; One of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous, and one of intermediate people. The completely righteous are written and sealed immediately for life; the completely wicked are written and sealed immediately for death; the intermediate people are held in abeyance until Yom Kippur. If they merit it, they are written for life; if they do not merit it, they are written for death.[4] 
According to Rabbi Kruspedai’s teaching, the righteous should always prosper while the wicked should always be receiving punishment and retribution. However, the reality is not that way. Our world is one of enigmas and complexities, shrouded in the ultimate mystery of why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.[5]
Tosafos understands that life and death refer to eternal life in the World to Come. Thus each year, on Rosh Hashanah, one’s eternal portion is reevaluated.
The question is how we define life. If we define life by what we can see, subjected to the confines of temporal and physical limitations, then we have a difficult time understanding the world and life generally. But if one views life as being part of a higher purpose, then we understand that there is far more to life than meets the eye. When we pray for life on Rosh Hashanah, we are praying for the latter type of life; a life of meaning and fulfillment.
We often think life is somewhere out there, yet to be discovered. In truth however, “It is very close to you; in your heart and in your mouth to accomplish it.” We need only to recognize it!

“The righteous are sealed immediately”
“Choose life”

[1] Devorim 30:12-14
[2] Shabbos 89a
[3] In a similar vein, on occasion Chazal discuss situations where angels sinned. How is it possible for angels who have no evil-inclination to sin? Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l explained that truthfully angels can make decisions for themselves, just as humans do. However, because of their awareness of the ultimate truth, sins are abhorrent to them. Thus, in certain situations it was possible for angels to be seduced into sin.

[4] Rosh Hashanah 16b
[5] As the Mishnah (Avos 4:15) states, “It is not within our grasp – not the tranquility of the wicked and not even the pain of the righteous.”


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Nitzavim Pirkei Avos, perakim 5-6
27 Elul 5772/September 14, 2012

This week, on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I was recounting to my fifth grade Ashar students my personal memories of that horrific day. I mentioned that it was the first time in my life that I, and many of my friends, felt genuine fear.
I also related that immediately after the attacks, there was a sudden surge of patriotism that swept the country. Suddenly almost every car had an American flag attached to its antenna, or bumper stickers depicting flags and slogans of American pride and courage. Flags couldn’t be produced and sold fast enough to keep up with the influx of demand.
I asked my students – who were not yet born at that time – why they thought that occurred. Why the sudden surge of patriotism? They offered some insightful comments, and then I added my own. I pointed out that as I was speaking to them I was holding a pen in my hand. I wasn’t holding the pen too tightly and I wasn’t paying much attention to it.
Then I asked one of the students to grab hold of the pen and try to pull it out of my hands. As he did so, I asked him what my reaction had been. He replied that I had immediately tightened my grip and was pulling back even harder.
I explained to the class that we are all content and happy with the freedoms afforded to us in America. But the bustle of life and the lure of our electronic gadgets divert our attention from truly appreciating those rights and thinking much about them.
On September 11th, Islamic terrorists tried to yank away from us our freedoms and all that America stands for. Our immediate national reaction was to tighten our grip on all we take for granted. We declared our pride and our indomitable will to defend our freedoms with passion and allegiance. Thus, the eruption of patriotism was a direct response to the nefarious efforts to destroy what we forgot to appreciate.
I then related to my class that as Torah Jews we often fall into the same trap. We take our ability and freedom to keep Torah and mitzvos for granted. There are countless stories of Jewish heroes who were ready to give up their lives and endure torturous suffering to preserve one mitzvah or to learn just a few words of Torah. During Crusades, pogroms, expulsions, Auto-da-fes, in Siberia and Bergen-Belsen we refused to capitulate. But in the freedom of America we often fail to appreciate how lucky we are.
We shouldn’t wait until, G-d forbid, our enemies try to yank away those freedoms. We must maintain our Jewish pride and proclaim our privilege at being the Chosen Nation and our unyielding allegiance to Torah and mitzvos.
That is essentially our task on Rosh Hashana. It is a day when we contemplate and accept upon ourselves the coronation of the King of kings. The call of the shofar is also a call of triumphant joy, a call of honor and glory, which emanates from the recesses of the soul of the blower. It is a proclamation that we are proud to be the bearers of the greatest and most sublime responsibility in the world.    

              Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
              Kesiva Vachasima Tova & Shana Tova,
                R’ Dani and Chani Staum

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