Savta Z”L


Savta Z”L and yblc”t Saba walking down the aisle at our wedding. For more on the dress, see below. For more on that hideous purple purse, check out the 50:45 mark of the funeral video. 

The funeral of Rita Balk can be viewed here on the Bnai Amoona website. The remarks below can be seen at around the 40 minute mark.

In March of this year, Town and Country Magazine published an article titled “What Will Happen When Queen Elizabeth II Dies?” Queen Elizabeth, very much alive at this time, has ruled over England since February of 1952. The byline states plainly: When the time comes, it’s predicted to be a “traumatic” event. The article continues While it’s difficult to know exactly what to expect, it’s likely Buckingham Palace will be prepared to announce the news, particularly if the Queen dies following a long illness. According to The Telegraph, the Palace has detailed plans in place for the Queen’s funeral and the subsequent succession, which has been given the code-name “Bridge.” The media is said to be well-rehearsed too, with British news networks including the BBC and ITN practicing how they will broadcast the Queen’s death. Depending on the time of day, it’s likely news of the Queen’s death will be broadcast immediately. If she dies overnight, the announcement could be delayed until early the following morning. The BBC will suspend all planned programming and provide detailed coverage of the royal news, which will include a rendition of the British national anthem while a picture of the monarch is displayed on screen, The Daily Mail reports. Comedy shows on BBC TV channels are also predicted to be suspended until after the funeral.

There was no article written about the Queen of the Balk family, a woman who exuded royalty and grace. No detailed succession plan, no television broadcast, no codename. But a traumatic event nonetheless. My Savta, Rita Balk, Rachel Bat Yisrael, will not be mourned by the entire British commonwealth like Queen Elizabeth II, but she was regal in every sense of the word. Not just by the Buick Regal that she drove for a period of time. She was the Audrey Hepburn of Quincy, IL. My mother of blessed memory would explain that she married into the Mary Tyler Moore family. To us, and many others, she was the classiest woman on either side of the Mississippi. She was sharp, and at times, blunt. When the idea of moving to a home with a first-floor master bedroom came up, she was asked why not build an elevator in their beautiful home on Polo Drive. To which she responded “I don’t have time to wait for an elevator!”

While someone with that level of grace and beauty could’ve rested on their laurels, she wasn’t content with coasting through her life. Saba reminds us there were serious smarts behind her beauty as well. She was the top student in her high school class, and for those who may quibble that earning the highest marks at Quincy Senior High School may not be all that impressive, she co-salutatorian of her class at the University of Illinois. I tried unsuccessfully to find how many others were in that graduating class, but you can visit the campus and see the bronze plaque that’s still there with her name on it. For this achievement, her picture was in every newspaper from Champaign to Chicago, and everywhere else in the state of Illinois. She took these clippings and put them into a scrapbook. But rather than be on display for all to see, it was hidden under a tablecloth in the living room. And when someone would bring it out, she would shudder and quickly return it to its proper place. As noted, a woman of her class and grace could have flown to New York or Milan to procure the finest garments that were available, but she didn’t do that either. She made many of her dresses, not because she couldn’t find any to her size or liking. She enjoyed doing it, so she did it. 

Savta had an eye for color, one that has been passed down to many members of our family. This can be seen by spending only a short time in the house. Whether it be masterful, expensive pieces of art or less fancy artwork in pink Popsicle-stick frames, there are colors everywhere. You can’t walk two feet in the house and not see it. I’m not sure what she’d say about this more conservative tie that I’m wearing right now. Her eye for color showed itself on the artwork adorning the walls of the house, as well as in her clothing, much of which she made herself. She would tell my parents after I was born with red hair “Never put red on a redhead,” a phrase which I think about to this day before even wearing a red tie, even despite my red hair being, less than plentiful now as it was back then. Yet, she didn’t just make this statement to my parents and ride off into the sunset, but sent many different things in different other colors for me to wear. She made all of these pieces herself. This eye was not only for color but for decor as well. When her mother, my Grandma Jeanne moved into her nursing home, the plan was for her dining room set to be sent to my parents house in Cleveland. But on delivery day, we were shocked to see an eighteen-wheeler show up on our quiet, residential street. The truck indeed contained the dining room table and chairs, but also included many other pieces of furniture that we not only did not know that we were to receive, but that we did not yet have room for! When my father called to protest, Savta responded, “Mitchell, how could you take the dining room set without the other pieces? They go so well together!” And that was that. 

The last few years have been so hard for our but even harder for Savta. It was so painful for us to see our queen be stricken and rendered almost speechless. Only she had plenty to say, you just needed to exert yourself to hear her. She had so much to say that she struggled through her illness to get out. It would take her moments to respond when you would ask her something, but it’s not that she didn’t hear you or didn’t care to answer you. But we would wait for her to be able to respond, and she would. Nevertheless, she would welcome new grandchildren-in-law and great-grandchildren with a smile. One of the most cherished pictures from my wedding is my wife dancing with Savta. Even in those moments, her sharpness could still find its way through. On one occasion when Estee and I had the privilege to bring our son to visit her and Saba, we were changing his clothes getting him ready for bed and he began walking around in his diaper. She muttered on cue “where are that kid’s clothes?!” just loud enough to hear. And it was hilarious. We were so fortunate to bring our kids to visit for her birthday this year, something that looking back was such a tremendous blessing. Savta even alleviated one of our pre-wedding stressors. There were disagreements between various parties involved on what the color of the wedding should be. Navy? Green? Unaware of this, Savta asked semi-innocuously if it would be alright if she wore a champagne dress, a color that each side immediately took a liking to,  effectively brokering a truce. She and Saba walked down the aisle at our wedding in her beautiful dress

The Town & Country article continues that To ensure the British throne is never vacant, Prince Charles, the Queen’s eldest son, would automatically become King. “He has been preparing all his life. It should be reassuring that there will be a familiar face taking the Queen’s place.” As a real estate agent, her secret weapon was to write notes to people selling their houses on their own to instead sell with her. And it worked. Savta, I know it’s been a while since you were selling real estate, but we need you to dust off your power of persuasion. We are in the midst of the most auspicious days of the year leading up to and after Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. We need you to use your abilities to help the Almighty shower us with comfort. To shower our family and our people with blessings. We have no Prince Charles, no familiar face to assume your role in our family. We are so thankful that we have Saba, who will stoically carry us through as a family. But unlike the throne, there is a gaping hole in our monarchy that we will not be able to fill. We ask you to storm the Heavenly throne and tell God to give us comfort, because we so desperately need it. 

Just a week from right now many of us will be back in the synagogue as we mark Rosh Hashannah, our new year. Some of you will be in this very room, a room that I had previously only been in for simchas, happy occasions. Next week, we will read on the second day of Rosh Hashannah the words of the prophet Jeremiah. He explains “Kol berama ishmah nehi bechi tamrurim, Rachel mevaka al baneha me’ana lehilachem al baneha ki einenu,” that a voice from on high can be heard, a lament of bitter weeping. What is that voice? Where does that piercing cry emanate from? Rachel crying for her children, crying so uncontrollably for her children since they are not with her. Savta’s Hebrew name is Rachel. Rachel mevakah al baneha ki einenu, Rachel is crying for her children. The commentaries explain that Rachel cries for her children who are in exile, cast away from the Holy land where God’s presence resides. But for us, it is the opposite, for it is us down here who are crying so uncontrollably, because we, your children are not with you.We’re all present but it’s you Rachel, it’s you Savta who are not here. This new normal is something that even in the throes of her illness that I ever considered coming about, a sentiment shared by many in our family. We simply could not imagine this day coming to be. A woman who fought so valiantly through pain and suffering, through the love and care of Saba, Aunt Lynnsie, Uncle David the chief medical officer, and our beloved Katina and Ashley. It still hasn’t truly hit me that we’re here and this is happening. Despite my wanting for this all to be some sort of horrible dream, I know it’s not. 

My father commented to me that there’s a clock in my grandparents’ house with an inscription on the back of it. “Rebe and EB ‘til the end of time.” I have not been privy to witnessing a love like that of my grandparents. There has never been another relationship like theirs. Saba wasn’t ready. None of us were ready. He would have continued caring for her so lovingly until the end of time, and not just because that clock said so. Sadly for us, the clock may still be ticking, but there is no time left for us with her. We will miss you Savta. We will never forget you.

Yehi Zichrah Baruch. 



Yair Shlomo Elimelech Balk


Below are the remarks from Yair’s bris. We are so thankful that so many people we love were able to celebrate with us, both in-person and virtually. (Here is the video of the ceremony).

Hodu L’Adonai Ki Tov Ki LeOlam Chasdo. Thank you all for joining with us today to celebrate the bris milah of our beautiful son, Yair Shlomo Elimelech Balk. There are so many that need to be thanked. First, we thank Hashem for continuing to bless us, and for enabling us to reach this very moment. We are so grateful to have found gifted emissaries of the Almighty through Dr. Eli Rybak as well as the rest of the medical staff at RMA of New Jersey. We are likewise grateful to our friends at Bonei Olam, ATIME, and Yesh Tikva. Without these individuals and the individuals behind the scenes of the organizations, we would not be here today. On a similar note, it is hard to accurately and adequately thank our parents for all that they have done and continue to do for us on a daily basis. We so fervently hope to provide the type of support for Yaakov and Yair that you do for us every single day. May God grant you the koach to continue in good health for many years to come. Last, but certainly not least, I must thank Estee. Fifteen months ago, I mentioned my thanks to Estee at the end of my remarks, and although she’d prefer to not be mentioned at all, that simply will not happen and I’d like to mention them right at the outset. Estee is the single most positive driving force in my life, and I am so thankful that she is my wife. She is an incredible mother to Yaakov, and Yair is already receiving her benfits, and she insisted that even while pregnant she not slow down. Thank you for everything, and I am so excited for what the future holds for us, even through the ups and downs, I know we will weather all storms together.

Shlomo Elimelech ben Yehuda Menachem, Reb Milech Gross, was Estee’s great-grandfather. He was born in 1877 and lived a beautiful and full life. As the story goes, Reb Milech Gross was the richest, most successful businessman in Maden. He and his wife, Shifra, ran an iron works company, and their largest customer was the Polish army. As a mild-mannered individual, much of their success stemmed from his wife’s tenacity. He was a big-time galicianer. A third-generation Galicianer shebe-Galicianer, and came from a devoted family of chassidim of the Plantcher Rov, who was the father-in-law of the Satmar Rebbe. In early 1940, life in the shtetl ended abruptly, and the Milech, Shifra, Leizer (Estee’s grandfather) and Alter (Estee’s great-uncle) were eventually sent to Siberia where Shifra died. After years of struggle, the family eventually received visas from Milech’s older sons Avraham and Avidgor who were already living in New York. It was there that for the next twenty years, Shlomo Elimelech Gross watched his family grow and blossom. Grandchildren were born and grew up, having children of their own. Reb Milech passed away at the age of 89, just a few months after my father-in-law’s bar mitzvah. What Estee and I know about her great-grandfather comes from her father, as well as a book put together by a cousin, and we are so thankful for these two accounts which help shape the image of our towering patriarch. This past shabbos, I had the opportunity to talk with Estee’s father about many of his family members, and I tried to secretly, or maybe not so secretly, steer our conversations back to details about his grandfather. They were blessed to live in the very same building, and the three Gross men, Avrumi, Leiser, and Milech, would learn together every night. My father-in-law related that he was the only kid in yeshiva that ordered 2 Gemaras every year, one that he and his father would share and one was reserved for his grandfather. Reb Milech was constantly engrossed in learning. A cousin of Estee’s father once asked his grandfather if he ever got lonely as a widower living by himself. He responded that it’s hard to be lonely with Abaye and Rava. We mentioned his chassidishe stock; he wore a Homburg, donned a long jacket on Shabbos, and had a long, flowing white beard. Estee’s father still uses his grandfather’s gartel when he lains on the Yamim Noraim. It’s truly an honor to name our son after such a great man, a man who was so important to my father-in-law, and the broader Gross family, some of whom are here this morning. It is our hope that the sterling qualities of Yair’s great-great-grandfather will be found within him as well.   

Yair in Hebrew means will give light, or illuminate. On Lag B’Omer, when Yair was born, we recall light in many different ways. Lag B’Omer commemorates the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and there is a great amount of light that radiates from him. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was a talmid chacham unimaginable wisdom who spent many years of his life on the run. He authored the Zohar, which means to shine, and is referred to as the Botzina Kadisha, the holy lamp. The reason that bonfires on Lag B’Omer are as ubiquitous as hamentashen on Purim is because they are lit in his memory every year, both in Meron where he is buried, and elsewhere.

This light also manifests itself through the light of Torah. “Ki ner mitzvah vTorah or,” as Mishlei tells us, the Torah itself is light. This weaves its way to Lag B’Omer through the story of Rabbi Akiva and his students. During the first three and a half weeks of the omer, Rabbi Akiva lost 24,000 students to a plague, and the carnage ceased on Lag B’Omer. They died, as the Gemara explains in Yevamos, because they did not accord one another the proper due respect. These were not students of a flawed teacher, but those of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest rabbinic leaders in the history of our people. After such a devastating blow, it would’ve been understandable if the great sage wanted nothing more to do with spreading Torah. Losing one student would be painful, but to lose thousands upon thousands of disciples? How does that teacher, the one whose motto was Veahavta Lereyecha Kamocha, to love one’s neighbor as you love yourself, move on? But move on he did. Rabbi Akiva began anew with 5 pupils and these were the students who spread Torah learning, and, as Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon writes, saved Torah Shebe’alpeh as a whole. It’s no coincidence that one of those 5 students was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

Furthermore, you rearrange the letters of Yair, you get Iyar, the month we’re in on the Jewish calendar. The entire month falls during sefiras haomer, unlike Nissan or Sivan which also contain days of the Omer. The Month of Iyar is the bridge that connects Nissan to Sivan, Pesach to Shavuos. Although we consider this time to be one of mourning, due to the death of the students of Rabbi Akiva, Rav Rimon explains that it is the days of sefirah, the days of Iyar, that are really days of potential. Days filled with potential to grow like the Jewish people did from Pesach as they left Egypt as lowly slaves to Shavuos they merited to receive the Torah. The potential to heal as Iyar is also an acronym for “Ani Hashem Rofecha”, I am the God that heals you from all that afflicts you. Yair, you have entered the world and brought a tremendous amount of light to those around you, and we can’t wait to see how you use your potential, to channel your light, to illuminate the world.

I’d like to conclude with an idea that I shared with some of you here at the Shalom Zachar in our home last Shabbos. In Parshas Behar, the Jewish farmer, but really the Jewish people, are tasked with a tremendous lesson in emunah and bitachon in Hashem. The first six years, the land may be worked, but in the seventh year, the land must lay fallow. Lest one panic of there not being anything to eat, God informs us that the land will produce a bountiful amount in year six to last for three years, and that we’ll sow in year eight while still eating old produce. Hashem is sending a clear message to the people that they should not worry or fear, because there will be enough for them to eat. Yet, rationally, put yourself in the mind of a farmer, since I don’t think many of us here are farmers. When you have to put food on your table, make a living, and provide for your family. Rationally, there is so much planning that goes into ensuring that the crop is plentiful every year. There are so many details out of one’s control, even when their own hishtadlus is flawless. It’s really all going to be okay if I sit here and do nothing? God is telling us that when you look back at the beginning of the shemittah year, and you do not prepare or work the land, you won’t believe the place you were in then versus where you are now. Even though laying dormant is the opposite of what we’ve been doing, that sense of blessing is exactly how Estee and I feel now. Just years ago we were in the doldrums, in the darkest, worst possible place as we struggled with infertility. Yet, looking at Yaakov and Yair, we would not be able to fathom the bounty that we have been privy to. Me’afeilah le’or gadol, as the Haggadah tells us, from unending darkness to great light.

Thank you all for being here, making our simcha so special, and sharing in our light. Mazel tov.

Yom HaZikaron 5779 – So Much to Think About


Yom HaZikaron is upon us again. It’s fitting that Yom HaZikaron fall out on Parshas Kedoshim. Every year we pray that there will be no more kedoshim, no holy individuals who are killed in the name of hate and terror. It’s not always easy to get into the proper state of mind for the day when one is in the diaspora. These are the things and the people I try to keep in mind today to do just that:

I think of Zachary Baumol, whose family, after 37 long years, now has his remains back. He was able to be buried among heroes rather than languish forever abroad. The families of Ron Arad, Yehuda Katz, Guy Chever, Oron Shaul, and Hadar Goldin are hopeful for a similar yeshua for their loved ones missing in action to give them some sort of closure.

I think of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Tzoref, first official victim of “terror” who was killed in 1851 as he set out for vasikin. A builder of the Churva shul after it had been destroyed in 1721, he never lived to see the second iteration of this synagogue be completed in 1864. He was left for dead in the streets, and although he was returned home alive, he died three months after the attack.

I think of Rabbi Yaakov and Netanel Littman, murdered as they drove to the Shabbat Chatan of their new son-in-law/brother-in-law. An exciting weekend was transformed into one of immeasurable sadness.

I think of Yoni Netanyahu, who fell while on the Entebbe mission, on July 4, 1976, as Americans celebrated the bicentennial. When the Torah describes the plague of the death of the firstborn, it states that there was no house in Egypt that was spared from the carnage. The same can be said of Israeli society. His family is a prominent one, yet the terrorists could not care less of who is contained in our lineage, as long as they are Bnei Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.

I think of Amiad Yisrael Ish-Ran, and his incredible parents Shira and Amichai. Amiad was born prematurely after his parents were attacked by a terrorist. Although he fought valiantly to stay alive, it was not meant to be. The picture of his funeral, his tiny body wrapped in a tallis being held in someone’s single arm is an image that is burned into my memory, one that I never want to see again.

I think of Gilad Shalit who united the Jewish people. We were shocked when he was returned alive. I’ll never forget the feeling of watching on television from Birmingham, Alabama where I was with a delegation of students there for Simchas Torah.

I also think of Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, the three boys, whose capture also brought the entire Jewish people together. I’ll also never forget standing in a department store in Cleveland when we found out that their bodies had been found, dashing our hopes for a safe return and hammering home the painful notion that sometimes, Hashem says no.

I think of Rav Ari Fuld, my rabbi and teacher in yeshiva, one of the strongest people I’ve ever met in my life. I heard of his death via our yeshiva WhatsApp group while at my grandfather’s 90th birthday party. Trying to keep a smile for the entire celebration was so difficult.

I think of the Chevron massacre of 1929. Women were raped. Children were decapitated. The Arab police were among perpetrators of this heinous slaughter, like something out of the Holocaust, only decades earlier and not in Europe. 67 were murdered, including 24 students of the Chevron Yeshiva, which later relocated to Jerusalem after the melee.

Or the Kfar Etzion massacre in 1948, just two days before David Ben Gurion declared independence. You can visit the Kfar Etzion museum and vividly learn about how 129 were killed, some even after they had surrendered. Or the convoy of 35, the Lamed Hei, who were sent by the Haganah to bring supplies to Kfar Etzion. There were originally 38 deployed, but three returned back after one sprained his ankle. The Lamed Hei were discovered and murdered, and when their bodies were finally sent back to Israel, only 23 were identifiable. This rendered Rabbi Aryeh Levin to do a goral haGra to determine the identities of the other 12 victims.

I think of Rav Moshe Twersky, Rav Kalman Levine, Rav Avraham Kupinsky, Rav Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, and Rav Chaim Yechiel Rothman who were cut down, some clad in their tallis and tefillin, early in the morning in Har Nof. These individuals were kedoshim in life and in death, like the thousands of others who died in the name of terror.

I also think of Zidan Sayif, the valiant Druze police officer who died while trying to neutralize that terrorist. I also think about the Christians, Druze, and Muslims killed by terrorists bullets, rockets, and bombs by being mistaken for Jews or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I think of those who survived the hell on earth wrought by the Nazis, yemach shemam vezichram, and later move to Israel and try to rebuild their lives from the ashes, only to fall in the war for Israel’s independence.

I think of the Fogel family, savagely butchered in their home on a Friday night.

I think of Michael Levin, arguably the most famous lone soldier. Michael was on leave in America when the war in Lebanon broke out in 2006 and came back to lead his platoon. In the aftermath of his death, his family and loved ones created a center for lone soldiers that now bears his name. His motto was “You can’t fulfill your dream unless our dare to risk it all.” When I was on Ramah Seminar that summer, the Philadelphia kids from Ramah Poconos were beside themselves. We all were.

I think of Ezra Schwartz, a regular 18-year-old just like any teenager from your community or any other, who was killed as he and his yeshiva were coming back from doing chessed. A nightmare scenario for us in the diaspora, something that didn’t seem like it could ever happen. But it did. The others in that van, like other survivors and families, may never be the same.

I think of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, which was and should be famous for perpetuating the esteemed legacy of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook. It’s now almost as famous for the terrorist who mowed down holy yeshiva students while they were studying on Rosh Chodesh Adar II. Our yeshiva went to learn night seder there a few days later. Marbin b’simcha was extremely challenging.

I think of the Yom Kippur war, how Jews on the holiest day of the year replaced their kittels with their madim (fatigues). With the fasting and repentance, Yom Kippur is an exhausting experience in itself. We beseech the Almighty every year on to be inscribed in the book of life. It must’ve felt so much more real then to literally be fighting for your life.

I think of Hallel Ariel who wasn’t even safe from a bloodthirsty terrorist while tucked in her own bed.

I think of 29 year-old Avigdor Kahalani, who miraculously led his unit and staved off some 50,000 Syrian troops and 1,200 tanks. He survived the ordeal and eventually became a politician after receiving the highest military honor for his valiant stand in what was later referred to Emek Habacha, the valley of tears.

I think of Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin who were killed in front of their children in their car. Rav Eitam has such beautiful volumes of Torah that many people, myself included, only discovered because he and his wife were murdered.

I think of the terrified mother whose children were nowhere to be found when the rocket alarm sounded. She later found them standing at attention as they thought the siren was in commemoration of Yom HaShoah, which happened just a few days earlier.

I think of the Solomon family, who on the same night celebrated a Shalom Zachar and lost three members of their family. Watch the video of that baby’s bris and try not to cry.

I think of the parents who bring their children to be inducted into the army. I can see them in my head surrounding their smiling children with their huge Kal Gav backpacks. The excitement and pride coupled with fear and dread, only stopping to catch their breath when their children make it home safely.

Finally, I think of the twice bereft Iris Eden, whose first husband was killed tragically in the 1997 Israeli helicopter disaster (when two Sikorsky S-65-C-3 Ya’asur 2000 helicopters collided and killed all 73 on board) and lost her partner, Moshe Feder, just this week when his car was pummeled by a rocket launched from Gaza.

These are only a few snapshots of the 23,000+ stories. We are so thankful to the Almighty for the gift that is the State of Israel. But we cannot bask in the glory and holiness of Eretz Yisrael if we do not recognize and remember those who gave everything so we could have it. May it be God’s will that the most recent victim of terror will be the last.

Acharei Mot 5779 – VeChai BaHem

Image result for chabad of poway

In Parshas Acharei Mos, we are commanded to keep the laws that God has given us. The laws that were taught before and after this decree.

” ‘ושמרתם את־חקתי ואת־משפטי אשׁר יעשה אתם האדם וחי בהם אני ה”

You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord

Rashi and Onkelos explain that “VeChai BaHem” references Olam HaBa, that when one lives by the word of God, it will enable them to live after they have passed on from Olam HaZeh. In order to live in the next world, we must live, so to speak, in this world, by doing what we have been commanded to do for generations.

If you look through the commentary of the Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky (the Slonimer Rebbe, author of Nesivos Shalom), Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz (the Shelah HaKadosh), and Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (the Gerrer Rebbe, author of Chiddushei HaRim), among others, they will tell you that it’s not enough to merely live a life replete with mitzvah observance. The “VeChai BaHem” means that one must imbue their life of adherence to mitzvos with “life” itself. They use the term “lehashkia” to be invested. It’s not enough to engage in the behavior by rote. There needs to be feeling, there needs to be excitement. The actions must come alive.

To say this is easy. To live it can be anything but. There are plenty of mitzvos that are easy to get excited about and bring about a tremendous amount of joy. Purim is a jubilant time on our calendar, but what happens to our excitement for the mitzvos of the day when we have to work? When we can’t afford to give shalach manos to everyone on our list?

What do we do when life bogs us down so much and it’s hard to feel the strong connection between us and the Almighty that we’re supposed to feel? This is a question that I believe can be answered by the words of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. Rabbi Goldstein is the rabbi of Chabad of Poway, a beautiful synagogue that, before a week ago, I and many others didn’t even know existed. With all due respect to the good rabbi, I wish it could’ve stayed that way, but a 19 year old kid made sure that this would never be the case. Not only would we all know about this particular shul, we’ll never be able to remove it from our memories.

In the aftermath of the attack that killed Lori Kaye HY”D, Rabbi Goldstein authored an op-Ed in the New York Times. Normally, I’d never recommend anything be read from this particular newspaper, but this piece is an absolute must read. He writes:

“I used to sing a song to my children, a song that my father sang to me when I was a child. “Hashem is here,” I would sing, using a Hebrew name for God, pointing with my right index finger to the sky. “Hashem is there,” I would sing, pointing to my right and left. “Hashem is truly everywhere.” That finger I would use to point out God’s omnipresence was taken from me.

I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.

From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue — especially this coming Shabbat.”

The bolded paragraph, to me, kicks the missive of “VeChai BaHem” into high gear. Rabbi Goldstein could take a grieving congregation and “lay low”, and workout their issues internally. Yet, that is not what he plans on doing. His promise is to be more involved, more connected. In the face of those who say that we should not, Rabbi Goldstein says, WE WILL! And we all should.

Yesterday, we commemorated Yom HaShoah, remembering the victims of the Holocaust with its survivors staring us in the face to make sure that our fire burn brightly for generations. For the survivors, and for the martyrs, VeChai BaHem means that our devotion is not only a sign of our dedication to the Almighty, but a clarion call to those who sought to eradicate us. When someone seeks to uproot your entire way of life forever, and they (BH) fail in that dastardly endeavor, the last thing on earth one would want to do is to slow down.

VeChai BaHem, according to the rabbanim that we stated earlier, means that we must be invested in our service. To not let our holy work be sullied by homeostasis. Our homeostasis should be that our avodas Hashem and kiyum hamitzvos are done with meaning and excitement. That’s true VeChai BaHem.

There will be an augmented meaning and fire in the work of the rabbi at Chabad of Poway, and I hope this ignites a spark within us as well.

Yom HaShoah 5779 – “The World that Once Was No Longer Is”

“The world that once was no longer is. Gone are the holy communities the sainted Jews, the children and their mothers, the rabbis, the libraries of thousands of sacred books adding up to hundreds of millions, the holy Torah-scrolls and Friday-night candlesticks and Saturday-night spice boxes. A world that no historian, sociologist, anthropologist, writer will ever be able to reconstruct — not even a hair of it, a shadow.

A thousand years of life in Europe spanning the entire continent — gone. Disappeared. Destroyed. Read the books, the yearly announcements of survivors’ gatherings, the exhibits put together by different cultural organizations whose members have crawled back into the cold gas chambers to bring back memories, men who have returned to the towns and cities of their births to bring back mementos — pieces of the past. Part of a door, a snapshot of a street in 1939, anything so long as one can say ‘I am connected, I am part of this destroyed world’ ” 

This is how Rabbi Ephraim Oshry begins his introduction to his Responsa from the Holocaust. The world that once was no longer is. Rav Oshry, the Rabbi of the Kovno Ghetto who ultimately survived the war and rebuilt his life and served the Jewish people. While in Kovno, he answered Halachic queries from many petitioners and having been appointed, for a time, as the Nazis as caretaker over a warehouse of confiscated Jewish books, he was able to research his answers with the “contraband” volumes of Rabbinic literature. (In fact, when readying them for publication, his first three volumes of responsa were virtually able to be printed without editing).

Last Yom HaShoah, I mentioned my fascination with the shailos that emerged from the Holocaust. But this year, I cannot help but be stopped in my tracks as I contemplate the symbolism of Rabbi Oshry’s words from the hakdama to his work.

The world that once was no longer is.

In his writing, he clearly refers to the world of European Jewry that was decimated by the Nazis. True, that world is gone, never to return again. And yet, the Jewish people have rebuilt and flourished. At the same time, on this Yom HaShoah, it feels as if the world that once was no longer is. The world in the aftermath of the Holocaust is now changing, transforming into something more sinister and negative. It’s not entirely surprising. The world watched and dragged their feet for years as Hitler, yemach shemo vezichro, had his way. These are the things that fill my mind on this Yom HaShoah.


–A little over a month ago, as I was getting ready to leave the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC, I was waiting at a street corner outside the convention center. Next to me, among the various protesters, was a man with his own cameraman seemingly trying to get Jews riled up. I engaged with him in conversation and was eventually accosted with viscous anti-Semitic remarks, as he spewed to countless before me. There were two things that bothered me though, more that the hate that he spouted. First, he was claiming that Auschwitz was merely a myth, a statement that he lured to get me to talk to him in the first place. Rather than being a haven of death and destruction, this man claimed that there was a brothel and an ice cream parlor on the grounds of the camp. Hardly the accoutrement for something that described as vividly horrifying by accounts of people who were imprisoned there. The second thing that made me angry about this individual was that he wasn’t just a crazed, ignorant fool trying to get under the skin of Jews. He was an individual who ran for public office in California. While he was crushed in the election (rightly so), there were still 89,000 people that cast their precious vote for this lunatic. 89,000 people, some of whom I’m sure were Jewish, who threw caution to the wind and cared not for his lies and libel.

–People love blaming millennials for just about everything. Apparently, 22% of millennials do not know or are not sure what the Holocaust is, while a staggering 40% don’t know that 6 million Jews were murdered.

–We live in a world where the most prominent newspaper in the world prints cartoons depicting Jews worse than we were portrayed in German “newspapers” of the 1930-40’s. The explanation for this blunder seems almost as insane. Being accused of having a slant or bias one particular way is one thing, but to allow such drivel to slip through unchecked is unbelievable. (Or maybe it isn’t.)

–We live in a time where we’ve had two attacks on synagogues in six months and have lost 12 holy souls. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel and himself a child survivor of the Holocaust, noted that the attack in Pittsburgh was reminiscent to him of Kristallnacht. The most recent attack, just last week, was on a day in the diaspora when we recite Yizkor in memory of those who have passed on. I am not certain, but I would be surprised if there were no people who were to recite Yizkor for individuals who perished in the fires of the Shoah at the Chabad of Poway that fateful morning.

34948_tumb_750Xauto–Today, I also think about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Taub, the Kaliver Rebbe, who passed away that night at the age of 96. This nonagenarian survived the horrors of the Shoah and rebuilt what he could of his life. While he reunited with his wife in Sweden in 1947 after liberation, Taub used as a guinea pig by Dr. Mengele, yemach shemo vezichro. WhatsApp-Image-2019-04-28-at-9.41.30-AMThese experiments rendered him sterile. The “hallmark” of the Rebbe was that he was probably the only Chassidishe leader without a beard, a choice that he did not make himself. The “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz experimented with the Rebbe, and the chemicals rendered him virtually clean shaven for the rest of his life. This scar stared him in the face for 70 years. The Rebbe was also known for reciting the Shema at his speaking engagements. An article from explains:

Throughout his life, the Kaliver Rebbe told and retold the story of how his fate to survive the war was sealed. In one of the darkest moments, just days ahead of his liberation, he cut a bargain with God pledging to dedicate his life to passing on the flame of Jewish continuity if his life was saved.

“The Nazis were literally throwing Jews into fires,” he recalled. “I heard Shema Yisrael being sung by a young boy and I turned to God and said, ‘Let me live, and I will say Shema Yisrael with the living.’”

For the next 75 years he would keep to his promise, opening schools, teaching and bringing a community almost entirely destroyed back to life. Wherever he would go, he would tell of his ‘agreement with the Almighty’ and often be brought to tears as he led other Jewish children in the same tune he heard that day. The Shema became his anthem, his revenge, his message to the world.

Rabbi Oshry was correct. The world that once was is gone, and it will not come back. But the Jewish people are also changing. We are also losing our Holocaust survivors, the ones who lived through atrocities. Despite the museums and recorded testimony, will the Shoah be ultimately relegated in our minds to the likes of the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition? Horrible things that befell our people, but soon we’ll be without a first-hand mouthpiece to tell us what it was like, and the ignorance is already starting to creep in. This cannot be. The Holocaust must be different, and one that will make a lasting memory on us. It seems bizarre to utter that, but in the not-so-distant future, our survivors will be gone and we will be the ones forced to tell their tale.

Even with the museums and educational curricula, will we be up to the task? The world sat back and hesitated to act once before. We cannot afford to do the same.

Zayin Adar II 5779

Image result for moshe rabbeinu The 7th day of Adar is both the birthday and death day of Moshe Rabbeinu. On the calendar, this is a very complex day. Contemporarily, we think of the 7th of Adar as a day to recognize those members of the Chevra Kadisha who care for the deceased of the community. There is a custom to fast, and when the fast is over, they are to eat a seudas mitzvah, often accompanied by a siyum (keep those ideas in mind for now).  Rabbi Gavriel Zinner in his encyclopedic Nitei Gavriel lists a few interesting halachic/hashkafic considerations for Zayin Adar:

-Tachanun (everyone’s favorite): According to the Shulchan Aruch’s list of days when one cannot say Tachanun, Zayin Adar does not make the cut. Therefore, it would seem that Tachanun should be said. Furthermore, Rav Zinner quotes the Otzar HaChaim who states in the name of the Sanzer Rav, the Munkatcher Rav that it should be recited. Conversely, the minhag of the Belzer Chassidim and of the Budapest community was to recite Tachanun at Shacharis but to omit it at Mincha.

-Kiddush Levana: One is permitted to recite Kiddush Levana on Zayin Adar. The Sar Shalom of Belz, brought by the Otzar Yad HaChaim, quotes that there were those who are particular to not say Kiddush Levana until after Zayin Adar.

-Weddings: There are those who are careful to not make a wedding on Zayin Adar because of it’s status as a taanis Tzaddikim, due to it being the yahrtzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu. However, there are many who do not particularly fastidious in regard to this minhag.

Ki Tisa 5779 – The Right Inspiration

Image result for golden calfKi Tisa contains the worst sin brought about by the collective Jewish people in the entire Torah, Cheit HaEigel (the sin of the golden calf). The nation, after just having left their tormentors in Egypt and stood at the base of Mt. Sinai and accepted the word of God, so quickly and forcefully veered directly away from the path that they had sworn to stay firmly upon. Moshe ascended Har Sinai and was to be gone for 40 days and nights, and as we know, due to an error in counting, the am was confused and afraid. They went to Aharon HaKohen, Moshe’s brother and confidant, and clamored for a new god “Because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt–we do not know what happened to him.” Aharon was in a bind and actively tried to stall the people a few times. Yet, through all of his good intentions, the idol was created and brought down the entire nation.

When Aharon first heard the pleas of Bnai Yisrael, he instructed them to take out the gold earrings from the women and children and to bring them to him. Rashi explains that this was done to buy him time, as he knew that the women would not be keen on parting with their jewelry, and by the time they were convinced to do so, Moshe would have returned and this entire scenario would be rendered moot. Yet, the next pasuk after Aharon informs the people what to do states us that those assembled took out their own earrings right then and there. The text tells us that the people “unburdened themselves of their earrings,” almost as if they couldn’t wait to give of what they had for this foreign idol.

Even after this unfolded, Aharon again tried to buy time. The Torah continues that Aharon took this gold into a cloth and melted it down, while ultimately sculpting it into a calf. Rav Shamshon Rephael Hirsch explains that Aharon was not simply molding the gold into an eigel, but using an engraving tool, the slowest possible means of fashioning this item. This was meant to deter the masses in the hopes that Moshe would descend the mountain and all would go back to normal.

It’s evident to those reading the parsha and see the events that transpire that there is a tremendous impact to what being inspired can do. Bnai Yisrael awoke early the next day, and rather have a day of service dedicated to Hashem, they served the idol Aharon had made. Bnai Yisrael so desperately craved a connection with something, anything, yet their inspiration was so off base. The same nation that had emphatically declared “naaseh v’nishmah” had soon after plummeted into an unthinkable level of shame and impurity. But can you imagine if instead of the golden calf, the Jewish people at the time were inspired in a different way? If they were able to take those feelings and channel them into something positive and beneficial for the am? What would it have looked like? What would the ramifications have been both then and even today?

There are so many different examples of how individuals were inspired to make a small difference in one area, yet caused a massive ripple effect of good. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the 1960’s, while watching a community member who had suffered a heart attack die while waiting for an ambulance, a group of people decided to form their own volunteer ambulance corps. As such, today there are many Jewish communities across the globe where Hatzalah can be called at any hour of the day to assist those in need.

This is only one example, and there are plenty more. Just one moment of inspiration can spark a tremendous flame. We must always use that flame to illuminate, and never to destroy.

Chanukah 5779 – Part V: Where the Chashmonaim Right?

IMG_0779.JPGAs Yaakov Avinu lay on his deathbed in Parshas Vayechi, he doles out final brachos to his children. When it comes to his son Yehuda, part of the blessing states that the “the scepter shall not depart from Yehuda.” Ramban explains that this means that when there will ultimately be a king that rules over the Jewish people, that king will be from the tribe of Yehuda. However, the Chashmonaim were not from the tribe of Yehuda, but actually from the tribe of Levi. Their rule over the Jewish people deviated from the bracha given to Yehuda. Were the Chashmonaim right to take over the leadership?

Nachmanides maintains that, even though their victory was a tremendous feat, that the Chashmonaim themselves were very pious individuals, and they caused the Torah to not be forgotten by the greater Jewish population, as they assumed the monarchy, they were in violation of the mandate of Yaakov Avinu. Ramban continues that despite their tzidkus, the Chashmonaim were punished for taking over the kingdom. This is evidenced by four of Matisyahu’s sons being killed by their enemies as they each served as king. Furthermore, the Gemara (Bava Basra 3b) teaches us that anyone who posits that they descend from the Hasmonean dynasty is a slave. King Herod was a “Hasmonean” as he was a non-Jewish slave of the Chashmonaim, and eventually killed the remaining members of the family and usurped the throne.

All of this occurred, according to Ramban, because the “scepter” departed from Yehuda.

Rabbi Menachem Genack in Birkas Yitzchak, points out that Rambam states differently. In fact, Maimonides makes no criticism of the Chashmonaim at all. In Hilchos Chanukah, Rambam seems to infer that since a primary responsibility of the Kohanim was upkeep of the Beis HaMikdash, that only through their taking over the kingship could this kedushah have been maintained.

Chanukah 5779 Part IV – A Time for Teshuvah, Revisited

IMG_8447.JPGWe have discussed previously that Chanukah is a holiday with many different themes and one such overtone is that of teshuvah. Rabbi Elimelech Biderman explains that this notion is alluded to in the Al HaNissim recited on Chanukah. We discuss the miracles of the battle, how the puny army Chashmonaim was triumphant against the stronger, larger Greek army. The text of Al Hanissim states that “You gave the mighty into the hands of the weak; the many into the hands of the few. The impure fell into the hands of the pure, the wicked fell into the hands of the righteous, and sinners fell into the hands of those who study Torah.” The first part, extolling the virtues of the Yevanim falling to the Jews, despite outnumbering them, is understandable. Rav Biderman quotes Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev in explaining that the next few phrases need more elucidation. Why is it considered to be an overt miracle that the impure fell to the pure, the wicked fell to the righteous, and that the sinners fell to those who are preoccupied with Torah study? Can it be that out of the ordinary that tzaddikim reign supreme in war?

Rav Levi Yitzchak answers that not only did the Chashmonaim win the war, but the aftermath of the fighting sparked a tremendous wave of teshuvah among the Jewish people. When the Jews saw the valiant Greek militia suffer defeat from a group of Torah scholars, they did not take this lightly. They began to repent for their shortcomings. It showcased to them that just as one is loyal to God, that He will be loyal to them. Thus, the message in the words of Al HaNissim is that the impure became pure, the wicked became righteous, and the sinners became engrossed in limud haTorah!


Chanukah 5779 Part III – Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin

When one thinks about the words “mehadrin” or “mehadrin min hamehadrin” they may immediately think of a hashgacha on food or a restaurant. What they will or won’t eat. Yet, this term traces back to the Gemara in reference to those who light the Chanukah candles.

Shabbat (21b) teaches that there are three distinct levels when it comes to the minimum amount of candles/oils that must be lit for one to fulfill the mitzvah: 1) One light for a person and their entire household; 2) One light for each night for each member of their household (The Mehadrin view); and 3) One light for each member of the household. Beit Shammai records that on the first night, each menorah would have eight lights and light would be diminished from the menorah until the final night. Beit Hillel records, and what is ultimately ruled as the Halacha, that each night we begin with one light, and increase the lights in our chanukiot through the final day of Chanukah. This final presentation is that of the Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin.

Yet, if one were to look inside the Halachic literature on how to conduct the lighting of the chanukiah, the Shulchan Aruch does not list the first two opinions as viable options as part of the protocol. The Halacha, as recorded by Rav Yosef Karo, is that one must light in the way explained as the view of the Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin. Even one who is extremely destitute must get the money to procure acceptable accoutrements for lighting the Chanukah licht.

This idea is perplexing. There are many mitzvos we are commanded to keep that have added ways in which they can be embellished. The idea of hiddur mitzvah, to beautify the mitzvah that we are about to do, is a wonderful way to provide a deeper connection and meaning to the commandment. But nowhere else do we find this extra level of hiddur as part and parcel to the performance of the mitzvah itself. Rabbi Aharon Ziegler explains in The Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik that, such as finding an esrog, the idea of an item or act being mehudar is left to the discretion of the financial ability of the one doing the act or securing the item for use. We do not find any sort of mandatory stringency in regard to any other mitzvah. What is the meaning behind this forced acceptance of hiddur mitzvah?

The answer, one cited by both Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Avraham Schorr, is that this extra hiddur in regard to ner Chanukah is because of the very nature of how the holiday itself unfolded. When the Beis HaMikdash was sacked by the Greek oppressors, the Jews who entered the carnage found many jugs of oil strewn about. Yet, in their scrupulousness to get the menorah lit, they would not settle for lighting with oil that was contaminated by the Yevanim. Miraculously, as we know, there was one jug of oil that still maintained the seal of the Kohen Gadol, not made impure by the Greeks in their siege. Therefore, it is precisely because of the zeal of the Chashmonaim and their stringent quest to only light the menorah with pure oil that we light our own menorahs with that same approach in mind. Because the Jews would only use the purest oil that they could find, an embellishment on the avodah itself, we also continue that trend in our homes every Chanukah.