Thursday, July 28, 2016


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – ASHAR
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor


The following story was written by Rabbi Binny Freedman[1]:
 “A number of years ago, I met a wealthy businessman from Caracas, Venezuela who was spending Pesach with his family at a hotel in Florida. Over the course of the festival, we struck up a friendship, and I discovered he was a Holocaust survivor who had been first in the Janowska road camp and later in Auschwitz. Towards the end of the week I summoned up the nerve to ask him if there was anything in particular that stood out in his mind as the reason he had survived. Without hesitation, he responded: "It was one mitzvah; the Sukkot I spent in Auschwitz.
“I guess my face must have registered surprise, because he immediately explained. When he arrived in Auschwitz in the middle of his thirteenth winter, one of the Kapos took a liking to him, and arranged for him to be in charge of the daily rations to be given out to the prisoners at the end of the day. It was a job that would save his life. He spent the days in a small shed attached to the large barracks, responsible for dividing up the bread and soup to be given out to each inmate at the end of the day. In addition to having access to food he was also often put into difficult situations having to respond to prisoners desperate for food....
“One day, while preparing the rations in the dark winter night, he heard banging on the door of the shed, and opened it up to discover a man he knew to be a great Torah scholar and one of the eminent Rabbis of his area before the war, standing in the snow.
“Before he could turn the man away (sure that he wanted scraps of bread), the man stepped into the shed, telling him that he needed a favor.
"You know tonight is the first night of the festival of Sukkos, and I need two whole loaves of bread before you cut them up... so I can fulfill the special custom of making the Hamotzi blessing over two whole loaves in the sukkah."
"I was in shock", he recalled, “at the request. Not only was he asking for two whole loaves of bread, but he was even planning somehow on fulfilling the mitzvah of having a 'meal' in the Sukkah!"
"You have to understand", he explained, “a whole loaf of bread in Auschwitz was like a million dollars today. Can you imagine someone walking in off the street and asking for a million dollars? Even though he promised he would only take a bite, (the equivalent of his own ration) and then return the loaves to me, giving away those loaves would effectively mean I was risking my life."
“Even more intriguing however, was how on earth this Rabbi had managed to build a sukkah in Auschwitz- Birkenau.
“As it turned out, that summer and fall of 1944 the Nazis were bringing hundreds of thousands of Jews[2] in a last-ditch effort to complete the 'final solution' before the war would end.
“In the twisted organizational logic of the lager camps world, the Nazis needed to have additional barracks to hold the new prisoners for labor until they could be exterminated. As such, prisoners were dismantling tiers of bunks in the barracks (prisoners there literally began sleeping in piles of bodies on the floor of the barracks) while rows of bunks were being reconstructed in the central parade ground.
“Seeing the rows and rows of bunks outdoors and realizing the festival of Sukkot was coming, this rabbi had managed to secure some s’chach (plant shrubbery) and place it atop some of the boards of the semi-constructed bunks beneath the open sky in such a way as to construct a minimally kosher sukkah (booth) for the festival. However, the mitzvah of living in the sukkah can only be fulfilled by either sleeping (which was out of the question) or eating in the sukkah, which was his aim.
“Seeing the hesitation on the boy's face, and desperate to fulfill this mitzvah against all the odds, the rabbi begged him for the loaves, if only for a few minutes.
"I will give you these loaves", said the boy, “but only on condition you take me with you to fulfill the mitzvah of the sukkah."
“The rabbi, shocked by the impetuous response, began to attempt to dissuade the boy from this condition. He would be risking his life by walking outside after curfew, and again for carrying two whole loaves of bread, and of course for attempting to sit in a sukkah. But nothing he could say would dissuade the boy, so together the two of them, an old Rabbi and a young man, risked their lives and sat, for a few brief moments, in a sukkah in Auschwitz.
“As an interesting post-script, he told me that many years later he was in Chicago on business and got stuck there for Shabbat whereupon his host took him to the Tish of that same Rebbe[3], who happened to decide to tell this very story that very same night...”

Bila’am was hired by Balak to curse Klal Yisroel. Although he feigned piety, Bila’am was only too happy to fulfill his impious mission. Along the way Bila’am’s faithful donkey, frightened by the vision of a sword-bearing angel, crushed his foot against the wall. Bila’am, who wasn’t privy to the frightful sight, could not comprehend why his donkey was veering off the road and crushing his foot, repeatedly beat his hapless donkey. Miraculously, the donkey turned to its master and reprimanded him, “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?[4]
Rashi notes that the donkey’s dialect, as recorded in the Torah, is unusual. When the donkey asked Bila’am why he had struck him three times he used the words "שלש רגלים" instead of the more common "שלש פעמים". Rashi explains that it was an underhanded message to Bila’am. He was setting out to curse a nation that observes the three major holidays[5] which would certainly provide them with protection and merit.

After Bila’am’s mission proved to be an epic failure, Balak was exasperated and infuriated. He admonished Bila’am saying[6]לקב אויבי קראתיך והנה ברכת ברך – To curse my enemies did I summon you, and behold! You have continually blessed them.”
Chasam Sofer, quoting Rabbi Akiva Eiger, notes that the numerical value of the word לקב' ‘ is 132, while the numerical value of the word ‘'ברך is 222. Out of the 354 days on the lunar calendar, there are 132 days when we do not recite the tachanun[7] prayer[8].
Balak hoped that Bila’am would arouse the attributes of judgment against the Jewish nation to such an extent that even the 132 days of increased favor and compassion for the Jewish nation would become days of intense scrutiny and divine judgment. When G-d transformed the curses into blessing it accomplished the exact opposite, i.e. that even the 222 mundane days then possessed increased divine favor and mercy for the nation.
This is alluded to in Balak’s harsh reprimand to Bila’am, “To curse -  לקב(132) - my enemies I summoned you”, i.e. to mitigate the divine favor and closeness of the Jewish holidays, “And behold! You have continually blessed – ברך (222) them”, i.e. even the rest of the year has become spiritually elevated because of your failed attempts[9].
It is evident that Balak and Bila’am had a particular abhorrence for the Jewish holidays and were particularly intimidated by them. Indeed the merit of the nation’s observance of the holidays was one of the merits which protected the unsuspecting Jewish nation. What were Bila’am and Balak so fearful of?

Each time Bila’am stood atop a mountain overlooking the Jewish camp in order to curse them he told Balak to first “Build for me here seven altars and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.”[10]
The Medrash[11] notes that Bila’am sought to bring offerings corresponding to all the offerings brought by the patriarchs. “He said ‘From the creation of the world until now, seven altars were built, and I will bring seven (offerings) equivalent to them’”. The Medrash continues that G-d replied, as it were, “Wicked one! If I had wanted offerings I would have said to (the angels) Michoel and Gavriel, and they would have brought before Me. I will only accept offerings from Israel.”
Maharal[12] explains that G-d contemptuously rejected Bila’am’s offerings because of his flawed attitude regarding them. Bila’am was under the impression that G-d received personal benefit from the offerings[13]. The truth is that G-d gains nothing from anything anyone does or says. If G-d really received benefit from offerings he would have the angels bring endless offerings to him with pristine purity.
If so, what is the purpose of offerings? They provide us with a conduit through which we can draw closer to G-d. By fulfilling His Will in bringing offerings, according to His dictated laws and commandments, we are able to feel more connected with G-d. Offerings – and fulfilling any of the mitzvos – are for our benefit!
Bila’am felt that the more offerings he brought the more he could ‘pacify’ G-d and make G-d inclined to hearken to his words. In truth however, G-d was disgusted by Bila’am’s offerings and they had the opposite effect. Offerings create a connection between the one who brings them sincerely and G-d. But G-d wanted to have no such connection with the immoral and dissolute Bila’am.
G-d concluded that He would only accept offerings from Klal Yisroel because they understand that the offering is for them. G-d has pleasure from an offering, as it were, because of the pure desire of the one bringing it.
Today when we no longer have a Bais Hamikdash and cannot bring offerings, prayer takes their stead[14]. An infinite and omnipotent G-d surely does not need our prayers. But we need prayer as a vehicle for us to maintain perspective of our finite limitations and our need for G-d in every facet of our lives. Prayer serves to keep us balanced and humble, and not become too conceited.
Our holidays afford us added opportunity to draw closer to G-d, with particular blessings endemic to each festival throughout the year. Bila’am and Balak, who sought to sever the nation’s connection with G-d in order to enervate and destroy them, had a particular fear of our holidays.
In parshas Pinchos the Torah details all of the offerings brought during each holiday. Those unique offerings represent the added opportunity for connection and devotion afforded to every Jew during each holiday.
When holidays arrive there is a palpable excitement that pervades the homes and communities of all Torah-abiding Jews. It is not merely an excitement for food and vacation, but for the special mitzvos associated with each holiday. It is a chance to renew our spiritual batteries and recommit ourselves to love G-d and fulfill His Torah and mitzvos.  

Holy sources write that the 22 days of the ‘Three Weeks’[15] correspond to the 22 days of the major holidays[16]. The Nesivos Sholom explains that before an artist paints a picture he draws an outline without color, so that when he is ready to draw the actual picture he will only to need to fill in the colors. The Three Weeks are days when we reflect upon our bi-millennial loss, so that it will inspire us to pine for what we cannot achieve in exile. It is a time to take stock of the spiritual devastation ravaging our people and to seek to feel the pain of the Divine presence, of which the overwhelming majority of our people is completely oblivious. 
Parshas Pinchos, which contains the laws of the offerings brought during each holiday, is always read the week when the Three Weeks begin. The reading reminds us of what we are missing. The pining which the reading creates hastens the redemption and is the outline of the future Temple. All that is left is for G-d to fill in the colors.        

“These are what you shall make for G-d on your appointed festivals[17]
“Behold! You have continually blessed them”

[1] Succos edition of  “A weekly Byte from Isralight” 5771
[2] including the remaining 400,000 Jews of Hungary
[3] I am pretty sure it was Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels zt’l, the Veitzner Rav
[4] Bamidbar 22:28
[5] Succos, Pesach, and Shavuos, known as the ‘shalosh regalim’
[6] 24:10
[7] Lit. ‘Supplication’; on any days considered a holiday (even minor) the tachanun prayer is omitted because those days inherently possess greater divine compassion and so the passionate supplication is not necessary.
[8] The following is my calculation of the 132 days that have holiday status throughout the year: 52 Shabasos, 2 days Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, 8 days Succos, Isru Chag Succos, 8 days Chanuka, 2 days Purim, 29 days of the month of Nissan, From Rosh Chodesh Sivan until 6 days after Shavuos (13 days), Tisha B’av, Tu B’shvat, Tu B’av, Pesach Sheni, Lag Ba’omer, 12 more days of Rosh Chodesh (not including Tishrei, Teves, Nissan, Sivan which have already been included, there are 8 more months with 4 of them having 2 days of Rosh Chodesh).
[9] The Mashgiach, Rabbi Mordechai Finkleman shlita noted that the word לקב is composed of the same letters as בלק. The 132 festival days posed a particular challenge to Balak. 
[10] 23:1, 23:14, 23:29
[11] Tanchuma, parshas Tzav
[12] Nesiv Ha’avodah, chapter 1
[13] In Greek mythology the gods had human emotions and therefore humans had to ensure that the gods were pacified and content, because if they became angry they would cause great damage and wreak havoc on the human world. Perhaps Bila’am had a similarly distorted understanding of G-d, despite his superior level of prophecy.
[14] Hoshea 14:3
[15] The Three Weeks contains the 22 days of mourning beginning on the fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz and concluding with the fast of Tisha B’av, the day when both Holy Temples were destroyed (the mourning period actually extends to midday of the tenth of Av).
[16] Rosh Hashana (2), Yom Kippur, Succos (9), Pesach (8), Shavuos (2). It is interesting that the 22 days correspond to the 22 festival days observed outside Eretz Yisroel (in Eretz Yisroel there are only 19 major festival days).
[17] Bamidbar 29:39


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