Thursday, September 26, 2019


          It’s the first day of the new z’man[2] and the new Mashgiach[3] is addressing the yeshiva students for the first time. He explains to them that the yeshiva will be implementing a k’nas (monetary fine) system for students who come late or miss shachris in the yeshiva. One who misses one day would be fined five dollars, twice would be fined ten dollars, and a third time would have to pay twenty dollars.
          At that point, one student stood up and publicly asked, “Rabbi, how much for a season’s pass?”    
          Contrary to what people may think, the celestial courts do not judge us based on a point system. It’s not merely about keeping track of everything we did[4]. In a marriage, “keeping score” is a relationship killer. More significantly, the question is about how much one desires and strives to connect with G-d.  

          The mitzva of Rosh Hashanah is to hear the shofar. Ultimately, we perform the mitzva simply because the Torah instructs us to do so.[5] Still, it helps us to connect with the mitzvah when we understand how to emotionally and logically understand and relate to it.
          The Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as “Yom Teruah – a day of (shofar) blasts”[6], which Onkelos translates as “Yom Yabava – a day of weeping.”[7] The gemara also relates that our custom to blow one hundred blasts of the shofar is symbolic of the one hundred cries that the mother of Sisra wept when she found out that her son was killed in his battle against the Jews.[8]
          Rambam[9] writes that the Shofar is symbolic of a spiritual wake-up call, for us to shake ourselves out of our lethargy and to reconnect ourselves with what really matters in life.
          There is a completely different dimension of the shofar which depict it as blasts that celebrate and mark the coronation of the king. In that sense, shofar blowing elicits a feeling of happiness and celebration.
          Rabbi Chaim Volozhin writes about his rebbe, the Vilna Gaon[10]: “Our Rebbe rejoiced tremendously during the time of the blowing of the shofar. He also would say that one should be in a state of joy and exultation analogous to a country proclaiming a new king and placing the crown upon his head. During the blowing of the shofar we too are proclaiming the Kingship of G-d throughout the worlds that we are part of.”
          On the one hand, the shofar elicits feelings of sadness and brokenness and downright weeping, it is also meant to provoke feelings of urgency to pay heed to the values of life. Yet, on the other hand, it evokes feelings of unbridled joy and celebration. How can such diverse dichotomous emotions be reconciled?
Dr. David Lieberman notes[11]:
“Why can’t people admit that they were wrong?
It boils down to one word: EGO!
The ego wants to protect its self-image. The more genuine self-esteem and more appreciation one has for himself, the smaller the ego.
People think ego is synonymous with self-esteem. In reality however, the opposite is true. The ego is the false self, in contrast to the real self. The less I appreciate me and the less I like me and accept me and acknowledge me, the greater will be my ego to compensate for those personal feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.
It’s very hard for one who is ego-oriented to admits faults to themselves or to others, because doing so would acknowledge weakness and a low self-esteem cannot handle that.
Only a person who has a healthy self-esteem can acknowledge mistakes and thereby move forward.
One who cannot admit to being wrong will always be looking for outsiders to tell them how right and wonderful they are. To such a person being right is more of an emotional priority than doing right!
At times such a person will act against his own self-interest because he needs to prove to himself that he is correct. He’ll twist and contort opinions and viewpoints, even at his own expense, just so he can say that he was right.
The bottom line is that we all want to feel valuable and worthy. If it’s not coming from an internal healthy sense of self-esteem it will have to come from outside validation. If so, then when we make mistakes, we will rather hurt ourselves by proving that we are correct than to help ourselves by admitting and fessing up to a mistake. Our ego just cannot handle it. The pain of accepting that I did something wrong is just too great. I’d rather become angry at you – anything to avoid the debilitating pain of acknowledging mistake.

          When one is a child, he feels and dreams that he can be anything. Ask a child and he will tell you that when he grows up, he will be a policeman, a fireman, and an ambulance man. As one travels the roads of life however, he comes to a painful realization that ultimately, not every road is open to him. More significantly, he is not in control of the events that transpire in the world or even in his own life.
          Some people come to that realization earlier than others, depending on their life experiences and emotional maturity. Others may only come to that sobering understanding during their final moments on earth. But it is a truth that no one can escape from.
          Life forces upon us the realization that, “To Hashem is the world and everything that fills it[12]”.
          A friend related that on one occasion, he and his wife feared that one of his younger children had ingested a medication which could be very dangerous for a young child. After he and his wife brought him to the Emergency Room, the doctor insisted that he would need twenty-four surveillance. An IV was inserted into the child’s arm, and he was transported via an ambulance to a children’s hospital.
          In the end, thankfully everything was completely fine. But the father related that while in the ambulance his son, strapped down to a stretcher, looked up at his father with pleading eyes, not understanding what was happening to him. When his wife met them at the hospital, and he was able to walk away from his son’s bed, he broke down. The feeling of utter helplessness to help his son was overwhelming.
          The shofar elicits within us feelings of helplessness. Like the mother of Sisra, who could do nothing to bring back her dead son, we are not in control over the events of our lives. That’s the penetrating and painful “cry” of the shofar.  
          So where is there room for joy when confronting such a painful truth?

          R’ Ephraim Wachsman recounted that he was at a wedding where Rabbi Moshe Goofitz[13], a son-in-law of the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, related the following story:
          Rabbi Goofitz’s son is a maggid shiur in Eretz Yisroel. Every night a group of successful, semi-retired American businessmen come to learn with great enthusiasm. Over time, they finished a masechta and made a siyum. They were a wealthy group and brought expensive drinks. After a few l’chaims one fellow related his story:
          “My parents were survivors. They came to America with nothing. They totally cast-off religion and wanted to have nothing to do with it. I was born in America and the only thing Jewish that I had was a b’ris milah. I didn’t even have a bar mitzvah. My parents spoke Yiddish, so I knew Yiddish and read Yiddish newspapers, but that was the extent of my connection to Judaism.
          “Time went on and I fell in with a bad crowd who were doing illegal things. I had two non-Jewish partners and I became very wealthy. One day we had a meeting in a restaurant to close a tremendous deal with a few individuals involving illegal means. I walked into the restaurant a free man, and walked out in handcuffs. It was a setup – a sting operation by FBI agents. They had been investigating us and had taped the entire conversation. I was in my early twenties and facing a serious jail sentence and had no idea what to do.
          “One of my partners skipped bail and I never heard from him again. The other turned state’s evidence and agreed to talk. He revealed what I did and got a lesser sentence, and left me facing a sentence of twenty-five years.
          “I didn’t know what to do. I went to most expensive lawyers in Manhattan. When I told a bigwig lawyer my story, he replied that it doesn’t look good. They had me on tape and other incriminating evidence. Still, he said he would do his best. I had to put down a retainer of tens of thousands of dollars.
          “One day, I was walking down the Manhattan streets shivering and crying the whole way. I walked all the way to the east side. I felt hungry so I walked into a diner and ordered a coffee. I was sitting at the table and crying into my coffee.
          “Suddenly an old Jew walks in and sits down next to me. He looks at me and says, “Vats yer problem?” I look at him and asked him what he knows about problems. He rolls up his sleeve and shows me the numbers on his arm and says “I know all about problems. What’s yours?”  So I told him my whole story. He was a bright man and understood my predicament. He told me that I didn’t need a lawyer; I needed a rebba!
          “I didn’t know anything about a Rebba, but I followed him to an apartment building and up six flights to the apartment of the late Skolya Rebbe zt’l. I knew Yiddish so I could converse with the Rebbe, and I poured out my heart to him with tears flowing.
          “The rebbe listened and when I finished, he smiled and said, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. On the day of the trial you should know that your lawyer will come late but don’t be nervous, it will all work out.”
          “On day of court date, everyone was there, including FBI agents. But inexplicably, my lawyer wasn’t there. I could tell that the judge was getting edgy and upset. Finally, the court received message that my lawyer missed his flight and couldn’t make it, but he was sending a replacement momentarily. 
          “I couldn’t believe it. I was facing 25 years in prison and my lawyer sent a substitute. At around 10 am a young man, maybe 21 years old, bursts in jovially and announced that he was sent to represent me. I nearly fainted.
          “The prosecution presented their case along with their evidence. Then the young lawyer stood up and started preaching. After five minutes no one knew what he was talking about. He kept going for almost an hour, rambling on and on. The judge looked very annoyed, and I was bracing for the worst. At long last, my “lawyer” finished. Immediately the judge looked up in a huff and began shouting at the FBI agents and the prosecution, “What’s the matter with you guys? This is how you present a case? You have no concrete evidence. Case dismissed!” 
          “I walked out in shock. I called over the lawyer and asked him what he said. He admitted this was his first case. I couldn’t believe it, until he added that the judge was his grandfather.
          “I went back to the rebbe and asked him how he knew that would happen. He replied, “How I know is not your concern. But one thing I know when someone does you a favor you owe them a favor back.”
          “I agreed and the rebbe continued, “I’m not asking you to keep Shabbos or become religious. I am only asking that you put on tefillin every day!”
          “Putting on tefillin every day was a lot better than being in jail for twenty-five years, so I agreed. But when I went to purchase tefillin, the owners of the seforim stores took one look at me and refused to seell tefillin to me. Then one storeowner told me that if I would go to Crown Heights to a Rabbi Jacobson and learn all about tefillin then he’ll sell me a pair afterwards.
          “I did so and began wearing tefillin every day, and here I am now a religious Jew and my children are learning in kollel.

            The joy of the shofar is in the knowledge that the awesome judgement being meted out by the Supreme King, is my Father! The shofar which proclaims the eternal monarchy of G-d, is blown and heard by us! We are the ones who coronate the Almighty, and that can infuse a person with incredible joy.
          Ultimately, we are powerless over the world and our lives. But there is a Power that does direct the world and our lives, and that Power is our loving Father.
          The process of teshuva is to rebuild and rectify our relationship with G-d, so that we can feel true joy in our connection with Him. If a person feels that he is in control and lives his life with hubris, G-d steps aside, as it were. When the person is confronted with crises, then he’ll recognize his vulnerabilities. 
          That is the dichotomous emotions that the shofar arouses – brokenness stemming from our finitude and puniness, that leads to intense joy in knowing that we are in the Hands of our loving G-d.
          “Praised is the nation who knows the teruah, G-d – by the light of Your Countenance they will go.”[14]  
          The only deficiency with using the aforementioned story as an analogy is, as it has often been said, G-d has no grandchildren!

          “A day of weeping”
          “Joy and exultation… placing the crown upon his head”
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1] Adapted from the derasha delivered at Kehillat New Hempstead, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5776
[2] In the hallowed halls of yeshivos, each semester is called a ‘z’man’.
[3] In yeshivos, the Mashgiach is the spiritual overseer of the students. At times, he is also responsible to discipline recalcitrant students.
[4] Although one is undoubtedly held accountable for every sin he committed and did not do teshuva for.
[5] Gemara Rosh Hashanah 16a
[6] Bamidbar 29:1
[7] See gemara Rosh Hashanah 33b
[8] Shoftim chapter 4
[9] Hilchos Teshuva 3:4
[10] Keser Rosh
[11] from podcast of the Charlie Harary Show – August 29, 2015
[12] Tehillim 24:1
[13] I heard this story from a recorded lecture. I am unsure if I heard the name correctly.
[14]  Tehillim 89:16

Friday, September 20, 2019



          During the early hours of March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed outside an apartment building across the street from where she lived in Queens, NY. Genovese was then chased by her assailant and attacked three times in the street, over the course of a half hour, as thirty-eight neighbors watched from their windows. Nobody called the police.
          In a book about the case, Abe Rosenthal, future editor of the New York Times, noted that the fact that no one intervened or tried to help is indicative of urban apathy. “It is almost a matter of psychological survival, if one is surrounded and pressed by millions of people, to prevent them from constantly impinging on you, and the only way to do this is to ignore them as often as possible. Indifference to one’s neighbor and his troubles is a conditioned reflex in life in New York as it is in other big cities.”
          In his bestselling book, The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell notes that Rosenthal’s conclusion was incorrect. He quotes a study in which a student staged that he was having an epileptic fit. If there was one other student in the room, he rushed to the student’s aid 85 percent of the time. However, if the subjects thought there were four other people who overheard the seizure, the only came to help 31 percent of the time.
          “When people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem… isn’t really a problem. In the case of Kitty Genovese… the lesson is not that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her scream; it’s that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her scream. Ironically, had she been attacked on a lonely street with just one witness, she might have lived.”

          In parshas Re’eh and again in parshas Ki Savo, the Torah foreshadows the events that would take place after the nation entered Eretz Yisroel. Half of the tribes would ascend Har Grizim and the other half would ascend Har Eival. The Leviim would stand in the middle and would turn towards Har Grizim and declare one of the blessings, e.g. “blessed is the man who does not make a molten image”, and the entire nation would say amen. Then they would turn towards Har Eivel and declare one of the curses, e.g. “cursed is the man who makes a molten image”, and again the nation would say amen. They would continue in this manner until they finished stating all of the blessings and curses.[2]
          In Sefer Yehoshua[3], it relates the actual events when they occurred following the conquering of the cities of Yericho and Ai.
          What was the point of this seemingly theatrical display? Why was it such an important event that the Torah refers to it twice before it even occurred?
          The Be’er Yosef explains that the gemara[4] states that a person should always view himself as if he has exactly as many merits as liabilities, so that the next act he performs can tip the scales. Another opinion states that one should view the entire world as if there is a perfect balance between its merits and liabilities, and the next act he performs will actually tip the scales of the entire world.  
          The message the gemara is conveying is that one should always feel a sense of responsibility, that each of his actions are significant, and his personal conduct generally has ramifications far beyond his own self.  
          This concept was vividly portrayed by the events at Har Grizim and Har Eival. Each blessing and curse was declared from the middle, facing six of the tribes. Every individual should view himself as the Levite standing in between a mountain of curse and a mountain of evil, and his next action will determine the state of the entire world.
          When discussing the special vestments of the Kohain Gadol, the Torah relates that upon his shoulders were two Shoham stones that contained the names of all twelve tribes. “Six of their names were on the one stone, and the six remaining names were on the second stone, according to their birth.”[5]
          Chasam Sofer explains that the Kohain Gadol was a living reenactment of the event of Har Gerizim and Har Eival. He was the “Levite” in the middle with the six tribes on the “hills” to each of his sides.
          That was also symbolic for every Jew to feel that he too is like the Kohain Gadol who bears responsibility to the entire nation.

           If one does not have a feeling of responsibility, but seeks to shift blame and point fingers, he can never achieve greatness or leadership.
          This is true in every facet of life. I remember once reading about a baseball player who was asked the secret to his incredible determination to the game. He replied that every time he stepped up to bat he felt as if the whole game was riding on his shoulders and it was up to him to carry his team.
          In a similar vein, a few years ago, I took a course in CPR. The instructor told us that in an emergency situation someone has to take charge. If he opts to start doing compressions immediately, he will tire himself out. The first thing he must do is instruct someone to call for help, and then to tell someone else to grab a defibrillator. Only then, should he begin administering CPR.[6]
            How much more important is this idea regarding spiritual matters, particularly teshuva.
          Yeshaya Hanavi[7] makes reference to “the waters of Noach”.[8] The commentators question why the flood is labeled the waters of Noach when it was in his merit that humankind survived beyond it?
          The Aish Dos explains that Noach is viewed as being somewhat culpable for the flood. He did not pray for his generation out of feelings of misplaced modesty that he would be unable to effect any major changes in them. As a righteous man, he should have risen to the occasion and done his utmost, without thinking about whether he would be successful or not. If he would have felt a greater level of responsibility, he would have invested more.
          The gemara[9] relates that Eliezer ben Durdaya had a lifelong struggle with lust and immoral sin. When he finally came to the stark realization that he was lost in the morass of sin, he tried to solicit any avenue of assistance or shifting of the blame. He finally declared “The matter is contingent upon me alone!” With that he cried profusely out of sincere regret until he died. So great and sincere was his repentance that he is referred to as Rabbi Eliezer ben Durdaya.  
          As we begin the period of selichos and prepare to usher in the great days of Judgement and Mercy, the imagery of Har Gerizim and Har Eival becomes even more poignant. It’s up to us to decide which mountain we face, and whether we choose a life of blessing.

          “These shall stand to bless the nation upon Har Gerizim…”
          “The matter is contingent upon me alone!”
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1] Adapted from the derasha delivered at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Ki Setzei 5775
[2] Rabbi Leibel Chaitovksy recounted that years ago before parshas Ki Savo, he took his students for a walk to a nearby park where there were two small mounds. He stood the Kohanim and Leviim in the middle of the hills, and then sent half of the class to stand on one hill and half on the other. Then he would have the Kohanim and Leviim begin reading the pesukim exactly as they appear in the chumash. A clever way to bring the event to life.
[3] Chapter 8
[4] Kiddushin 40b
[5] Shemos 28:10
[6] Sometimes around the table when someone calls out “Can someone please pass the ketchup?” the person gets frustrated when no one does. If the request is directed at everyone, then no one in particular may feel that they should stop what they are doing to do it. The better option is to ask someone specific to pass it.  
[7] Yeshaya 54:9
[8] This is from the haftorah of parshas Ki Setzei and parshas Noach
[9] Avodah Zara 17a