Thursday, November 28, 2013


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


Francois-Marie Arouet, known to the world as Voltaire, is considered one of France’s greatest writers and philosophers. He was also a fierce and outspoken critic of religion. He considered himself a deist who did not believe that absolute faith, based upon any particular or singular religious text or tradition of revelation, was needed to believe in G-d. Instead, Voltaire focused on the idea of a universe based on reason and respect for nature. He wrote vociferously against the folly of religion and the Bible and boasted that he could personally prove its futility.
In 1759, when already in his later years, Voltaire purchased a château (manor-house) in the town of Ferney near the French-Swiss border. In 1778 he died, in his words, “abandoned by G-d and man”.
There is a humorous postscript to Voltaire’s legacy. Twenty years after his death the Geneva Bible Society purchased his estate and transformed it into the headquarters for the British and Foreign Bible Society.

[1]Throughout the duration of holiday of Chanukah we recite the special prayer “Al Hanisim” in Shemoneh Esrei and in Birkas Hamazon.
A casual reading of the prayer reveals a seeming glaring deficiency in the text. Any child somewhat familiar with the holiday of Chanukah knows about the miracle of the candles on the menorah remaining lit for eight days. Yet in this prayer there is hardly an allusion to that miracle. If the miracle of the candles was the reason for the establishment of the holiday, how can the prayer endemic to the holiday virtually completely omit it?
Furthermore, after lighting the Chanukah candles, we recite the declaration of “Haaneiros halalu”.
Here too the emphasis is on the miraculous victories of the Maccabes, with nary a mention of the miracle of the menorah?
Furthermore, the miracles that transpired during the Maccabean wars were imperative for the survival of the Jews as a Torah-nation. The Syrian-Greeks had forbidden them from practicing religion and mercilessly persecuted those who did not heed their decrees. If the Jews had any hope of preserving their heritage their only chance was to resist and go to war. The problem was that they were hopelessly outnumbered, outflanked, and out-strategized. They had no chance of victory. Their victories were nothing short of miraculous. In fighting those wars so they preserved the heritage and traditions of Klal Yisroel as a nation.
The miracle of the menorah however, seemed superfluous. Ramban explains that, as a general rule, G-d does not alter the rules of nature, unless there is an urgent situation that warrants it. At that point the Maccabes had already recaptured the Bais Hamikdash and ousted the enemy from the city, securing them from imminent danger. Even if lighting the Menorah was so vital that another day could not lapse without it, G-d could have allowed them to discover eight pure jugs of oil. It surely would have been a more subtle “hidden” miracle and not a grandiose nature-alerting miracle. What was the point of the miracle of the menorah?
Bais Yosef asks why the holiday of Chanukah is celebrated for eight days. If the jar of oil that they found had sufficient oil with which to light for one day then the miracle was only for the subsequent seven days. If they had enough oil for one day why isn’t the holiday only seven days?
The commentators ask an additional question regarding the miracle of the menorah: If the little jar of oil that they found contained sufficient oil for eight days, that oil was obviously supernatural. However, the law is that Menorah must be fueled by pure organic olive oil. It may have been a wondrous sight that the candles remained lit, but when all is said and done, if they did not use natural olive oil they did not fulfill their obligation?
Maharal explains that the miracle of the oil was qualitative, not quantitative. There are some oils which are more combustible than others, and therefore do not maintain a flame as long or as well as other oils. The oil that the Maccabes found contained normal organic olive oil. The miracle was that it took eight days for the oil to burn out. In other words, the miracle of the menorah involved protracted combustion; the amount of oil which was normally used up in one day took eight days to burn. Therefore, the miracle was already apparent the first day when they noticed that only an eighth of the oil in the cup had been used and the flames continued to burn brightly. Therefore, the holiday of Chanukah is eight days long.
In a few places in his commentary on the Torah, Ramban notes that any miracle which had human involvement is not recorded in the Torah. The reason is that when there is human involvement it is inevitable that people will minimize what occurred and rationalize the event.[2]
This was the quandary of the sages after the miraculous Maccabean victories.  Despite the physical impossibility of their mission[3], because there was human involvement their victories could not be celebrated on a permanent national scale, and they could not enact a new holiday.
The miracle of the menorah however, was an undeniable manifestation of Divine Power. When the Chashmonaim had only placed enough oil in the menorah for one day and yet it inexplicably continued to burn for eight days, it was an undeniable miracle. The miracle was also unadulterated, in the sense that it had occurred without any human intervention.
The lesson of the Chanukah holiday is when something is qualitatively impossible and a qualitative change occurs which overcomes the quantitative odds, that is undeniably the Hand of G-d. Qualitatively, there was insufficient oil in the menorah for the candles to burn longer than twenty-four hours. But then a qualitative change occurred which supernaturally allowed the candle to be fueled by an eighth of the normal amount of oil. It was clear to all that G-d was altering nature and performing a miracle.  
In this sense, the miracle of the menorah paralleled the miracles of the wars. In regards to the war too, the Chashmonaim were qualitatively doomed. It was naturally impossible for them to emerge victorious over the Syrian army. But G-d manipulated their ability to fight and made them qualitatively superior soldiers, in fact herculean. The outcome was, “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few”. In the same vein as the miracle of the menorah it was a qualitative change that overwhelmed the quantitative norm.[4]

Maharal explains that the central miracle of Chanukah was the Maccabean victories in battle. However, it was only after miracle of the menorah occurred that it became undeniably clear that the wars too had been a completely divine miracle. Therefore, it was only after the miracle of the menorah that the sages were able to create a holiday to celebrate the victories. Thus, although the main celebration is for the victories of the war, that celebration could only be implemented when the miracle repeated itself in an undeniably Divine fashion, free of human involvement.
When we recite the Haneiros Halulu declaration after lighting the Chanukah candles, and the Al Hanisim prayer in Shemoneh Esrei, we are recounting the main focus of the holiday. Therefore, the emphasis is on the miraculous victories, and the miracle of the menorah is only mentioned in passing. Still, it was the concurrence of both miracles that allowed for the creation of a new holiday. Both miracles espoused the idea that no matter the natural odds, G-d can manipulate nature at will and He does so for the salvation of His people.

During those years when Chanukah begins and ends on Shabbos, thus causing there to be two Shabbos Chanukahs, there are two different haftaros[5] that are read. The haftorah of the first Shabbos Chanukah is from Zechariah (chapter 2), “Rani V’simchi”, in which the prophet describes his vision of the inauguration of the menorah when the second Bais Hamikdash was built. The prophet also describes the vision he had concerning Yehoshua the Kohain Gadol, and his interaction with Satan who sought to destroy Yehoshua before G-d came to his defense.
Zachariah continues, “The angel who spoke with me returned…he said to me ‘what do you see?’ I said, ‘I see, and behold! – there is a Menorah made entirely of gold with its bowl on its top, and its seven lamps are upon it, and there are seven tubes to each of the lamps that are on its top…”
The haftorah of the second Shabbos Chanukah is from Melachim (Kings I, chapter 7), where the prophet details the actual construction of the Menorah when it was built during the reign of Shlomo Hamlech for the Bais Hamikdash, “Vaya’as Chiram”.
During most years when there is only one Shabbos Chanukah, the haftorah from Zechariah is read. It is intriguing that this is the haftorah of choice. It would seem that the haftorah from Melachim which describes the actual construction of the menorah would be more apropos to be read on Chanukah than the haftorah from Zechariah which merely depicts the prophet’s vision of the menorah?
The answer is that at the conclusion of the haftorah from Zechariah the true lesson of Chanukah is clearly expressed. The prophet describes two olive trees next to the menorah which symbolized a continuous supply of fuel for the lights of the menorah. The prophet is confused by the two olive trees and questions their symbolism. “The angel who was speaking to me spoke up and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No my lord.” He spoke to me and he said saying, “This is the word of Hashem to Zerubavel (the leader of the nation and a scion of the Davidic dynasty), saying, “לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר ה' צב-אות" – Not through armies and not through might, but through My spirit”, says Hashem, Master of Legions.” Essentially, the miracles of Chanukah imparted this same lesson: that when all is said and done, it is the spirit of G-d that determines the course of events!
The Al Hanisim prayer reflects this idea as well. “For Yourself You made a great and holy name in Your World, and for Your people Israel You worked a great victory and salvation as this very day.” Although the original miracles, i.e. the miraculous victories of the battles, are the source of the holiday, at that point the holiday was not enacted.
The prayer then continues by mentioning the miracle of the Menorah. “Thereafter, your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified the site of your Holiness and kindled lights in the Courtyards of Your Sanctuary.”  It was only after the miracle of the Menorah occurred that the holiday of Chanukah was created, as the prayer concludes, “And they established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great Name."

The holiday of Chanukah always coincides with the reading of the parshios which discuss the tragic saga of Yosef - the vicissitudes of his life, the confrontation with the brothers, and their eventual resolution.
In a sense, Yosef’s life parallels the epic Chanukah story. Yosef was one individual; in a qualitative sense he was quite limited. Yet, he saved the world and set the groundwork for the salvation of Klal Yisroel in the Egyptian exile. In a qualitative sense Yosef accomplished incredible feats, despite the odds being stacked against him at every juncture of his life.
Yosef also personifies resilience and refusal to yield to overwhelming challenges. He remained a beacon of light in an impure, threatening world, and he ultimately triumphed and reunited his family. But above all Yosef was a bastion of faith and his belief in G-d never wavered. No matter what occurred to him, and no matter in whose presence he stood, he was undaunted to admit that it is the Spirit of G-d that guided him and ensured his survival.

Chanukah is celebrated at the outset of winter, the darkest and most ominous time of year. It serves as a perennial reminder that even in the greatest darkness, or rather especially in the greatest darkness, it is the Spirit of G-d that guides us and the entire world.

“They established these eight days of Chanukah”
“Not through armies or might, but through My spirit”

[1] The following (excluding the conclusion about Yosef) is my adaptation of a discourse by HaRav Matisyahu Salomon shlit’a, the Mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood N.J. The Mashgiach is well-known for his fresh insights and unique perspectives in all facets of Torah. This discourse, which discusses the logic behind the Sages formation of the holiday of Chanukah, is no different.
[2] For example, in Parshas Vayishlach when Shechem ben Chamor abducted Dinah, the daughter of Yaakov, her brothers, Shimon and Levy, avenged her honor by killing out all the men in the city. Ramban explains that, subsequently, the surrounding nations banded together and waged war against the family of Yaakov, to exact retribution for killing out a neighboring city. It was only with great miracles that the outflanked children of Yaakov were able to overpower the other nations. Yet this incredible miracle, including that the war itself, is not mentioned in the Torah. [It is only alluded to a few parshios later (Bereishis 48:22), when, prior to his death, Yaakov offers the city of Shechem to Yosef. Yaakov explained how the city came to his possession; “That I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.”]
Although their victory was clearly a miracle, it is not recorded in the Torah because they had to physically wage war. After the war, when reflecting on those victories, people would rationalize that the children of Yaakov were better soldiers or more adept at guerilla warfare. Even if people would admit that it was a “miraculous victory”, they would still attribute the victory to superior tactic and skill.
[3] According to Rashi, the rebellion began with thirteen untrained Maccabees going out to fight myraids of trained and equipped Syrian-Greek forces
[4] In Rav Salomon’s words, "שינוי באיכות שהתגבר על כמות הטבעי"
[5] The portion from the Prophets read after the Torah reading each Shabbos

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


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


In an article entitled, He Belongs to Glasgow, Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein relates the following personal anecdote:
Several years ago, I was the joint guest speaker at a fundraising dinner for a Jewish Charity. My fellow speaker was the ex speaker of Great Britain’s House of Commons, Viscount Tonnypandy, George Thomas.
Viscount Tonnypandy told the tale of the first Jew he ever met. It was in his hometown of Tonnypandy in Wales at the beginning of the century. A Jew called Issacs approached little Geordie Thomas and asked him if he would be willing to come in and light the coal fire on Friday night and Shabbos morning. If he would do this every week, he would receive a twopennce! Little Geordie eagerly agreed and returned home proudly holding his fortune in his hand. He came into his mother’s kitchen where he found her washing dishes. She observed him out of the corner of her eye and carried on at her task. When she finished she turned to him and asked, "Where did you get that boy?" "The Jew Mr Issacs gave it to me Mam! If I go into his house on his Sabbath and light his fire Friday night and Saturday morning, I get a Twopennce!" His Mother looked at him sternly, "Take it back boy!" Little Geordie was stunned, "But Mam, he said I could have it!"
Again his mother told him to take it back. The future Peer of the realm looked up at his mother and his lip started to quiver and tears filled his eyes, "But why Mam?"
His mother looked at him and explained, "You don’t take money from a man, to help him serve his G-d!"
Geordie Thomas trotted back to his benefactor still clutching his Twopennce and told him that he could not accept the money and why. The Jew would hear nothing of it and marched him straight back to his mother. Then Mr Issacs and Mrs Thomas started a debate, which ended in a compromise. Geordie could keep his Twopennce on that occasion but from now on would light the Shabbos fires for free.
Then Viscount Tonnypandy turned to his Jewish audience and declared: "You Jews; you’ve forgotten who you are! When we in this country were still running around in animal skins, you had already built your golden temple in Jerusalem. While we were still living in caves, you had already written the book, which would go on to inspire the whole world. Never be ashamed of being Jewish. You’ve forgotten who you are!" ”

The verse states1, “The dudaim have yielded fragrance, and upon our doorsteps are all delicacies; both new and old have I stored away for you, my Beloved”. The Medrash elucidates the verse in the following manner: “’The dudaim have yielded fragrance’ refers to Reuven, as it is written, “Reuven heard, and he rescued him [Yosef] from their hand23; ‘And upon our doorsteps are all delicacies’ refers to the Chanukah lights.”
What is the connection between the two seemingly unrelated themes of Reuven saving Yosef and the Chanukah candles?
Chasam Sofer4 explains that the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles must accomplish “persumei nisa- publicizing the miracle”. When one lights the Chanukah candles he must do so in a place and in a manner that ensures that they will be visible to every passerby.
Although all other mitzvos observed during the various holidays throughout the year celebrate miraculous salvations, we have no obligation to promulgate those miracles to the outside world. We recite the haggadah on Seder night in the privacy of our homes and read the megillah on Purim in shul. What is the distinction of the Chanukah candles that they warrant an external ostentatious commemoration of the miracle?
There is a fundamental difference between the miracle of the Menorah and the other miracles that transpired during our other times of salvation. All other redemptions were necessary for the very survival of Klal Yisroel. Although they were clear demonstrations of G-d’s infallible love for His nation, an outsider could dismiss them as being mere acts of mercy to protect them from being completely obliterated. Had G-d not saved us from Pharaoh, Haman, and the Babylonian exile the Jewish People would have perished.
The miracle of the Menorah however, was undeniably an act performed solely out of G-d’s supreme love for Klal Yisroel. At that point, the Maccabees had already miraculously vanquished the far superior Syrian-Greek forces with great valiancy and faith. The Bais Hamikdash had already been recaptured and5 the Avodah (Holy Service) was ready to be resumed. The fact that at that point G-d performed an additional magnanimous miracle in the sanctuary of the Bais Hamikdash, which could only be seen by those who were in the vicinity of the Menorah, was a clear indication of G-d’s great love for them. Therefore, because the miracle was performed so exclusively and in such a private forum, it is incumbent upon us to publicize it in a grandiose manner. In doing so we demonstrate our acknowledgement of the love He feels for us, even in the darkness of exile.

When the sons of Yaakov decided that Yosef should be killed6 the verse states, “Reuven said to them, ‘Do not spill his blood; cast him into one of these pits in the desert, but a hand we should not raise against him’, in order to save him from their hands in order to return him to his father”7. From his mere suggestion that they cast him in a pit one can conceivably conclude that Reuven’s intention was to kill Yosef. Therefore, the pasuk makes it a point of relating that Reuven’s intentions were noble and that casting him in the pit was a means to save Yosef.
In a similar vein, when Reuven saw that his mother became barren after giving birth to four sons, he went to gather dudaim, a special type of wildflower which somehow helped a woman become more fertile so that she had a greater chance of becoming pregnant. The Torah makes it a point to relate that Reuven went out “during the time of the wheat-harvest”8. Rashi quotes the Gemara9 which explains that Reuven picked dudaim and not wheat so that he would not encounter any problem with theft.
As a tribute to Reuven for being careful to avoid stealing, he is deemed the “ba’al hadudaim- master of the dudaim”. Just as the Torah makes a point of clarifying that the actions of Reuven were just and honorable in regards to the dudaim, so does the Torah make it a point to relate that his motives in regard to Yosef were noble as well. This is the meaning of the first phrase of the Medrash. “’The dudaim have yielded fragrance’ refers to Reuven, as it is written “Reuven heard, and he rescued him [Yosef] from their hand”10. From Reuven’s encounters we learn that positive actions, or even mere positive intentions, should be publicized.11 If in regards to Reuven the Torah makes it a point to reveal his noble motives, surely then the great miracle of the Menorah deserves no less publicizing. Thus, the Medrash continues, “‘And upon our doorsteps are all delicacies’ refers to the Chanukah lights,” i.e. the Chanukah lights too must be lit in a public place in order to publicize the (relatively) hidden miracle that occurred.
The conclusion of the special Al Hanisim prayer recited on Chanukah reflects this idea. “For Yourself You made a great and holy Name in Your world, and for your people Yisroel you worked a great victory and salvation as this very day.” At the conclusion of the Maccabean wars G-d’s Name had been sanctified and Klal Yisroel had been privy to the undeniable manifestation of His Divine Intervention. It was then that the miracle of the Menorah transpired, as the prayer continues, “Thereafter, Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified the site of Your Holiness and kindled lights in the Courtyard of Your Sanctuary.” Part of the mitzvah of kindling the Menorah is to demonstrate our pride of being the recipients of G-d’s love and seeking to reciprocate that love through our performance of His Torah and Mitzvos. We do so by publicizing the miracle of the Menorah for all to see. It is a testament of our pride that we merit a unique relationship and closeness with G-d, as it were.
The lights of Chanukah symbolize that we must never forget who we are. We must be proud of our heritage and that we alone carry the banner of Torah and thereby merit being the elite nation of G-d; a nation who bears the distinction of being the proverbial ‘rose among thorns’. In other words, the mitzvah of kindling the Menorah is inextricably bound to our national pride which has not dimmed or wavered in the face of pogroms, inquisitions, auto-da-fes, holocausts, blood-libels, massacres, and virulent anti-Semitism. In fact, the opposite is true; “As much as they would afflict them, so they would multiply and so they would spread out”12. The more our enemies try to squelch and destroy our national pride the more they bring it to the fore!

The following poignant story serves as an apt conclusion:
It was the first night of Chanukah, December 1943, in the infamous Nazi Concentration Camp, Bergen-Belsen. From their meager food portions the men had collected some bits of fat while the women pulled threats from their tattered uniforms and twisted them into makeshift wicks. They fashioned a Menorah out of a raw potato. Everything was brought to Barrack 10 where the holy Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Spira zt’l, was given the honor of lighting the single Chanukah candle. After nightfall, one thousand inmates clandestinely gathered around the Rebbe. The Rebbe quickly lit the candle and recited the three blessings. The crowd tearfully stared at the flame for a few brief moments, each lost in his own world of thoughts. Then they quickly dispersed, returning to the miserable reality that was Bergen-Belsen.
One man, a non-believing Jew, approached the Rebbe. “Rabbi Spira,” he began, “I have a very strong complaint against you. I understand why you recited the first blessing, thanking G-d for the mitzvah of kindling the candles. I also understand why you recited the second blessing which thanks G-d for performing miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time. But I do not understand how you were able to recite the third blessing of “shehechiyanu”, which thanks G-d for sustaining us and keeping us alive to reach this time. Look around you! There is only hopelessness, death, and barbarism! How can you rationally thank G-d for preserving us so that we can endure this misery?”
The Rebbe, who had already lost his wife, his only daughter, son-in-law, and only grandchild, gently explained, “The truth is that I share your sentiments. After I recited the first two blessings, I hesitated. I didn’t know how I could wholeheartedly recite the shehechiyanu blessing. But then I looked around. I looked at the faces of one thousand Jews who were risking their lives to witness and participate in the performance of this mitzvah. I saw a thousand souls whose inner faith resonated in a macabre existence. It was for that faith that I thanked G-d for preserving me and keeping me alive; for the merit of being able to witness such incredible tenacity and yearning for G-d, even in the most unspeakable conditions.”

The dudaim have yielded fragrance”
You Jews; you’ve forgotten who you are!”
1 Song of Songs 7:14
2 i.e. the hands of the brothers who wanted to kill Yosef
3 Bereishis 37:21
4 Derashos, 64
5 as soon as they re-consecrated everything that had been defiled
6 they ruled that he was halachically liable to receive the death penalty
7 37:22
8 30:14
9 Sanhedrin 99b
10 Bereishis 37:21
11 [Based on this point, the Rashba (Teshuvos 582) concludes, that it is a mitzvah to write the names of donors on the things they donate to a public institution.]
12 Shemos 1:12

Thursday, November 14, 2013


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


Dear Rabbi,
Why does the Jewish religion seem to obsess over insignificant details?  How much matza do we have to eat, which spoon did I use for milk and which for meat, what is the right way to tie my shoelaces?  It seems to me that this misses the bigger picture by focusing on minutiae.  Is this nitpicking what Jews call spirituality? 
(I already sent you this question over a week ago and didn't receive a reply.  Could it be that you have finally been asked a question that you can't answer?)

Dear Jeff,
I never claimed to have all the answers.  There are many questions that are beyond me.  But it happens to be that I did answer your question, and you did get the answer.  I sent a reply immediately.  The fact that you didn't receive it is itself the answer to your question.
You see, I sent you a reply, but I wrote your email address leaving out the "dot" before the "com".  I figured that you should still receive the email because after all, it is only one little dot missing.  I mean, come on, it's not as if I wrote the wrong name or something drastic like that!  Would anyone be so nitpicky as to differentiate between "yahoocom" and ""?  Isn't it a bit ridiculous that you didn't get my email just because of a little dot?
No, it's not ridiculous.  Because the dot is not just a dot.  It represents something.  That dot has meaning far beyond the pixels on the screen that form it.  To me it may seem insignificant, but that is simply due to my ignorance of the ways of the web.  All I know is that with the dot, the message gets to the right destination; without it, the message is lost to oblivion.
Jewish practices have infinite depth.  Each nuance and detail contains a world of symbolism and every act counts.  When they are performed with precision, a spiritual vibration is emailed throughout the universe all the way to G-d's inbox.
If you want to understand the symbolism of the dot, study it!
If you want to understand the symbolism of Judaism, study it!

All the best,
Rabbi Moss1

The reunion of Yaakov and Eisav was imminent. Realizing the peril they were facing, Yaakov divided his family into two camps. If Eisav would attack he would be unable to destroy them in one fell swoop.
Under the cover of darkness, Yaakov sent his family across the Yabok stream along with all their possessions. The Torah states, “Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.2” Rashi explains that the “man” with whom Yaakov struggled was the guardian angel of Eisav. Their struggle represented the epic perennial struggle between Yaakov and Eisav, as they vie for philosophical supremacy and the title of ‘Chosen Nation’.
Rashi3 states that Yaakov had already crossed the stream with his family but had returned because he had forgotten pachim ketanim, small earthenware pitchers, which he wanted to retrieve.
My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that there is an invaluable lesson to be gleaned from Yaakov’s actions. The fact that Yaakov was willing to endanger himself to salvage those jugs demonstrates their personal value to Yaakov. “We like to think of life as being composed of big things – career changes, medical issues, political decisions that may have far reaching consequences for us, family, financial decisions, etc. – and small things – shopping, the post office, eating lunch, doing the everyday thing’s that make up most of our life’s activities. People imagine that their lives are guided and judged solely by the big things in life. But the truth is that it is the small things in life that define us.”
Yaakov is so named because when he emerged from his mother’s womb “His hand was grasping the heel of Eisav.4” Eisav, by nature, sees the ‘big picture’, the glitz and glamour, the life-altering and civilization-altering decisions and movements. Eisav is able to destroy people and civilizations for the sake of promoting an idea or a theory about the betterment of mankind. The various movements of the early twentieth century, that have heinously left their mark on civilization, demonstrated this nefarious paradox. They destroyed millions of people for the ultimate hope of improving mankind. All the evil perpetrated along the way, including destroyed families and communities, were merely par for the course.
In Parshas Eikev5 Moshe Rabbeinu tells Klal Yisroel, “This shall be the reward when you hearken to these ordinances, and you observe and perform them; Hashem, your G-d will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your fathers.” Rashi quotes the Medrash which explains that, alternatively, the word “eikev”, which appears at the beginning of the verse, can refer to the heel of one’s foot. Moshe was making reference to those mitzvos that people regard as relatively trivial and unimportant; the mitzvos that people figuratively “tread on with their heels”. Moshe was telling Klal Yisroel that if they are careful to adhere to those neglected mitzvos, then G-d will uphold His covenant with them as well.
Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt’l explained that often ‘commonplace’ mitzvos are neglected and overlooked because people are busy dealing with ‘bigger things’. It is analogous to a pole-vaulter who is so focused on the high bar that he ignores the little pebbles under the pole which trip him up and impede him from reaching the high bar.
Rabbi Kotler notes that it was for this reason that two of Klal Yisroel’s greatest leaders, Moshe Rabbeinu and Dovid Hamelech, were tested based on their shepherding skills. The fact that both tended their sheep with devotion, and dedication was an indication that they would have the necessary love, devotion, and dedication with which to lead a nation.  
Yaakov grasped the heel of Eisav for it is the task of Yaakov to prevent Eisav from destroying the world. Yaakov values what Eisav disregards. To Yaakov the ‘petty’ details of life, religion, and human emotions are invaluable and integral. In the words of my Rebbe, “Apparently, he who controls the “heel” controls the fate of mankind.” 

In his book, “The Intellectuals”, Paul Johnson examines the lives of the progressive intelligentsia of the greatest revolutionaries and avant-garde thinkers of the modern era, including Rousseau, Hemingway, and Tolstoy. There is an apparent frightening correlation between their diverse lives. It seems that the more radical and earth-shattering their ideas were the more immoral and indecent they lived. “Almost without exception, these great thinkers, these "defenders of humanity" - full of lofty ideas - lied, cheated, stole, plagiarized, repeatedly cheated on their spouses, abandoned their children, and so on. Their ideas were big, their vision broad, their sights high, but as a rule they were the kind of people you'd get up and move across town in order to avoid.
“How is it that such "great" people could think so big and act so small? Judaism teaches that it wasn't a coincidence. It was, in fact, because they thought so big - or, better, because they only thought so big - that they acted so small! The truth is that most of us can only concentrate on a limited amount of things at a time. As Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler points out in the Michtav M'Eliyahu, a person who over-focuses on "Important People" or "Important Theories" will almost necessarily under-focus on the little old lady across the street, or the needs of one's spouse. Someone who is so absorbed in the mega-concerns of the corporation and its organizational needs might easily fail to notice their sick neighbor who needs a helping hand to do the shopping.6

Judaism is preoccupied with details because it is imperative that one heed those details in order to traverse the bigger challenges of life. The precious few moments with our families, small conversations, and words of encouragement, are integral components of the ultimate goal of producing valuable families and civilizations. The minute details involved in our adherence to halacha, the added concentration on our prayers, and the moments we spend engaged in Torah study each day, all comprise the holistic person.
In a similar vein, the educator who works daily to develop a relationship with a student may be able to help the student develop the great potential that lies dormant within. But the educator who ignores the small details that build relationships will almost certainly not be able to stimulate the student in a deep and lasting manner.

The holiday of Chanukah is a celebration of little, seemingly insignificant, lights. Although the Torah is the dominating light of the world as well as its ultimate purpose, the Torah also directs every small component and detail of life. Before Pesach, we hold a single-wick candle and search every nook and cranny in our homes for chometz7. In a symbolic sense, that little flame represents the light of Torah which infiltrates every nook and cranny of our souls and lives. Similarly, the lights of the Menorah represent the little stubborn light of Klal Yisroel which unflinchingly refuses to become extinguished in the bleak darkness of exile. Until the world merits the eternal light of the messianic era, the world continues to be sustained by the flickering iridescence of the Chanukah Menorah and the Shabbos Candles, which contain a glimmer of that future light.
There are commentators who note that the jug Yaakov went to retrieve from across the Yabok River was the very jug that the Maccabees miraculously found after defeating the Syrian-Greeks centuries later.
In other words, Yaakov’s jug was the legendary jug which housed the oil that became the conduit of the great Chanukah miracle. Yaakov understood that if G-d granted him ownership of a small jug it had great potential value, and therefore he risked his safety to retrieve them.
The Maccabees too, could have waited a week until new pure oil was procured and delivered to the Bais Hamikdash. But they understood the massive spiritual loss they would incur if they missed the opportunity to fulfill the great mitzvah of kindling the Menorah for another week. Therefore, they undertook the onerous search until they found one jug that contained sufficient oil with which to fulfill the mitzvah for one day. It was because they valued the mitzvah so much that G-d granted them the wondrous miracle that allowed them to fulfill the mitzvah for all eight days until new oil arrived.
 …The little things in life!

“His hand was grasping the heel of Eisav”
“The mitzvos people tread on with their heels”
1 Rabbi Aron Moss teaches Talmud and practical Judaism at the Foundation for Education in Sydney, Australia.
2 Bereshis 32:25
3 citing Gemara Chullin 91a
4 Bereishis 25:26
5 Devorim 7:12
6 Doron Kornbluth, Thinking Small,
7 leaven forbidden on Pesach

Thursday, November 7, 2013


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


“This is a true story!
In my speeches and workshops, I sometimes ask my audiences to shut their eyes and think about someone who, at some point in their lives, has rekindled their inner light. It is always a profound experience for everyone as they remember the joy they received from being appreciated by someone when they needed it most.
“After one session, a gentleman thanked me for creating a new awareness. He had immediately thought of his eighth grade literature teacher who had really made an impact on his life. He planned to track her down and thank her.
“A few months later he called me to say that he had written his teacher. She had gotten his letter and the following week she sent him her response…

Dear John,
You will never know how much your letter meant to me. I am 83 years old and I am living alone in one room. My friends are all gone, and my family’s gone.
I taught for 50 years and yours is the first “thank you” letter I have ever gotten from a student. Sometimes I wonder what I did with my life. I will read and reread your letter until the day I die.

“He was very emotional on the phone. He said, “She is always the one we talk about at every reunion. She was everyone’s favorite teacher. We loved her…
….But no one ever told her….”
-From “The Simple Truths of Appreciation”, by Barbara Glantz

Rochel was still barren when Leah bore her fourth son. Leah named him Yehuda stating “This time I will thank G-d.1” Rashi notes that Leah was aware that Yaakov would father twelve sons and she assumed that each of Yaakov’s four wives would bear three of those sons. When she had her fourth son she realized that she had merited more than her allotted share, and therefore she was particularly grateful.
The Chiddushei HaRim notes that it is for this reason that Jews are referred to as “Yehudim”2. A Jew must realize that G-d owes him nothing! Every thing we are granted is given out of G-d’s infinite Love. Leah named him Yehuda because she knew he was a gift; she had received more than she expected. A “Yehudi” must be cognizant of the fact that everything in life is a gift. Much of the reason why we are not enamored or filled with blissful joy constantly is because we feel “Es kumt mir- I am entitled!” One who truly feels that everything is a blessing from the Grace of G-d, will count his blessings and realize just how much he has.

The Gemara3 quotes a statement attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “From the time of creation there was no one who praised Hashem, until Leah praised Him for the birth of Yehuda.” It is inconceivable that the great Patriarchs and other righteous individuals who preceded Leah never praised G-d. There must have been a certain aspect of Leah’s gratitude that was unique and unprecedented.
Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt’l4 explained that whenever one reaches a milestone or achieves something extraordinary his heart overflows with joy and gratitude. As time passes however, one becomes accustomed to his success or achievement and the initial joy begins to fade. For example, when one searches for a shidduch (spouse) for many years and finally becomes engaged, the initial joy is almost euphoric. But soon the wedding is over and life continues its monotonous course. Similarly, if a couple is blessed with the birth of a child they may feel elated. But late nights and parental responsibilities quickly begin to take a toll on the weary parents. In the same vein, if one wins the lottery and is instantly transformed from pauper to millionaire, although at first he can hardly give enough charity, he soon acclimates to his new lifestyle. In all of these situations, the surge of excitement and gratitude quickly dissipates into the daily grind.
Leah well understood this. She wanted to somehow maintain a connection with the initial gratitude and overabundance of joy that she felt at the moment of the birth of her fourth son. Surely there were many who had expressed their gratitude to G-d in profound ways before her, but Leah was the first to express her gratitude in a manner that ensured that it would not become diminished with time. In order to accomplish this she named him “Yehuda”, an expression of her gratitude. Thus, whenever she would call his name she would be reminded of the heartfelt joy she experienced when he was born. 
Rabbi Pam continues that it is for this reason that wedding pictures are an invaluable asset. Married life can, at times, become challenging and arduous. The vicissitudes of life often cause stress, even in the best marriages. G-d forbid, there can even be rancorous disagreement which results in strife and divisiveness in the home. It is particularly at those junctures when the couple should take out their wedding albums and sift through them. As they are reminded of the initial joy and passion that they felt for each other, it will help them reflect on the dreams and aspirations that they shared when they set out to build their new home together. They will be reminded of all the distinguished guests, friends, and relatives who deemed their union worthy enough to take out time from their busy schedules in order to attend the celebration. Those pictures will help them put their issues in a proper framework and perspective5.

“But no one ever told her…”
“This time I will thank G-d”
1 Bereishis 29:35
2 literally- a group of ‘Yehudas’
3 Berachos 7b
4 The Pleasant Way
5 The following is the conclusion of this Stam Torah as I wrote it in 5768:
On a personal note, today, 4 Kislev 5768, our family celebrated the b’ris of our son, Avrohom Yosef Staum. [He was named after his esteemed great grandfather (my father’s father), Mr. Abe Staum a’h.] The joy we felt - and feel - for his healthy birth, that he was able to enter the covenant of Avrohom Avinu in the proper time, as well as the joy we feel for our beautiful family, is completely indescribable. Along with all of our prayers that G-d allow us to raise our children (and ourselves) into G-d-fearing, Torah observant Jews, we pray that G-d allow us to maintain the feelings of overwhelming joy and gratitude that we feel today, throughout our lives.
We pray that when we recite the “Modim” prayer and thank G-d, “For Your Miracles that are with us each day, and for Your Wonders and for Your Good, that You bestow at all times, evening, morning, and afternoon”, we will be able to fully appreciate those words. May we only enjoy nachas from Avrohom Yosef and his siblings, Yaakov Meir Shalom and Aviva Rochel, and may we never lack appreciation for all the gifts that Hashem has bestowed and continues to grant us.