Thursday, July 25, 2019



           Rabbi Eliezer Silver zt”l[1] was a brilliant scholar, who spared no effort to help fellow Jews and to preserve traditional Torah Judaism. He was the President of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada and one of American Jewry's foremost religious leaders. He helped save many thousands of Jews during World War II.
          In 1907, Rabbi Silver and his wife immigrated to the United States. They settled in New York where Rabbi Silver first became a garment salesman and then sold insurance.
          That same year, he accepted his first rabbinic position in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At the time the community of two thousand had an eclectic mix of outstanding scholars and ignorant laymen.
          One of the members was a scholar who had studied under the Netziv in Volozhin. The man was very particular on many areas of halacha, yet he did not observe Shabbos.
          The young rabbi connected with his congregants and helped them grow spiritually. When they completed their first tractate together, he arranged a lavish siyum to celebrate the accomplishment. The Volozhiner scholar was most impressed with Rabbi Silver and became an ardent supporter for the rest of his life.
          Rabbi Silver related that his years in Harrisburg provided him with tremendous opportunities to learn and to write his Torah thoughts.
          The simpler members of the congregation were very bothered by the fact that their young rabbi was always immersed in study. They felt that if they hired a rabbi who was purportedly a brilliant scholar, he should already know everything, and shouldn’t need to always be studying.

          After Moshe confirmed that the daughters of Tzelafchad would receive a portion in Eretz Yisroel, he decided that the time had come for him to seek his own needs. The Medrash[2] relates that Moshe requested that one of his own sons be his successor as leader of the nation after his passing. G-d replied, "Your children sat and did not engage in Torah study. Yehoshua served you and gave you tremendous honor. He would wake up early and stay late in the Bais Medrash. He would set up the couches and spread out the mats and serve you with all his strength. Therefore, he is worthy to take your place as leader after your passing." G-d then instructed Moshe to prepare Yehoshua for the nation’s leadership after his passing.
          If Moshe's children were not worthy to lead Klal Yisroel, how could Moshe have thought that one of them should be his successor?
          Nachlas Eliezer explains that undoubtedly, the children of Moshe were on the same spiritual level as Yehoshua. Still, Yehoshua was more worthy of leadership.
          When one recites a siyum upon completing a tractate of Gemara or Seder (order) of Mishnayos, he declares, “We express gratitude before you, Hashem, our G-d, and the G-d of our forefathers, that You have established our portion with those who dwell in the study hall, and have not established our portion with idlers. We toil and they toil; we toil and receive reward, while they toil and do not receive reward."
          It doesn’t seem to be true that “they toil and do not receive reward”? Would anyone work if he wasn’t receiving remuneration?
          The Chofetz Chaim related a parable about a king who hired a simple yet experienced shoemaker to design and make him shoes for his daughter’s upcoming wedding. It was a tremendous honor, and the shoemaker understood the gravity of the responsibility. Every nobleman and aristocrat would be in attendance, and the king expected the shoes to be regal and perfect.
          The shoemaker worked diligently on the shoes, sparing no effort, and working vigorously well into the night. Every stitch was sewn with precision.
          A few days before the wedding the king returned for his new shoes. The shoemaker pridefully showed the king one shoe which the king happily admired. It was truly magnificent and met his highness’s standards. But when the king asked for the second shoe, the shoemaker apologized and said he needed another two weeks. All color drained from the king’s face. Two weeks? The wedding was three days away. But the simple shoemaker insisted that there was no way he could have it done in that amount of time. The king controlled his rage, as he turned around to leave.
          The foolish shoemaker asked the exiting king when he could expect payment for his efforts? At that point, the king lost his temper. “Payment?! I should have you killed for your insolence and for failing to fulfill your task. You get paid when you meet demands. It would have been better if the shoe was less perfect, if I would at least have two shoes. But now I have to wear old shoes to my own daughter’s wedding. Be happy I’m allowing you to remain alive!”
          The Chofetz Chaim explained that that people work so they will get paid, which is contingent upon their fulfilling their task. No one gets paid for their effort; payment is for production. It is only in the world of spirituality where reward is granted for effort, not for results.

          There is an old saying that “G-d doesn’t count the pages, only the hours.”[3]
          Similarly, the Mishna[4] states: “Lefum tza'ara agra - Commensurate with the gain is the reward."
          In the world of truth what matters is not how much one has accomplished, but how much effort one expended. It is that investment which effects internal change, and that is what counts in heaven.
          Nachlas Eliezer explains that the sons of Moshe were undoubtedly great scholars. In fact, they may have even been more knowledgeable and more scholarly than Yehoshua. However, great as they were, they could have reached greater levels.
          Yehoshua on the other hand, was constantly at his Rebbe's side, always seeking to grow and enhance his spiritual level. Therefore, Yehoshua was more worthy to be Moshe’s successor than Moshe’s own sons.
          There is an often-quoted statement from the Chida, “אין לך דבר העומד בפני הרצון - there is nothing that stands before want/desire.” Simply understood, it means “where there is a will, there is a way”. The problem is that although that may be an inspiring statement, it’s simply not true. There are many things a person may truly desire yet will not be able to achieve or have.
          The P’nei Menachem of Ger[5] related the following explanation from his father, the Imrei Emes[6] of Ger: The Chida didn’t mean that one can achieve or ascertain anything that he wants badly enough. Rather, he means that although one cannot get whatever he wants, he has the ability to desire whatever he wants. Nothing stands in the way of desire! One can always yearn for greatness and higher levels.

          Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt”l notes that results and accomplishments are solely in the Hands of Hashem. Our role is to make the right choices and to desire the correct things:
          “Suppose a person has no desire for anything good. He’s missing out on the most important part. If he’s a poor man and thinks that he can’t build yeshivos, and so he forgets about it. He doesn’t even have any interest in building a yeshiva. He is losing out because the whole success in life is the desire to want to do it, even though he can’t. That’s why we ask in our daily prayers, that the Bais Hamikdash be rebuilt. This is a very important tefillah. We desire the Bais Hamikdash. We can’t do more than that right now, so Hashem gives us a reward for desiring it. People think that desire is a waste of time, but that’s the biggest possible error...
          “Rav Yisrael Salanter was once seen talking to an old man for a long time and explaining to him the importance of creating a kollel where married men could sit and learn. Rabbi Salanter’s students assumed that the old man was wealthy. When they found out that he had no money, they asked why he had wasted his time on a poor man, he replied that the old man can want a kollel. We see how important it was to get an old man to merely desire a kollel. That itself was an achievement - planting into somebody’s heart the desire to do good, even though he cannot do it.
          “This is a tremendous lesson for us. A person can build the Bais Hamikdash in his heart. He can build yeshivos in his heart. He can do all good things, as long as he makes up his mind that he’d like to do it.”[7]

          In life, our responsibility is not to live up to anyone else's expectations or standards, but to desire and strive to be all that we can be with the G-d-given talents we have been endowed with. That barometer is very personal.

          “We toil and receive reward”
          “Nothing stands before desire”

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

[1] 1882-1968
[2] Bamidbar Rabbah 21
[3] Quoted by Pele Yoetz, os lamed, Chesed Le’alofim 1
[4] Avos 5:26
[5] during a hesped for Rav Leibel Levin zt”l
[6] Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Alter
[7] Ohr Avigdor - Chovas Halvavos p.325

Friday, July 19, 2019



          I was eighteen years old, and I had gotten my license a few months earlier. I was driving on a main road near Monsey, feeling very confident and grown-up. I was making a left turn, crossing a busy intersection into a shopping mall, when a car driving on the shoulder to make a right turn, hit me from the side.
          I was convinced that the turn I was making was legal, and I was not at fault, until I realized there was a ‘No left turn' sign that had been obscured from my view. I immediately began to rationalize that I had seen people make that turn many times before, and I had no idea that it was illegal. But I quickly realized that there was no way the cop was going to buy that. If I have a license then I am expected to look for traffic signs, and to determine whether I am allowed to make a turn before proceeding. That’s part of the responsibility that comes along with the privilege of having a license.

   Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Katz zt'l[1] was born into a litvishe (non-Chassidic) family. After a few encounters with Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov[2] however, he became one of his most ardent students and followers. In fact, all the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov that we have recorded, are from the writings of Rabbi Katz[3]
   One time the Ba'al Shem Tov noted that everything that transpires during one's life is pre-ordained and contains a personal message for that person.
   Just then, a non-Jew knocked on the door of the Ba'al Shem Tov and asked if anything in his house needed to be repaired. The Ba'al Shem Tov replied that everything was in perfect order. The non-Jew replied, "Rabbi, if you look hard enough there is always something that requires fixing." Upon hearing those words, the Ba'al Shem Tov excitedly turned to Rabbi Katz, "Did you hear what he just said? That was a message for us from G-d. It’s teaching us that one may feel complacent with his spiritual level. However, if he reflects within himself, he can always find things that need rectifying.” Rabbi Katz was not convinced. He replied that the non-Jew was merely looking to make some extra cash. There was no divine message in the mundane words he uttered.
          The Ba'al Shem Tov reiterated that the message was true; he just didn’t want to accept it.
   A short while later, Rabbi Katz took leave of the Ba’al Shem Tov. As he was walking, he was preoccupied with the Ba'al Shem Tov's message, until his thoughts were interrupted by the shouts of a local farmer. The farmer was standing next to a heavy pile of hay that had just fallen off his wagon. He asked Rabbi Katz if he could help him reload the hay onto his wagon. Rabbi Katz shook his head apologetically, "I'm sorry but I'm an old man and it's very hot. I'm afraid I can't help you."
          The farmer called back to him, "You could help if you want; you just don't want to!" When Rabbi Katz heard the farmer repeat the exact words he had heard from the Ba'al Shem Tov moments earlier, he hurried back to the Ba'al Shem Tov, now convinced of the validity of what the Ba'al Shem Tov had said: Everything that happens carries a personal message for the person. 

   On Yom Kippur, one of the confessions we repeatedly declare is, "For the sins that we have committed before You
בבלי דעת - without knowledge." One would think that the sins committed out of ignorance would be the least of our concerns. At least for those sins we have an excuse. Why is it necessary for us to confess those sins?
   Sefer Hachassidim (153) explains that during the war against Midyan Moshe became upset at the generals of the nation for not killing the Midyanite women[4]. The generals could have conceivably replied to Moshe that he had never explicitly commanded them to kill the women. However, the generals understood that they were culpable, because they should have realized it on their own. They should have rationalized that if the Canaanites about whom the pasuk[5] states must be completely killed out (including the women) so that the nation should not be negatively influenced from their ways in the future[6], surely then the Midyanites who had already caused a great plague to befall Klal Yisroel should have been killed as well. 
   Sefer Chassidim continues that when Bila'am was traveling with the officers of Balak to curse Klal Yisroel, his donkey pressed his leg against a solid wall three times. Out of anger, Bila'am struck the donkey with his stick. Miraculously the donkey spoke to Bila'am and asked him (Bamidbar 22:28), "What have I done to you that you have hit me three times?" Why didn't Bila’am reply to the donkey that he was only acting naturally by hitting his animal? Furthermore, not only did Bila'am not defend himself but he also admitted his error: "I have sinned for I did not know."[7] If he did not know, what sin did he commit?
   The answer is that ignorance is no excuse. Bila'am was a prophet and therefore he should have understood that all that transpires is preordained in heaven. Even a wicked person such as Bila'am recognized that for a man of his stature, ignorance was not an excuse. His ignorance was the sin. 
          Reb Yeruchom Levovitz zt'l, the Mirrer Mashgiach, once asked his students what the first mitzvah in the Torah is. One student immediately replied that it was to have children, the first commandment instructed to Adam. Another student suggested that it was the the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh - sanctifying the new moon, the first mitzvah instructed to Klal Yisroel[8], but Reb Yeruchom waved off both of their responses.
          The students were perplexed; they didn’t understand what their rebbe was asking them. Reb Yeruchom explained that the first mitzvah is 'Zay nisht a tipish- Don't be a
fool.' His message was that the prerequisite for Torah observance is to also comprehend the message of the spirit of the law.
   Though there are only four sections of Shulchan Aruch[9], the Ba'alei Mussar (master ethicists) refer to a fifth volume, i.e. that of ‘saychel- intellect and logic'. Without ‘common sense', one cannot learn and fulfill Torah and mitzvos properly.
       Rabbi Yehuda Zev Segal zt'l, the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, would note that in the celestial courts, ignorance is not a valid excuse. If one had the ability to study but did not do so, he is liable for not setting aside time to do so.

   Someone once said, “The world's greatest area of undeveloped territory lies under people's hats.” Ignorance is never a valid excuse unless one can justify his inability to study and learn.
          Noted author J.K. Rowlings quipped that the expiration date for blaming one’s life problems on parents, is when one gets his/her license. Once one is responsible enough to drive, he must be responsible enough for his own decisions and the trajectory of his life. As my rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, once quipped “excuses are wonderful, but they don’t pay the bills.”

          "I have sinned for I did not know."
          “For the sins that we have committed before You without knowledge."

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

[1][1] c. 1669-1781
[2] the founder of the Chassidic movement, 1698-1760
[3] later known as 'the Toldos'
[4] see Bamidbar 31, parshas Matos
[5] Devorim 20:16
[6] Devorim 20:18
[7] Bamidbar 22:34
[8] See Shemos 12:1; also see the first Rashi in the Torah
[9] the main code of Jewish law

Thursday, July 11, 2019



          The following is based on the lecture I delivered in Kehillat New Hempstead (KNH), Shabbos Kodesh parshas Chukas 5778, June 23, 2018.
          I had the great fortune to serve as rabbi of KNH from 2007-2018. This lecture was the final that I gave in the capacity of being the shul’s Rabbi:

          During one of Abbot and Costello’s classic comedy routines, Lou Costello was the defendant in court. At one point, when Costello made a rude comment, the judge angrily replied, “You can’t speak to me that way, young man. I’ve been sitting on this bench for twenty-five years”. Costello snapped back, “Twenty-five years on the same bench? So you’re just naturally lazy, aren’t you!”
          I’ve been standing at this pulpit each Shabbos and Yom Tov for the last eleven years. During that time, I’ve shared many wonderful occasions with you. I’ve conveyed Torah thoughts on the parsha and yomim tovim, and have spoken during occasions spanning the lifecycle. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking on happy occasions, and I’ve had to give eulogies, which were of the most difficult experiences of my life. And now, after eleven wonderful years, this is the final lecture I will deliver from this wonderful pulpit in the capacity of Rabbi.
          As you all know, I consider myself a student of Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman. For many wonderful summers, Rabbi Finkelman joined us in Camp Dora Golding. During those summers, I had the privilege to hear many inspiring lectures from him, to learn from his sterling example, and gained tremendously from many personal conversations with him.
A few years ago, Rabbi Finkelman did not return to Camp Dora Golding. I missed (and miss) being able to glean from his direct influence and from his insights and unique perspectives.
          A friend related that he too had had such an experience when a rebbe he was close to for years had moved on. He told me that his rebbe had shared with him that when Hashem separates a person from a rebbe or guide, it is indicative of the fact that Hashem wants the person to internalize all he gained from that Rebbe, and to continue to grow without the personal connection he had until now.
          During the past decade, on some level, every member of this kehilla has been a rebbe to me.
          The greatest mashgiach for a parent, is his children, because he feels he must maintain certain spiritual standards in the presence of his impressionable children. In the same vein, the greatest mashgiach for a rebbe is his students, and the greatest mashgiach for a Rabbi are his congregants.
          A fellow Rabbi in this neighborhood would often bless me that I should have nachas from my ba’al habatim (congregants). His beracha was definitely fulfilled on many levels.
          In addition, a rebbe/rabbi is blessed with added siyata dishmaya (heavenly assistance) to live up the high demands of his position. In my years as Rabbi, I have personally gained tremendously in my personal Torah learning from all of you. Firstly, I have learned a great deal from the penetrating questions and wonderful insights that people have shared with me over the years. But in addition, on many occasions, when preparing a lecture, I have found myself realizing a new idea or perspective that I had never thought of before. On numerous occasions I had that experience while doing the arduous trek up Brick Church Road towards shul on Shabbos morning.
          Aside from the friendships and great relationships that our family has forged during the last decade, as I move on from the shul, I will miss all the added components I just mentioned as well.
          On the Final Gemara exam that I gave my ninth-grade students last week, I wrote the following concluding thought at the end: “You have arrived at the end. But every end is another beginning, if we view it in that light.”
          When sharing a final thought, it cannot be merely an insight on the parsha, but it must be a perspective about life and Torah living generally. It must be an idea that can inspire us as we forge ahead on the road of life:
          In parshas Chukas, the nation was nearing the end of their long and difficult forty-year-trek through the desert. They were not far from the Promised Land, and were camped next to settled kingdoms and nations. Moshe extended a request to the King of Edom to allow the fatigued nation to pass through his land. The King of Edom summarily rejected the request, even mobilizing his army to ensure that the Jewish nation didn’t traverse his borders.
          The vernacular Moshe used when making his request of the King of Edom contains a poignant perspective for how a Jew is to live his life: “Please allow us to cross through your land, we will not pass through the fields or the vineyards, and we will not drink from the waters of the wells; on the road of the King we will go, we will not veer to the right or to the left, until we cross through your boundary.”[1]
          Essentially, what Moshe asked the King of Edom is what our soul requests of our body in this world. In this world, out soul and body are engaged in an epic struggle for supremacy, and the body has home-court advantage.
          Our soul descends into this world with a sense of mission. It desires to garner merits and fulfill its task so that it can successfully return home, and merit its eternal reward. But to do so, it has to traverse the rugged terrain of this world, where there are temptations lurking on all sides. Our soul seeks to not divert its focus by wandering into the dangerous pastures of iniquitous fields and vineyards, or by drinking from the wells of polluted waters. Rather it pledges to remain on the road of the king, the pathway of regality, ethics, and dignity.
          Our soul begins its journey with a sense of purpose and commitment, but the road is long and serpentine. At every juncture we need to remind ourselves of our mission and not allow ourselves to be lured off course.
          Last week, I had to leave camp to come to the city. When I was an hour out of camp, well down Route 80, I had the terrible realization that I had forgotten my wallet in camp. [In camp, I hardly ever carry my wallet.] It was an uncomfortable feeling to know that I had no money, credit card, or identification on me.
          Although, thankfully, I made it back to camp without incident, it was a stark reminder that whenever we travel and leave our familiar surroundings, we are more prone to ‘forgetting our identity’ and acting in ways we never would when we are at home.  
          When Moshe wanted to dispatch twelve individuals to scout out Eretz Yisrael, he chose twelve righteous leaders. Moshe felt confident that they would execute their mission properly and infuse the nation with excitement and confidence to conquer the Land. The problem is that Rashi says that when the spies left they already had evil intentions to malign the Land. If Moshe hand-picked these individuals because of their virtues, how could they have had malicious intentions even before they arrived?
          Rav Yisrael Belsky zt”l explained[2] that Moshe indeed appointed great men for this mission. As long as they remained within the spiritually secure confines of the camp, they were holy and elite. The problem was that as soon as they left the camp and began their journey, they began to entertain malevolent ideas.
          The summer is particularly a time when people leave their communities to vacation and travel. When one is outside his community, it is a particularly challenging time when he is spiritually vulnerable and can easily compromise his standards if he isn’t careful. One must be wary of those challenges and plan accordingly.
          When Yaakov Avinu left home to escape the wrath of his brother Eisav, the pasuk says “Yaakov left Be’er Sheva and went towards Charan.”[3] Rashi asks why the Torah says that Yaakov left Be’er Sheva if it already related that fact at the end of the previous parsha? Rashi explains that it’s to teach us that when a righteous person departs from a place, his splendor, beauty, and shine leave with him.
          Rabbi Gedalia Schorr zt”l explained that when man landed on the moon, he essentially carried earth with him. The atmosphere on the moon cannot sustain human life. Therefore, each astronaut had to be completely ensconced in a spacesuit that provided him with oxygen. Although they were on the moon, in a certain sense they were still surrounded by earth.
          When Yaakov Avinu left Yeshiva to travel toward the spiritual desert of Charan, he knew that he would be spiritually vulnerable. Therefore, he made sure to take his own splendor, shine, and beauty, with him. He did so by fortifying himself as best as he could and mentally preparing himself for the challenges he knew he would encounter. Yaakov was physically leaving yeshiva, but spiritually he never left.
          Our challenge in life is to always remain upon the road of the king. That becomes an especially difficult challenge when we are traversing the surrounding vineyards and wells. In those situations, one must be especially wary to make sure he is spiritually prepared for the vicissitudes he is sure to face.

          “Yaakov left Be’er Sheva”
          “On the road of the King we will go”

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

[1] Devorim 20:17
[2] Quoted in “Halachically Speaking” Volume 7
[3] Bereishis 28:10