Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch
           To most of the world, Gora-Kalwaria is a small insignificant Polish town twenty miles southeast of Warsaw. In the Torah world however, it is the village of Ger, where the great dynasty of Gerrer Chassidus began with the leadership of the saintly Chiddushei Harim in 1859.
          My first internship as a social work student a number of years ago, was with Bikur Cholim’s department for Holocaust survivors[1]. One of my clients was an elderly secular Jew, a survivor who was well into his 90’s. As is sometimes the case with elderly people, though his mind was no longer very lucid, when we spoke about the past he would perk up. He was a pleasant man who smiled whenever I would come to see him. We spoke of good times before the war and we spoke about the horrors he endured during the war and in the horrors of the camps. I only saw him cry one time.
We were speaking about Poland and I mentioned that my family’s roots were in Ger. Tears welled up in his pain-ridden eyes and he said, “I saw the Rebbe of Ger! I remember the Rebbe of Ger!” He repeated his statement twice and seemed lost in a different world. That was all he said. It was a moment I cannot convey in words but I sensed the nostalgic admiration and awe he still had for the Rebbe, even so many years later.
          The Chassidim in Poland would joke that the Immrei Emes[2], had ten thousand Chasidim who ate on Yom Kippur. It was true – the Rebbe had more than ten thousand Chassidim under the age of Bar Mitzvah.
When survivors reminisce about what Yom Tov was like in Ger it sounds fantastical. The whole town was packed with people and in the Bais Medrash people literally climbed the walls, and hung from windows, to get a glimpse of the Rebbe. There were people in every corner and on every rooftop of the small village.
On February 25-26 1941, the Nazi’s deported well over one-hundred thousand Gerrer Chassidim from Ger to the Warsaw Ghetto. The overwhelming majority of those deportees were destroyed.
          The Immrei Emes escaped to Eretz Yisroel but he was deeply pained by the unbearable losses of most of his followers. He died in Yerushalayim on Shavuos in 1948 as the holy city was being shelled by the Jordanians during Israel’s War of Independence.
His son, the Bais Yisroel, assumed the mantle of Gerrer Chassidus. Under his influence and guidance the great legacy of Ger rebuilt from the ashes. Today it has flourished into one of the largest Chassidic sects in the world.
          The Bais Yisroel possessed a fiery and staunch personality. People who stood in his presence describe the incredible awe they felt. He was not a man who showed emotion; his Chassidim knew he was dedicated to them and he loved them but his indomitable personality was unyielding.
There was one time however, that the Rebbe, who had lost a wife and two children during the war[3], showed a hint of emotion. By Shalosh Seudos one Shabbos the Rebbe quoted the verse which describes the saga of Noach and the flood. The Torah writes, “Noach did ‘all’ that Hashem had commanded him, so he did[4]”. Rashi explains that ‘all’ refers to the fact that Noach built the Ark.  However, a few verses later when the Torah seems to repeat the same words, (7:5) “Noach did all that Hashem had commanded him”? Rashi explains that the second verse refers to the fact that Noach entered the Ark. Was it not obvious that after building the Ark Noach would enter it to escape the raging flood?
          The Bais Yisroel explained, “When Noach saw that the destruction of the world was imminent, he had little will to survive. Noach understood that his whole world, and everything familiar to him, was about to be eradicated and he did not want to live. But Hashem commanded him to enter the Ark! G-d willed him to survive and rebuild, and therefore it was his Divinely-ordained mission. The greatness of Noach was that he complied against his will.”
          The message of the Bais Yisroel was clear. It was not easy to emerge from that world of terror and indescribable pain. In a sense, it would have been far easier to have perished in the smokestacks of the crematorium than to have to live with those horrific images, and to bear witness to the atrocities they endured. It was almost too daunting a task to rebuild and not allow themselves to fall prey to despair and despondency[5]. But G-d miraculously saved each survivor and plucked them from the Ark. Therefore, they had a mission to rebuild.     
Just as Klal Yisroel were designated to be an elite and holy nation, so too, the Kohanim were chosen to be the elite of the elite; the Chosen Leaders of the Chosen Nation. Along with privileges comes added responsibility and more austere restrictions.
One of the more difficult laws imposed on the Kohanim was the prohibition for them to come into contact with a dead body. A Kohain may only become impure from a dead body if the dead person is one of his seven closest relatives[6] or if there is no one else who can bury the dead person (mais mitzvah). However, if the Kohain’s best friend or an uncle whom he was close with dies, the Koahin may not attend the funeral, because it will render him impure.  
          When the Torah relates these laws it commences with an introductory verse. “G-d said to Moshe: Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and you shall say to them: Each of you shall not contaminate himself to a [dead] person among his people.[7]” Rashi quotes the Gemara in Yevamos[8] which addresses the apparent redundancy in the verse, “say to the Koahnim…and you shall say to them”. The Gemara explains that G-d was instructing Moshe that there must be a double ‘saying’ (i.e. instructing) here. Not only was Moshe himself to instruct these laws to the Kohanim but he was also, “lihazhir hagedolim al hak’tanim”, to admonish the adult Kohanim to ensure that these laws be safeguarded by the younger Kohanim as well. Simply understood, the Torah is cautioning the older kohanim to be vigilant that the younger Kohanim not defile themselves.
          Rabbi Aryeh Leib Schneinbaum[9] views the Gemarah’s admonishment homiletically: Why is it necessary for the Torah to reprimand the elders regarding the youth specifically in regard to the laws of death and contamination?
During challenging times of personal grief and anguish we have a proclivity to become so absorbed in our pain and loss that we tend to neglect the needs of those who depend on us and need us. In his vernacular, “we tend to say ‘kaddish’ for the deceased and neglect to say ‘kiddush’ for the living”.
          In times of loss it is a daunting task for one to maintain his objectivity and to reflect upon the needs of others, especially the needs of those who are suffering from the same tragedy. Children, more than adults, struggle to make sense out of life and the world, and they often irrationally internalize much of the external evil they see around them[10].
This difficulty is further compacted by our underestimation of the perceptivity of a child; children see much more than we’d like to think they do. Therefore, in stressful times of pathos and pain, the times when we may neglect to fully address the fears and experiences of our children, that is the time that our love and comfort is most crucial.

          The days of Sefiras Ha’omer contain an almost paradoxical mood of anticipation and excitement, balanced with mourning and sorrow. The gemara[11] relates us that twenty-four thousand disciples of Rabbi Akiva died during this time period, because they did not treat each other with adequate respect as befitting men of such great stature. The loss of such a magnanimous group of Torah scholars was incredibly debilitating. The Torah world reeled in shock, stunned at the sudden loss of the most budding scholars of their generation. But surely no one’s grief paralleled that of Rabbi Akiva himself.
          The story of Rabbi Akiva is one of the most beloved passages of Talmudic lore. Akiva was an ignorant shepherd who had a deep-rooted enmity for Torah scholars. At the age of forty, his life literally began anew. Within a relatively short time he rose to become a scholar of unimaginable proportions, dwarfing the erudition of scholars twice his age. For twenty-four years Rabbi Akiva taught Torah, ultimately amassing twenty-four thousand students….and then it was all gone! All he had toiled and strove to accomplish was destroyed. Would anyone have a complaint against Rabbi Akiva for giving up at that point?
          Rabbi Akiva however, did not surrender to his grief. With brazen resilience Rabbi Akiva gathered five new students and began anew. An uncompromising sense of mission drove Rabbi Akiva and he taught those five students who ultimately preserved the unbroken chain of Torah tradition.
          The post- Holocaust generation often did not speak about the atrocities they had endured during the war. Not only did they not want to burden their children with the pain they had suffered, but they had to focus on rebuilding and could not afford to wallow in their anguish.
It was a generation of tenacious resilience, who personified the legacy of Rabbi Akiva[12].

The world of technology is constantly in flux, improving our quality of life. And yet, at the same time, there is a dearth of emotion and love. Our devices have touch screens, while our generation, and especially our children, suffer from being out of touch with the inner reality and emotional selves.
Dr. William Glasser[13] notes that every human being struggles to create a reality that makes sense to him/her. Psychosis occurs when one creates a reality in an unhealthy or destructive way. A healthy reality requires one to feel valuable and valued and the ability to love others and to feel loved.
If every human being requires love and a sense of inner value, children require it even more. Youth is a time of maturation, but it is also a period of great uncertainties and vulnerability. It is incumbent upon those who have endured more of life’s challenges to guide and encourage those who need it most.

“Noach did all G-d had commanded him, so he did”
“To admonish the older ones about the younger ones.”

[1] H.E.A.R.T.s – Holocaust Education and Relief team. Working there was an incredible opportunity to have the chance to meet and hear a bit about the struggles and challenges of a few holy survivors.
[2] the third Gerrer Rebbe and the son of the Sfas Emes
[3] he remarried but never had children after the war
[4] Bereishis 6:22
[5] as many survivors did, and who can blame them?
[6] wife, father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter
[7] 21:1
[8] 114a
[9] Peninim al HaTorah, Volume 5
[10] They may even blame themselves, as that is the only rational explanation they can accept. “Somehow it must be my fault” can become the unfortunate conclusion of many a child whenever he faces a situation he cannot comprehend, especially when, G-d forbid, there is a lack of parental harmony in his home.
[11] Yevamos 61b
[12] [In our time however, when we have rebuilt unimaginably, and as survivors are painfully fading, we have an obligation to educate our youth about those horrific times.]
[13] “Reality Therapy”


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Emor
16 Iyar 5773/April 26, 2013 – 31st day of the Omer
Pirkei Avos – perek 4

Spring has definitely sprung. More important than the stunning budding trees and return of life, is the buzzing activity on the golf course I pass on my way to shul. The hibernating golfers have come out of their caves and resumed their ancient traditions of trying to whack a little ball into a little hole.
For our son Shalom the golfers add a dimension of excitement to his walk home from shul on Shabbos. He was told by some neighborhood friends that as he walks home, he should keep his eyes trained on the ground to find some stray golf balls that inadvertently overshot their targets by a long way. [A neighbor across the street from the course related that on two different occasions a golf ball crashed through his living room window. I was told that those golfers did not make it to the U.S. Open.] When I arrived home from shul this past Shabbos, Shalom proudly held up his loot – two golf balls. 
In his introduction to Mesillas Yesharim, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato details the ultimate recipe for spiritual growth, as taught in the gemara by Rabbi Pinchos ben Yair. “Watchfulness leads to alacrity, alacrity leads to spiritual cleanliness, cleanliness leads to purity…” One of the important ideas he elucidates is that growth can only be accomplished incrementally, step by step, level by level.
In Yaakov Avinu’s epic dream atop Mount Moriah, he envisioned a ladder with its feet planted on the ground leading up to the heavens. A ladder contains rungs upon which one climbs in order to ascend. If one tries to skip a few rungs he will probably end up falling hard, and land up at the bottom. One can only get to the top if he first has a sense of direction of where he wants to end up, and then slowly ascending, one rung at a time.
The days of Sefiras Haomer are meant to be days of growth. Counting each day reminds of the invaluableness of each day. It entails forty-nine steps to arrive at Matan Torah, one day at a time.
As one progresses in his climb, it is inevitable that he encounter setbacks and periods of darkness which seek to impede his progress. It is during those times when one must find light in the darkness, avenues of encouragement that help him maintain his vision and direction.
The fires of Lag Ba’omer reflect those deep penetrating lights. Those fires are the physical representation of the spiritual light of the holy Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon revealed many of the esoteric secrets of Torah, and taught that there is more to every individual and to the world than meets the eye. Therefore, one must always dig deeper to find truth. The fires of Lag Ba’omer represent the final push, impelling us beyond any hurdles, carrying us all the way to Sinai.
A person must always pace himself in his spiritual growth. If he doesn’t invest adequate effort he ends up in the banality of the daily grind. But, if he sets his goals too high he is setting himself up for disappointment and deep personal frustration. Hitting the ball too hard will only ensure that it clears the course and ends up out of the game. To stay in the game he must maintain focus on the goal, and then hit the ball with just the right amount of energy. [Then he gets into that little white car and drives to the next hole…]
It takes a golf expert to hit a hole in one, and it takes wisdom and patience to become one who is whole and complete. 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
    R’ Dani and Chani Staum
720 Union Road • New Hempstead, NY 10977 • (845) 362-2425


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