Thursday, October 31, 2013


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


In a Yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel, a Rosh Yeshiva had a strong disagreement with the parents of one of his students. The parents ardently felt that their role as parents entailed their being rigid disciplinarians, who demanded obedience and compliance from their children. All of the Rosh Yeshiva’s arguments to the contrary fell on deaf ears. They were convinced that the tenseness they generated in their home was par for the course of raising children. The Rosh Yeshiva persisted however, until they agreed to seek the counsel of the great Torah sage, Rabbi Lazer Shach zt’l.
After listening to the parent’s views, Rav Shach explained that according to the Torah, parents have a dual role – to be parents and of educators. As parents, their assigned task is to demonstrate unbridled love and devotion for their children, “as a father has mercy on his son”.
As educators however, their task is to instill fear and awe in their children. In regard to this paradoxical role, the sages teach “One should always push with his left hand and (simultaneously) draw close with his (stronger) right hand.1” In other words, the overriding characteristic must be love.
Rav Shach continued that this was all true in days of yore. However, in contemporary times when children are sent off to institutions which provide their Torah education, the latter role of the parents as disciplinarians is no longer necessary. Today, parents have one responsibility: to raise their children with love, devotion, and warmth.
Rav Shach looked at the parents and concluded, “In your home, you must generate a loving atmosphere, and you must be attentive to their physical and emotional needs. The school will educate them and discipline them appropriately. But the home must foremost be a place of nurturance. If, G-d forbid, a child does not find that security and acceptance in his own home, he will seek it elsewhere.”

“The lads grew up and Eisav became one who knows trapping, a man of the field; but Yaakov was a wholesome man, abiding in tents.2” On this verse, the Medrash3 comments, “Rabbi Eliezer said: One must busy himself with his son until he is thirteen years of age. From that point on, he must say, “ברוך שפטרני מענשו של זה - Blessed is He Who has exempted me from this punishment. Based on this MedrashShulchan Aruch4 rules that on the day a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah his father states the aforementioned blessing. 
What is the meaning behind this unusual blessing? How can a father declare his gratitude for being exonerated from the responsibilities of child-rearing? Aside from the fact that it sounds heartless and cavalier, the adolescent years are pivotal in regard to a child’s development of a sense of self. This is especially true in our society where adolescence is such a challenging and conflicting time. How can a father rid himself of responsibility for a child when he/she needs it most?
Ba’al Shem Tov offers a novel explanation: Parents are responsible to educate their children, doing their utmost to instill in them values, ethics, and a moralistic view of life. To encourage their children toward the right path, appropriate disciplinary tactics are often necessary. The child must realize the sweetness and goodness of doing what’s right, and the detriment of negative choices.
Our Sages taught5 that while one’s evil inclination is immediately present at birth, one’s good inclination does not arrive until he/she is halachically considered an adult6. Therefore, as long as a child is still a minor, external encouragement and guidelines are necessary components of his/her development. However, once a child becomes an adult the parent’s responsibility changes. At that point they must educate their children with overriding love and warmth, and by being an example for their child through their passion and devotion to their values and beliefs.
At that point, rudimentary punishment and disciplinary tactics will no longer be effective. As adolescence begins the most important commodity is the relationship that exists between parent and child.
Therefore, on the day of his son’s Bar Mitzvah, a father thanks G-d for exempting him from the previous manner of education, i.e. a manner that includes occasional discipline and setting exacting boundaries. From hereon a more advanced and mature level of education must commence; one that is predicated on relationship and mutual respect7.

History has proven that when a child is made to feel like an outcast, the results can be catastrophic. The Gemara8 relates that Timna, a Canaanite Princess, wanted to join the family of the Patriarchs. When she approached them however, they distanced her. So strong was her desire to be close to the regal family that she became the concubine of Elifaz, the son of Eisav, claiming that it was better to be the maidservant in the Patriarch’s family than to be a mistress in her own royal family. The product of that union was Amalek, the nemesis and sworn enemy of Klal Yisroel.
Avrohom Avinu was the paragon of kindness and giving, and his whole life was dedicated to assisting others. If he rejected Timna, he obviously had valid reason to believe that she was unfit to join their family. Still, our Sages write that the holy Patriarchs erred in their approach. Although they were justified in barring her entry into the family, “they should not have distanced her.”    
The Gemara9 relates that the great Tanna, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Prachia had a disciple with whom he dealt harshly. The end result was that the student practiced witchcraft and caused many Jews to stumble in sin. In fact, that student10 was later proclaimed the “father of Christianity”.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz zt’l11 points out that if one reads the details of this Gemara, it is clear that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Prachia’s harsh response to that particular student was warranted. Still, Rabi Yehoshua ben Prachia should have dealt with him with greater sensitivity and warmth, even as he chastised and distanced him.
The Chofetz Chaim made a similar observation about the noted Communist, Leon Trotsky. Born Leib Bronstein, Trotsky attended Yeshiva in his youth before being thrown out for his heretical views. He became an avowed atheist and would deliver virulent diatribes against religion and G-d. It was only Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin that prevented him from becoming one of the foremost leaders of Communist Russia after Lenin’s death. The Chofetz Chaim once dolefully commented that ‘who knows how different “Leibele’s” life could have been if his Rebbe in Yeshiva had treated him with more warmth and love’.

The Torah relates that despite Eisav’s wickedness “Yitzchok loved Eisav for game was in his mouth; but Rivka loved Yaakov.12” How could Yitzchak have such an affinity for Eisav simply because he was a good hunter? It is hardly conceivable that, despite all of Eisav’s iniquities, Yitzchok was completely duped by the façade that Eisav put on in his presence.
The Pletzker Maggid13 explained that Yitzchok was well aware that Eisav’s external piousness was feigned. However, Yitzchok was afraid that if he dealt too harshly with Eisav he would deepen Eisav’s enmity and wickedness. He feared that Eisav would embrace the family of his half-brother Yishmael and become even more sinful and immoral than he already was.
Yitzchak maintained a warm loving relationship with Eisav, not because he was fooled by Eisav, but because he was not fooled by him. Yitzchok understood that if Eisav was trying to fool him it was because he was trying to maintain a relationship with him.
Thus, Yitzchok loved Eisav because, “game was in his mouth”. In other words, Yitzchok put on a “counter-front”, feigning his own love for Eisav and pretending that he was fooled by Eisav’s piousness. All of Eisav’s wickedness not withstanding, Yitzchok understood that the only chance he had to draw him closer was by maintaining their relationship by preserving his dignity.

“Yitzchok loved Eisav”
 “Blessed is He Who has exempted me from this punishment.”

27 Cheshvan is the yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death) of my illustrious Zaydei, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn, HaRav Yaakov Meir ben HaRav Yosef Yitzchak zt’l.
My Zaydei was not only a great scholar and an acknowledged Rabbi, he was also loved for his convivial personality. His charisma and wit enabled him to develop deep relationships with the most unusual people.
My Mother related to me that my Zaydei was constantly involved in collecting funds for various Torah institutions. On one occasion, he went to meet a noted philanthropist who had just recently donated a large sum of money to a secular organization. When the philanthropist asked my Zaydei why he had come to see him when they had never met, my Zaydei simply replied that he wanted to shake the hand that had so selflessly donated so much money to a charitable organization. Then, without saying another word, my Zaydei stood up and left. A few months later, when the man donated another sum of money to a second secular institution, my Zaydei returned and repeated his prior visit. A few months later when my Zaydei went back for a third time, he walked out with a sizeable donation for the Yeshiva he was collecting for.
Although Zaydei possessed the gift of oratory, he understood that there was no greater connection than that of a deep and warm relationship. That was evident in the deep love felt by his congregants, neighbors (non-Jews on the street!), and admirers.
He and (yblch’t) my Bubby had a home without doors (figuratively). My Bubby never knew how many guests to expect on Shabbos and she cooked accordingly. Their home was constantly graced with notable Torah personalities and leaders. It was truly a Torah home, built on the pillars of chessed and Torah study.
May our budding family follow my Bubby’s and Zaydei’s example and build a home predicated on those same values; a home of vibrant warmth and positive relationships in which the sounds of joy and Avodas Hashem unceasingly resonate.
1 Sotah 47a
2 Bereishis 25:27
3 63:10
4 Oh’c 225:2
5 see Sanhedrin 91b, Koheles Rabbah 4:9
6 i.e. Bar/Bat Mitzvah
7 This is surely not to say that parents no longer have to set boundaries for their adolescent children. But the necessary boundaries must be set in the context of a warm relationship where the child can understand how the boundaries are for their own good, even if they don’t agree.
8 Sanhedrin 99b
9 Sotah 47a – it is a portion that was previously deleted by Christian censors
10 who was subsequently crucified
11 Sichos Mussar
12 Bereishis 25:28
13 Rabbi Pinchas Bar Yehuda zt’l, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon

Thursday, October 24, 2013


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


Adar 5762/February 2002.
It was the day before my wife and I celebrated our first anniversary. At the time I was a member of the Kollel of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah where I was learning full-time.
I approached Rabbi Leibel Reznick shlita, one of my Rabbeim from Yeshiva, to seek some advice and encouragement. Rabbi Reznick is not only an author and a scholar of note, he is also a beloved pedagogue whose wit and insight are legendary. I explained that for the previous fifteen months my life had been a constant wave of excitement. Since my wife and I had been introduced, there was dating, engagement, parties, constant good wishes, preparing for the wedding, culminating with the wedding itself followed by the weeklong sheva-berachos festivities. Even after the sheva-berachos were over we still retained a special status of being in ‘shanah rishonah- the first year’.1 Thus, throughout the previous twelve months we were still blissfully - as the expression goes - ‘on cloud nine’. Now that our anniversary was imminent, that special status was ending. In effect, “the elongated honeymoon” was over. Undoubtedly, I was excited to spend the rest of my life with my wife, but I still felt that there was a certain magical aspect of the marriage that was slipping away.
Rabbi Reznick insightfully replied that as long as we did not lose perspective that everything was a chessed (a kind deed), the magic of the first year would continue. He explained, “When you first married, everything you did for each other was viewed as special, an act of love and kindness. You must never allow that feeling to dissipate! Every time she folds your laundry you must view it as a special favor and thank her earnestly. When she makes you supper, or works hard to prepare the Shabbos meals, remember that she is doing a chessed out of dedication for you. The same holds true if she brings your children to the doctor or does carpool, it is all chessed. As long as you never ‘get used’ to it and can maintain the feeling that everything you do for each other is out of love and devotion, the euphoria of your marriage will never fade. The only difference is that until now that spark came naturally, and from now on you will have to work to maintain it.”

Maseches2 Kiddushin is dedicated to the laws and procedures of halachic marriage. It commences by stating that one of the three ways in which a man can marry a woman is by giving her money3. As its source the Gemara (4b) employs a gezerah shavah4in which the use of the same word in two distinct parts of the Torah allows the application of a detail from one case to the other unrelated case.5
In regard to marriage, the verse6 states, “כי יקח איש אשה  When a man will take (marry) a woman The expression used to refer to marriage is one of taking.
When our Patriarch Avrohom returned home and was informed that his beloved wife Sarah had died, he immediately set out to purchase the Cave of Machpelah, which housed the burial plots of Adam and Chava. At that point the cave was owned by the Bnei Chais and their leader, Ephron. Avrohom knew that Ephron was wily and devious and so he insisted on paying top dollar for the cave, to ensure thahis ownership could not be contested at a later time.
When they settled on the price – four hundred silver shekel- Avrohom declared (Bereishis 23:13), “אך אם אתה לו שמעני נתתי כסף השדה קח ממני ואקברה את מתי שמה  Rather, if only you would heed me! I give the price of the field, take it from me, that I may bury my dead there. The Gemara draws a parallel between the ordeal with Avrohom and Ephron, where thverse utilizes the root-word take, and marriage where the same root-word is utilized: Just as in regard to Avrohom the word was used to refer to a monetary transaction, so too in regard to marriage, money (or an object of monetary value) is valid means with which to betroth a woman. 
The Bobbover Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam zt’l, questions the parallel that the Gemara draws between these two diverse concepts. It seems inappropriate to learn about the acquisition of marriage - the most sublime, joyous, and holy union - from Avrohom’s business venture with a most duplicitous individual. What is the philosophical connection between marriage and Avrohom’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron?
The Rebbe explained that there is an invaluable message about marriage to be extrapolated from Avrohom’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah. If we had to guess the thoughts of Avrohom and Ephron after the transaction was completed, we can imagine that both pitied the other. Ephron and the B’nei Chais did not care much for the significance of the cave. To them it was a mundane plot of land, worth no more than the land itself. But when Ephron saw how valuable it was to Avrohom he deviously raised the price.
To Avrohom however, the plot was priceless, holy ground. He would have just as quickly paid double the amount they agreed on if necessary. In other words, each side felt that he had gotten the better end of the deal. In Ephron’s mind Avrohom was a fool for throwing out his money; in Avrohom’s mind, Ephron was an imbecile for failing to realize the treasure he owned.
This idea can be beautifully applied to marriage. A successful marriage is predicated on an inner feeling of appreciation for the internal value and greatness of one’s spouse. Both spouses must always feel in their hearts that he/she got the better end of the deal. “How lucky and undeserving I am to have such a wonderful and special spouse!” It is not the business venture of Avrohom and Ephron itself that symbolizes marriage, but the feeling that each side had gotten the better end of the deal.

When we sent out invitations for our wedding during our engagement, I requested from my Rabbeim that, along with their response card, they enclose a personal written blessing to us. Those letters were and are particularly dear to me. Every now and then I take out the folder and re-read all of the beautiful, personal messages they wrote.
My Eleventh Grade Rebbe, Rabbi Aryeh Feuer, wrote (in-part) the following thought: On Friday Night when we sing the beloved lyrics of “Lecha Dodi”, the melodious hymn with which we usher in the sanctity of Shabbos, we state, “All those who ravaged you will be ravaged, and all those who seek to swallow you will be distanced. Your G-d will rejoice over you as a groom rejoices over his bride.”
The joy of a groom and bride is temporary and fleeting. In fact, the title “chosson (groom)” and “kallah (bride)” is really only applicable from the actual moment when the marriage takes effect until the conclusion of the week-long Sheva Berachos festivities. How can we compare G-d’s rejoicing over us to the transitory joy of a groom with his bride? Shouldn’t G-d’s joy be analogized to something that has permanence?
My Rebbe answered that we must conclude that the joy of a bride and groom need not be ephemeral. It is indeed feasible to maintain the joy, passion, and elation that newlyweds feel for each other, throughout their married lives. But it requires work and dedication, no less than our connection with G-d. The joy G-d feels with us is also contingent on the investments and efforts that we put into the relationship.

One of my older brother’s friends once asked his Rebbe, “How long am I considered a chosson? The Rebbe smiled, “As long as you treat her like a kallah!”

“I give the price of the field, take it from me”
“G-d will rejoice over you as a groom rejoices over his bride.”
1 [The Torah (Devorim 23:5) instructs, “When one marries a new wife, he shall not go out to the army, nor shall it obligate him for any matter; he shall be free for his home for one year, and he shall gladden his wife whom he has married.”]
2 Talmudic Tractate
3 or anything of value
4 Lit. "a comparison of equals"
5 Gezerah shavah is not simply a philological method; it can apply unrelated details relating from one context to the interpretation of the other instance of the word.
6 Devorim 24:1

Thursday, October 17, 2013


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

STAM TORAH                                                      

In the early years of our marriage we would spend many a Yom Tov in Lakewood, New Jersey, at the home of my in-laws, including Succos 5767 (2007). That year I decided that it would be a wonderful educational experience if I could bring my (then) three-year-old son, Yaakov Meir Shalom, to meet Harav Matisyahu Salomon shlita, the Mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoha, the famous Lakewood Yeshiva.
When I called his home during Chol Hamoed, I was informed that the Mashgiach would be available in his Succah an hour before Shemini Atzeres would begin. It wasn’t easy but we made sure to be ready for Yom Tov well in advance. Then, along with my (then) nineteen year old brother-in-law Sender, I took my son to meet the Mashgiach.
Along the way I tried to prep Shalom by explaining to him about the greatness of the tzaddik we were about to meet. When we arrived, we were the first people there so my son was able to sit at the head of the table, right next to Rabbi Salomon. Rabbi Salomon immediately gave Shalom a lollipop which he accepted excitedly.
As we conversed, more people entered the Succah. When Shalom finished his lollipop he began to get restless. He started fidgeting in his seat and then went outside to play with some of the other children who were there. A few minutes later he came back in and noticed a silver tray on the table filled with cookies. “Abba”, he whispered loudly, “I want a cookie.” I whispered back that he should sit back down for two more minutes because we were about to leave. Seeing that I was not going to be of much help, Shalom turned to my brother-in-law and repeated his request. To my chagrin, Sender replied that if he wanted a cookie he would have to ask the Mashgiach.
Meanwhile the Mashgiach was responding to an inquiry that someone had raised concerning the significance of the holiday of Shemini Atzeres. I will never forget the moment when the Mashgiach’s hands were raised in the air mid-explanation and a little voice resonated throughout the packed Succah, “CAN I HAVE A COOKIE?!”
The Mashgiach however, was unfazed and quickly responded, “Of course that’s what they are there for. Pass over the cookies.” Everyone else in the Succah found it amusing, except for Shalom’s father who was quite embarrassed.    

Avrohom had been tested nine times. Each time he had proven with conviction that he was a devoted Servant of G-d above all else. However, there was still one final test that he had to surmount. It would challenge - not only the character of loving-kindness that Avrohom epitomized, but also the promises G-d had made to Avrohom. All of Avrohom’s hope for the future, to father the Chosen Nation who would inherit the Promised Land, was dependent on Yitzchak. Yitzchak himself had been born supernaturally. Not only had Sarah been physically unable to bear a child she was ninety years old, well beyond child-bearing age. His miraculous birth granted Avrohom and Sarah the joy of being the progenitor’s of the Chosen People. And now he was commanded to offer all of those hopes and dreams as a sacrifice to G-d on Mount Moriah.
With extraordinary faith and devotion, Avrohom gathered his faithful servant Eliezer and his two sons Yitzchak and Yishmael and immediately set out on his mission. “On the third day, Avrohom raised his eyes and perceived the place from afar. And Avrohom said to his young men, ‘Stay here by yourselves with the donkey, while I and the lad will go yonder; we will worship and we will return to you’.1
Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer explains that Avrohom immediately noticed a cloud resting atop the mountain which he recognized as the Divine Presence. Yitzchok too was able to see the cloud. But when Eliezer and Yishmael were asked what they saw atop the mountain, they replied that they saw nothing. At that point Avrohom asked them to remain there with the donkey, and not proceed further. The Medrash explains that he was classifying them with the donkey, “The donkey sees nothing and you see nothing, therefore, stay here with the donkey.”

The concept of spirituality and holiness has been the subject of intense debate and philosophical pondering since time immemorial. Concepts such as self-abnegation, nirvana, metaphysical, transcendence, holistic being, karma, and meditation are often associated with saintliness and devoutness.
The Torah’s view of holiness does not involve any of the aforementioned concepts. One becomes holy by heeding to the dictates and commands of the Torah. All other means and mediums of achieving spirituality may indeed allow us to feel “spiritual” but it is only a farce.
The Ramchal expressed this idea in the timeless words of his introduction to Mesillas Yesharim: “The result is that saintliness is construed by many to consist in the recitation of many psalms, very long confessions, difficult fasts, and ablutions in ice and snow – all of which are incompatible with intellect and which reason can not accept.” The Ramchal continues by explaining that true saintliness is a result of introspection, fear of G-d, love of G-d, and purity of heart, all of which result from keeping the laws of the Torah.
In the Shemoneh Esrei prayer of Shabbos and Yom Tov we beseech G-d, “Sanctify us with your commandments and grant us our portion of your Torah, satisfy us through your goodness and gladden us through your salvation, and purify our hearts so that we may serve you with truth.” Sanctity is a consequence of mitzvah-observance. It alone is the key to purity of heart and the internal joy that is reserved for those who feel connected to G-d.
The first time G-d spoke to Avrohom Avinu was when He commanded him to leave his father, family and homeland to travel to Canaan. However, G-d did not ‘appear’ to Avrohom until after he actually arrived. “G-d appeared to Avrom and He said to him, ‘To your descendants I will give this land…2
Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh questions why G-d did not appear to Avrohom when He spoke to him originally and commanded him to undertake the journey? The explains that when Avrohom recognized G-d as the Creator of the world, he was the first person to proclaim his faith in ten generations. Since Noach, nine faithless generations had come and gone. G-d did not want to reveal Himself to Avrohom in all of His Glory, “ad shebachan oso im mikayem gizayrosav - Until He (Hashem) tested him (Avrohom) if he would fulfill His decrees.” It was not until Avrohom proved himself by unhesitatingly adhering to G-d’s command that G-d revealed Himself to him.
How can the Ohr HaChaim say that G-d wished to test Avrohom at that juncture before appearing to him if Avrohom had already proven himself when he allowed himself to be cast into the furnace of Nimrod rather than recant his faith?
If one carefully analyzes the words of the Ohr HaChaim the answer is apparent. Before G-d revealed himself to Avrohom, He did not test Avrohom’s faith. Rather, he was testing Avrohom’s devotion. The Gemara states, “Greater is the one who is commanded and performs than one who is not commanded and performs.3” In other words, it is greater for one to do as he is told than to go beyond what is expected of him. Our ego pines autonomy and abhors instruction. Ritva explains that for this reason, as soon as one is instructed or commanded to do something his evil inclination convinces him to defy it. The ability for one to swallow one’s pride in order to fulfill a command is greater than going beyond the letter of the law, which is performed voluntarily.
Although Avrohom’s allowing himself to be cast into the furnace was an incredible demonstration of his faith, he was not commanded to do so. Despite the fact that Avrohom had recognized his Creator, he was never obligated to sacrifice his life in order to sanctify His Name. However, when G-d commanded Avrohom to undertake an arduous journey which would guarantee to be physically and emotionally taxing on him, and he did so, that was a testament to Avrohom’s devotion. Not only did he believe in G-d but he was prepared to subjugate himself to His commands as well. It was only then that G-d appeared to Avrohom4.
Throughout history there have been many unscrupulous individuals who have accepted to “walk into furnaces”. They have agreed to sacrifice their lives for their religion but, in so doing, they willfully and maliciously destroy the lives of their enemies. The Ohr HaChaim is teaching us that such sacrifice is inconsequential; it is not a proof of one’s complete devotion. The genuine test of subjugation is when one fulfills what he is commanded to do. Arab suicide bombers may fool themselves into thinking that they are dying for “the sake of G-d” but they are surely not heeding the Word of G-d!   

When I was learning in a Yeshiva in Yerushalayim years ago, I began contemplating extra study sessions outside of the Yeshiva curriculum. When I asked one of my friends if he would be interested in learning with me late at night, he responded that, at that point, he was strictly trying to adhere to the Yeshiva’s schedule. He commented that he found it far easier to study after hours – even for lengthy periods of time - than to maintain the ordained Yeshiva schedule.
His words are very true. When I set up added study sessions, I felt like I was going beyond my duties; it made me feel scholarly and studious. But keeping to the regular schedule was a far greater challenge. Doing what one is supposed to does not earn accolades or generate the same inner feeling of piety, and therefore is a far greater challenge.

True holiness and the ability to appreciate sanctity comes from fulfilling one’s responsibilities. Eliezer and Yishmael were not privy to the Clouds of Glory for they were somewhat wanting in their level of holiness and spirituality. Avrohom and Yitzchok however, whose lives were devoted to G-d with every fiber of their being, were able to see the Spirit of G-d in all of its Majesty, Glory, and Splendor.

“Stay here with the donkey while I and the lad will go yonder”
“Until He tested him if he would fulfill His decrees.”
1 Bereishis 22:4-5
2 Bereishis 12:7
3 Kiddushin 31b
4 Heard from Rabbi Alfred Cohn, Congregation Ohaiv Yisroel, Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Lech Lecha 5768

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


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


In a cache of writings by former President Ronald Reagan, a researcher came upon the following rumination: "Every once in a while, all of us native-born Americans should make it a point to have a conversation with one who is an American by choice. They have a perspective on this country we can never have. They can do a lot to firm up our resolve to be free for another 200 years."

In the 1970s, Uri Zohar was an iconic figure in Israeli culture: movie star, talk show host, and comedian. A celebrity of note, he had all the glitz, glamour, and money he could want. Then one day a Rabbi named Rabbi Silburman posed a challenge to Uri. He claimed that he could intellectually prove to him the veracity and Divinity of Torah. Uri decided to take the Rabbi up on his offer. He was confident that he could disprove the Rabbi and get a good laugh. Although at first Uri chided and mocked the Rabbi’s points, he soon found himself becoming interested. By the time the conversation was over Uri was intrigued. Not only had he failed to discredit the Rabbi’s proofs and arguments, but he was enamored by the conversation. For some time Uri cursed the day he accepted the Rabbi’s challenge. From then on his conscious gave him no rest. Thus began one of the greatest journeys back to a Torah way of life in our time.
The former Israeli entertainer is today Rabbi Uri Zohar, one of the most influential leaders of Lev L’achim1. He lectures worldwide about his great journey and the true joy that he has discovered. In his own words, “For all his fabled billions, Bill Gates is not nearly as wealthy as I. If you were to offer me all of his money in exchange for my agreement not to don tefillin tomorrow morning, I wouldn’t hesitate for one second before refusing. Is he capable of such a refusal?”
These are not empty words. Uri Zohar had all of the luxuries and opulence exclusive to the rich and famous. But he gave it up for a more fulfilling life.  

The Mishna2 states: “With ten tests our Patriarch Avrohom was tested and he withstood all of them, to make it known how great the love of our Patriarch Avrohom was (for G-d).” The commentators disagree about which ten events during Avrohom’s life were officially considered ‘tests’. If one includes all of the opinions there were more than ten trying events during Avrohom’s life that could potentially be considered tests. Yet, he successfully transcended each of them, his faith unshaken. 
The Medrash relates that when Avrohom began denouncing polytheism, and publicly preaching about the Oneness of G-d, his father Terach brought him before the wicked King Nimrod. When Nimrod demanded that Avrohom publicly recant his blasphemous teachings, Avrohom refused, despite the threat of death. Nimrod had him cast into a blazing furnace. Two angels descended and protected Avrohom from the heat of the fire. When Avrohom emerged from the inferno unscathed the people were awed by him and his G-d who had protected him.
It would seem that the confrontation with Nimrod should be counted as one of the most difficult challenges that Avrohom faced. The fact that he remained staunch in the face of death would seem to be an incredible testament to his devotion and faith. Yet, the next challenge posed to Avrohom was that of Lech Lecha. “G-d said to Avrom, ‘Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you’.3” Although uprooting one’s self from one’s home and family at an advanced age4 is unquestionably a formidable challenge, it would seem to pale in comparison with the challenge of having to maintain one’s faith in the face of torturous death. If Avrohom’s tests were to be exponentially more challenging as they progressed, why does the saga of the furnace precede the command that Avrohom leave his family?
Furthermore, Rambam and Rabbeinu Bechayei, two of the most prominent commentators, do not include the ordeal with Nimrod in their listing of the ten tests at all. How can they omit such an epic event?
When the time came for Yitzchak to get married, Avrohom dispatched his faithful servant Eliezer to travel to his brother’s family. Before sending him, Avrohom made Eliezer take an oath that he would not seek a wife for Yitzchak from the Canaanites; he was only to go to Avrohom’s family5.
Avrohom’s brother’s entire family were heretical idolaters. If so, why was Avrohom so adamant that Yitzchak not marry a Canaanite girl? Was it not conceivable that Eliezer would find a Canaanite girl with outstanding character who was from a more noble family than Avrohom’s extended family?
The Ran6 explains that idolatry stems from false ideology. It is based on misconceptions about how G-d runs the world. Still, a heretic can be reasoned with; he can be made to realize why his opinions are flawed. Negative character traits however, are built into one’s genetic makeup. They are part of a person’s identity and persona, and therefore are for more difficult to change. In essence, one is battling his own part of his identity.
Despite the fact that Besuel and Lavan were idolaters, their deficiency was of an intellectual nature; they failed to realize the truth. It was conceivable that their children would not follow their mistaken conclusions. The Canaanites - who are descendants of Chom the son of Noach - on the other hand, are an inferior, cursed people. Perhaps a Canaanites girl may have sterling character, but her negative tendencies are innate. It is inevitable that the progeny of such a union would bear those negative genes. At some point in the future those inborn traits would undoubtedly manifest themselves in their descendants. It was for this reason that Avrohom adamantly demanded that his daughter-in-law not be a Canaanite. It was preferable that his son’s spouse come from an idolatrous home than from a home where negative character traits were inborn.
With this in mind, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg zt’l explained that one’s drives and emotions, subconscious and conscious, are vital components of one’s character. In a sense, it is far more difficult when one is challenged emotionally than when one is challenged intellectually. Whereas an intellectual challenge can be resolved via logic and rationale, an emotional challenge touches one’s inner core being and therefore requires far greater exertion, resolve, and effort to overcome.
When Avrohom intrepidly entered the furnace in the presence of Nimrod he was personifying his intellectual belief with utmost conviction. To Avrohom, the prerogative between a faithless and G-dless life versus a painful death that would sanctify the Name of G-d, was hardly a choice. Avrohom’s faith was so strong and his belief so engrained in his psyche that he was ready to die on a whim.
The challenge of Lech Lecha however, was a diametrically different challenge.  When Avrohom, the champion and paragon of kindness and goodness, was commanded to leave behind his aged father and the homeland where he had accomplished so much, it was an emotional challenge. It was a test of his mental and psychological endurance for it forced him to subordinate his inner-self to G-d.
In fact, all ten tests that Avrohom faced were emotional challenges. Each time he was compelled to counter his nature and act in a manner that challenged his temperament and personality. Therefore, each time he passed a test he demonstrated complete subjugation to G-d’s Will.
When one is able to serve G-d and feel connected with Him on an emotional level, it is far greater than one who merely has an intellectual and rational connection.

Each of the patriarchs instilled in their progeny certain characteristics that are inherent in every Jew. Avrohom Avinu was not only the paragon of kindness and love of G-d, but he also instilled in his descendants the ability to give up everything for G-d’s Glory. It is no small feat for one who was raised in the permissiveness of Western liberal society to accept upon himself the rigorous demands of a Torah life. But a Jew innately possesses that ability from Avrohom. This point is at the root of the uncanny success of the contemporary Kiruv movement. For one to accept the yoke of Torah and mitzvos entails emotional sacrifice and dedication, which was eternally embedded in the hearts of every Jew when Avrohom left behind his family and birthplace in order to fulfill G-d’s command.  

If we can reword President Regan’s words, "Every once in a while, all of us F.F.B.’s7 should make it a point to have a conversation with one who became a ba’al teshuva. They have a perspective on Judaism that we can never have. They can do a lot to firm up our resolve and commitment towards our daily performance of mitzvos and prayer."

“Go for yourself from your land”
“With ten tests our Patriarch Avrohom was tested.”

1 An extremely successful kiruv movement which has helped bring thousands of secular Jews closer to their faith
2 Avos 5:4
3 12:1
4 Avrohom was 75; Sarah was 65
5 see Bereishis 24
6 Derashos HaRan, derush 5
7 ‘Frum From Birth’, i.e. those born into religious families

Thursday, October 3, 2013


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


“Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly flow the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze

”Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
ne season following another
Laden with happiness and tears

On Sunday, 25 Tishrei 5768, our family had a unique emotional experience. Our then friends and neighbors with whom we shared a wall, Mendy and Yehudis Rosen, celebrated the b’ris of their son, Chananya Yom Tov Lipa. At the same time, our other neighbor across the hall, Mr. Aryeh Leib (Leopold) Joseph was buried.
It was strange to leave the joyous atmosphere of an immediate neighbor’s b’ris in order to attend the funeral of our other immediate neighbor just a short distance away.
Although Mr. Joseph was 86 years old and is survived by his children and grandchildren, we felt a special kinship with him and were very saddened by his passing. I was given the honor to say a short grave-side eulogy about Mr. Joseph. I began by mentioning our family’s special relationship with Mr. Joseph. We viewed him not only as a grandfatherly friend and neighbor, but also as a role model. When we would see Mr. Joseph walking slowly toward his apartment on Shabbos morning with his tallis bag in hand we would rush outside to greet him. When he would see us approaching his eyes would light up and, after wishing my children a Good Shabbos, he would always ask me, “How is your wife? How is everything?” As we escorted him down to his apartment he would make playful small-talk with my children.
My children enjoyed the Friday afternoons when Mr. Joseph’s grandchildren would come to visit him. The doors to both of our apartments would remain open as our children and his grandchildren ran freely between the two. Mr. Joseph, whose wife died five years ago, awaited those visits all week. In years past he was a baker and in anticipation of his grandchildren’s visits he would bake pastries for them each week. On occasion, all the kids would pile into his little blue wagon and he would pull them around his little apartment. That was our friend and neighbor, Mr. Joseph.
There was another aspect of Mr. Joseph however, that my wife and I realized that our children couldn’t appreciate. Mr. Joseph was a survivor! He rarely - if ever - related his experiences during the war. We only knew that he came from Czechoslovakia and that he had suffered in the heinous Nazi Labor Camps. But we also knew that he rebuilt and never lost his smile and pleasant demeanor. He would often tell us how difficult it was to live alone. But then he would smile sadly and, with his European accent, would say, “Vell, vhat can you do? Dat’s life!”
At the funeral I related the following incident: About 25 kilometers southeast of Warsaw, on the banks of the Vistula River, lies a small town. In Polish it is called Gora-Kalwaria; in Yiddish it is known as Ger. It was the foundation of Gerrer Chassidus, one of the strongest and most influential sects of Chassidim in pre-war Europe.
During the Holocaust, the Nazis destroyed most of the 200,000 chassidim. The saintly Gerrer Rebbe, the Immrei Emes2 escaped to Eretz Yisroel with few family members. Despite his fiery spirit, he was heartbroken after witnessing the destruction of his Chassidim. He died in Jeruslaem during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, while the Jordanians were shelling the city.
His son, Rabbi Yisroel, immediately assumed the leadership of the fledgling chassidus. His wife, daughter, son and grandchildren had been killed in the Holocaust, a fact he did not learn until 1945. Although he remarried after the war, he never merited having more children.
During the next 29 years until his passing in 1977, Rabbi Yisroel rebuilt Ger into one of the world’s leading sects of chassidus. With incredible resiliency and an indomitable spirit, he rekindled the spark that the Nazis sought to extinguish. The Rebbe was a staunch and stoic personality with a fire in his eyes that penetrated the soul of anyone he gazed at. His Chassidim knew he loved them above all else, despite his uncompromising quest for purity and holiness.
Although the Rebbe rarely showed emotion, on one occasion, he expressed a hint of inner-emotion. In discussing Noach and the flood, the Torah relates that Noach was righteous and adhered to the word of G-d. When he was told that the world would be destroyed and that he alone would be responsible for the survival of mankind and humankind, the Torah relates, (6:22) “Noach did everything that G-d had commanded him, so he did.”
Rashi explains that the verse is specifically referring to the fact that Noach constructed the Ark. A few verses later (7:5) it again states that, “Noach did according to everything that Hashem commanded him.” Rashi there explains that the verse is referring to Noach’s entry into the Ark. What great praise is it to say that Noach undertook the arduous task of constructing the Ark if it was his only means of salvation? What kind of fool would not build an Ark under such dire circumstances? Furthermore, what merit is there in the fact that he entered the Ark when the flood was imminent, and in fact had begun?
The Rebbe explained (in not so many words) that, in truth, it may not have been in Noach’s best interest to survive. Would a person in that situation want to be the lone survivor of a decimated and obliterated world? Can one even imagine the horrible sight that greeted Noach when he emerged from the Ark? It is conceivable that it would have been far easier for Noach to simply allow himself to be destroyed along with everyone else. But G-d did not give Noach that prerogative. He commanded him to live and survive and Noach obeyed.

I have occasionally heard survivors painfully admit that they often did not feel lucky to have survived. “Do you think we wanted to survive when our families, friends, communities, and everything we knew, was mercilessly and ruthlessly destroyed?” It would surely have been easier to jump on the electric fence or simply not get up for the infamous roll call during the cold early morning. But those who survived shared the feeling of Noach. G-d willed them to live and therefore it was incumbent for them to try to do so.
Mr. Joseph was a role model for us because he personified this concept. He rebuilt his life with that feeling of responsibility and he lived out his final lonely years in the same vein.

After the flood, Noach emerged to begin the challenge of rebuilding the world. At that point, G-d instructed Noach about the preservation of mankind and the value of human life. (8:5) “However, your blood which belongs to your souls will demand, of every beast will I demand it; but of man, of every man for that of his brother I will demand the soul of man.”
Hakesav Vehakaballah notes the seeming redundancy of the verse, “Your souls…but of man, of every man…the soul of man”. He explains that there are two forms of murder. One class of murder is when one kills someone in order to usurp his money or to exact revenge. The second class of murder is when one does so for the benefit of the person being killed, in order to spare him pain and suffering. The verse repeats, “of every man for that of his brother” to include one who kills another in order to spare him pain and suffering. It is forbidden even to kill a person who is one’s “brother”3, even of such a person G-d states: “I will demand the soul of man.”
Rabbi Moshe Scheinerman4 relates that he once heard someone quip that, “While the world is concerned about quality of life, Klal Yisroel is concerned about holiness of life.” Dovid Hamelech expressed the same sentiment “G-d has severely afflicted me but he has not given me over to death.5” Even a life of pain and affliction is better than death.
Noach endured and Noach persevered. Our parents and grandparents in the previous generation had the same resilience and obdurate dedication. They too have persevered and we are the beneficiaries of their sacrifices.

“Noach did everything that G-d had commanded him”
“Vell, vhat can you do? Dat’s life!”
1 Fiddler on the Roof
2 Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Alter zt’l
3 i.e. he loves him and is acting in his best interest
4 Ohel Moshe
5 Tehillim 118:18