Shavuos 5777 – Learning Torah, Living Torah



Rabbi Yechiel Spero, in one of his many books, mentions that the word “mispar” in mispar shemos (the counting of the various members of Bnai Yisrael at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar, and other places in the Torah) literally means numbers. However, from the same shoresh comes the word sapir, a sapphire, something that is shining. Each person has the ability and responsibility to shine. One of the best ways for us to do that is through another one of Hashem’s most treasured items: His Torah.

Over the last few years, there has been a delegation from the Archdiocese of New York that comes to visit Yeshiva University. They’re shown the various batei midrash, bustling with young men learning together. One time, a member of this cohort approached one student as he was returning his sefarim to their place before he went to lunch and asked him what his career aspirations were. The student responded to them that he wanted to be a doctor, to which the member of the group responded with a puzzled look. One of the cardinals said to him, you’ve just been poring over volumes of Talmud and Jewish law for three hours, as you apparently do every morning. Wouldn’t this time be better spent researching various scientific topics or reading medical journals? The student looked back at them and said, that’s what I want to do with my life, but this – This is my life. This is who I am. It’s ingrained in every fiber of my being.

The responsibility of the Jewish people to learn Torah is not just for those who choose to sit in beis medrash all day. The call of the Torah is one that can and should be answered by each and every one of us. The numbers are not important. It doesn’t matter whether or not you learn an sefer or a daf of gemara or a pasuk per day. The process, the effort -that is what’s important.

We are mere hours away from Shavuos. What better way to celebrate the momentous occasion of receiving the Torah than by learning the Torah itself. Rabbi Shaul Alter, head of the Sfas Emes Yeshiva in Yerushalaim and son of the previous Gerrer Rebbe, notes an interesting point on the Torah reading for Shavuos. We read the Ten Commandments, arguably one of the most well-known passages in the entire Five Books of Moses. Rav Alter writes (Ibra D’Dasha, Parshas Yisro, p. 46) that some find it puzzling that the Aseres HaDibros are found in Parshas Yisro, a portion named after the father-in-law of Moses, the most widely known convert to the path of Hashem at the time. Rabbi Alter explains that this is no coincidence. The mere placement of these psukim in this parsha teaches us that just as Yisro, someone whose background at the time of Matan Torah may not have been as strong as other members of the Jewish people, was able to accept the Torah, so too all of us are able to do the same. The Torah is a vast entity, and when one weighs in their mind how many subsequent works have been written on the subject matter, delving into it can be a formidable task. This is precisely why we have the custom to stay up and learn Torah on Shavuos night. To delve deeply. It doesn’t matter what we learn or how much we learn. The important part is being mekabel the Torah, just as klal Yisrael did so many years ago. It is who we are, the lifeblood of the Jewish people. 

May be we zoche to receive the Torah just as Bnai Yisrael did so many years ago, “k’ish echad belev echad”, as one singular people.


Bamidbar 5777 – Quality and Quantity


I’ve never considered myself to be a numbers guy. I’m very good at simple math that I can do in my head, and I thrived on my elementary school multiplication tables. When I was little, I thought I was great at counting. When you’re a toddler, it’s pretty exciting when you can count past eleven. But even now, counting isn’t always so simple. People will ask me how many people were in shul on a particular day or how many were at a wedding, and I’ll have no idea what to tell them. At least at a sporting event, at the end of the game they’ll announce the crowd on hand. This would be an interesting innovation in synagogue life. “Good Morning, Congregation _______________  worshippers! Today’s “paid” attendance is 500! Tomorrow, the first 100 mispallelim through the door will get a free piece of shmaltz herring!”

Sometimes the count itself is important. We’ve been counting the days and weeks from Pesach until now during Sefiras HaOmer. We know the significance of counting every night. (Mazel tov to those of you who made this far! Maybe you can also get a free piece of herring…). But sometimes, the final count isn’t even important. Once you get a minyan, does anyone make a point to count how many people are davening after that? There is greater importance and significance is in the action of counting rather than the final tally.

The beginning of Parshas Bamidbar contains God’s commandment to Moshe and Aharon to take a census of the tribes of Israel. The simple meaning of this count of the nation is for military purposes. Rashi goes in a bit of a different direction here and comments here that because Bnai Yisrael were so dear to Him, Hashem counted them at various points in time. He counted them when they left Egypt, at the time of the cheit haeigel, to know how many of them remained in the broader nation. When God wanted to rest the Shechina, His presence upon them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan He counted them, and on the first of Iyar, when the Mishkan was built, He counted them, too. According to Rashi, it was because the nation of Israel was so close to the heart of Hashem that He counted them so many times. If something is truly dear to you, one will often times be invested heavily in it.

When I was growing up, my most prized of possessions were my toy cars.  Hotwheels, Matchbox, Tonka, etc.: I would play with them for hours on the floor of my den. I’d line them up, divide them by specific make, model, and color, and I’d count them. They were my pride and joy. Although I grew out of that specific fad, I know grown adults who have hobbies, collections, and obsessions that seem to have taken over their entire lives and houses, at times, much to the chagrin of their spouses. Hashem’s hobby, His prized possession is Bnai Yisrael. But it begs the question: Since Bnai Yisrael holds this special place in the eyes of the Ribono Shel Olam, and Rashi explained that He counted them many times, why couldn’t He just tell Moshe the exact number of people that there were at all times? If you were to ask a serious collector about their specific collection, they would regale you with every intimate detail of how the traveled the globe, investing vast amounts of money just to get that hard to find baseball card or stamp or mug. If you ask any of these collectors how many items are in their collection, although they may not give you an exact figure, they can safely venture a hypothesis pertaining to that magic number. If something is so precious to you, you’ll know everything about it, you’ll know it’s ins and outs and have stories associated with it. If Bnai Yisrael are so special to God, shouldn’t He know how many people are there? One might answer that when one has such a vast collection, it’s hard to know your full inventory. If antique Winnebegos are your thing, you may have a better idea how many you truly possess than if you were to collect keychains or shotglasses. But we’re not talking about an amateur collector here. We’re talking about God Almighty. He’s not an amateur anything! He split the Yam Suf, He will bring people back from the dead, wrought tremendous miracles since the dawn of time and you’re telling me that He doesn’t know the exact number of souls among the Jewish people?!

Rav Soloveitchik notes that Hashem’s purpose is deeper than merely figuring out the amount of people in the nation fit for military service. Ever the Brisker, he maintained that there are “tzvei dinin,” that there are two purposes and goals of the census. The first goal is quantitative, and seeks to ascertain an accurate portrayal of how many people are in the nation, similar to a person taking stock of their assets in order to see what they have. Moshe is the leader, and as the leader, it is his job to make sure everyone is there. By Hashem merely telling Moshe the exact figure, it wouldn’t get Moshe anywhere. The second goal is qualitative, to count the people in order to get to know each individual. Moshe Rabbeinu was the Rebbe of Klal Yisrael. It’s more than a numbers game. It’s not enough for him to know the mere number of individuals in he was in charge of. He had to know each person individually, their backgrounds, and life experiences. Just as Rashi mentioned about how Hashem was so careful to count every single Jew, He charged Moshe, their leader in the wilderness, to get to know them just as intimately. Moshe knew that Hashem was in charge and that everything that he accomplished was only through the help of the Almighty, but when the nation sought counsel and when they complained, those complaints were directed to Moshe.

This idea stems from comments of the Ramban and is further expounded upon by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, in Alei Shur and his Shiurei Chumash. The effort that Moshe Rabbeinu exerted in counting and getting to personally know the individuals that made up the entire nation hammers home the fundamental significance of the individual. The census itself was meant to be positive experience. When the count was taking place, the pasuk says “se’u es rosh kol adas bnai yisrael, to lift the heads of the Bnai Yisrael.” The way that their heads would be lifted, so to speak, was for them to come before Moshe, Aharon, and the heads of the Shvatim, the greatest leaders of the generation. These leaders would know them, and make a note of them. Rav Wolbe continues that every person provides a unique combination of strengths and circumstances that distinguish them from anyone else that came before or will come after. This individual was born to specific parents, lives in a certain era, and has certain talents given to them in order to fulfill their divine mission. If a person is not aware of their own importance, one cannot begin their journey in their service of God. But if their leader is not aware of the traits of their followers, or who is even part of their flock, it’s just as alarming. Moshe would collect their half shekel in accordance with the message from God to count the nation, and through this process he would meet and greet every person, see their particular strengths and weaknesses, and go to bat for them. He was their rebbe, and they were his talmidim.

Just as this process was meant to imbue the count with a sense of deeper meaning, may we merit to find the hidden, significant meaning in all that we do.

Pirkei Avos 3:1 – Our Lives, and How We Choose to Live Them

Our third installment contains wisdom from the first Mishnah of the third Perek of Avos.

עֲקַבְיָא בֶן מַהֲלַלְאֵל אוֹמֵר, הִסְתַּכֵּל בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים וְאִי אַתָּה בָא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה. דַּע מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ, וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ, וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן. מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ, מִטִּפָּה סְרוּחָה, וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ, לִמְקוֹם עָפָר רִמָּה וְתוֹלֵעָה. וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן, לִפְנֵי  מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּאAkavia ben Mahalalel says: Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an account and a reckoning. From where did you come? From a putrid drop. And to where are you going? To a place of dust, worms, and maggots. And before Whom are you destined to give an account and a reckoning? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Akavia ben Mahalalel continues the trend of incorporating three nuggets of wisdom into his teaching. He also does a wonderful job of explaining his ideas. Each of these three points will keep one grounded, in addition to keeping them away from sin. They keep one humble in their pursuits.

Everyone starts off identically. True, some are born into better scenarios than others, our true beginning, as alluded to in the Mishnah, is the same. Additionally, no matter what we make of our lives while we live them, our ultimate demise is inevitable. We take nothing with us when we make our exit. And once we depart, we’ll have an appointment that is significantly important. We will have to answer for the mistakes, shortcomings, and blurred judgement in our lives. Will we be ready for this detailed account?

Yom HaZikaron 5777 – How Could We Leave?


On June 24th, 2006, I set out on the journey of a lifetime with hundreds of teenagers from different Ramah camps from around North America. It was my second time in Israel, and I was even more excited to be in our homeland this time than the last. As I sat on the airplane, I read through some of the plane letters my friends had written me and also taken in a movie or two. By the time we touched down at Ben Gurion Airport, something had happened that would shape far more than our summer experience: the capture of Gilad Shalit. While I didn’t realize it at the time, this was only the beginning of what was to be a summer to remember, one far more intense than typical sightseeing. While I don’t remember every detail of that summer, what I do recall is vivid.

A few weeks after we arrived, the country was at war. Nevertheless, the trip went on, even as other summer programs had cut their trips short or cancelled altogether. Every day was imbued with a greater sense of purpose. As the days went by, more and more soldiers were called up for miluim. Slowly, our Israeli program staff was waning. One of our bus counselors, Ilana, saw her husband be called. He was also staffing our program. At that time, they had only been married for a few months. Yet, we never looked back. Even when our hike from the Kinneret to the Mediterranean had been changed to random Jerusalem Hills hiking or when we had to use longer routes to get to our destinations due to safety considerations, our hopes were not dashed.

I don’t want to paint an only rosy picture because at the end of the day, war was being waged and lives were lost. The Philadelphia Ramah contingent, along with everyone else on the trip, was hit hard by the death of Michael Levin, a native son of their Jewish community. We came together, we cried together.

Tisha B’Av that year was the most poignant and meaningful one I’ve experienced. It didn’t take much to find the feelings of sadness and mourning.

Emergency synagogue and rabbinic delegations from abroad came to Israel and some of them met with Ramah Seminar. Some told us they were proud that we were there and that we didn’t head back home. I kept thinking to myself that we weren’t going back home because we were home. As long as the program felt they could keep us safe, how could we leave?

I used to be confused as to how feel on Yom HaZikaron. To my knowledge, I do not personally know a soldier who has been killed in the line of duty. As a Jew living in the diaspora, it’s often hard to connect with places that you do not live in. However, that summer in Israel changed my perception on Israel’s memorial day forever. Being there, watching the events unfold in front of me provided me with the proper base for understanding what exactly we are to mark, what exactly is missing. It’s a sentiment that I’ve tried to apply to the American Memorial Day as well, even though the two days seem so very different. This experience taught me that it didn’t matter who I knew or didn’t know when it came to mourning Israel’s fallen heroes. When we say “Acheinu kol beis Yisrael” it doesn’t refer to the Jewish people as a ragtag bunch of people with a shared, common goal. We are acheinu, brothers. We grieve for our brothers. And sisters. Sons and daughters. We grieve for those who fell in battle, whose blood was spilled so that we can live freely in the Jewish homeland. We grieve because there have been too many casualties. Too many families ripped apart. Too many lives snuffed out without a chance to blossom even further.

As I sat on the plane home from my trip, I began to cry. My two seat mates, colleagues of mine on Seminar, began to weep as well. We didn’t really know each other all to well, but that didn’t make a difference. It was a highly emotional summer, and I’m glad I wasn’t anywhere else.