Nine Days 5777 Part II: The Avodah of Chodesh Av

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The Torah tells us that Aharon HaKohen died on the first day of the fifth month, which corresponds to Rosh Chodesh Av. Our sages explain that what occurs on a Rosh Chodesh sets the tone for the entire month. Rabbi Tzvi Meir Zilberberg of Yerushalaim, among others, writes that the power of the month of Av lies within the various kochos of Aharon HaKohen.

What exactly does that mean?

Hillel says in Pirkei Avos that we are to be like the students of Aharon, a lover and pursuer of peace, one who loves people, and strives to bring them closer to Torah. We can gain much from implementing these ideas into our lives. One koach here is taking action. Everyone in their right mind should be a lover of peace. We are not born into the world with a lust for war and violence. The message of Aharon HaKohen is to not be comfortable with the idea of peace, but one must actually be a rodef, one who chases peace. When there is strife in our midst, it should bother us until it is ultimately rectified. If we can help serve as the catalyst for Shalom, even better.

We are to love those around us. God put everything on earth in its specific purpose for a unique reason. This fact remains true althoguh we’re not always privy to the blueprints or details as to why. We are to be loving because Hakadosh Baruch Hu is a loving God and we strive to emulate him. Furthermore, an ideal promulgated by Aharon is to bring them closer to God and His Torah. I once heard from Rabbi Shaul Alter, head of the Sfas Emes Yeshiva in Yerushalaim and son of the previous Gerrer Rebbe, that although we’re not Chabad emissaries, we are all on shlichus. We Jews are to serve as aids and resources for those around us in relation to Torah. It doesn’t matter how much we know or don’t know, or how involved or uninvolved we are.

These messages of Aharon can serve as our springboard for remediating our situation today of living without a Beis HaMikdash. Had the Jewish people so many years ago clung to the ideas of Aharon HaKohen the landscape of world Jewry could be vastly different.

May we be successful in implementing the goals of loving and pursuing peace, loving the creations of God, and bringing them closer to His Torah in our own lives.

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Nine Days 5777 Part I: “My Nation Does Not Comprehend”

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As we begin the nine days from Rosh Chodesh until the 9th of Av, it’s important to reflect and try and put ourselves in the right frame of mind in regard to the calamity that befell the Jewish people. This Shabbos, Parshas Devarim, we will be reading the final of the three haftoros of affliction. It’s taken from the first chapter of Yeshayahu and it’s fascinating. When we look back at Tisha B’Av, we often will recall the various destructive events that occurred during the timeline of Jewish history and how each nation would rise against us. While it may be easy to play the victim card and rush to castigate the gentile world for all the terror they’ve unleashed upon us, one cannot disregard the fact that the missteps of Bnai Yisrael have unfortunately played a large part in the original destruction associated with Tisha B’Av.

Rav Mendel Hirsch, the 19th century scholar and son of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, explains that when reading through the beginning of the book of Isaiah, the text itself describes the tremendous foibles and shortcomings that ultimately caused such great suffering and sorrow. In the third pasuk of the first perek, Yeshayahu makes it very clear how great our sin was. “An ox knows his owner and a donkey his master’s crib; Israel does not know, my people does not comprehend.” Rashi has astute comments here, asserting that An ox recognizes his owner and his fear is upon him, and the beast does not turn to its master and say “I won’t be plowing the fields today.” Similarly, the donkey will not respond to its owner “Today I won’t be saddled with your loads.” But Israel? They do not know their Master, nor do they comprehend. They do not comprehend that they have deviated so greatly away from the Almighty. They do not comprehend that they the very commandments they ignored were instituted “letovascha, u’lehanascha,” to better and and benefit us. Even sadder, Israel does not comprehend the significance of their betrayal. Livestock can decipher who their owners are, masters who are mere mortals and inferior in every conceivable way to God. Yet, Bnai Yisrael, more intellectually competent beings are not following the will of their own master. It’s tragic and damning. These words were written at a time when prophecy still existed. The word of God was being broadcast by the Navi, and even then the nation was still subject to wanton acts of sin. Today, due to these unfortunate acts, we no longer have a Temple or prophets or nevuah. Having known what it was like to have lost one Beis Hamikdash, hindsight would scream out to us that there was no way we could let something like that occur once more. And yet, “Yisrael lo yada”, Israel did not comprehend, and occur it did.

We live in a time where we too do not fully understand what’s missing, how it was lost, or even why we are mourning. We walk into shul on Tisha B’Av and sit low on the floor in darkness and in silence, yet many times, we don’t even know what we’re there for. I heard a rav once explain that you can’t just come into shul on the 9th of Av and expect to “feel” the significance of the day. Like many times on our calendar, it takes preparation and introspection because we are so far removed.

It’s true, that at the time of the Navi, Israel did not comprehend. It’s vital that over the next nine days that we make an effort to, even if only a little bit.

Mattos-Mas’ei 5777 – To Give is to Live

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In the second of the parshios read this week, Mas’ei, the borders of Israel are delineated, which will ultimately shape the landscape of the land allotted to each of the Shvatim. On the surface, this passage doesn’t necessarily seem like the most exciting or meaningful event. Yet, Rav Elchanan Wasserman has a fascinating insight about parts of the border that are listed, and his comments are something that one might not expect to realize at first glance.

Two of the bodies of water listed in the parsha are Yam Kinneret and Yam HaMelach, also known as the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Rav Wasserman explains that, as is known, the Kinneret is where all of the waters flow from, while the Dead Sea is where the waters empty into. One would think that a sea where water flows to would be a thriving body of water rich with marine life. Yet, the Dead Sea is salty and barren (it’s not called the Dead Sea for nothing). Furthermore, if one were to place a plant or animal in the Yam HaMelach, even though there are none native to it, they would not be able to survive. The sea that “gives”, the Kinneret, is brimming with aquatic life and drinkable water, while the sea that “takes” is the one that we’ve labeled as “dead.”

This is a tremendous mashal for all of us. The Jewish people are a giving people. When the Torah writes about a poor person in our midst, they’re listed as “achicha ha’evyon”, your poor brother. We are commanded against charging interest to Jews because who are we to say to a crestfallen member of our tribe that we’ll help them, but at a cost? The entire notion of Rav Wasserman’s statement runs counter to everything that makes sense. If I had 10 apples, and gave you 5 of them, I’d have given you half of my bounty. Yet, we see through the Kinneret that when we give of what is ours, whether it was something that was gifted to us or we worked hard to obtain it, we will continue to be blessed. There are individuals in my life that I know to give until it hurts, and I find myself gaining exponentially from them. When you forego utilizing what you have for yourself, you gain so much more. When you constantly seek to take and amass from every possible source, what are you?

May we be zoche to give what we have, and, in doing so, be blessed with even more to give in return.

Pinchas 5777 – In Congruence, not Incongruent

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From Real Jerusalem Streets. Mazel tov, Alter & Shaina!

This Dvar Torah is written in honor of the marriage of my brother-in-law and new sister-in-law, Alter & Shaina Gross. Mazel tov!

Parshas Pinchas, like many of the summer parshios that I lained at camp, maintains a special place in my heart (It’s a parsha that I helped a younger camper learn how to read, and got to watch him lain in front of both of our units). The parsha is action packed, and contains the readings Rosh Chodesh and a lot of the Yamim Tovim (!כָּאֵלֶּה). Yet, the story of Pinchas actually begins at the end of Parshas Balak. Bnai Yisrael are have gone astray, committing themselves to sexual immorality and worshipping other beings. One man, Pinchas, witnessed what was happening, and in an act of zealotry, slew a Jewish man and a Midianite woman who were together. Only once Parshas Balak ends and Parshas Pinchas begins do we hear Hashem inform Moshe Rabbeinu that Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen has caused His anger to cease. This act ultimately gave Pinchas and his descendants a covenant of peace and of priesthood. Both at the end of Balak and here at the start of our parsha, Pinchas is introduced with his full family lineage, Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen. This is unlike many other figures mentioned in the Torah. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that the way that Pinchas behaved was a manifestation of the very lineage he was a part of. He took to heart the self-sacrifice of his ancestors in summoning up the courage to be among the righteous, seemingly against the current of the masses at that time. This thrust him into the category of a leader, and is why his progeny received the bris Shalom.

Rabbi Soloveitchik also notes that Pinchas’ actions may seem incongruous to those of his grandfather, Aharon HaKohen. Hillel in Pirkei Avos (1:12) teaches us that we are to be like the students of Aharon, both a lover and a pursuer of peace. Pinchas’ zealotry doesn’t seem on the surface to be in line with Aharon’s teachings. Yet, notes the Rav, to erase this notion, Pinchas’ lineage is mentioned to show explicitly that his actions were just. To be a lover and pursuer of peace does not mean to stand idly by while the Divine missive is being trampled in order to “make nice.” Pinchas’ actions do not preclude him from still being an ohev Shalom v’rodeph Shalom. The message here is that while God and his commandments were being flagrantly thrown by the wayside, the courage of Pinchas saved the Jewish people at this juncture, and his actions were precisely in line with those of his grandfather and forebears.