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 Aish.com 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.

Chanukah Part II – Bringing the Shechina Down


There is a concept in Judaism that the Divine Presence does not descend lower than 10 tefachim. This derives from the Gemara (Sukkah 5a) which explains that during Matan Torah, the Aron HaKodesh was 10 tefachim in height. The Shechina was above the Aron HaKodesh, above the 10 tefach minimum. However, when it comes to Chanukah we find a unique law: our candles/oils in our chanukiah are to be between 3 and 10 tefachim from the ground (Shabbos 21a).

This seems to fly in the face of the previous point. If God’s Presence will only descend within 10 tefachim from the ground, why do we light our menorahs below that height? We know that Hashem is everywhere and discerns all, but, fire hazards aside, wouldn’t it make more sense to bring our flames closer to the Shechina?

Rabbi Moshe Wolfson explains that Chanukah is of a different nature. He continues that kindling the lights is an act of kindling our souls, bringing them closer to the Ribono Shel Olam. Despite the previously stated idea of the Shechina not dipping below the 10 tefach threshold, God’s Presence descends in order to light the souls of those who need assistance.

There are times when one feels as if they are so low, so far removed from any semblance of holiness or relationship with Hashem. The Kedusha, this fire, is usally too high for this individual to grasp, but on Chanukah, the Shechina comes down to us. This is only referring to one who does not live a life of punctilious mitzvah obersvance, but to those who find themselves stuck in a spiritual rut as well.

To those who exert the energy to take part in the mitzvah of Chanukah candles, the Shechina will come down to them, and aid them getting closer and closer to the Almighty.

Chanukah 5779 Part I – The Forbidden Triumvirate

unnamed.jpgAs the Torah begins in Parshas Bereishis, the second verse tells us that there was a great darkness that encompassed the vast, nascent world. The Midrash explains to us that this darkness is represented by Galus Yavan, as the Greeks sought to darken the eyes of the Jewish people through the restrictive laws they imposed upon them. In particular, the Jews were prohibited from blessing the new month, keeping Shabbos, or performing bris milah.

These three mitzvos are indeed unique, yet all of our mitzvot are. What is special about this particular collection of mitzvos that the Yevanim sought to erase from Jewish life entirely?

First, the mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh is the first that the newly-freed-from-Egypt Jewish people were given. At first glance, that may not make sense in itself. Out of all of the mitzvos in the torah, this is first one. Do we consider this to even be a major commandment? If you were woken up in the middle of the night and were told to name the most important mitzvos we have been given, I’d expect to hear probably one of the Aseres Hadibros. Anochi Hashem Elokecha, Not to have other Gods, Shabbos, honoring your parents, any one of the “Thou Shalt Nots.” While close in proximity, just a few parshios away from the Ten Commandments, that’s really the closest that “Hachodesh Hazeh Lachem” gets to our top ten, so to speak. Sforno explains that this mitzvah provides structure for the Jewish people, something that sets the tone for their existence as a free people. When one is a slave, their time was not their own. Each month had an agenda that was created by their taskmasters. When this would no longer be the case, God instructed the leaders of Klal Yisrael to set boundaries in order to provide them with a structure of time that will set them up for success. 

The second of the forbidden three mitzvos under Greek rule was Shabbos observance. One could easily describe Shabbos as the most important day of the week. Its splendor stems from when the Almighty Himself rested after taking stock of all that He had created during the sheishes yemei Bereishis. The very notion that God rested seems a bit peculiar. The Master of the Universe was fatigued? Not exactly. Just as He rested, we rest. Shabbos itself appears much earlier than the notion of marking Rosh Chodesh in the Torah. Our liturgy extols the unique nature of Shabbos. We recite in Lecha Dodi that this day is the source of all blessing, and later in the Amidah for Maariv that Hashem blessed this day more so than any other, sanctified it more than any other of the zmanim. We honor Shabbos and keep it holy, concepts that trace back to the Torah and that help us become closer with the Ribono Shel Olam. Sometimes the day of rest seems like anything but that. We find menucha in the tefillot and through out Shabbat meals. They say more than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jews. Knowing what we do about the central role of the seventh day to the Jewish experience, we would be a wandering people without it.

Bris Milah was the covenant that Hashem made with Avraham Avinu, and noted as a symbol between God and Bnai Yisrael throughout Tanach. The act itself is a removal of a barrier that hinders our connection to God. Rabbi Nosson Scherman notes in Artscroll’s book on Bris Milah that the term “orlah” is found in Scripture refers to some sort of roadblock in the way of holiness. Some think of orlah as it manifests in reference prohibiting the fruit from a tree within the first three years of its blooming. Additionally, the Torah (Vayikra 19:23) comments that one who is obstinate to doing teshuva is exhibiting “orlas halev”, an orlah on their heart. Without removing this barrier, their is a tremendous lack of kedusha, even on one who is very young.

By penalizing Klal Yisrael for kiddush hachodesh, the Jewish people were not able to consecrate their time to the Almighty. Without the ability to keep Shabbos, the Jewish people would not be privy to the blessings during the rest of the week. By ‘assur-ing” bris milah, the Greeks sought to maintain the physical, yet spiritual barrier between Hashem and His people.