Thursday, December 27, 2018



The following speech was delivered by Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau to (then) President Barack Obama on March 22, 2013, at Yad Vashem, during Obama’s visit to Israel[2]:
“On April 11, 1945 in the Buchenwald Concentration camp which you recently visited, American troops liberated us. One of the Jewish leaders from the United States, Rabbi Herschel Schachter was there.  He entered the barracks, and crying in Yiddish proclaimed, “Jews you are free!”  We didn’t believe him.  After six years of horror we couldn’t believe it.
“I take this opportunity to thank you, to thank the American people who came finally in 1945, April, to liberate us - not from slavery to freedom, but from death to life.
“But I would like to add something. Two months ago, I had the privilege to speak at the International Commemoration day for the Holocaust.  At that time, I related an experience I had last year. I was in a very small Holocaust Museum in Seattle, Washington, that consisted of only one room.  In front Mr. Leo Hymas, an old handsome brigadier General, stood clad in his military uniform with many medals pinned on. He knew that as a child I survived Buchenwald, and he welcomed me with tears in his eyes. He shook my hand and said “Rabbi, I was one of the liberators of Buchenwald; I served with General Patton. When I heard that you were coming to Seattle, I asked for permission to meet with you. Before I return my soul to the Lord of the Universe, I am asking you for forgiveness… for being late; we came too late! When I saw the horrible sights that greeted us when we arrived to liberate you, I knew we came too late, and I’m asking you to forgive me.” I replied that if he is carrying that pain on his consciousness for sixty-seven years, he must be a great man.
“Yesterday, Mr. President you promised us that we are not alone… I am asking you to make sure that you never be too late... Next week, we will all sit together on the night of the Seder and we will not only to praise the Lord for the past Exodus, but also, we pray for peace in Israel, in the Middle East, and the entire world…”
Hashem informed Moshe that he was to return to Egypt and inform the Jewish slaves that redemption was imminent. Then he was to appear before Pharaoh and convey to him the same message, and that the time had arrived for him to free the oppressed Jewish slaves.
Moshe Rabbeinu replied, “But they will not believe me, and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say Hashem did not appear to you.”[3] In response, Hashem conveyed to Moshe three signs that he was to demonstrate in front of Klal Yisroel.
First, Moshe cast his staff on the floor and it transformed into a snake. When Moshe lifted it by its tail, it reverted into a staff. Then Moshe placed his hand against his chest whereupon it became white with tzara’as. When Moshe again placed his hand against his chest, his hands retuned to normal. Finally, he was instructed to take some water from the Nile and pour it onto the land, and it would instantly become blood.
The Nesivos Shalom explains that the Jewish people did not lack faith in G-d. Rather, their lack of faith was in themselves. They couldn’t believe that they were worthy of redemption and to be elevated into a holy and elite people. They were so mired in their current misery that they could not fathom a greater future.
Each of the three signs Hashem instructed Moshe was to encourage the nation that they would indeed merit redemption.
There are two words for staff in Hebrew. A makal is a stick used to beat and discipline; a mateh is a staff used for support, such as a walking stick. When G-d asked Moshe what was in his hand, he was asking him what the staff was to be used for. Moshe replied that it was a mateh, symbolizing the fact that he was to be the leader of the nation. He was not there to beat them into submission, but to guide them upwards.
Hashem instructed Moshe to take that holy staff and cast it onto the impure ground of Egypt. As soon as Moshe did so, the staff became a snake, the symbol of evil. But when Moshe lifted it off the floor it immediately reverted into a holy staff.
The nation felt impure, lost in Egyptian society and servitude. The message to the nation was that if they were to be ‘lifted’ from the doldrums of Egyptian influence, they could become elevated, and regain the holy state of their ancestors.
There were many who felt they were beyond help; they felt dead inside. Tzar’as is a symbol of death. When Moshe placed his tzara’as afflicted hand against his chest, it was instantly revitalized. That too was a message to the demoralized nation. Despite the fact that they felt spiritually and emotionally lifeless, they could become spiritually invigorated and emotionally resurrected.
Despite the poignant message of the first two signs, the nation might still be skeptical – how could a nation as powerful as Egypt be overcome?
G-d instructed Moshe to take water from the Nile, the lifeforce of Egypt. When he would pour it out onto the land it would instantly transform into blood, a symbol of the spilling of Egyptian blood and the destruction of the superpower. The message was that G-d controls the Nile. This was the only sign that was not reversed afterwards. The message to the nation was that G-d will destroy Egypt so completely that it will never again regain the status it once had.
After Moshe began his fateful journey back to Egypt, G-d appeared to him and gave him the following message: “When you will go to return to Egypt, see all the wonders that I placed in your hand, and perform them before Pharaoh.”[4]
Ramban[5] understands that the wonders G-d refers to here were the three signs G-d instructed him to show the Jews.
It is interesting to note that when G-d instructed Moshe to perform the three miracles before the Jews, He referred to them as signs. When He instructed Moshe to perform them before Pharaoh however, He referred to them as wonders.
What is the difference between a sign and a wonder?
Ramban[6] explains that a sign portends events that will occur in the future, while wonders demonstrate absolute power that transcend natural abilities. Shabbos and tefillin are signs, symbols of our faith in the Almighty who created heaven and earth, and of our covenant with the Almighty. Wonders are incredible events that demonstrate absolute control and dominion.
Dovid Hamelech writes in Tehillim[7], “He placed in them the words of His signs and His wonders in the land of Chom.”  Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch writes[8] that what was considered signs for the Jewish people, was at the same time wonders for Pharaoh and Egypt. “These acts of G-d were to be signs for Yisrael from which it should derive for all times the knowledge that G-d is the Creator and Lord of nature, the ruler and judge of men and nations. Then these same acts of G-d, executed upon the Egyptians and in their territory, were to serve for them as wonders, that is, to break their obstinacy and to make them obey G-d’s command.”
It would seem that this is also what occurred with the three signs Moshe performed. For the Jews they were signs of great events that were to come, and of the fusing of an eternal bond between G-d and this people. For Pharaoh and the Egyptians however, it was a small display of the omnipotent power of G-d, a warning of ominous events that would occur if they failed to pay heed to the warnings being issued.

This is demonstrative of an important idea in Judaism – we don’t view events and life in the same manner as the rest of the world. We don’t see anything as happenstance or coincidence. A Jew must always search for the messages contained in everything that occurs in his own life, and in the world generally.[9] What the world views as wondrous events, we see as signs.

No matter what spectrum of American politics one is on, the election of Donald Trump was an absolute shock[10]. The pundits said that it absolutely could not and would not happen. The truth is that most of the recent elections had shocking results. President Bush won based on a recount of a few elderly people in Florida, Obama, a young senator with practically no experience, defeated Hillary Clinton in his own party, and then defeated John McCain, a war hero and respected politician. But there is unquestionably no greater surprise than the election of Donald Trump.
We do not have prophets to inform us of G-d’s message and why things happen. But it is a clear reminder from on high that G-d runs the world, and only G-d can deem what is impossible.
The world sees it as an erratic wondrous event. We know that it is the Hand of G-d, with reasons beyond what we can know.

“So that they will believe that Hashem has appeared to you”
“His wonders in the land of Chom”

 Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1] The following is the lecture I delivered in Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh Shemos 5777
[2] Note – I have edited the wording to make it flow better in writing
[3] Shemos 4:1
[4] Shemos 4:21
[5] In his second explanation
[6] Parshas Re’eh; Devorim 13:2 – Ramban is discussing a false prophet who tries to prove his legitimacy by performing signs or wonders. The Torah warns that one not be duped by him.
[7] 105:27
[8] Commentary Tehillim ibid; the morning I was preparing this lecture I had read this chapter of Tehillim and had the thought to learn Rav Hirsch’s commentary.
[9] The greatest danger is that we often feel we know the message G-d wants to give to everyone else. But we have a very hard time thinking about the message that pertains to us personally, and the personal improvements we can make in our own lives.
[10] President Trump was sworn in as president on January 20, 2017, the week this lecture was delivered.

Thursday, December 20, 2018



In January 1975, a 17-year-old German student and part-time concert promoter named Vera Brandes called the acclaimed pianist Keith Jarett and requested that he perform at a concert at the Opera House in Cologne, Germany on January 24, 1975. Jarett accepted, but insisted that he be provided with a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano for the performance.
When Jarett arrived at the Opera House in the late afternoon of January 24, he was not feeling well. He had been suffering from back pain for several days, which was exacerbated by the five-hour, 350-mile drive he made to Cologne from a concert he’d given in Zurich.
But that was the least of it. When he sat down to practice shortly prior to the concert, the opera house staff wheeled out the wrong piano – a much smaller Bösendorfer baby grand used for opera rehearsals. It was in abject condition and badly out of tune.
For a renowned perfectionist such as Jarrett the instrument was an abomination. When he was informed that there was no time to obtain a replacement piano, he walked out of the Opera House. All of the arguments that they would do their best to tune it as best as they could didn’t help. Jarett got into his car and prepared to leave. But then he noticed Brandes, the young woman who had arranged the concert, standing by his car in the pouring rain. He rolled down his window and she begged him to please give it a chance. She knew that if the concert was cancelled her young career would be over.  
Out of pity for Brandes, he agreed to play.
That night Jarett had to work extremely hard to play. He had to stand throughout the performance and much of the time he had to pound on the keys of the piano to produce the sound he wanted.
To date, the recording of that concert has sold 35 million copies and is arguably the most beautiful, transformative piece of music ever produced!  
Keith Jarrett had been handed a mess. But he embraced that mess, and it soared. The recording of the Köln Concert is the best-selling piano album in history and the best-selling solo jazz album in history

The blessing Yaakov conferred upon Yissochor is intriguing: “Yissochor is a strong-boned donkey, resting among the boundaries. He saw tranquility that it was good and the land that it was pleasant, and he bent his shoulder to bear the burden, and he was an indentured laborer.”[2] 
The Chofetz Chaim[3] explains that a Torah scholar exerts himself in the study of Torah and will often deprive himself of sleep and earthly pleasures in his pursuit for greater Torah knowledge and mastery. The only time he will allow himself “rest” is when he celebrates completion of a section of his learning. He will briefly interrupt his learning to make a siyum, to infuse himself with the energy to continue in his Torah study.
If his passion and love is in Torah study, why does Yissochor need to think about how wonderful tranquility is and the reward at the end? If he has merited tasting the blissful sweetness of Torah study, what greater motivation could there be? 
The Chofetz Chaim related a parable about a wealthy and prestigious diamond dealer who traveled to a distant city to purchase diamonds to sell back home. He had set aside a certain amount of money that he would use for purchasing, and when he had used up that money, he prepared for the trip home. Shortly before his departure, a merchant knocked on his hotel door. The merchant explained that he had an exceptionally beautiful and rare diamond that he wanted to sell. The wealthy man thanked him but replied that he already completed his purchasing and was no longer interested. The merchant was persistent and proceeded to remove the diamond from the bag. Indeed, it was stunning, and it was an incredible bargain. The wealthy man admitted that although it was a good deal, he did not have money to pay for it.
The merchant replied that he desperately needed money and had little use for the diamond. He was willing to sell it for a quarter of its value. This was an offer the wealthy man could not pass up. He took the money he had set aside for his trip home and handed it to the merchant for the diamond.  
The wealthy man was barely left with enough money to cover the cost of a lower-class ticket. He traveled home sitting with the impoverished folk, eating coarse food, and sitting in squalor conditions.
A friend noticed him sitting amongst the lower-class passengers. He was sad to see that his once wealthy friend had lost everything so quickly. But he also noticed that his friend appeared to be unusually happy. The wealthy man noticing his gaze walked over to him and said, “Don’t be sad for me. It’s worth it for me to suffer the indignity and discomfort of this relatively short trip home, for the unimaginable wealth that will result from my doing so.”
The Chofetz Chaim explained that at times it is challenging to engage in Torah study. Despite the fact that the scholar’s soul can hardly satiate his burning desire for greater Torah scholarship, his body may cry out for pampering and physical enjoyment. It is to quell those physical whims and desires that the scholar reminds himself of the sweetness and blissfulness of the tranquility that awaits one who is loyal to Torah. It is worth it for him to physically deprive himself somewhat in order to merit the incredible greatness that awaits him in the World of Truth in the hereafter. That added incentive and the perspective of the temporality of this world helps him maintain his focus upon his true motives and aspirations, even when it is physically draining and challenging.
That was the blessing of Yissochor. 

Next door to the classroom in which I say a ninth grade shiur in Heichal HaTorah each morning, is the shiur of Rabbi Shimon Kronenberg. On the door of his classroom he posted a sign which reads, “Love what you do and work every day of your life.” When I saw the sign I thought it was an accidental distortion of the famous quote – “Love what you do and never work a day in your life.”  However, when I mentioned it to Rabbi Kronenberg he replied that it was no mistake.
He explained that the real quote implies that working is a negative thing and therefore we should enjoy what we do so we don’t have to work. The Torah, however, espouses that ‘work’ – being productive and industrious – is a tremendous value, and something one should constantly aspire for. Rather, one should love what he does and then use that passion to work hard in that area to produce the greatest results. 
I concede to the wisdom of that statement.

When Yosef brought his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to his father Yaakov so that he could bless them, Yaakov declared, “And now your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, they are mine; Ephraim and Menashe – like Reuven and Shimon they will be to me.”[4] Yaakov then stated that all future children born to Yosef would belong to Yosef.
How could Yaakov Avinu declare that Ephraim and Menashe were his, and therefore would be like Reuven and Shimon? The opposite seems more logical – those born after Yaakov’s arrival should belong to him, while those born before his arrival should belong to Yosef?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l[5] explained that true chinuch is when one instills values, not just into his own children, but into their future generations as well. When one lives his values and teaches by example, his children integrate them into their very essence, and they become apparent in subsequent generations as well.
Yaakov gazed at Menashe and Ephraim and he was enamored by their integrity and incredible spiritual growth despite being brought up in a morally depraved country. He realized that such conviction was the result of the chinuch he himself had instilled in Yosef, which was that transmitted to Yosef’s children. Therefore, Yaakov Avinu was able to proudly declare to Yosef that Menashe and Ephraim were his. The success of their spiritual attainments was his doing.[6]

The greatest feelings of accomplishment result from when one invests the most effort in its attainment. When one maintains a vision of the fruits of the future, he is able to bear the pangs and challenges along the way.
Yissochor maintains a perpetual vision of the bliss of the afterworld and therefore the burdens of Torah hardly feel like burdens to him. When Yaakov taught Yosef the Torah he had learned, he did so with a vision for the future. He sensed the greatness Yosef would attain, but also that Yosef would have to suffer challenges along the way. When he saw Menashe and Ephraim, he felt the success of his earlier efforts, 22 years prior.
It’s those times in life when we feel like walking out, but force ourselves to proceed and then have to stand and pound the keys that produce the most stunning music. 

“He saw rest that it was good and the land that it was sweet”
“Now your two sons they are mine, Ephraim and Menashe”

 Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1] The following is the lecture I delivered in Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh Vayechi 5778
[2][2] Bereishis 49:14
[3] Shem Olam, sha’ar Hachzakas HaTorah, chapter 10
[4] Bereishis 48:5
[5] Darash Moshe
[6] This is a beautiful chizuk for grandparents in taking pride in seeing that their grandchildren are following in the chinuch they selflessly invested in their own children. I write these words in honor of a very special occasion our family celebrated this week – the b’ris of, Chaim Noach (Hakohain), the son of our first cousins Izak and Devora Cohn in Yerushalayim. Izak is the only child of our esteemed and beloved Uncle Yaakov and Aunt Miriam Cohn. Uncle Yaakov and Aunt Miriam are living examples of incredible devotion to Torah, Avodas Hashem, and chesed. They have long served as inspirations for myself, my children (who call her ‘Bubby Aunt Mim’), and my siblings. Izak and Devora have built a home following those ideals, and we are confident that their bechor will be a source of nachas to them, to their incredible grandparents, and to all of Klal Yisroel.   

Thursday, December 13, 2018



In his inspiring memoir, Out of the Depths, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau relates the final hours of his father’s life. Along with twenty-eight thousand Jews of Piotrkow, where he served as rabbi, his father was taken to Treblinka. The day that they arrived, another train arrived packed with the Jews of Presov, Slovakia. Eight years earlier, Rabbi Lau’s father had left Presov, where he had served as rabbi. The community did not have another rabbi since then.
 “Those two towns reflected two completely different worlds: the Jews of Presov spoke German and Hungarian, whereas those of Piotrkow spoke Yiddish and Polish. The only thing they had in common was that the last rabbi of Presov was also the last rabbi of Piotrkow – my father. The Jews of Presov, the Jews of Piotrkow, and their chief rabbi all met on the train platform of Treblinka, on their way to the gas chambers.
“Father addressed them by recounting the last speech of Rabbi Akiva, one of the Ten Martyrs of Israel. When the Romans raked the rabbi’s flesh with iron combs, his disciples asked him how he could withstand the tortures. Rabbi Akiva replied by referring to the Shema, the declaration of faith, Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One. “All my life I have wondered about the verse following the Shema prayer, Love your G-d… with all your soul,” mused Rabbi Akiva. “I understood this as meaning ‘Love your G-d even if He takes your soul’. I asked myself, when will I have the opportunity to fulfill this commandment? Now that I have the opportunity, how can I not fulfill it?” Then Rabbi Akiva recited the Shema, prolonging the last word, One, as his soul departed.
“Jews!” Father shouted so that all present could hear his concluding words. “Of all six hundred thirteen mitzvot, we have one remaining mitzvah to fulfill: I shall be sanctified among the Children of Israel – to give up your life for bearing the name of G-d… Come, my brothers, let us fulfill this commandment in joy. The world is null and void, a boiling rain of hatred and bloodshed. The one mitzvah left for us is to sanctify G-d’s Name. Come, brothers, let us do it joyfully. I repeat to you the words of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa: ‘For in joy you will go out- with the power of joy will we leave behind the troubles, the suffering, and the trials of this world.’”
“Then father raised his voice and began to recite the vidui prayer of confession: For the sins we have sinned before You. The crowd repeated it after him. The prayer began in a whisper and ended with the shout: “Shema Yisrael! Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One. G-d reigns, G-d has reigned, G-d will reign for all eternity.”
“I never saw Father again…”
We are taught that the greatness of the Jewish People can only be achieved through unity. Ahavas Yisrael, love for our fellow Jews, is of our supreme values. If so, why do we seem to struggle so much in trying to attain it? Why is there so much disunity amongst us?
When Yosef approached the brothers, dispatched by their father Yaakov to seek the brothers’ welfare, the Torah says, “They saw him from a distance, and before he approached them, they plotted about him to kill him.”[2] The Torah alludes to the source of their enmity and jealousy of Yosef, i.e. that they saw him from a distance. They did not recognize his greatness and could not see the incredible potential within him. They therefore viewed him as a dangerous threat, and therefore felt he had to be eliminated.  
Even years later, when they arrived in Egypt looking for sustenance during the raging famine, when they stood before Yosef, they did not recognize him. They could not fathom that the powerful monarch before them was their younger brother whose dreams they had derided and sought to destroy.
One of the greatest impediments to loving others is that we view others from a distance. We see a fraction of the complete picture and yet we scrutinize and freely pass judgement, based on our limited understanding.
The antidote for that rejection and emotional distance is contained in the opening words of the parsha: “And Yehuda drew close, and he said to him, ‘please my master, let your servant speak words in the ears of my master…”[3]
Yosef reciprocated when, a few moments later, he revealed his identity to his shocked brothers. The Torah relates that Yosef gently called out to them, “”Come close to me”, and they came close.”[4] 
It is only when there is a sincere desire to ‘draw close’ to each other, to overlook our differences and embrace our commonalities, that we can reconcile and achieve true unity. When Yehuda drew close to Yosef, and Yosef summoned the brothers to draw closer to him, they were able to recognize the greatness in each other, and see past their differences to again be a complete family.
It is a painful reality that it often takes tragedy to unite us. The problem is that we are blinded by our differences and the minutiae that separates us. But in the face of tragedy we seem to have momentary clarity that allows us to recognize the more significant components that unite us. We often feel jealous and resentful towards others, which is usually triggered by external factors – such as possessions or social standing. When tragedy strikes, and we are reminded of the futility of status and possessions, and we are able to recognize that real person is his soul, and internally we are all united.
At the conclusion of Sefer Hacharedim[5], the author explains that the three paragraphs of Shema contain the remedy to three prime character defects - jealousy, desire, and the pursuit of honor.[6] Wearing tzitzis quells a person’s desire for honor. The Torah warns “Lest your heart turn away, and you will veer off from the way…” a reference to one seduced by lust.
The Charedim explains that the opening pasuk contains the solution for envy. Properly accepting and declaring one’s unwavering acceptance of the yoke of heaven upon one’s self and upon all of the Jewish people, entails unity, which requires overcoming all traces of jealousy and envy.
In parshas Vayechi, Yaakov Avinu gathered his children prior to his death to bless them. “Yaakov called to his sons and he said to them, ‘Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days. Assemble and hearken sons of Yaakov and listen to Yisrael your father…” Why does Yaakov tell them to gather and then assemble?
The Charedim explains that gather meant that they should physically come together. But then Yaakov Avinu prevailed upon them to assemble, to unite spiritually by ridding any traces of envy, enmity, or resentment from within their hearts.
When we recite Shema, we are seeking to spiritually and emotionally unite with every one of our fellow Jews the world over. Only if we have that understanding can we conclude the verse, “Hashem, is our G-d, Hashem is One.”
This concept is poignantly described by the prophet Yecheskel[7]: And you, son of man, take for yourself one stick and write upon it ‘of Yehuda’… and take another stick and write upon it ‘of Yosef’… And you shall bring them one towards the other, and they will become one stick, and they will be joined in your hand.”

On December 6, 2017, President Trump publicly recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and announced that the American embassy would be moved to Jerusalem. Immediately, 128 countries in the United Nations called for the United States to reverse its decision.
Dovid Hamelech describes Yerushalayim as “the city that connects us together.”[8] Few things bring any semblance of unity to the United Nations more than condemnation of Israel[9]. Our response is by uniting ourselves in our divine eternal mission to spread the sanctification of G-d’s Name throughout the world. In doing so, we must draw together and put aside our external differences.
It is that unity which ensures that our inherent light, symbolized by the lights of Chanukah, will continue to glow brightly until the ultimate redemption when we will be unified perpetually.

“And Yehuda drew close”
 “They will become one stick, and they will be joined in your hand”

 Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1] The following is the lecture I delivered in Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh Vayigash 5778
[2] Bereishis 37:18
[3] Bereishis 44:18
[4] Bereishis 45:4
[5] Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri (1533–1600); the sefer is based on the 613 mitzvos, with each mitzva divided based on the limb of the body that it corresponds to.
[6] See Avos (4:21) “Rabbi Eliezer Hakapar would say – jealousy, desire, and (the pursuit of) honor remove a person from the world.”
[7] 37:16-17; it is the opening verses of the haftorah for parshas Vayigash
[8] Tehillim 123:3
[9] Prime Minister Netanyahu aptly called the United Nations ‘a house of lies’.