Thursday, November 28, 2019



            An Israeli journalist once asked a ba’al teshuva who he felt was greater, the little Yerushalmi children in Me’ah Shearim who have never had exposure to contemporary society, or he, who had reformed his entire life? The journalist assumed that the ba’al teshuva would reply that he is greater because he had left behind surroundings and familiarity of his youth in order to adopt a Torah lifestyle. However, the ba’al teshuva replied that in his opinion the Yerushalmi children are greater: “I experienced the trappings and pleasures of the outside world, and I am starkly aware that it’s ultimately empty and meaningless. To me, it’s clear that Torah provides true meaning and a life of direction and purpose. But those Yerushalmi children have no way of knowing that. To them the allure of the outside world still seems exciting and tempting. The fact that they maintain their beliefs anyway requires faith and dedication that are beyond me.”   

          The prophet Yeshaya conveyed to the nation that G-d was displeased with their Service to Him: “G-d said: Since this people has drawn close, with its mouth and with its lips it has honored Me, yet it has distanced its heart from me; their fear of me is כמצות אנשים מלומדה - like rote of human commands.”[1]
          One of the greatest challenges we face is to maintain a level of excitement and passion when doing mitzvos and serving Hashem, particularly regarding those mitzvos we perform on a daily basis. When a young man dons his tefillin for the first time shortly prior to his bar mitzvah, he is extremely excited and proud. But with time that excitement wanes and becomes a matter of rote, especially during those mornings when he is tired. 
          When Yitzchak and Rivka davened for a child the Torah states, “And Hashem heeded his cries, and his wife Rivka conceived.”[2] Rashi explains that Hashem listened to the prayers of Yitzchak more than to the prayers of Rivka, because the prayers of a righteous person who is the child of a wicked person[3], cannot compare to the prayers of a righteous person who is the child of a righteous person[4].
          The words of Rashi are surprising. One would think that one born and raised among heretics who pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become a devout believer is greater than one born into a reputable upstanding home. In addition, the gemara[5] states, “In the place where one who has repented stands, the most perfectly righteous cannot stand.” If so, why was Rivka’s prayers not as poignant, if not more poignant, than those of Yitzchak?
          Rabbi Sholom Schwadron zt’l related that one day a man was standing next to the marketplace minding his own business watching people busily shopping. Suddenly, he felt two hard jabs at his chest. As he looked up angrily to see who had punched him, he realized that he was in the middle of saying Shemone Esrei and had just recited the beracha, Selach Lanu.[6]
          Rabbi Simcha Wasserman zt’l explained that a person who decides to revolutionize his life by adopting a Torah lifestyle that was completely unfamiliar to him, reaches spiritual levels that even surpasses the most righteous individuals, who did not have to undergo such struggle to achieve that connection. Still, one who repents generally does so because he felt internal strife and emptiness. He was searching and yearning for meaning and knew that something had to change in his life. It was that journey and self-discovery that led him to a path of Torah and mitzvah observance.
          One born into a home of Torah values however, never knew of anything different. For that person, it is a greater challenge to appreciate the privilege he was been born into, as a Torah observant Jew. One who has been davening three times a day, repeating the same words all his life, inevitably has a more difficult time finding meaning in his prayers. That is why the sincere prayers of one born into a home of righteousness, are greater than the prayers of one raised in a home that does not practice Torah values. One who developed an appreciation for prayer looks forward to the thrice daily opportunity for connection, and therefore it is not as great of a challenge for him to daven. One who was trained in it from youth, can maintain his callow understanding of prayer throughout his life, and never develop that appreciation for the greatness and opportunity of prayer. For him to do so, requires overcoming habit and rote, which is always a formidable challenge.[7]   

          In the daily Shema we recite: “And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart.”[8] The Medrash comments that each day a person should feel as if that day G-d commanded him to perform the mitzvos.[9]
          Shema is the mantra of every Jew. The custom is to recite Shema in the presence of an infant boy the night before his b’ris milah. Just before a person leaves this world, if he has the ability, he recites Shema. Twice a day, every day, morning and evening, a Jew recites Shema, and then repeats it again just before he retires for the night. 
          It is therefore particularly in the Shema recitation that we are commanded to maintain a sense of freshness and excitement for Avodas Hashem. We should never take for granted the message of Shema. Just as the world does not run on automatic pilot, but is renewed by G-d each day, so must our Service to Him be performed with renewed vigor and excitement each day.
          In days of old, a watchman was stationed at all railroad crossings. He would sit at the top of a tower next to the crossing. If he would see a horse and buggy traveling toward the crossing as a train was speeding down the track, he would wave a flaming torch in all directions to warn the conductor.
          One cloudy day, the watchman saw an oncoming train rapidly approaching the crossing just as a horse and wagon slowly made its way across the tracks. The watchman grabbed his wooden stick, raced to the top of the tower, and began waving it in all directions. But no matter how vigorously he waved the stick the train would not slow down. Moments later, the train crashed into the horse and buggy causing significant devastation and loss of life.
          The watchman was forced to stand trial in court with serious allegations leveled against him, which included involuntary manslaughter. When the charges were announced the watchman was indignant. “I did my job. I waved that torch as hard as I could. It was the conductor who should be charged for not adhering to the warning!” The prosecution sharply replied, “It doesn’t matter how much you waved the stick. You neglected to fulfill your primary duty, which is to light the stick before you start waving it. If there is no fire atop the stick, the conductor won’t see it, so how can he understand its message?!”
          Prayer is incredibly powerful, and its words are incredibly poignant. But words recited without emotion cannot compare with those recited passionately. The concentration and fervor we have while praying is the fire that propels those words to far greater heights.[10]
          The Sages explain that “G-d desires heart”[11]. It’s not merely about what we do, but also how we do it. That is true all of our actions, especially prayer.
          The prophet Yechezkel informed the nation:  “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”[12] Our task is to seek that sense of freshness and excitement in the mundane and not allow what we do to become a matter of rote.
          The sad truth of life is that we often don’t appreciate our greatest gifts. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little bit of reflection, we can elevate every day and savor the blessings we are granted.

          “Hashem heeded his cries”
          “These matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart.”

Rabbi Dani Staum LMSW
Rebbe, Heichal HaTorah, Teaneck, NJ
Principal, Ohr Naftali, New Windsor NY

[1] Yeshaya 29:13
[2] Bereishis 25:22
[3] The righteous Rivka was the daughter of the wicked Besuel
[4] The righteous Yitzchok was the son of the righteous Avrohom
[5] Berachos 34a
[6] The custom is that we strike our chests twice when reciting that beracha. Rabbi Schwadron was humorously depicting how we often pray as if on autopilot, allowing our mouths to recite the familiar words out of habit, while our minds are completely elsewhere.  
[7] It is truly inspiring to watch the manner in which ba’alei teshuva daven with intense concentration.
[8] Devorim 6:6
[9] Sifrei, Devorim 31
[10] Rabbi Aharon Lopianski notes that it is not always as important to understand the meaning of every single word as it to understand the general gist of what one is saying. When one has a general understanding of the words it is far easier to relate to them and to maintain concentration.
[11]  זוהר, רעיא מהימנא ג', כי תצא רפא, סנהדרין קו:
[12] Yecheskel 32:26

Thursday, November 21, 2019



          When my wife and I got engaged, my father enjoyed telling people that we did so primarily because we liked the fact that our names rhymed – “Dani and Chani” has a great ring to it. But the truth is that there was another reason we got engaged – our monogram spelled out the word “Chesed”[1]. We knew that would be a great topic for Sheva Berachos speeches…
          Rabbi Moshe Wolfson shlita notes that there is a beautiful reason behind the custom that a choson gives his kallah a diamond ring when they become engaged: The Ramak writes that each middah (character trait) is represented by a different color[2]. When one looks at a diamond, he sees every color reflected in its prism. However, the base color is white.
          In order to foster a healthy marriage both spouses need to possess a combination and balance of all character traits at different times. But the universal and fundamental middah required is chesed, symbolized by white! A strong marriage is built upon the foundation of chesed - when both spouses strive to perform chesed for each other and when both constantly recognize and are grateful to each other for all they do.[3]
          There is a chesed organization in Monsey that provides volunteer drivers to help people get to needed destinations, such as doctor appointments, hospital visits, etc.
          Rabbi Yisroel Saperstein[4] related to me that a chassidish driver for that organization had recounted to him the following personal story:  
          He once received a call in the middle of the night that there was a family who needed to get to Baltimore as quickly as possible for an emergency medical procedure. The man agreed to take them[5], and after dropping them off, he went to a nearby shul in Baltimore to daven shachris.
          Because he had rushed out in the middle of the night, he didn’t have his talis and tefillin with him. He saw someone finishing davening with a pervious minyan, and asked if he could borrow the man’s talis and tefillin. He assured the man that as soon as he finished davening, he would bring the talis and tefillin wherever he wanted them to be brought. At first the man was hesitant. He wanted to know why the driver had come to shul without his own talis and tefillin. When the driver explained the predicament, the man couldn’t get over the extent of the chessed he had done, driving over three hours in the middle of the night to help a family he never met.
          He told the driver he would be happy to let him use his talis and tefillin, and he informed the driver where to leave them in the shul when he was done using them.
          Sometime later this driver, who is a salesman by trade, arranged a meeting with the wealthy owner of a large company. It was a potentially lucrative deal for the driver, and he was eager to make the connection. He walked into the meeting and immediately recognized the owner as the person whose talis and tefillin he had borrowed a few days earlier in shul. The owner recognized him as well and reassured him that he was eager to give such a ba’al chesed his business, and he immediately placed a large order.

          On the topic of chesed and the benefits we accrue when we perform acts of chesed, I share the following poignant thoughts that were related by Rabbi Leibel Chaitovsky, the week of parshas Chayei Sarah 5779, to the older students of Ashar:

          Several years ago, during the winter there was a Torah Bowl event hosted here at Ashar. There was a prediction of a winter storm, but it wasn’t supposed to start until evening.
          Their prediction wasn’t very accurate, and it started earlier than expected. It began raining in the early afternoon, after which it quickly turned to sleet. It became apparent that the team that had traveled the furthest distance to get to us, was not going to be able to drive home that day. The roads were becoming treacherous and it was dangerous to drive through such a storm. Their teacher asked me if I had any idea where they could stay for the night.
          One boy was very inspired by the Torah Bowl meeting. He ran over to me and said, “They need a place? They can come to me! Not only can they come for supper, and sleep for the night, they all can stay for a week, or as long as they need.” I looked at the boy quizzically, “Did you ask your parents before you made such a magnanimous offer?” He laughed, “I don’t need to. Everyone knows that people can come to my house uninvited.”
          How many people would welcome a group of ten people to stay for many nights? This story never happened at Ashar, but it did happen with Rivka Imeinu. She met Eliezer at the well and immediately invited him and his entourage. It is incredible that Rivka, a young girl, knew she could invite such a large group, including many camels to stay in their home for many nights, without even consulting her parents.
          Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman zt”l relates[6] that Rivka’s family was wealthy, and had many maids and servants. We see this from the fact that when she ultimately returned with Eliezer, her family sent her with a maid. She didn’t need to go to the well herself to draw water. In fact, that night was the first time she had ever gone there.[7] She arrived at the well towards evening when everyone was leaving to go home for the day.
          Right before the Torah talks about Eliezer leaving to find a wife for Yitzchok, the Torah says that Hashem blessed Avrohom בכל – with everything. When Hashem told Avrohom to leave his home and his family it was with those same letters לך לך. There were three blessings Avrohom received when he arrived in Eretz Yisroel: Children, wealth, and fame. Hashem blessed Avrohom with כל – he received all three blessings.
          Just how famous was Avrohom?
          Rav Avigdor Miller zt’l relates an incredible idea:
          From where did Rivkah learn such magnanimous behavior? Such extreme acts of kindness are not merely the product of a kind heart. Such extreme and even fanatical devotion to the service of kindliness to travelers could have been learned only from one model. There was only one other person in the world who went to such extremes to perform chesed for strangers: Rivka’s great-uncle in Eretz Canaan, Avrohom.
          This young girl growing up in Mesopotamia, listened carefully to the tales that travelers would relate about her uncle, Avraham. There was communication between the family in Canaan and their kin in Mesopotamia; they were familiar with details about each other’s lives. The caravans traveling back and forth, brought news of Avraham’s behavior, and the fame of this “prince of G-d” as the Canaanites called him[8], spread far and wide.
          The travelers’ related stories about the unusual lavishness of Avraham’s hospitality. Avraham didn’t suffice himself with mere kindness. Avraham planted an orchard and it was there that he would serve his guests royally. He sat with them and served them. He searched for opportunities to perform chesed wherever he could. Even as an old man, he ran in the scorching heats to welcome three Bedouins. The stories of Avraham’s hospitality were so extraordinary, that they were recounted far and wide.
          Rivka listened to the stories about Avraham and took them to heart. Her soul was set on fire with enthusiasm for chesed, to imitate the practices of her great uncle. That is why the words describing Rivkah’s chesed are the same words the Torah used to describe the deeds of Avraham. ותמהר… ותרץ – And she hastened…and she ran.”
          Although Rivkah lived among the dishonest idolaters in Mesopotamia[9], she emulated Avrahama and became a person of chesed. The Medrash[10] relates that Rivkah was a שושנה בין החוחים – “A rose among thorns.” A rose can’t grow unless it is watered and cared for. What was that “water” that Rivkah grew on? The lessons of Avraham Avinu.

          When we perform acts of chesed, we strive to do so altruistically, simply to follow the legacy of Avrohom and Rivka, as chesed is one of the hallmarks of being a Jew. But it’s encouraging to remember that ultimately when we perform acts of chesed we are the greatest beneficiaries and often will never know how much we ourselves gain from performing those acts.
          “A rose among thorns”
          “And she hastened…and she ran”

Rabbi Dani Staum LMSW
Rebbe, Heichal HaTorah, Teaneck, NJ
Principal, Ohr Naftali, New Windsor NY


[1] דניאל חנה סטאום = חסד
[2] Ohr Ne’erav 6:4:10; for example, red symbolizes gevurah (spiritual strength), while yellow symbolizes tiferes/rachamim (pride/mercy) a perfect blend of kindness and spiritual strength.
[3] Heard from Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman
[4] Rabbi of Kehillas Ohaiv Shalom in New Hempstead
[5] Baltimore is about three and a half hours away from Monsey; he left in the middle of the night to drive a family he didn’t know, without pay!!!
[6] Ayeles Hashachar
[7] That is why the pasuk (24:15) states “v’hennay – and behold Rivkah was going out”. It uses an expression of “behold” to demonstrate that it was an unusual occurrence.
[8] Bereishis 23:6
[9] Bereishis Rabbah 63:4
[10] Ibid.