Thursday, December 29, 2016



Between the two World Wars, Winston Churchill, the future legendary Prime Minster of Great Britain, was exasperated with the impotence of the British government in regards to their foreign policy[1].
On one occasion, he addressed the House of Commons and related that as a boy he always looked forward to the London arrival of the American Barnum and Bailey circus.
“But,” added Churchill, “there was one show that my nanny would not let me see. She said it was ‘too revolting a spectacle for the human eye.’ The sideshow was called ‘the Boneless Wonder’.
“Now thirty-six years later, I have finally discovered the freak show that I wanted to see so badly. Where did I find it? Not in the circus, but in the House of Commons, sitting on the front bench. Here they are before me – the Boneless Wonder.”

After languishing in an Egyptian prison for over a decade, Yosef was suddenly hoisted out of the doldrums of prison, and stood before the mighty Pharaoh. Yosef successfully interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, explaining that they were foreshadowing visions of the future economic situation of Egypt. After seven years of plenty there would be seven years of intense famine, so intense that the previous years of plenty would be all but forgotten.
For all intents and purposes that should have been the end of Yosef’s audience with Pharaoh. He had interpreted the dreams and assuaged Pharaoh’s frazzled nerves. But Yosef took the liberty of adding some unsolicited advice. “Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the Land of Egypt[2]
Who asked Yosef for his opinion? Moreover, how did he have the audacity to tell the Pharaoh what to do?
In this exchange, we see a component of Yosef’s greatness. Yosef understood that stating facts without solutions and practical ideas is worthless. Yosef was unabashed to state what he felt was true and just.
Standing up for the truth is by no means an easy feat and Yosef paid dearly for it. Years earlier, when he was a seventeen-year old boy, Yosef had dreams which indicated that he would rule over his brothers. Yosef understood that his dreams were prophetic. A prophet is obligated to repeat his prophecies and Yosef felt he was mandated to share them with his brothers, despite their negative disposition towards him.
After years of anguish and pain because of those dreams, one might think that Yosef would no longer be so assertive and forthcoming. Yet he stood before the mightiest monarch in the world, and advised him how to proceed. In fact, Pharaoh was awed by Yosef and the advice he espoused, which moved Pharaoh to confer upon Yosef the very authority Yosef suggested.

When Moshe Rabbeinu offered his blessing to each tribe just prior to his death, he lauded the Levites for their courage to stand up for truth. “The one who said of his father and mother, ‘I have not seen him’; his brothers he did not recognize, and his children he did not know; for they kept Your statement, and Your covenant they would preserve.[3] Rashi explains that when the nation committed the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe rallied the faithful to avenge the honor of G-d for the egregious sin that was committed. He beckoned, “Whoever is for G-d (gather) to me”. It was the Levites who heeded his call. They fulfilled Moshe’s command to kill the participants, even though many of the sinners were their own close relatives (maternally).
Moshe then blessed the Levites that “G-d should bless his army[4]”. Rashi explains that this alluded to the future Levites who would repeat Moshe’s call. In the time of the Chanukah miracle, the Chashmonaim priests sought to avenge the honor of G-d from the Hellenists and Syrian-Greeks. Though vastly outnumbered and outflanked they took up arms and fought against the myriads of enemy forces. Their battle cry paralleled Moshe’s, “Whoever is for G-d (gather) to me.”
Maharal[5] explains that the Greeks are symbolized by a leopard, because of their extreme boldness and audacity.
The Greeks were confident of their culture and beliefs, and sought to spread their culture to every people they encountered. One of the failings of many of the Jews of that time was that even those who maintained their faith, lacked the courage and temerity to defend their traditions and beliefs.
Ultimately the righteous Jews who had the audacity to strike back were blessed with miraculous victories. They were able to defeat their enemy by employing the enemy’s own defining character trait – brazen boldness. They would not be intimidated by their far superior foes and ultimately vanquished them. It was only when the Macabees demonstrated ‘holy audacity’, and uncompromised pride for their identity, that they were victorious.   

Alexander Hamilton once quipped that, “Those who stand for nothing, will fall for anything.”
To be a leader one must be ready to stand up for his cause. In our world, we are very disenchanted by feckless politicians whose opinion reflects which way the political tides are blowing. Someone who changes his opinion to that of the masses is surely not staunch or passionate about his own views.
A true leader must believe in what he stands for and be ready to ‘pledge his sacred honor’[6] to his cause. Yosef had that moral strength and conviction. The prophet compares Yosef to a raging flame which consumes everything in its path, most notably the pernicious influence of Eisav[7].
The Maccabees possessed that same fierce drive and determination. They had an inner fire that could not be quelled, even in the face of insurmountable odds. In a certain sense the Chanukah miracle was a reflection of the inner passion of those who were the catalysts of the miracle. The fires atop the Menorah which would not go out were an external manifestation of the internal fire that raged in the hearts of the valiant Maccabees. 
The Kabbalists write that one should gaze at the Chanukah lights during the first half hour after they are lit because they contain tremendous spiritual energy. It seems that they also contain a reflection of the inner flame within ourselves.
One of the many timeless lessons of Chanukah is feeling proud of our identity. We should never seek to ‘water down’ our observance so that we better fit in with society. We are the sole bearers of a torch that miraculously has never been extinguished, despite the howling winds of time. It is because we have kept that torch aglow by never being embarrassed to hold it aloft.   

“Whoever is for G-d (gather) to me”
“G-d should bless his army”

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

[1] This was especially true in regards to the Allied policy of appeasement, allowing Hitler to proceed as he willed, falsely hoping that allowing him some gains would satiate him.
[2] 41:43
[3] Devorim 33:9
[4] Ibid, v. 11
[5] Ner Mitzvah; Maharal has a lengthy treatise explaining the detailed dream of Nebuchadnezzar from the book of Daniel. The dream contained four beasts, which Daniel explained were representations of the four major exiles the Jews would be subject to throughout history. The third beast was a leopard, a reference to Greece. Maharal explains the symbolism.  
[6] In the words of the revolutionaries who fought for America’s independence from Britain
[7]The house of Ya’akov will be fire, the house of Yosef a flame, and the house of Eisav for straw; and they will ignite them and devour them. There will be no survivor to the house of Eisav, for God has spoken.” (Ovadiah 1:18)

Thursday, December 22, 2016



          Yosef Begun, the noted Russian refusenik, wrote of his experiences:
          “It was in the grim Russian winter of 1971 that I celebrated my first real Hanukkah, in prison.
  “I was confined in the notorious Moscow prison, Matroska Tichina, in the company of a rather large number of fellow Jews.  Needless to say, a Moscow prison is not the most auspicious place to celebrate a Jewish holiday…
“Hanukkah was approaching.  Getting into the spirit, we enthusiastically discussed battles and the ultimate triumph of the Maccabees.  One of our more Judaically advanced cellmates gave us insightful lessons about the laws and customs of the Festival of Lights.  It goes without saying that we had no prayer books or other items with which to celebrate a Jewish holiday.  Hanukkah is supposed to be a holiday of gift-giving, family gatherings, dreidels and songs.  We had no practical means of celebration, and that saddened us deeply.
 “Fortunately, we had among us a man who was a wizard at handicraft.  Valery Krijzak - now an engineer living in Jerusalem - had truly golden hands….
“For Hanukkah, Krijzak made a wonderful dreidel out of bread, engraving the four Hebrew initials for ness gadol haya sham ("a great miracle happened there").  But it was the day before Hanukkah and we still didn't have any candles with which to fulfill the mitzvah of the Festival of Lights to commemorate the Jewish victory of over two thousand years ago.  And without those lights, Hanukkah is not Hanukkah.
“But then the miracle of Hanukkah took place in our days in our cell.
“Without saying a word to us, Krijzak began to bang on the cell door, calling for the guard.  When the small aperture was opened, he began to wail, "Call the doctor.  I'm in terrible pain."  Within ten minutes, the prison medic arrived.  Krijzak moaned, "Doctor, I am having a terrible hemorrhoid attack.  Please give me some suppositories."
“Fifteen minutes later, Krijzak received several suppositories.  Now we had the material from which to make candles.  The rest was purely technical.  We pulled out threads from our prison garb and rolled them together to make wicks.  Then we placed the wax-based suppositories on our aluminum spoons and lit them with matches (prisoners were permitted to have cigarettes and matches) and melted them down.  We placed the makeshift wicks into the wax, which we then shaped into candles.  We stuck the candles on a plate, which we then placed on the table.
“Filled with pride, we sat around our glowing table and sang Maoz Tzur.  We sang more Hanukkah songs, talked about the Maccabees' revolt and spun the dreidel.  We all had an immense feeling of closeness to each other and a strong sense of unity with our fellow Jews.
“We may have been cut off from the rest of the world, enclosed behind thick steel doors, but we were still with our people.”

The story of Yosef and the brothers is from the most captivating in the entire Torah. The dispute between these most righteous of men is almost incomprehensible. The explanations of the great commentaries notwithstanding, we still are left with a vague understanding of what occurred.
It is not only the Torah’s narrative of the story of Yosef which is difficult to understand, but also the story of Yehuda. The Torah interrupts its detailed account of the story of Yosef to relate what occurred with Yehuda.
The brothers were aware that the future monarchy was destined to emerge from Yehuda and they granted him a certain level of leadership. It was Yehuda’s suggestion that they sell Yosef to passing merchants. When the brothers saw Yaakov’s unmitigated grief and refusal to be consoled they challenged Yehuda’s leadership. “Had you told us to bring Yosef home we would have listened to you.” As a result of their disenchantment with Yehuda he departed from the brothers and settled in Abdulam.
The Torah relates that Yehuda married and had three sons. His oldest son Er married the righteous Tamar and died, then his second son Onan married Tamar and died. Yehuda feared for his third son Shaylah’s life and sent Tamar home.
Tamar was a righteous woman and knew, through Divine Prophecy, that the Davidic monarchy was destined to descend from her. She understood that Satan was doing his utmost to prevent that union from occurring. Tamar decided that she had to utilize an unconventional means to lure Yehuda into being with her. She posed as a woman of ill repute and sat at the fork of the road as Yehuda approached.
The Medrash[1] relates that under normal circumstances the righteous Yehuda would never have succumbed to such a ruse. “Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Yehuda sought to pass by Tamar. The Holy One, blessed is He, dispatched the angel of desire to entrap him. The angel said to Yehuda, ‘Where are you going? From where will kings arise? From where will great men arise?’ Yehuda then detoured to her by the road. He was coerced, against his good sense.” 
After that encounter Yehuda could not locate the woman he was with. “He inquired of the people of her place, ‘Where is the kedasha, the one at the crossroads by the road’? And they said, ‘there was no kedasha here’.[2]
It is intriguing that the Torah uses the word ‘kedasha’[3] to refer to ‘the woman of ill-repute’, as the word is strikingly similar to the word ‘kedusha – holiness’[4]. What is the essence of the concept of kedusha?
Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld zt’l[5] noted that, in his opinion, the greatest challenge our generation faces is ‘desacrilization’. In his words, “desacrilization is the violation and disintegration of the boundaries of sanctity”.
The Hebrew word for sacred is ‘kodesh’. The opposite of kodesh is chol, which means ordinary, mundane, and commonplace. Shabbos is a day of kedusha, while the rest of the week or days of chol. To understand the depth of that distinction we must understand the etymology of the words.
Chol also refers to sand. What is the connection between the days of the week and sand? The most prominent feature of sand is its particularity. Sand is composed of innumerable miniscule particles, each being its own separate entity. If one takes a handful of sand and allows it to run between his fingertips, there is nothing to hinder the flow of the sand as it drains from inside his hand. Each grain is on its own.
The word kodesh symbolizes the opposite. Although the word kodesh is most notably used to refer to holiness and sanctity, it has other meanings as well. When the Torah states the prohibition of planting kilayim – mixtures of different seeds that take root together it uses the word tikdash. “You shall not sow your vineyard with a mixture, pen tikdash - lest it become forbidden - the growth of the seed that you plant and the produce of your vineyard[6].” The verb tikdash connotes gathering two diverse things together, albeit in a forbidden fashion.
The concept of kedusha is to connect and unite disparate elements. In that sense, planting two seeds in the ground and merging them is an abused form of kedusha. On the other hand, the commandment that we sanctify ourselves also utilizes the word kidshu, because in doing so we are connecting and binding ourselves with G-d, the source of all sanctity.
That is why the days of the week are called chol while Shabbos is kodesh. During the first six days of creation, every element of creation throughout the cosmos was disparate. There was no harmony of synchronous harmony between them. The world was in a state of chaotic agitated turmoil, like free-flowing sand. But with the arrival of Shabbos G-d ‘rested’, i.e. He infused into the world the energy and ability to revitalize and regenerate itself. Suddenly the world had meaning and purpose. The entire cosmos was suddenly transformed into a catalyst suited for the sanctification of G-d’s Name. The world became united and integrated, an organic whole. That is the meaning of kedusha; cohesion and perfect integration[7].
A woman of ill repute causes a malevolent and detrimental connection between two disparate components. Through her luring, she fosters an egregious misuse of kedusha, but it is kedusha nonetheless.

The moments when we light the Chanukah candles are undoubtedly special and almost mystical. After lovingly kindling the hallowed lights we recite the ancient declaration ‘Haneiros hallalu’. In that paragraph, we declare, “These candles are kodesh – holy, and we have no permission to use them; only to see them alone, so that we will thank, praise, Your great Name, for Your miracles, for Your wonders, and for Your salvations.”
The Chanukah candles are not merely to commemorate a past miracle. In a deeper sense those miniscule lights are great unifiers, creating an invisible bond between every Jew in the world, in all four corners of the globe. At the moment that we hold our candle to the wick atop our menorah wherever we may be, we are binding ourselves to our brethren, as well as our ancestors throughout the millennia of exile, dating back to the Hasmonean Maccabes themselves. 
Every Jew who lights the Chanukah candles merges his light with the lights of the Menorah of the Maccabes, of Rashi, Rambam, Maharal, Ba’al Shem Tov, Vilna Gaon, Chofetz Chaim, to our own ancestors – from Babylonia to Crusade-ridden Europe, from Spain to Poland, from Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz to the gulag in Siberia, to the Israeli soldiers who light the candles at their army bases far from home.
Chanukah always coincides with the Christian holidays which also include displays of light. Their lights may be bigger and even prettier, but their lights are chol, they are all separate. But the Chanukah candles are kodesh, for they connect us to an internal spark within each of us. It is the spark that our foes could not extinguish and will never extinguish.

“Cut off from the rest of the world, but still with our people”
“These candles are kodesh

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

[1] Bereishis Rabbah 85:8
[2] 38:21-22
[3] As opposed to the more common word ‘zonah’, as used in verse 15
[4] Rashi explains that, as opposed to a holy person who designates themselves to spiritual matters, such a woman is ‘mikudeshes – designated’ and prepared for licentiousness.
[5] Rabbi Freifeld Speaks, p. 140
[6] Devorim 22:9
[7] See the remainder of Rabbi Freifeld’s essay entitled “A Higher Kind of Fear” where he eloquently and magnificently explains how our world has lost its sense of synchronism and cohesion, which has caused rampant ‘desacrilization’

Thursday, December 15, 2016



 King Louis XIV of France once asked Blaise Pascal, the great French philosopher of his day, to give him proof of the existence of miracles. Without a moment's hesitation, Pascal answered, "Why, the Jews, your Majesty-the Jews."

 “What is the Jew?...What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish. What is this Jew whom they have never succeeded in enticing with all the enticements in the world, whose oppressors and persecutors only suggested that he deny (and disown) his religion and cast aside the faithfulness of his ancestors?!
     The Jew - is the symbol of eternity. ... He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear.
     The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.”
- Leo Tolstoy What is the Jew?

“The struggle for world domination is between me and the Jews. All else is meaningless. The Jews have inflicted two wounds on the world: Circumcision for the body and conscience for the soul. I come to free mankind from their shackles.”
- Mein Kampf, Adolph Hitler

“Some people like the Jews, and some do not.  But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.”
- Winston Churchill - Prime Minister of Great Britain

“I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations ... They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.”
- John Adams, President of the United States (Letter to F. A. Van der Kemp, Feb. 16, 1808)

After over two decades in the home of his father-in-law Lavan, Yaakov Avinu finally departed. Having arrived with literally nothing but his walking stick, Yaakov leaves with a beautiful family, tremendous wealth, and spiritual vibrancy. The time has finally come for the great encounter with his insidious brother, Eisav.
As they set up camp for the night Yaakov realized that he forgot some jugs on the other side of the river. When he journeyed back alone to retrieve them he was confronted by the Angel of Eisav. Their dynamic confrontation foreshadowed and symbolized the epic perennial struggle between Yaakov’s descendants and Eisav’s descendants.
 “Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he perceived that he could not overcome him, he struck the socket of his hip; so Yaakov’s hip-socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him… Therefore the Children of Israel do not eat the Gid Hanasheh (the displaced sinew) of the hip-socket to this day, because he struck Yaakov’s hip-socket on the displaced sinew.[1]
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’l explained that the word “nasheh” means a creditor. When one owes money, he is subservient and indebted to his lender. In that sense the Gid Hanesheh is the sinew of submission and lack of resistance. When the Angel dislodged that sinew he robbed Yaakov of control over the muscle of the hip, which attaches to the bone to control the leg. That caused Yaakov to lose some of his footing and control, and forced him into a certain level of submission. The tendon was still there, the muscle was still there, and the leg was still there, but its use was hampered. But it was only for a moment. Yaakov immediately regained his composure, and although injured he eventually persevered and defeated his implacable opponent.
The Torah forbids us to eat that sinew because of what it symbolizes. The dislocation of it represents the Angel gaining the upper-hand over Yaakov, if even for a moment. A Jew must know that the Spirit of Eisav can NEVER conquer Yaakov, or even cause him to falter. We traverse the exile with all of its challenges with a certain measure of dignity and fortitude. True, there have been many times in our long and painful history when we have been subject to unspeakable pain and domination. However, we do not view domination as Eisav’s physical superiority, but as our spiritual inferiority.
 “If Yaakov falls he falls not because he is not equal to Eisav in material power. Rather, because he has not understood how to retain the protection of G-d for himself. If Israel stands, it stands not because of its strong material power, but because G-d bears them aloft on the eagle wings of His Almightiness.”

A short time later Yaakov met up with Eisav himself. Eisav was so overwhelmed by Yaakov and his family that incredibly his relentless rage dissipated. Eisav then suggested to Yaakov that they proceed together. Yaakov deferred, stating that his family would not be able to keep up the pace. “So Eisav returned on that day to his way, to Seir.[2]
Rabbi Hirsch comments that this was the final time that Yaakov and Eisav appear together. From that moment when they took leave of each other they would never again be united. Eisav returned on his path, while Yaakov proceeded on his own path, each towards their own divergent destinations.

One of the reasons for the joy of the upsherin[3]  is that at that first haircut the child’s payos (edges, i.e. sideburns) are not cut[4],[5]. A Jewish male’s payos are an external symbol of the separation we maintain from the rest of the world. We are different and we are proud of what/who we are!
Someone once asked the Brisker Rav why people say that at an upsherin “payos machin” (we make payos). It would seem that not cutting the sideburns is merely adhering to a prohibition. We do not ‘make payos’ we simply refrain from cutting them.
The Brisker Rav replied by quoting the vernacular of the Rambam[6] in his quotation of this law: “We do not shave the corners of the head like the nations of the world do…” The Rambam associates this law with our desire to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the nations. Thus, by refraining from cutting the sideburns we are actually “making payos”, fulfilling an active obligation to demonstrate our separateness and uniqueness.[7]
The day when the boy receives his first haircut there is an additional beautiful custom, for the father to bring his son – wrapped in a tallis – to a rebbe who teaches young children. The father places the child in the rebbe’s lap and the rebbe learns the letters of the Aleph Bais with the child. The letters are read from a chart which is coated with honey. Each time the child recites a letter he is given some honey to eat. This inculcates in the child the feeling that Torah is sweet and delectable.
On the day the child is introduced to the study of Torah he is also taught that we are special and different. We are not merely a nation among nations. We are the Children of Yaakov, the Chosen Nation.

Rabbi Moshe Wolfson shlita notes that the gematria of the words “Yaakov’s hip-socket[8] (was dislocated)” is the same as the words “To kindle the Chanukah candles”.
During the period of Greek culture’s influence the Greeks sought to foster a feeling of equality with the Jews. They sought to destroy the notion that Jews were unique and elite, by inviting them to take part in all of their activities.
The Medrash relates that the tyrannical despot Antiochus passed an edict which obligated all Jews to write on the horns of their oxen, “You do not have a portion in the G-d of Israel.”
Maharal offers a poignant explanation for this bizarre edict. One of the darkest moments in Jewish history was the sin of the golden calf. It was hardly five weeks since they had witnessed the unparalleled revelation at Sinai when they committed the egregious sin, from which we still suffer. But after Moshe implored the Almighty on our behalf, He promised that He would not destroy us and that we would be forgiven.
The Greeks wanted to ingrain within us that perhaps at one time we were indeed destined to be special and different. But we had forfeited that position by the sin of the golden calf. An ox is a mature and grown-up calf. The Greeks compelled every Jew to inscribe on the horns of their oxen that they had no connection with the G-d of Israel, the G-d of an elite people. The calf has never died and neither have the Jews transcended that sin.
The Greeks countered that with all of their sophistication and advancements in medicine, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, drama, they had become the Chosen people. If the Jews wanted to be special they would have to join with them.
The Greeks loved wisdom and did not seek to impede the Jews from studying Torah, albeit as long as they studied it as a subject of academia. Jews and Greeks could even study Torah together. Their main battle was “to make them forget Your Torah”, i.e. that the Torah was G-d’s and it was not merely another subject of study.
The Maccabean revolt was driven by those who fought for the purity of Torah. They were consumed by a religious zeal fueled by the knowledge that we are indeed special and different. It is for that reason that the miracle of Chanukah involved the light of the Menorah, which symbolizes the spiritually pristine light of Torah.
The lights of Chanukah serve as the antithesis and the rectification of what the Angel of Eisav tried to accomplish in his struggle with Yaakov. He tried to demonstrate that Yaakov is subservient to Eisav. But the Chanukah candles resplendently symbolize that we transcend Eisav and his pernicious efforts to vanquish us – spiritually and physically.   
Thus, on the day when we begin to teach our son Torah we must also symbolize to him that we – as a people – are different. It is through pure Torah study that we maintain our uniqueness as a holy nation.  
It is appropriate that we conclude with the timeless words of the great Rabbi Yaakov Emden zt’l in the preface to his commentary on the Siddur[9]:

“No nation has been as pursued as we have. How great have been our difficulties, how overwhelming were our enemies. From the very inception of our history, they have been bent upon utterly destroying and eradicating us. This was due to the hatred that they had for us because they were jealous of us…. (Despite) our many enemies, they were never successful in destroying or eliminating us.  (I swear) by my life that when I ponder these wonders, I deem them to be greater than all of the miracles and wonders which Hashem did for our forefathers in Egypt, in the desert and in Eretz Yisroel. The longer this exile lasts, this miracle receives even greater affirmation and the might and power of G-d.”

“Eisav returned on that day to his way, to Seir”
“Therefore, the Children of Israel do not eat the Gid Hanasheh”

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

[1] Bereishis 32:25-33
[2] 33:16
[3] First haircut given to a boy when he becomes three years old.
[4] See Vayikra 19:27
[5] When this essay was originally published in 5771, it was the week we celebrated the upsherin of our son, Avi.
[6] Hil Akum 12:1
[7] Nitei Gavriel, Tiglachas Hayilodim (hakdamah)
[8] 512
[9] "מי שמעיין בייחוד עניננו ומעמדנו בעולם, אנחנו האומה הגולה, שה פזורה, אחרי כל מה שעבר עלינו מהצרות והתמורות אלפים מהשנים... כל האומות הקדומות אבד זכרם... ואנו הדבקים בה' חיים היום, חי נפשי כי בהתבונני בנפלאות אלה, גדלו אצלי יותר מכל ניסים ונפלאות שעשה ה' יתברך לאבותינו במצרים ובמדבר ובארץ ישראל. וכל מה שארך הגלות יותר, נתאמת הנס יותר, ונודע מעשה תקפו וגבורתו"
(בהקדמה לסידור בית-יעקב).

Wednesday, December 7, 2016



Alice had volunteered to bake a cake for the Ladies' Group but forgot to do it until the last minute. She remembered on the morning of the bake sale and panicked. After rummaging through cabinets, she found an angel food cake mix and quickly made it while drying her hair, dressing, and helping her son pack up for school.
When Alice took the cake from the oven, the center had dropped flat and the cake was horribly disfigured. She said, "Oh dear, there isn't enough time to bake another cake." This cake was important to Alice because she wanted to fit in with her new community of friends.
Being innovative, she looked around the house for something to build up the center of the cake. She took a roll of bathroom paper and plunked it in and then covered it with icing. Ironically the finished product looked beautiful.
Before she left the house to drop the cake by the bake sale and head for work, Alice woke her daughter Amanda. She gave her some money and specific instructions to be at the bake sale the moment it opened at 9:30 and to buy the cake and bring it home.
When Amanda arrived at the sale however, the attractive cake had already been sold. Amanda grabbed her cell phone and called her mom. Alice was beside herself. Everyone would know!
What would they think? She would be ostracized, talked about, ridiculed! All night, Alice lay awake in bed thinking about people pointing fingers at her and talking about her behind her back.
The next day, Alice promised herself that she would try not to think about the cake and that she would attend the fancy luncheon at the home of a neighbor and try to have a good time. Alice did not really want to attend because the hostess was a snob, but having already sent her RSVP, she couldn't think of a credible excuse to stay home.
The meal was elegant, and the company was upper class. Then to Alice's horror, the cake in question was presented for dessert! Alice felt the blood drain from her body when she saw the cake! She started out of her chair to tell the hostess all about it, but before she could get to her feet, the Mayor's wife said, "What a beautiful cake!"
Alice still stunned, sat back in her chair when she heard the hostess say, "Thank you, I baked it myself."

Forced to flee the wrath of his brother Eisav, Yaakov sought refuge in the home of his brother-in-law, Lavan, in Charan. The Medrash[1] relates that despite the fact that Lavan was legendary for being wily and duplicitous, Yaakov was not intimidated or afraid of living in his home. “If for deceit he is coming, then I am his brother (i.e. rival) in deceit. And if he is a decent person then I too am a decent person.”  
From the Torah’s account of Yaakov’s experiences in Lavan’s home however, one can’t help but feel that Yaakov’s confidence was somewhat misplaced. Lavan in fact duped Yaakov in a most egregious fashion. After Yaakov specified that he would toil ceaselessly and tirelessly on Lavan’s behalf for seven years so that he could marry his younger daughter Rachel, Lavan successfully manipulated Yaakov to end up with his older daughter Leah. The incident is even more intriguing because Yaakov was wary of the fact that Lavan would try to accomplish that switch. How was Yaakov able to be fooled by Lavan? What happened to Yaakov’s assertion that, “I am his brother in deceit”?
Rabbi Sholom Shwadron zt’l explained that in order to understand what truly occurred one must first understand who Lavan really was. The Medrash relates that Lavan was known as “Lavan Ha’arami”. Although the term simply means “Lavan the Armenian”, there is a deeper meaning and significance of his ignoble title.
The Medrash relates that at the wedding when Yaakov (unwittingly) married Leah, Lavan duped his entire town. Lavan gathered all of the townsfolk and told them, ‘You know that we have had a water shortage, and that since this righteous one (Yaakov) has arrived we have enjoyed bountiful water’. He then revealed to them his deceitful plan to cause Yaakov to marry Leah which would force Yaakov to stay for an additional seven years in order to marry his coveted Rachel. To ensure that no one would reveal the plan to Yaakov, Lavan solicited from every person in town an object for security. He then took all of those expensive objects, sold them, and used the proceeds to pay for the wedding. Anyone who wanted back his security had to purchase it from the storeowner who had accepted it as payment.
The Medrash concludes, “Woe! Why was he called Lavan[2] Ha’arami? Because he deceived[3] his entire village.”
Based on the aforementioned story, we must wonder why he is termed “the deceitful one” and not “the wicked one”? It would seem that tricking one’s own neighbors and friends is not only sly but blatantly malicious and evil?
We must also wonder how Lavan had the temerity to do what he did. Did he have absolutely no conscience whatsoever, as to be able to hoodwink those who he was closest with? Even the most imbecilic individual would have more sense than to swindle all of his friends on the night of his daughter’s wedding, and then dance and dine with them using the money he stole from them?
Rabbi Schwadron explained that the Torah defines people based on their true inner self. The commentaries expend great effort to explain the details and particulars of individual behavior. But the Torah pinpoints the origin, the source of all of an individual’s life behaviors and experiences.
Eisav is dubbed ‘Eisav the wicked’ because wickedness and cruelty was his core shortcoming. Indeed, he committed many crimes out of desire for money and hatred for holiness, but at his core was an unconquered moral depravity and corruptness.
Lot is dubbed the ‘desiring one’ because ultimately it was his lusts and desires that prevented him from reaching greatness. Although he too committed sins as a member of Sodom that could be viewed as wicked he is called the ‘desiring one’ because that was his primary inadequacy.
Lavan too committed many acts that made him deserving of many alternate titles. But the Torah reveals to us that the primary catalyst of his behavior was his unrestrained deceitfulness.
Although Lavan was innately a man of deceit the true depth of his treachery lay in the fact that his greatest victim was… himself![4] Whenever Lavan conjured up a new plan of action, a new way to solicit money or goods from a hapless victim, he immediately justified his actions in his own mind. So seduced was he by his own schemes and machinations that he wholly convinced himself that what he was doing was not only not a sin but it was the proper course of action. He was absolutely sure that what he did is what needed to be done at that time and in that situation.   
It is in that sense that Lavan is titled[5] “the father of all charlatans”. Lavan was not merely the master charlatan, he was in a league of his own. Because he so convinced himself of the veracity of his cause and motives his deceit knew no limits. That was why he was able to dupe his entire city and then dance with them at the wedding which they paid for. That was also why he was able to turn to his daughter at her own wedding and tell her to go back home because her sister was going home with the groom.
When Yaakov entered the home of Lavan he declared that he was prepared to deal with the trickery of Lavan and he was confident that he would not fall prey to Lavan’s deceit. But Yaakov failed to realize that he was not dealing with a charlatan - at least not in Lavan’s mind. Yaakov was wise and wary enough to outfox Lavan’s antics and foibles but Lavan did not present with antics and foibles. In Lavan’s own mind he was genuine and sincere, truly believing he was justified in all that he did. Yaakov had no way to rival a person who felt he was righteous and just.
When Yaakov indeed confronted Lavan and asks him, “Why have you deceived me?” Lavan did not even acknowledge the accusation. Instead he responded, “That is not the way it is done in our places, to give the younger one before the older one.” Lavan’s response reverses the accusation onto Yaakov, as if to criticize him for trying to breach the communal custom.
Arguing with Lavan was an exercise in futility. There can be no negotiation or discussion with an evildoer who believes he is righteous.

My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, often relates that the events that the Torah records are not ancient history. We encounter the likes of Lot, Lavan, and Eisav in our everyday lives. We have to analyze and contemplate the ways in which the Patriarchs dealt with each of these challenging individuals to understand how we must respond as well.
On a deeper and more profound level we must realize that there is a bit of Lavan, Lot, and Eisav within ourselves. It is incumbent upon us to learn from these epoch narratives how we can grow and overcome our own shortcomings.

In an article entitled, “Torah Revitalized: Writing A New Chapter[6], the Los Angeles Times reports that a congregation in Northridge, California is undertaking the rectification of an ancient Torah scroll. The Torah is over 300 years old, having survived the Holocaust. After lying in a deserted warehouse with many other abandoned scrolls for over three decades in a deserted synagogue in Prague, it was rescued by a British philanthropist. One scroll eventually made its way to the congregation in California where to date it is used very rarely because of its fragile state. When it is fixed, it will be used more regularly.
The leader of the congregation is quoted as saying, “Torahs are meant to be used… read from… and studied from. Restoring the Torah shows the commitment we have to keeping a Torah in kosher condition, in working order, so we can read, learn, and study from it.”
What I found intriguing about the touching story is that the congregation belongs to a Reform Temple. How incongruous that they are looking to a restore a scroll, whose content they distort! How ironic that they will beautify the words which read “Remember the day of Shabbos to sanctify it” while they themselves do not observe the holy day according to the dictates of that scroll[7].
It must be said that we gain little by pointing out the foibles of our well-meaning, yet grossly misguided brethren. The truth is we have to take a candid look at ourselves to determine how/when we delude ourselves!  How often do we convince ourselves that what we are doing is proper, when others (and perhaps even the Torah) do not view it that way?
Yaakov was able and ready to counter all of Lavan’s ploys, but even he could not outwit a person who was convinced his actions were righteous and pure.
Sometimes the person we fool most is ourselves!

“I am his brother in deceit”
“The father of all charlatans”

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

[1] Bereishis Rabba  70:13
[2] “Lavan” means white. He would commit all of his antics and yet show a face of innocence and purity, as if he was white and pure (see Medrash 60:8).
[3] A ‘ramai’ is a deceitful individual.
[4] Rabbi Shwadron explains that “Arami” is a verb, as in who is deceitful to others. But “Ha’arami” is a noun, connoting one who is himself a deceived person… deceived by himself.
[5] Tanchuma, beginning of parshas Vayishlach
[6] The article is dated October 16, 2010
[7] I surely do not mean to denigrate what the congregation is doing. It is a beautiful idea to restore a Torah scroll to its glory. But it is unquestionably a far greater, and more important, restoration of the beauty of Torah to renew commitment to its laws.