Thursday, April 26, 2018



   In 1944 Binyamin Wertzberger, a sixteen-year-old Hungarian Jew, was sent to a Concentration Camp where he was forced to drag heavy train tracks with his bare thin hands. His entire family, including a brother and two sisters perished during the war.
   On one occasion, when he was waiting in line to receive his pitiful food rations, a Nazi asked him if he had any dreams of making it to his Jerusalem? Wertzberger remained silent.
   The Nazi taunted him - "Maybe your ashes will merit to get there through the chimneys of the concentration camp."
   Wertzberger was beaten, humiliated, starved and forced to work in the most difficult circumstances, but he never forgot the Nazi's words.
   Following the Death March, he as one of the few who arrived at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria. On May 5, 1945, the camp was liberated by the US army.
   After a long journey, he made it to Israel where he married and raised a family. His children learned in yeshivos and lead a life of Torah and Mitzvos.
   When he retired, he went to the offices of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation[2], and offered to work for them. At first they were hesitant, but he insisted that he would do anything they wanted.
   He was given the job of cleaning the stones of the Kosel. He wakes up at 5 AM every day to do so.
   In his words: "When I stand near the holy stones, I feel like I'm taking revenge on that Nazi officer. This is my Jewish revenge."[3]

The ‘minor holidays’, Pesach Sheni and Lag Ba’omer, are four days apart. Although the significance of these days are very different, there is an equal message that both impart, which is particularly vital to our generation.
In the year 2449 from creation, the second year following the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish Nation in the desert, was instructed by Hashem to offer the Korbon Pesach on the fourteenth of Nissan.
There was a group of people who were ritually impure and therefore forbidden/exempt from offering the Korbon Pesach. They were unhappy with their exemption and complained to Moshe that they too wanted the opportunity to offer the unique Korbon. Hashem replied by instructing Moshe about the concept of Pesach Sheni, the second Pesach. Those who were impure or distant, and therefore unable to bring the Korbon Pesach on the fourteenth of Nissan, could do so one month later, on the fourteenth of Iyar.
We live in a generation which struggles with feelings of meaningless, despair, and giving-up. Part of the challenge of living in a blessed affluent society, if the struggle to feel that there is meaning in our actions and the lives we lead.
The false persona displayed on social media of perfect happy lives, leads people to think that there is something wrong with them for having a more mundane and less extravagant life. Why doesn’t my vacation/spouse/house/children/job/life look like my friend’s/neighbor’s/sister-in-law’s life appears on his/her Facebook page? Although it is altogether superficial, it leads to great discontent and inner turmoil.
Regarding religiosity too, people feel that if they cannot reach the greatest levels quickly, or if they struggle constantly in certain religious areas, or have fallen into sinful behaviors, they are damaged goods. They feel they are beyond rectification and that G-d views them disdainfully. It’s easier to just give up and stop struggling.
The powerful message of Pesach Sheni is that of second chances. In the middle of its discussion of the laws and procedures of the Yom kippur service performed by the Kohain Gadol, the Torah states: “And he will atone for the Sanctuary from the impurity of the B’nai Yisroel and from their transgressions, all of their sins, and so he shall do for the Tent of the Meeting, השכן אתם בתוך טומאותם - who resides with them in the midst of their impurity.”[4] Rashi[5] explains that the pasuk is teaching us that the Shechina resides with Klal Yisroel even when we are impure.
Hashem doesn’t seek or desire perfection; but the yearning to grow and to maintain the struggle for growth.
Rabbi Yaakov Meir Schechter shlita explains[6] that every generation has a "צו השעה" a directive for its time, a particular divine mission incumbent upon it to grapple with. He explains that our generation’s challenge is to overcome feelings of worthlessness and despair.
Rav Shechcter quotes Rav Yehuda Horowitz of D’zikov who noted that after World War One, there was a noticeable and palpable decline in simchas hachaim – satisfaction and happiness for life, that seemed to settle on the world. People no longer appreciated or attached value to their own efforts and spiritual accomplishments.
Therefore, it has become our mission to challenge those notions, and to help people recognize their own value and greatness. Our mission is to offer chizuk – to first strengthen ourselves, so that we can strengthen others. Especially in times of confusion and spiritual struggle, it is incumbent upon us to recognize our greatness and how beloved we are in the eyes of Hashem, even in our darkest moments. It is only with that perspective that we will be able to forge on, and never give up on our efforts to constantly grow.
That is part of the reason the Torah taught by Rav Nachman of Breslov seems to resonate so much in our time. Rav Nachman’s constant message was about the inner greatness and holiness within every Jew.[7] That concept is so desperately sought out and needed to be heard, because so many feel their lives and their davening and mitzvos are meaningless and devoid of higher purpose. 

Lag Ba’omer has a deep connection with the esoteric parts of the Torah. On the day of his departure from the world, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai revealed to his students a collection of secrets of kabbalah.
Kabbalah discerns hidden holiness, not apparent at face value. It sees beyond the surface and ascribes meaning and ‘divine energy’ to everything in existence.[8] 
The fires of Lag Ba’omer symbolize the eternal light of hope, even in the darkest and most bleak of times – physical and spiritual. It was Rav Shimon Bar Yochai who promised that the Torah will never be forgotten from the Jewish people[9]. 

The Torah commands, “Kedoshim tihiyu – You shall be holy”[10]. Those two words contain the mantra of a Jew – to strive for holiness and to lead a life beyond the mundane.
Parshas Achrei Mos begins with a discussion of the service of Yom Kippur, and how the Kohain Gadol achieved atonement for the nation for all its sins. It is not a coincidence, that the commandment of Kedoshim follows the Yom Kippur avodah, or that Parsha Acharei Mos and Kedoshim are read together during non-leap years. Being holy is not ‘all or nothing’. If one sins and acts in an unholy manner, he has not perpetually destroyed himself. Following the repentance process of Yom Kippur, one can attain holiness, often achieving greater levels than he had before his falling and failing.
This is clearly seen from Aharon Hakohain who reached his greatest levels as the Kohain Gadol after he had unwittingly led the nation to commit one of its most egregious sins – that of the Golden Calf. It was after that devastating failure, which caused Aharon himself to feel that he was no longer worthy for the position, that he became the symbol of the divine Service for perpetuity.

Rav Nachman taught[11] אם אתה מאמין שאפשר לקלקל, תאמין שאפשר לתקןif you believe that you are able to distort, then you must belief that you are able to rectify.”

That is what we ‘taste’ in the matzah we customarily eat on Pesach Sheni, and that is what is reflected in the fires we celebrate on Lag Ba’omer: The inner inextinguishable light that continues to shine despite the thickest darkness.

“You shall be holy”
“Who resides with them in the midst of their impurity”

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

[1] Based on the lecture given at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Acharei Mos-Kedoshim 5772
[2] the organization that maintains and upkeeps the plaza in front of the Kosel
[3] Based on an article by Menachem Cohen for, July 19, 2010
[4] Vayikra 16:16
[5] Quoting Yoma 57a and the Sifra
[6] Kuntrus Tzav Hasha’a
[7] True understanding of Rav Nachman’s writings requires time, effort, and understanding of many lofty concepts. Many only learn his ideas on a more superficial level. Still, the most important component is to feel that sense of chizuk in a proper and healthy framework.
[8] This is why studying kabbalah without the proper holy framework is dangerous and strongly censured by the Sages. One must be proficient in all areas of the ‘revealed Torah’ before he can begin to comprehend the esoteric portions of the Torah without distorting and convoluting its deep messages.
[9] Shabbos 138b
[10] Vayikra 19:2
[11] ליקוטי מוהר"ן (תנינא קיב)

Thursday, April 19, 2018



For the most part, parshas Tazria details the laws regarding a metzora (one afflicted with tzara’as), while parshas Metzora discusses the purification process of the metzora.
As part of that process, the Torah states: “The kohain who is purifying shall stand the man who is becoming purified and them (the two male lambs, one ewe, and flour and oil) before Hashem at the entrance of the Tent of the Meeting.”[2]
Why is the kohain here referred to as “the kohain who is purifying”; it’s obvious that his purpose here was to help the metzora become purified?
The Ben Ish Chai explains with a parable:
An impoverished scholar was walking along the road lost in Talmudic thought when unfamiliar sounds of revelry and merriment interrupted his thoughts. He looked into the window of the house in front of him and saw that the large crowd inside were gambling. The scholar was immediately filled with righteous zeal and he burst into the house and drowned out the noise with words of rebuke and chastisement. He spoke emotionally and heartfeltly about the prohibition of gambling and the severity of what they were engaged in. The assemblage was moved by his words and they immediately agreed to cease gambling. They also decided to give all the money to the impoverished rabbi to ensure that they did not have any benefit from their sinful actions.
The scholar accepted the money and went home. A few weeks went by and the money the scholar received was depleted, and he didn’t have a cent to his name. He was contemplating what he could do to make some money, when he was suddenly struck with an epiphany -  all he needed to do was to find another group gambling and to rebuke them as he had done to the first group.
It didn’t take the scholar long to find another such group. With the same religious zeal as the first time he burst onto the scene and began ranting about the sin they were committing. To his chagrin and shock however, this time they had a vastly different reaction. After screaming at him that he had no business telling them what to do, they began hitting him. Then they shoved him out and slammed the door in his face.
The confused and shamed scholar approached his rebbe for advice. He wanted to understand why the second attempt had been such an abysmal failure. After hearing the story, the rebbe explained that the first time he had acted with pure intentions. He was genuinely pained by their behavior and the rebuke he offered was with genuine care. They were able to sense his emotional connection and they responded accordingly.
The second time however, he was motivated by selfish interests. He didn’t care at all about their spiritual welfare but was only hoping for the monetary gift he had received the first time. Therefore, they replied angrily and disdainfully. 
The Ben Ish Chai explained that the kohain who offered the korbanos of the metzora recived the meat of the shelamim as well as the dough of the mincha to eat with his family. Therefore, it was particularly important that the kohain not be thinking about his own personal gain. To help the metzora achieve repentance, he had to truly care about the metzora.
Therefore, the pasuk refers to him here as “the kohain who is purifying”. It’s only if that is his primary intent that he will be able to properly assist the “man who is becoming purified”.

The kohanim have the merit to bless the nation. The beracha recited prior to birchas kohanim blesses Hashem for investing them with the sanctity of Aharon and commanding them to bless Yisroel with love.
The Mishna[3] states that one should strive to be from the disciples of Aharon who love peace and pursue peace; they love people and draw them close to Torah. It is precisely because the kohanim make it their mission to love every Jew, that they are able to help the iniquitous meztora rectify his sins.

The Zohar[4] writes that an unmarried Kohen could not serve as an agent of his fellow Jew to perform the avodah in the Bais Hamikdash.
In order to perform the avodah, a Kohen must fully develop his capacity for love and selflessness, which can only be properly attained through marriage. When married, one must share his life with another human being and must learn how to truly care for another. An unmarried person may be kind and sensitive, but he has the ability to retreat into himself when he wants to and to do things his way.
By commanding the metzora to seek out a kohain, the Torah is conveying an important idea: Before one can diagnose or pass judgement on another that he is spiritually ill and requires temporary isolation, he must make sure he truly cares for the other person. Only then can he be certain that his diagnosis is not coming from personal bias or lack of refinement, and only then can we be confident that he will do everything he can to help the meztora rehabilitate and rectify his shortcomings.  

Based on this idea, Rabbi YY Jacobson[5] makes the following poignant observation:
 “As parents, educators, spouses, employers and colleagues, we often find ourselves with the need to rebuke, denounce, criticize and sometimes penalize. Yet all-too-often these are done more as an outlet for our own anger and frustration, rather than as a tool to help these people become the best they can be. We may call it discipline and justice, but if it is not based on kindness and the desire to help the other person, they may end up being more destructive than constructive.  
“Principals and teachers at times feel the need to expel a student from the institution, just as—during biblical times—the leper was dismissed from the community. Comes the Torah and declares: If you are not a Kohen, you are forbidden from issuing forth such a verdict! If you do not genuinely care for this youngster, you have no right to expel them! If you will not lose sleep over the fact that you had no choice but to dismiss a student, then it might be you who should be dismissed from your position.
“It is easy to define somebody as "impure" if you do not understand their pain, but it is unethical. Before you punish, you must first learn how to be a Kohen, how to really care about others. When criticism, punishment and even dismissal are motivated by concern for the person rather than your own rage or incompetence, it will have a totally different effect on the person you are punishing. Your criticism will build, rather than destroy, this person's character. What is equally important, you will not cease to labor that the situation be reversed and the individual returns to his or her potential glory.
“So next time before you criticize your spouse, stop and ask yourself if you are doing it as a "Kohen," out of concern and care for them, or as a result of your stress or anger. If that is the case, you ought to remain silent until you can transcend your self-absorption and enter into the world of another human being.”

“The kohain who is purifying shall stand the man becoming purified”
“To bless His nation Yisroel with love”

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

[1] Based on the lecture given at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Tazria-Metzira 5777
[2] Vayikra 14:11
[3] Avos 1:12
[4] vol. 3 p. 145b.
[5] Article entitled, “How to Criticize Your Husband: If You Don’t Love Me, Don’t Expel Me”; based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe from December 1984. Likkutei Sichos vol. 27 pp. 88-91.

Thursday, April 12, 2018



During my elementary school years at the Yeshiva of Spring Valley, the menahel was Rabbi Yisroel Flam z”l. Each morning following shachris, Rabbi Flam would relate a brief mussar thought to the older students.
Whenever a student became a bar mitzvah or put on tefillin for the first time, at the end of his brief words, Rabbi Flam would call the boy up to the front. He would then lightly and affectionately pinch each of the boy’s cheeks and remark that one ‘k’nip’ was that he merit Ahavas Hashem (loving G-d), and the other that he merit Yiras Hashem (fearing G-d). The red-faced boy would then return to his seat to the smiles of his peers.

During a day described by the gemara as being as happy as the day of creation of heaven and earth[2], when the Service in the Mishkan finally began in earnest, a shocking tragedy occurred. Nadav and Avihu, the two righteous sons of Aharon, who were worthy of being the successors of Moshe and Aharon, took firepans filled with incense and offered them in the sanctuary. They did so on their own volition, out of tremendous desire to serve Hashem in a unique manner. However, because they had not been instructed to do so, their actions had instantaneous consequences, and they died immediately in the sanctuary.
Rav Shimon Schwab zt’l noted[3] that the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu serves as a stark reminder that proper service of Hashem requires a proper balance of ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem. It is insufficient for one to serve Hashem solely out of love. One risks becoming too “friendly” with the divine, and he may begin to think that he is above the law. He may feel that perhaps he doesn’t have to adhere to every detail of halacha because “me and G-d are tight”[4].
One must always have a healthy balance – remembering that as much as Hashem indeed loves him and cherishes his every mitzvah, there are expectations and obligations he must live up to.
Nadav and Avihu were incredible tzaddikim who wanted nothing more than to express their ardent love for Hashem. The Medrash states: “They rejoiced when they saw the new fire come down upon the Mizbeiach, and they decided to add love to love.”[5] But, on their lofty level, there was a subtle lack of yiras Hashem. Overzealousness can be a dangerous emotion if not controlled. They acted with impunity in a place of intense holiness which necessitates following precise guidelines.
Each morning we daven, “וכוף את יצרנו להשתעבד לך- Submit our inclinations to be subservient to you.” It would seem that this is a prayer that Hashem help us subdue our yetzer hara - evil inclination, so that we do not allow ourselves to become subjected to its iniquitous whims and desires. Rav Schwab however explains that this prayer is actually referring to our yetzer tov. We are praying that even when we have good intentions to serve Hashem, that we not become carried away by them. We pray that our positive intentions be maintained within the guidelines of Torah and Chazal.
In a similar vein, on Friday night, after Shemoneh Esrei, we state לפניו נעבוד ביראה ופחד - Before Him we will serve with awe and dread.” Such words seem incongruous with the loving and favoring atmosphere of Shabbos. The truth however, is that particularly on the day when we refer to ourselves as “עם מדשני ענג - a nation satiated with delight”, we must be careful to be ever so vigilant about the many laws and restrictions of Shabbos. During Shabbos we must ensure that our intense love of Hashem is tempered with a sense of awe and trepidation so that we do not lose perspective of the severity of all its laws. 
It’s axiomatic that sometimes the worst atrocities are committed with the most noble intentions. Therefore, we ask Hashem to guide us in our positive pursuits to ensure that our best of intentions remain positive and productive in serving Him.
This idea is also expressed at the beginning of Shemone Esrei. The second beracha is about the infinite power of Hashem, particularly regarding the eventual resurrection of the dead. In the beracha we note that Hashem “sustains the living with kindness, resurrects the dead with great compassion, supports those who have fallen, and heals the sick…”
The following beracha is about the holiness of Hashem.
Rav Shimshon Pincus zt’l explains that no matter how close one feels to Hashem, no matter how much one feels he has been the beneficiary of G-d’s limitless kindness, he must maintain his sense of awe before the holiness of Hashem.

Decades ago in the world of education there was a big push for greater displays of affection and love for children. The world of “because I said so” was no longer effective, and children needed greater warmth and external displays of love. But since then, as often happens, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction. In our world parents display unbridled love for their children, and fail to set healthy limits. In efforts to become their children’s best friends, children may never hear the word “no” until they come to school where their poor teachers are faced with the task of setting limits to maintain a healthy social environment.
Today we have the opposite challenge. We are raising over-coddled children who become young adults who are not assertive, and cannot face or deal with the inevitable frustrations and challenges of the real world. It is unfortunately not uncommon for parents of a young adult to call an employer and demand to know why he didn’t hire their child.
That is the result of a lack of healthy balance between love and limits, and affective healthy boundaries.

This idea is true in Judaism as well. On the one hand, it’s so important that we don’t just serve Hashem out of rote. Our daily living as Torah Jews needs to be exciting and invigorating with a fire of passion. Yet, at the same time, we must remember that fires which aren’t contained can easily become out of control and burn and destroy everything in its path. 
Rabbi Dovid Fohrman compares the righteous motivation of Nadav and Avihu with that of Adam and Chava. They too had an overwhelming desire to draw closer to G-d. The serpent had told them that if they eat from the forbidden fruit, “And you will be like G-d”[6]. The mistake of these lofty individuals was that closeness to G-d can only result from adhering to the instruction of G-d.
Rabbi Fohrman makes the following powerful observation:
“How do you become embraced by G-d? You listen – really listen – to what G-d wants from you. Both stories are about the seductive temptation to take the final step to cling to G-d in a way that G-d had not commanded. Ironically, sometimes the way to achieve closeness is to keep your distance.
“Closeness with another human being is a beautiful, thrilling thing – but the closer you become, the more you need to respect your loved one’s boundaries. Think about marriage, for example. It’s easy to get lost in the desire to be close to your spouse. But the closer you are the more careful you need to be about respecting your loved one’s integrity, about maintaining the distance between you. Because at the end of the day, for all that you share, you are two separate people with your own distinct wishes and desires. You have to put your own desires aside and listen to what your loved one needs from you. When you trample on your loved one’s wishes, even in the process of trying to come close, it’s highly problematic. It’s a self-obsessed grab for intimacy. It’s the kind of closeness that kills. That was Nadav and Avihu’s fatal mistake.”[7] 
In fostering and maintain strong relationships, love is not enough. There also must be respect for the other person’s boundaries and dignity.
The disciples of Rabbi Akiva were great scholars. Yet, 24,000 of them perished because “they did not conduct themselves respectfully this one to that one.”[8] The gemara does not say that they lacked love for each other, but rather that they lacked respect for each other. The two are very different, and both are essential for positive relationships.[9]
Maharal writes כאשר נוהג כבוד בחברו דבר זה הוא עצם החיים - when one treats another with dignity, it is giving him life itself.[10]
The duality of being able to love and simultaneously respect is important for all relationships and interactions – marriage, parenting, workplace, neighbors, etc. 
On a higher level it is most vital in regard to our connection with Hashem. Ahavas Hashem and Yiras Hashem are two of the six constant mitzvos[11], and both are equally necessary.
We strive to love Hashem and to live our lives serving Him with excitement and closeness, yet never forgetting that that connection results from respecting the guidelines that Hashem has set forth for us in His holy Torah.

“Before Him we will serve with awe and dread”
“It is giving him life itself”

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

[1] Based on the lecture given at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Shemini 5777
[2] Megillah 10b
[3] Ma’ayan Beis Hashoeivah
[4] An actual quote heard
[5] Toras Kohanim 10:1
[6] Bereishis 3:5
[7] Aleph, Parshas Shemini Study Guide
[8] Yevamos 62b. The period of the Omer, between Pesach and Shavuos, are days of mourning to commemorate the deaths of those students
[9] Rabbi Yochanan Zweig
[10] Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Ahavas Reia
[11] See Biur Halacha- Orach Chaim 1, “Hu Klal Gadol”