Yaakov Yehoshua Menashe Balk

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Hodu L’Hashem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo.

Thank you all for coming to celebrate the bris of our bechor, Yaakov Yehoshua Menashe Balk. You really find out who your friends are when you make a bris on a fast day morning, so it’s a pleasure to share our simcha with you all. Before delving into the meaning behind our son’s name, there are so many words of thanks that need to be offered. First and foremost, to Hashem for setting everything in motion and supporting us at every juncture. We must express our thanks to our doctor Rabbi Dr. Eli Rybak, who, in addition to being a talmid chacham, is a tremendously gifted clinician. He, Briana and our other nurses, and the entire staff of RMA of NJ, through the work they do guided by the Almighty, are the reason that we are standing here celebrating today. Similarly, there are not enough words to express our thanks to our parents who have guided us to reach this point as well. We are so lucky to have you as role models, and hope to be blessed with your guidance for many happy, healthy years to come.

Our son’s first name is Yaakov, and is in memory of my great-grandfather, Jack (Yaakov) Balk. He emigrated to the United States, but as traditional channels had been all but blocked, he entered the country via San Francisco. He settled in St. Louis, the home of many Balk relatives, and worked as a butcher. Eventually, he rose among the ranks to become the manager of a large grocery store in downtown St. Louis. He was known to be very thorough in his work, only willing to stock the shelves with the finest quality meat. It earned him the moniker “Send ’em back, Jack”, a nickname that he used in commercials for the establishment. I was not privy to know about these commercials until after he passed, but fortunately for me, I got to know my Grandpa Jack. There’s a picture that hung on my bar mitzvah collage in the hallway of my (now old) house of Grandpa Jack holding me as a newborn, with a smile on his face as wide as the Mississippi River. I recall the trips we’d take to his apartment on our vacations in St. Louis. On one such journey, my mother had the foresight to bring along my siddur and mini-tallis from my first grade classroom. I stood in Grandpa Jack’s living room and proceeded through my entire davening regimen, which as a 7 year old was not as extensive at our tefillah this morning. Nevertheless, the smile on his face that day was identical to the one from the picture taken years before.

Our son’s second name, Yehoshua, is in memory of my mother’s two grandfathers, Samuel Radman and Samuel Hornstein, who were both Yehoshua. I was not privileged to meet either of them, and do not know much about them. I can tell you that Samuel Radman and his family traveled on foot, across much of Russia before they were able to flee Europe and arrive on American shores. He was a simple man who had an enormous love for his family. He owned a grocery store and an ice cream parlor, and could often be seen sporting a coat and hat, even throughout the sweltering humidity that is a St. Louis summer.

In terms of the other Yehoshua, my great-grandfather Samuel Hornstein, he moved to the United States from Egypt and was married to Grandma Dena, my mother’s grandmother. My sister is named after Gram, who lived with them, and shaped the lives of my mother and aunt. He had rich olive skin, which could be seen clear as day in the picture of him that was kept on the hi-fi in the foyer of our Lyman Blvd. home.

Grandpa Jack and Grandpa Sam Radman share a yahrtzeit, the 7th of Adar, only a day after the birth of our son. Grandpa Sam Hornstein’s yahrtzeit falls just a few days after the date of what will be, with God’s help, the Pidyon HaBen for his newest great-great-grandson.

His final name, Menashe, is one that has no particular familial leanings, but one that evokes an immense sense of meaning for us. In the Torah, when Yosef and his wife Osnat give birth to their first child, they name him Menashe, and the pasuk continues “ki nashani Elokim es kol amali, that God caused me to forget all the toil I endured.” Here Yosef is referring to the less that stellar childhood at the hands of his brothers, later being sold into slavery, and being completely disenfranchised and broken as he was thrown in jail. While these experiences were numbing, Yosef is ultimately remembered as Yosef HaTzaddik, a righteous hero, who saved Egypt from the brink of disaster. Yet, the pasuk writes that “God caused me to forget.” How is that fathomable? How is it possible that Yosef could forget all of these things, the entire makeup of his formative years of his life? These were not mere random occurrences that happened once or twice. Are we to believe that every trial and tribulation of Yosef’s existence all at once slipped his mind?

I think the answer lies in the fact that while these events that peppered his upbringing and time in Egypt were unbelievably daunting, he was not defined by them. Yosef could have surveryed his lot and decided that he was a lost cause, doomed for all eternity. Even when something fortuitous happened, it was often bookended by a more nefarious affair. Yet, with the help of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, his tides turned drastically and his story is remembered differently for all time.

While not on such an extreme level, this single pasuk speaks volumes to me and Estee. The path to having a child was not an easy one for us. It was roundabout, and we were met with twists, turns, forks in the road, and dead ends. Yet, despite the challenges and hurdles we faced, we are here today with our son. Does this momentous event negate the oceans of tears shed? The sometimes multi-weekly 5:30 AM doctor visits? The injections? Absolutely not. Those things don’t just go away. Sadly for us, it also doesn’t erase the fact that my mother, the person who probably wanted this child more than anyone, will never physically be here to play with him or watch him grow.  But living in this moment, the feeling of shehechiyanu v’kimanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh, makes those events pale in comparison to the euphoria we feel today, and that we’ve felt since 6:19 PM on February 20th of this year. We are again so thankful to our doctors, but also to Bonei Olam which helps couples financially deal with the fertility treatments, and Yesh Tikvah and ATIME, for giving us the chizuk we needed to not remain inert. We hope that the individuals we’ve encountered from these unbelievable organizations are zoche to the same palpable simcha that we feel at this very moment bimheira beyameinu.

I wanted to close with a note about my wife, Estee. Every single husband who gives a bris speech talks about how incredible their wife was during the pregnancy and labor, and how they love them. I don’t want to give the wrong impression, as this is no doubt true for my wife as well. However, those words do not do justice to how incredible Estee is. She is literally the reason that our son is here today, and not just because she carried him inside of her. Since we began the journey of trying to have children, it was Estee who became a sponge and soaked up every single piece of information about the medicine she was taking and the course of treatment we were up to. It was Estee who would be on the phone with the insurance companies. It was she who would be calling the doctors, nurses, and pharmacies staying on top of what we were up to. There were times when her acumen saved our rounds of treatment from utter sabotage. She has been the biggest advocate for this child for over three years, before he was born. I have seen the care and concern she exudes, and I know there are no better hands for our children to be in than hers. Estee, I do not know what I did to be zoche to having you as my wife, and I do not want to think about where I would be without you.

Thank you all again for making our simcha so special. While we are not 100% sure of what we will be calling our new son, we are certain that he is perfect and he is our miracle.

Have an easy fast, a freilichen Purim.

Terumah 5778 – Taking From Ourselves

In Parshas Terumah, Bnai Yisrael are in the aftermath of receiving the Torah, hearing the litany of laws that we as a mamleches Kohanim, a sanctified nation are to uphold. Klal Yisrael responded to the charge of Hashem with a resounding Naaseh venishmah, we will do and we will listen. Now, it’s time to put our money where our mouth is, so to speak and the task at hand is the construction of the Mishkan. The parsha begins “Daber el Bnai Yisrael vayikchu Li terumah me’eis kol ish asher yidvenu libo tikchu es Terumasi/Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering.” Chazal point out immediately that the wording of the pasuk is interesting. Usually, when one talks about tzedakah, it would say vayitnu Li, not vayikchu li, to give charity, rather than to take charity. When one decides to give generously as described in the pasuk, it implies that the action is something that they want to do, that they would plan on doing. Taking infers that it’s something you would rather not do. You don’t give money to the government for taxes, they take it from you! The phrasing almost brings to mind one minding their own business during davening and the gabbai reaching into your pocket, taking out a $10 bill and stuffing it in the pushka. What does this wording of “vayikchu Li terumah, take for Me an offering” mean?

A more “Litvishe” answer examines the “pashut pshat,” that Hashem is telling Moshe to set up gabba’ei tzadaka, officers who would go out and directly receive the funds from the masses. That’s why the Torah states that they should take for Me an offering. A second, slightly more “chassidishe” answer is that this commandment from Hashem requires of us to take from the gashmius and the chitzoniyus, our material and external possessions and sanctify His name. Hashem is the source of all, the ultimate baal tzedaka to the world. The money that we accrue in our lifetime belongs to him and is meted out for us at the beginning of every year, a fact that’s not easy to remember. We take the mundane and make it holy. The Ramchal adds in Mesilas Yesharim that when a person sanctifies himself with the holiness of his Creator, then even his routine actions become matters of kedushah. Continues the Ramchal that one whose life is completely encompassed by the observance of mitzvos, it is as if he is walking before Hashem in Gan Eden, while still living in this world. By living a life of kedushah, the most miniscule daily tasks and seemingly ordinary items can be met with a high level of sanctity. A dollar bill has no holiness. But when you give that dollar to someone or something that can use it and really needs it, you are making it holy.

Mishpatim 5778: The Message of the Brick

Image result for bricksContinuing in the footsteps of the Aseres HaDibros in Parshas Yisro, Parshas Mishpatim, as the name of the Sedrah would tell you, is replete with new laws and statutes for the Jewish people to uphold. Toward the end of the Parsha, Moshe Rabbenu, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and the seventy elders ascended Har Sinai and caught a glimpse of the throne of God. The pasuk states: “and they perceived the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity.” At first glance, the vision of a sapphire brick seems puzzling. What is so unique about a brick? Could there not be something more inspiring or meaningful that could’ve been portrayed to the leaders of the Jewish people?

Rashi explains that the reason for the Livnas HaSapir, this sapphire brick, served as a reminder of the trials of Bnai Yisrael in Egypt, reminiscent of the bricks that they had to make in their harsh labor forced upon by Paro. Some explain that this was done as a measure by God to show that He was with them throughout their struggle with the tyrannical Egyptian regime. Just as there were bricks while the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt, so too there is a brick now, part and parcel to the Kisei HaKavod.

There’s an answer that speaks more to me, one that I heard from my teacher Dr. David Pelcovitz in a semicha class of ours. While it’s important to look to the future with our hopes and dreams, the Jewish people are a nation that constantly is looking back. The the lesson of Livnas HaSapir is not only that God remembers the bricks from Mitzrayim, but as Rav Yerucham Levovitz explains, that we must remember the bricks as well. Even in times of happiness, we remember the past. The experience of being enslaved in Egypt, even though Bnai Yisrael was no longer there, needed to stay with them to serve as a constant reminder, not necessarily of the horrible yoke of slavery, but to serve as their guidebook as to how to treat other people.

If one were to examine the laws that are written about the Hebrew slave from our parsha, you would see that they are treated fairly differently that one might expect. The experience of an even Ivri in their master’s home differs significantly to the experience of the Jewish people in Egypt or the slavery that existed in the United States before being outlawed. There are no whips, shackles, or harsh labor. Furthermore, there are many times in this Parsha and other places in the Torah that inform us that we must treat the stranger among us with respect, because we were once strangers in Egypt. We know how it feels to be uncomfortable. To not fit in. To be persecuted. We’ve experienced the pain first hand. The affliction levied by the Egyptian taskmasters gripped Bnai Yisrael with such terror. How on earth could we subject any other individuals to that sort of dastardly behavior? Therefore, we aren’t just supposed to be better: the Ribono Shel Olam set into motion a course of action whereby we MUST be better. God is setting the standard for us. We cannot act that way because the shoe has been on the other foot, so to speak. The pain is not long lost on us.

Yisro 5778 – Tangible

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Parshas Yisro portrays the aftermath of Bnai Yisrael’s exodus from Egypt. For the most people, the crescendo of this Torah portion is the reading of the Ten Commandments, arguably the most well-known passages in the entire Five Books of Moses. As the Jewish people camped at Har Sinai, they were told all of these things with great fanfare.

The Aseres HaDibros begin “Anochi Hashem Elokecha asher hotzeisicha m’eretz Mitzrayim” that I am your God who took you out of Egypt. Rabbeinu Bechaye brings to light an interesting question regarding the preamble to the Ten Commandments. Why does God list Himself as “the One who brought you out of Egypt?” Isn’t He selling short His greatness and might? Why not refer to Himself as the Creator of the entire universe? Isn’t that the much more amazing achievement? Rabbeinu Bechaye points out, without using these exact words, that this is a clear case of “eino domeh shmia l’re’iya,” that merely hearing about an event that transpired does not compare to actually seeing it. The Jewish people were on the heels of witnessing unparalleled miracles. Not only were they witnesses to greatness, they lived it. It benefited them explicitly! It would have been enough for them to have merely been able to escape the hard labor forced upon them by the tyrannical regime of Paro. However, to be taken out of the clutches of their generations-long aggressors in the manner in which the ten plagues and splitting of the sea occurred was unimaginable. Over the top doesn’t even begin to cut it. Rashi explains that God is saying here that for this reason alone, the entire story of Yetzias Mitzrayim, is enough grounds for you, Bnai Yisrael to be subservient to Me. Hearkening back to the creation of the world, says Rabbeinu Bechaye, will not convey the same message being referred to as the One who brought about such tremendous miracles, that you saw and gained immensely from.

This concept of “eino domeh shmia l’re’iya” is a famous one in our heritage, and the world we live in today almost demands it. How can we make our Mesorah, the beautiful story of the Jewish people, applicable and enticing to the next generations? The children of today are at a greater danger than any generation before The apathy that permeates Jewish society is growing. What do we do? How can we make Judaism relevant to children and adults alike?

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro was fond of mentioning the first Mishnah in Pirkei Avos in relation to this monumental task. The Mishnah begins “Moshe kibel Torah M’Sinai” that Moses received the Torah from Sinai. We know that Moshe received the Torah from the Almighty at Har Sinai, but the words of the Mishnah simply mention “Sinai.” Rav Shapiro explains that when we too transmit our “Torah,” it has to be a Sinaitic experience. Immediately following the Aseres HaDibros, the Torah mentions that there was fire and lightning, and the excitement among the Jewish people was palpable. That fire and excitement needs to be there for us as well.

The single greatest thing that I ever did in a classroom was try and implement a sense of tangibility to our heritage. There’s an NCSY educational activity that I was part of on a Shabbaton led by a wonderful friend and colleague of mine, and I used it in my classes. Each student in the room was given strips of paper with one sentence and a number on them. There were over 100 pieces of paper. After talking about how long ago they thought the Torah was given (with wonderful answers) we began to trace ourselves back from the very classroom we were in to Moses at Sinai. Each strip had a different person mentioned, and the teacher from whom they learned the Mesorah. Slowly but surely, we made it back to Har Sinai, and my students were wowed. When something is real, and it’s able to conjure up a sense of meaning, it’s significantly more powerful.

This is exactly why God tells the Jewish people at the beginning of the Ten Commandments that He is the God who took them out of Egypt, because they themselves were there. Nobody had to jog their memory about events they may or may not have known anything about: they were sitting front row to unbelievable nissim v’niflaos.