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

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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.

Veyetzei 5779 – The Eye of Beauty

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In Parshas Veyetzei, Yaakov Avinu is on the run from his home and his twin brother who seeks to kill him. After “swindling” Esav out of the special bracha from their father, Yitzchak, their mother, Rivka, quickly tells her younger son to head for the hills. He winds up at a well blocked by a boulder surrounded by shepherds. Suddenly, he lays eyes on Rachel, and is immediately taken with her. Eventually, Rachel’s father, Lavan, the very uncle that Rivka sent Yaakov to live with, works out an arrangement with his nephew to marry his daughter on condition that he spend seven years working for him.

That was the plan.

After seven long years, Yaakov wakes up the morning after his wedding and discovers that it was not his beloved Rachel with him in their tent, but her older sister, Leah. The response he is met with from his father-in-law is that in their area, the younger daughter does not marry before the elder one. Another seven years of labor are in store for Yaakov in order for him to marry Rachel, and he begins fulfilling the terms of this agreement.

But before these events occur, the Torah informs us of Lavan and his two daughters, Leah and Rachel. In describing them, we learn that Leah has tender eyes, while Rachel has both beautiful features and a beautiful complexion.

Rashi explains that the reason that Leah’s eyes were tender (rakot) was due to the immense tears she cried over her apparent lot in life as being destined to marry Esav. Brother Lavan had two daughters and sister Rivka had two sons,  therefore it was only natural that they would marry each other.

But Leah did not want that.

Leah was a righteous woman. The thought of marrying a man whose deeds were vile the likes of Esav was an anathema to her. The river of tears she wept and the copious amounts of tefillos so that she could be saved from this fate were enough to do just that. Therefore, explains Rashi, this is why her eyes were tender.

As a result of her pleading, Leah merited to marry Yaakov. The fact that this happened doesn’t mean that they had a perfect marriage or that she was even happy. If one were to read the psukim of this parsha: “And the Lord saw that Leah was hated, so He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben, for she said, ‘Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.’ And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, ‘Since the Lord has heard that I am hated, He gave me this one too.’ So she named him Simeon. And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, ‘Now this time my husband will be attached to me, for I have borne him three sons’; therefore, He named him Levi. And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, “This time, I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Judah, and [then] she stopped bearing. 

Does this sound like the ideal relationship that a wife would desire from her husband? Is this the idyllic, storybook marriage that Leah could’ve hoped and dreamed for? Most likely not. Nevertheless, a union such as this meant more to her than one with her wicked brother-in-law. Even throughout this ordeal, we know that Leah is ultimately blessed to birth 7 of her husband’s children; Six of the Tribes of Israel and Yaakov’s only daughter, Dena.

Onkelos’ translation of how the text describes Leah’s eyes deviates slightly from that of Rashi, but provides monumental meaning to the verse. Onkelos renders Leah’s eyes not as tender, but beautiful. Leah’s eyes were beautiful, while Rachel’s face was beautiful. While this may seem as a mere comment about the way that each of the women looked, there is a deeper meaning behind Leah’s eyes. The eyes of Leah became “beautiful” because of the tears she cried. It was the demaos and the prayers that came from Leah that made her eyes exceedingly beautiful. It was the immense pain that the thought of being married to a person like Esav that elicited such a response from our holy matriarch.

Vayera 5779 – A Threefold Perspective on Chesed

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At the beginning of Parshas Vayera, we open on Avraham Avinu recuperating from his Bris Milah. Avraham is perched in his tent looking for any and all visitors that he can graciously welcome into his abode. In an act of care for his precious, devoted servant, Avraham, Hashem made this day incredibly hot. Rashi notes that the sun had been “unsheathed” and unleashed a brutal heat that would deter any traveler from journeying too far. Yet, what made Avraham uncomfortable was not the temperature nor was it the pain from his circumcision; he was downtrodden because there were no guests to usher into his home. God’s very act of kindness toward Avraham was in fact causing him more pain than the other factors. It was then that Hashem sent three angels Avraham’s way.

There are many lessons that can be gleaned from this episode, yet I would like to focus on three in particular.

First, Rabbi Avraham Schorr writes in HaLekach Vehalibuv (Breishis page צא) that Avraham’s actions were poignant because it was he who would be the role model for the generations to come in regard to this commandment. It’s not enough to do the mitzvah, explains Rav Schorr, but one must work at getting those around them involved and inspired to as well. Avraham informed Sarah to make the bread and the “youth” around him (Rashi explains that this was Yishmael) to involve them in this mitzvah. This can be done both directly and indirectly. This entire event occurred at the time when Sdom and Amorah were burgeoning cities, filled to the brim with sinners who deplored hachnasas orchim. Look later on in the Parsha when the angels visit the home of Lot in Sdom, and he doesn’t let them wash their feet for fear that the townspeople will learn of his guests. (Nevertheless, the townspeople showed up in force immediately anyway). Avraham teaches us that even if there is no one else around you to help in your mission, one must still strive for this goal.

Second, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe and more widely known as the author of the Nesivos Shalom, notes with distinction at Avraham’s behavior upon seeing the wandering guests (angels) in the distance. The text doesn’t merely state that Avraham went to the men and convinced them to come to his tent. The psukim state on three different occasions that Avraham acted with great haste in order to greet the angels, to tell Sarah to prepare bread, and to go and choose the finest of the calves to prepare for them. (וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙, וַיְמַהֵ֧ר אַבְרָהָ֛ם הָאֹ֖הֱלָה אֶל־שָׂרָ֑ה, and וְאֶל־הַבָּקָ֖ר רָ֣ץ אַבְרָהָ֑ם). Such zrizus (alacrity) to prepare for his guests, all without any pain medication or sedatives from his holy medical procedure.

Finally, Rav Schorr continues with an idea from Skulener Rebbe. The first Pasuk of the Parsha states that “Vehu yoshev pesach haohel kechom hayom” that Avraham was sitting in his tent in the heat of the day. We already are aware of the unseasonably warm weather, but the Skulener Rebbe goes in a different direction with this information. He explains that the heat mentioned here refers not to the temperature on the plains of Mamre where Avraham was situated, but the fire that burned inside him to perform the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim as he sat at his tent gazing out into the distance for any passersby. He was entirely consumed with seeing who he could help on their journey.
As my mother’s fifth yahrtzeit falls this Motzei Shabbos, these three messages from our Parsha resonate with me tremendously. Each one of them reminds me of her. For my sister and I, my parents were (and still are) tremendous role models in chesed for us and those who know them. She didn’t only take these tasks on herself, but actively sought to get others engaged. When I was in elementary school, one of her crowning achievements was her role in creating “Schechter Shabbat,” where families would be hosted by other families. Their children were often times in classes or rode the bus together, yet their families may not have always known one another. This Shabbat dinner sticks in my mind, in addition to countless others magnificently hosted by my parents. What also is stuck in my mind is the manner in which these actions were done in our home. My mother and father did these things without great fanfare, sometimes at the very last minute. And even more so, the desire that my mother had to do and to act even when she physically wasn’t able to do so. She would instruct my sister and I or other to do her bidding for her. No one would’ve faulted her for taking a few moments to herself while convalescing from one of her many trips to the Cleveland Clinic. But that was never the case with her.
The tent of Sheila was molded after the tent of Avraham Avinu. Avraham leaves giant shoes for Klal Yisrael to fill when it comes to chesed: the action itself, the manner in which it’s done, and the desire for opportunities to implement it. The Balk home was graced with a tremendous role model of championing chesed. We miss her every day.

Lech Lecha 5779 – I Told You So

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Everyone loves to feel validated. When someone recognizes that something we do or say is accurate, it gives us a certain sense of pride. Depending on who the person agreeing with our point of view, their haskama can indeed carry weight. When a student offers a novel idea on the material they are studying and the teacher responds by agreeing or bolstering their argument with additional sources or facts, it can mean the world to them. Often times, this feeling of validation is even greater when one thinks your idea is incorrect or chooses to not listen to your advice, and ultimately, your detractor is met with disappointment. The “I told you so!” moment is one that is even sweeter. You were right, they were wrong. They should’ve listened to you, they didn’t, and now they’re paying the price. Too bad for them. Furthermore, one need not even say anything and still relish the moment that an individual who makes poor choices yields unfortunate fruits. It serves them right! Why would anyone make such a stupid decision? They got what they deserved. Yet, we learn from the protagonist of Parshas Lech Lecha that this is not the manner in which to behave when someone close to you meets with disappointment.

We read in the Parsha of Avram being tasked by God to follow His command to an unknown land. Avram obliges, and brings with him his wife (Sarai), his nephew (Lot), and the followers that he and his wife had amassed. Ultimately, Sarai ends up being taken captive as they head to Egypt due to a famine, and as she is eventually freed, she and Avram end up leaving the country with great wealth. They return to their land and there’s a disagreement with the herdsmen of Lot and Avram’s livestock over where the animals in their care should graze. Avram tells Lot to choose a direction in which to lead his flock, and he would go the opposite way. This was done not out of anger, but to prevent further strife between the two. Lot chooses to head toward the plains of Jordan until Sdom. We know from the psukim that Sdom was a city comprised of evil, sinful individuals. Nevertheless, this is where Lot decided to settle. Rashi explains that Lot knew of the evil that ran rampant in the city, yet hung out his shingle there anyway. The story takes an unfortunate turn when Lot is captured by the Sodomites, along with his possessions.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that we can learn a tremendous lesson from Avram in the wake of Lot’s captivity. Upon hearing that his nephew had been taken captive, the nephew that sojourned with him great distances and was a member of his own household following the death of Lot’s father, Avram decides to act. The pasuk states that Avram heard that his brother had been taken, and he armed over three hundred of those close to him in order to retrieve Lot. This is a seminal moment. The Rav notes (Abraham’s Journey p.130) that Avram could have heard this news and reacted in a much different fashion.

“A normal reaction on his part would have been to say, ‘It serves him right; I warned him not to cast his lot with the Sodomites.’ Lot had rejected Avraham and his demanding God, preferring a pleasure-seeking society to Abraham’s covenantal fellowship. Yet, Avraham did not react this way. Lit is referred to here as Avraham’s brother. A Jew must feel a duty to save his brother even if his brother has departed from the righteous path.”

It would have been so easy for Avram to have sat back and cursed his beloved nephew for deciding to settle in a land full of evildoers. It may have even made him feel good about himself. However, when his loved one was faced with tremendous adversity, it was not enough for Avram to merely feel bad for Lot. He rescued him, and brought him back to safety.

Avram, later known as Avraham, was known for his penchant for chessed. This episode with Lot was a small example of just that.

Rabbi Sam z”l

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My mother with Rabbi Sam, at my cousin’s bris in 1988.

Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things that can be experienced. There is so much to be done by those close to the deceased, who may not know which way is up or have the headspace to deal with seemingly trivial matters. One of the first calls made when these events occur, besides to other relatives, is to one’s rabbi, to help pick up the pieces and slowly move forward. When my mother passed away, there was a lot to do, and a few rabbis were consulted and were so very helpful. That’s part of their job.

But what do you do when the lost loved one is the rabbi, the mortal conduit through which one can begin to overcome? What happens when they cannot answer the phone and guide you through the oblivion of grief? Who do you call when the one you’re mourning is the one who is supposed to help you get past the sadness?

Over Shabbat, Rabbi Sam Fraint passed away. He was our rabbi. Granted, our family had not paid dues to his synagogue or even lived in his community for over 25 years, but he was our rabbi. Let me be clear: this is not meant to diminish the impact and amazing relationships that my father, sister, and I share with the rabbis of the synagogues in Cleveland and beyond that we are now affiliated with. Not one iota. But Rabbi Sam was our rabbi and was tremendously revered in our house. And we loved him.

Our relationship begins over 30 years ago, when the senior rabbi of the largest Conservative synagogue in Chicago was looking for a new youth director. He knew of a woman who had taught at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. As she was was finishing a graduate degree in Boston, the rabbi, having heard of her all-star reputation with youth from a previous role of hers, reached out and offered her the job. The synagogue’s young assistant rabbi instantly noted how she had an unbelievable way with kids, himself included, he admitted later.

It was a reality that he remembered a few years later, when the two had both moved on from that shul on the North Shore. She was home raising her children, and he was at the helm of a new congregation, and was in need of a director of education. The rabbi reached out to his former colleague with this opportunity, and she mulled it over, clearly unsure if this was the right move for her. He asked how much money she’d need to make in order to seal the deal, and she responded with a certain amount. The response was “well, I’m going to give you $5,000 more than that.” That woman was my mother, and that rabbi was Rabbi Sam Fraint.

After a few years of working at the Moriah Congregation, our family moved to Cleveland. While this decision was, in my opinion, one of the best that my parents ever made, it’s never easy to say goodbye to a community that means so much to you. Over the years, the Fraint family have been a constant in our lives. Rabbi Sam was at my parents’ wedding. He named me at my bris. I practically idolized his son Zeke (I’m pretty sure we were at his Bar Mitzvah). Rabbi Sam even got a bracha under my sister Dena’s chuppah less than a year ago. We may have lived hours apart, I can hardly recall a time among the many that we visited Chicago when we did not see him, either surprising him in shul on Shabbos/Yuntif morning or going to his house. To visit him at Moriah was a real treat. The warm, lay-led environment of Ramahniks and USYers was (and I assume still is) a magical place. On one occasion, he made my father read Torah unexpectedly, although was an aliyah that he’s lained probably a dozen times. On almost every other occasion, he welcome us back to Moriah as he stood to speak to the congregation. This happened whether it was a regular Shabbos or if there were a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or an Aufruf.

And he and his wife Deena would drive to see us as well. As we were situated on the route between Chicago and New York/New Jersey, our home seemed to be a perfect rest stop location for the Fraints.

Rabbi Sam made me cry twice in my life. The first was when a Moriah congregant passed away the Thursday night before my Bar Mitzvah and he and Deena weren’t going to be able to join us. The second was when he spoke at my mother’s funeral. “Sheila Balk was my friend–my good friend. Since she and Mitchell moved to Cleveland, my wife and I hadn’t seen them very often. Each time I did have the opportunity to be with her over the last 20 years, her condition, an all-purpose euphemism to the torture she was subjected, her condition came to me as a shock. I don’t know anyone else who could’ve maintained herself– her personality, her ability to care for others (especially her children), her sense of humor and sense of self–in the way that Sheila did. She was part of God’s natural aristocracy, a description I’m not certain she would’ve been particularly fond of. But that’s who she was. Some people can be ’tischak leeyom acharon,’ most people cannot. But Sheila could, and she did…” 

And boy was he smart. Rabbi Sam was absolutely brilliant, yet his intellect would not stop him from sugar-coating the truth. He was a powerful orator, could, at times, say things from the bimah that were not politically correct. These were items that Rabbi Sam would grapple with tooth and nail, but would never compromise on the truth and how it made him feel.

A few years ago, he made it onto two prestigious lists. The first, was being named as one of the most inspirational rabbis in America. The second, was the secret “blacklist” of rabbis whose conversions were not accepted by the Chief Rabbinate of the state of Israel. I truly believe that these were both placements that he relished.

When he found out I was going to be a rabbi, he was kicking himself about how I ended up at RIETS and not at JTS. He told me that his own synagogue used Artscroll siddurim in addition to the Conservative Sim Shalom, and that it wasn’t too late for me to switch schools! (It was).

But by far the most meaningful thing to me about Rabbi Sam was that he took me, and other kids seriously. He made us feel important. While in high school, I was an active reader and less active emailer to the International USY Listserve. This email list not only went to USYers but to some rabbis and employees of Conservative synagogues as well. Rabbi Sam would take the time to respond to a few of the emails I sent (some of them are screenshotted below). There’s a reason I saved all of them. Never would he talk down to me, or converse with me the way adult would normally interact with a child. Most of the time, his notes were signed “Your friend, Sam Fraint.” And that’s exactly what he was.

I’ll never forget when my 8th grade class went to Israel, he walked over on Shabbat afternoon to the hotel we were staying at. I don’t know where he was walking from in Jerusalem or how long the trek was. What I do know is that we spent two hours talking like equals and old friends. My classmates were a bit puzzled as to who this guest was. Some thought he was an uncle, but none could fathom how the rabbi of a synagogue I used to go to a decade ago, hundreds of miles away from my current home, would come over and shmooze about everything from baseball to Ramah to dogs to any/all facets of Judaism. He treated me with unbelievable respect, and afforded me this same derech eretz when I matured as well.

There were times that his openness referred to earlier got my mother angry. She would tell him how she knows he’s right about x,y, and z, but he couldn’t say such things from the pulpit! They would talk it out, she would bust his chops, and he would smile and laugh it off. I can only hope that they’re doing just that right now in Gan Eden.

Yehi Zichro Baruch.

 

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His reply to an email I wrote about Yom HaShoah to the USY International Listserve in Spring 2006.

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An email I wrote mocking the summer trip itineraries of my fellow USYers to the USY International Listserve in Spring 2006

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Rabbi Sam’s reply to that email. Sadly, we didn’t meet up in Greenland.

Pinchas 5778 – Closing the Gap

Image result for mountainsAlthough this week’s Parsha is named for Pinchas, it’s his actions at the end of last week’s Parsha, Balak, that set the scene for where we are today. As we completed the Torah reading last Shabbos morning, the wandering Jewish people are in Shittim and begin physically and spiritually getting a bit too close to the Bnei Moav. Physically, the men of Bnai Yisrael begin sleeping with Moabite women. Spiritually, the verses state the they began to bow and serve their God as well. Believe it or not, this is not taken too well by the Almighty, who tells Moshe to command the Shoftei Yisrael to kill any man who was connected at all to serving Ba’al Pe’or. Zimri ben Salu, the nasi of Shimon took no heed to this edict, and openly paraded himself with a Midianite woman in front of Moshe and the nation. Upon witnessing this, Pinchas took a spear and killed both of them. There were 24,000 total that died as a part of this plague.

We now begin Parshas Pinchas: “Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. Therefore, say, ‘I hereby give him My covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of kehunah, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel.'”

It seems a bit out of character for Pinchas’ full lineage to be listed here, as it’s not a commonly seen practice elsewhere in the Torah. We’ve previously discussed an idea from Rav Soloveitchik on this matter, that this is to show us that Pinchas’ actions were done in accordance with the mentality of his grandfather Aharon.

The Or Hachaim Hakadosh, Rav Chaim ben Attar (whose yahrtzeit fell out last week) has an additional take on why this is. He explains that through the act of his grandson in stopping the plague of death from those who had fallen to such levels of wanton sinning with Bnai Moav, Hashem meant to reconcile Bnai Yisrael with Aharon in reference to cheit haeigel. In Shemos, while the Golden Calf was destroyed when Moshe returned from Har Sinai, there were thousands of Jews killed for having partaken in the sin. It was Aharon who fashioned the idol, even though he did not serve it.

It’s interesting to note that despite what we know about Aharon that this still could’ve been possible. How do we recognize him in the grand scheme of Jewish history? When Aharon dies just a few parshios earlier, there doesn’t seem to be anyone celebrating the high priest meeting his demise. Fahkert, just the opposite! Bnai Yisrael weep and mourn his passing for thirty days (In fact, this is the source for our people to note a end of the sheloshim period for a relative that has died). These were not tears of happiness to be rid of such a nefarious, horrible individual. The reaction of the kehillah was real and emotional. Aharon was loved.

One could also imagine this notion of the Or Hachaim as something that Aharon struggled with internally to a tremendous degree, and could’ve been a secret that he shared with his family and close confidants. Something that plagued him for years, something that he could not shake. This incident was not something that Aharon took lightly. The Midrash (Tanna Devei Eliyahu, Chapter 13) states that Aharon was constantly going around seeking to atone for what he had done. He would go out and to chessed for others and teach Torah, in an effort to mend the tremendous spiritual rupture that came from the eigel hazahav.

Unfortunately in our world today, there are many individuals who struggle to cast off an internal picture of who they are, whether based on decisions they’ve made previously, or sometimes for no reason at all. They can be engrossed in helping others for hours on end without a single soul knowing the depths of their kindness, yet at the end of the day, they may still feel uncomfortable with themselves knowing there is more they have yet to accomplish. Aharon HaKohen was a tremendous leader who worked every day to better himself, yet he could have still defined himself as the conduit to the greatest sin that befell the nation. This seemingly minute detail of listing Pinchas’ grandfather shows us that there should be no more resentment toward Aharon, even after the generation had died out, and that the circle had been symbolically closed.

 

Yom HaAtzmaut 5778 – Satiety

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I suppose anyone living in a place with individuals who were alive before the founding of the country they live in maintains a greater sense of appreciation for what it took for that land to exist. Those living in the aftermath of the founding of the United States probably felt this way. The first century was not an easy one for America, but the founders of the country still permeated the land, either in person or in spirit.  The same can be said of Israel. There are individuals whose facade would not indicate anything out of the ordinary, yet upon further research, one might uncover that this person fought bravely for the nascent Jewish state to exist. Last year, a documentary titled “Ben-Gurion: Epilogue” was released. It was created from 6 hours of archived footage from a 1968 interview by BBC with the founding Israeli leader, and it’s an absolutely scintillating production. There were no film crews around to press George Washington or any of the other founding fathers on his thoughts regarding the founding of the United States of America. Memoirs or letters that have been published on the topic are not able to capture what the video is able to do. Seeing Ben Gurion react to a question, give brutally honest, poignant answers while perched in his compound in Sde Boker. It adds a tremendous layer of appreciation for the day.

In a similar vein, at my graduation from Yeshiva University, Ambassador Yehuda Avner, having just finished his magnum opus, The Prime Ministers, gave the keynote address. His account was not only that of a historian studying the events, nor was it exclusively one of someone living at the time the events occurred. He himself played a role in history as it was unfolding. Speaking lovingly about this previous chapter in his life was anything buy history: it was nostalgia. Avner was not reading pages from his book to assembled masses, but from his firsthand account in his mind. You could hear the history in his voice.

My feelings on this day are a mix of happiness, hope, and a significant amount of gratitude. I’m happy that I live in a world where the Jewish state of Israel is a burgeoning nation, a reality that was not a given for my grandparents and generations before them. I am hopeful for an even greater future on the horizon of our Homeland. I know Israel is imperfect, just as every single nation that has or will come into being is or will be. Change, while difficult, is easier than beginning anew in a different land with absolutely nothing. Finally, the gratitude, which is owed to God, and to those who came before and worked the land that I love so much.

These thoughts are summed up more eloquently by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion (recorded in The Religious Significance of the State of Israel [Alei Etzion 14] and Commitment and Complexity):

“Despite the many problems the State faces, we may not ignore the great miracles we experienced at the time of its establishment.  Analogously, although the Hasmonean state was far from perfect, its establishment (and the return of Jewish sovereignty, albeit limited) was nevertheless a cause for celebration, as the Rambam emphasizes.  The Rambam (Commentary to the Mishna, Yoma 1:3) knew very well the inauspicious character of the Hasmonean kings:

But in the time of the Second Temple, things were imperfect, as is well known – the kings did not follow the correct tradition and they would appoint the High Priest by force, even though he was unworthy…

Nevertheless, he felt that the establishment of the Hasmonean monarchy constitutes the main reason behind the celebration of Chanuka (Hilkhot Chanuka 3:1-3): 

The High Priests of the Hasmonean family were victorious and killed [the Greeks], thus saving Israel from their hands.  They established a king from among the priests, and monarchy returned to Israel for over two hundred years… Because of this, the scholars of that generation instituted that these eight days, starting from the twenty-fifth of Kislev, shall be days of joy and praise.

            The Second Temple period thus serves as a legitimate model by which we may assess the contemporary Jewish State, a half-century after its establishment.  However imperfect, one cannot overlook the many positive elements of our independent national existence.  Our leaders today are no worse than the Hasmonean kings, and our country is no worse than theirs was.  To the contrary, our leadership and society often exhibit moral qualities far superior to those of the Hasmonean dynasty.”

There are those who say Hallel, with or without a bracha, or even recite a Shehechiyanu or Al HaNissim to mark the religious significance of Yom HaAtzmaut. Whether one adds these additions to their daily routine is of little importance to me, so long as we uphold the strong recognition to the Almighty for enabling the state of Israel to exist. I yield again to Rav Amital from this same work:

“How can we not thank the Almighty for all the kindness that He has showered upon us? First and foremost, the State of Israel serves as a safe haven for five million Jews. After the nightmare of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees wandered around the globe, finding a home and refuge only in Israel. The State has contributed an incalculable amount to the restoration of Jewish pride after the devastating chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) caused by the Holocaust. Today, too, the State plays an enormous role in the Jewish identity of our brethren throughout the world. For so many of them, the emotional attachment to the State remains the final thread connecting them to the Jewish People and to the God of Israel.

  I spoke earlier of Rav Kook’s inability to come to terms with the establishment of a state that would not bring to fruition the ultimate destiny of redemption.  This led him to claim that the impending State of Israel was to be the ideal State of the period of ge’ula (redemption).  But don’t all the critical functions fulfilled by the State of Israel (as listed above) justify its existence, even if it has not developed into the ideal community?  After the traumatic destruction of the Holocaust, which Rav Kook could not possibly have foreseen, the State played a critical role in the restoration and revitalization of the Jewish people.  It is hard to imagine what the Jewish nation would look like today if, Heaven forbid, the State of Israel had not emerged.

            I experienced the horror of the destruction of European Jewry, and I can thus appreciate the great miracle of Jewish rebirth in our homeland.  Are we not obligated to thank the Almighty for His kindness towards us?  Unquestionably!  And not just on Yom Ha-atzma’ut; each day we must recite Hallel seven times for the wonders and miracles He has performed on our behalf: “I praise you seven times each day!” (Tehillim 119:164).”

Rav Amital concludes:

“We remain very, very far from the ideal Jewish State, and we must therefore do whatever we can to bring about its realization.  A more just society and stronger public values are necessary prerequisites for its actualization.  If we want to hasten the ultimate redemption, we must work harder to ensure moral values on both the individual and communal levels.  Closing the social gaps, concern for the vulnerable elements of society, fighting poverty, respectful treatment of the non-Jews in Israel – all these measures will bring us closer to the day for which we long.  We hope and believe that our State will develop into the ideal Jewish State, “the foundation of the Divine Throne in the world, whose entire desire is that God shall be One and His Name shall be One.”

I cannot imagine what the landscape of world Jewry would resemble without the state of Israel. Our hope, our longing has gnawed at us as a nation for so long. Seventy years to a child seems like an eternity. In the grand scheme of life, it’s a mere second.

Pirkei Avos teaches us that at the age of seventy, one achieves a sense of satiety, as referenced to David HaMelech who died at that age “beseivah Tovah” (Divrei HaYamim I 29:28). The state of Israel does indeed have much to be satisfied about. Eretz Yisrael, as little a country as it is, punches far above her weight in terms of impacting the rest of the world. Setting aside all else that our tiny medinah has done for the rest of the world, I shudder to think about the fate of our people had the State not been declared 70 years ago. Where would we go? Where would our safe haven be? Nevertheless, the Mishnah does not stop at seventy, and continues to rattle off adages for other ages through 100. The message, to me, is clear. Although we can look back and recount the miracles brought by God in order to bring the state of Israel to be – the pioneers making the desert bloom (even before the state was established!), teaching simple tailors and shoemakers to fly planes and evolve into an effective army leading to unbelievable and improbable military victories – there is much more that the Jewish homeland can and will no doubt accomplish.

Thank you Hashem for the gift of Israel!

Yom Hazikaron 5778 – On the Periphery

 

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*A student of Yeshivas Kol Torah wanting to visit the graves of righteous sages in the Galil. He posed a question of whether or not one would be allowed to interrupt their Torah studies to do so to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Rav Shlomo Zalman replied to his pupil that one need not venture north to find graves of tzaddikim to pray at. Rather, there were plenty of “tzaddikim” who were buried on Har Herzl, Israeli’s military cemetery.

*A recent feature article in Ami magazine profiles Rabbis Avigdor and Chizkiyahu Nebenzahl, the immediate past and current chief rabbis of the Old City, respectively. Rav Avigdor serves as the rabbinic head of ZAKA, Israel’s primary rescue and recovery organization. They are volunteers who are on the scene immediately after natural disasters and terror attacks, cleaning up the havoc wrought. Rav Avigdor’s grandson, Avraham Nebenzahl, notes that he used to see his grandfather stand near the #1 bus stop outside the Kotel plaza donned in his bloodstained ZAKA uniform, tears streaming from his eyes, as he returned home from cleaning up the scene of a terror attack.

*Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon once related that a soldier at war once asked him if he could daven in his tank due to the less than pleasant smell inside. When Rav Rimon shared this question with an American rabbi, his North American counterpart didn’t understand the question. “One can’t pray in a scenario like that, so they’re exempt entirely!”, protested the American rabbi. Yet, Rav Rimon notes, never once has a soldier ever asked if he doesn’t have to daven. It’s simply never come up.”

On Yom Hazikron, I think about these vignettes, among others, that put me in the right frame of mind to approach this day. There are plenty of other anecdotes that will do the trick. These two capture the essence of what we’re commemorating. Rav Shlomo Zalman’s story hits me because of its poignancy. Rav Nebenzahl’s story speaks to me because I can picture this very scene playing out in my mind. Rav Rimon’s account speaks volumes of the caliber of many of the soldiers of the IDF.

The memorial is two-fold: on one hand, we remember the soldiers who valiantly fell fighting for their country, while we also reminisce about those individuals who have been victims of terror. I find myself on the periphery, making small connections to some victims. I feel uneasy making myself believe that I am much closer to these kedoshim than I actually am. I recognized one of the students killed in the Mercaz HaRav attack from living in the Old City at the same time. I’ve traversed many different places where people, both soldiers and civilians, have tragically been murdered in cold blood. Nevertheless, many of us who share this lack of first-hand connective tissue are somber today, thousands of miles away from the state of Israel.

To those with a strong connection to the land, it makes no difference how close one is to the victims. They are our sons, our daughters, our sisters, our brothers. When the Torah recounts how great the tenth and final plague was leading up to Paro releasing the Jewish people from his grip, the text states that the cry was so powerful because there was no Egyptian house that remained untouched. Each family experienced a casualty. In Israel, even if the kedoshim were not part of one’s own immediate family, the relationship is still there. A friend, a neighbor. The aggressors care not who you are or where you come from. Politicians are not spared (ask Benyamin Netanyahu). Rabbinic leaders aren’t either (ask the family of Rav Elyashiv who lost a daughter in 1948 to Jordanian shelling or Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbanit Chana Henkin who lost their beloved son and daughter-in-law not long ago).

When I think to myself that I’m on the periphery and feel foolish (almost) for getting worked up about the thousands of holy individuals who have died in the name of Israel, I am quickly pulled back to reality. The Gemara (Shevuos 39a) teaches us that the Jewish people are responsible for one another. Rashi comments that when Bnai Yisrael camped at Har Sinai in anticipation of receiving the Torah, they did so “k’ish echad b’lev echad.” The nation was so staunchly united in their mission that is were as if one person with one heart were making the decision, rather than the hundreds of thousands of people who were assembled at the foot of the mountain.

Someone once told me that they didn’t necessarily understand why we recognize Yom Hazikaron. Look up the names Nachshon Wachsman, Michael Levin, or Ezra Schwartz and tell me that you feel no sense of grief or loss. Put yourself in the shoes of the families of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who, after almost 4 years, still do not have their sons’ bodies to bury, and tell me you feel nothing. Millions of Israelis would love nothing more to treat the day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut as insignificantly as Americans treat July 3rd. Sadly, they do not have that luxury. We do not have that luxury.