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Rabbi Chaim Coffman
Rabbi Coffman has helped people from all across the spectrum to prepare themselves properly for Orthodox Conversion to Judaism. His students admire his vast knowledge and appreciate his warm, personal attention and endearing sense of humor.
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Welcome to Rabbi Chaim Coffman's Blog!

I would like to thank you for visiting my blog, Beyond Orthodox Conversion to Judaism.

The conversion process can be a lengthy and daunting one to say the least and I want you to know that I am here to help you through it.

I have been teaching newcomers to Judaism for over a decade and over the last few years I have seen that conversion candidates really lack the support and knowledge they need to navigate the conversion process and successfully integrate into the Orthodox Jewish community.

I created my mentorship program in order to help make this whole experience as smooth and as painless as possible! (Can't do much about the growing pains, though ;)

Feel free to get to know me a little through the posts on my blog and visit the mentorship and syllabus page if you are interested in possible joining us.

I sincerely wish you all the best in your search for truth and spiritual growth.

Looking forward to meeting you,
Chaim Coffman

My Rebbe, Rav Moshe Sternbuch

In case you were wondering why I have all of these articles written by Rav Moshe Sternbuch, he is my Rebbe, and one of the gedolei hador (greatest Rabbis of our generation).

Rav Sternbuch fully endorses me and supports my mentorship program.

He is the address for all of my halachic or hashkafic (practical and philosophical) questions that I or my students may have.

The articles are based on his weekly talks on the Torah portion that the Rav gives in Jerusalem in his kollel. As a member of the kollel I get first dibbs on the photocopies and I type them up for my blog so you can all benefit from the Rav's erudition and insight.
Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lessons from Yosef’s conduct

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


“It was at the end of two years” (41:1); Medrash Rabbo: ‘Happy is the man that has made Hashem his trust’, this is Yosef, ‘and has not turned to the arrogant’, because he said to the butler "remember me, and mention me", two years were added [to his prison sentence]”.

Why does the medrash first praise Yosef and then criticize him?

For an ordinary person there would have been nothing wrong in enlisting the help of the butler. In fact it would have been required hishtadlus. (to do our utmost with our own effort to reach a goal) However, for someone with an extremely high level of faith such as Yosef even this minimal effort was excessive. It was precisely because Yosef made Hashem his trust that he was held to account for not living up to his exceptionally high standards, and he had to stay in prison for two more years.

The Vilna Gaon zt”l also had a remarkably high level of faith and would not, for example, consult with doctors. However, once he went to visit a family member who was sick and rebuked him for having failed to call a doctor on the grounds that he was behaving like the Vilna Gaon himself, arguing that if that family member had exerted minimal efforts in all areas of his life, such as making a living, then it would indeed have been praiseworthy to rely totally on Hashem and not call a doctor, but otherwise such behavior was mere laziness and nothing short of a sin.


“What Hashem is about to do, He has told to Paroh” (41:25).

Throughout the parsha, we find Yosef mentioning Hashem's name repeatedly. This emphasis on his total subjugation to Hashem and his own impotence made a deep impression on Paroh and his servants, as they said (41:38) "Can another one like this be found, a man who has Hashem's spirit in him?”.

The words “be’ezras Hashem” (with the Help of G-d) must be on our lips constantly, both in order to internalize the message of our dependence on Hashem for ourselves, and in order to create a kiddush Hashem, as Yosef did. In truth, it is brought down in the name of the Kelmer Maggid zt”l that be’ezras Hashem implies that we are the active agents and Hashem is merely assisting us, so that a more appropriate phrase would be “birzos Hashem” (if Hashem wills it), which indicates that everything is dependent on Hashem's will, and we are merely performing His will. However, the minhag is not to be particular about use of this phrase.


“Now Paroh should seek a man of understanding and wisdom” (41:33).

Rav Elya Lopian zt”l asks why a man of exceptional wisdom and understanding was required for the purpose of gathering food during the good years. One would think that such a task calls for an organized, energetic and industrious person not specifically for an intelligent one.

He explains that during the years of plenty people do not appreciate the need for storing food for the lean years, and you need more than a macher to encourage the population to develop a feeling of hunger during a period of abundance. Only someone with outstanding prescience can fulfill such a task.

Similarly, as long as we are alive in this world we enjoy years of plenty in terms of our possibility to perform mitzvos as opposed to our situation in the World to Come, in which we experience "lean years", because we no longer have the opportunity of performing mitzvos and good deeds. Our task is to acquire the characteristics of a wise and understanding person with foresight who develops psychological strategies to enable him to live with the constant awareness of the need to utilize his time to the utmost and not disdain or postpone any opportunity to learn Torah or perform a mitzvah.


“They hurried him out of the dungeon, but he [first] shaved and changed his clothes” (41:14).

Yosef knew that since he was about to meet royalty he had to shave first. Instead of rushing to meet Paroh and use this opportunity of finally achieving freedom after 14 years in prison, he calmly acted in accordance with the mandates of halocho. Similarly, on the possuk, Yosef saw his brothers and he recognized them, but he acted like a stranger to them. He spoke harshly to them [42:7] Onkelos translates: “and he recognized them and contemplated what to say to them and [then] spoke to them harshly”. For Yosef questions of loshon horo or embarrassing people in public were no less halachik matters than the kashrus of a chicken. Obviously such matters involve greater emotional issues, but that is all the more reason to subject them to the directives of halocho.

Unfortunately, we tend to treat our speech rather lightly, and think nothing of the effect of our words. Often it does not even occur to us that there are halachik issues involved which we have to look into carefully before proceeding to open our mouths and utter potentially lethal words.

After thinking about it, Yosef reached the conclusion that he had to put his brothers in the same situation as they had been when they had sold him, in order to give them the opportunity to achieve complete repentance by behaving differently this time (the Rambam says that only in such situation does one achieve the title of baal teshuva). That is why he tested them to see how they would react to his incarceration of Binyomin, would they be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their brothers welfare this time?


“Yosef named the first-born, Menasheh, "For G-d has made me forget all my trouble, and all that was in my father's house” (41:51).

We would have thought that his father's house should have been in his mind constantly, so why did Yosef not only praise Hashem for making him forget his father's house, but commemorate this fact in his son's name?

There is an enigmatic gemoro which states: "what should a person do who wants to live, let him kill himself” (Masseches Tomid 30a). The Brisker Rov zt”l explained this as follows: if a person is suffering emotionally from painful experiences in the past or present he must overcome his emotions ("kill" them) in order to live joyfully and productively in the present. The Brisker Rov himself had lost his wife and three children in the Holocaust and had to witness the anti-religious persecution in Eretz Yisroel in the years following the founding of the Jewish state. It was extremely difficult for anyone with emotion to live through those years. This gemoro addresses any of us suffering from painful past or present experiences and encourages us to refuse to succumb to feelings of despondency or despair.

We find that the same Amora Rabi Yochonon, who lost ten sons during his lifetime and comforted and inspired others with his heroic reaction to misfortune, stated that although he wanted to witness the coming of moshiach, he was unwilling to bear the birth pangs preceding his coming. How could it be that someone who had faced the death of ten of his own children with such fortitude would be afraid of this period? Rav Elya Lopian zt”l answers that Rabi Yochonon was an emotional person by nature, and he knew that he would not be able to endure the terrible chilul Hashem when so many of Hashem's nation would be slaughtered, and to subsequently have to witness the deeds of an anti-religious Jewish government in His country.

In a similar vein, the Sadigure Rebbe zt”l told Rav Sternbuch that when he went to see Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l to tell him that he was about to leave the country to go to live in Tel Aviv, Rav Elchonon responded that he himself had grave doubts as to whether his nature would allow him to live in an environment where he would be forced to witness chilul Shabbos by Jews in Eretz Yisroel.

Yosef knew through all those years in Egypt how much his father was suffering terribly, but instead of dwelling on that and on his own anguish at being forcibly separated from his home, he chose to overcome his feelings, knowing that he had to fulfill Paroh’s dream and bring all his family to Egypt, in order to start the beginning of the Egyptian exile that was to lead eventually to the giving of the Torah and the conquest of Eretz Yisroel. With this attitude he managed to lead the Egyptian nation successfully with wisdom. He would not let his spirits fall, and in gratitude to Hashem for this called his son Menashe in the hope that he would continue to be able to forget his father's house for the time being, and continue with his tasks until the opportunity would present itself to meet his father again.

On a related note, any baal teshuva who wants to succeed must first completely forget his past, and think only about the future and building up a Jewish home full of Torah, charity and good deeds, because thinking about past misdemeanors would make it very difficult for him to live joyfully in the present. Part of the mitzvah of teshuva consists in forgetting about the past and living exclusively in the present. Only subsequently, once he has become totally accustomed to living a Torah lifestyle, should he contemplate gradually atoning for past transgressions.
Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Unfortunate Revelation of an Orthodox Convert

A well known Orthodox Convert to Judaism has just revealed her relationship with a non-Jew. Having been an Orthodox Jew for a number of years, she has just been open about her relationship with this non-Jew.

This creates a number of problems. Although the conversion is valid, it does cause for concern for other would-be Orthodox converts. When we hear something like this, it makes the newcomer to Judaism want to cringe.

The process is hard enough but when people do things that make the Jewish world even more critical of conversions, it makes the conversion process that much more difficult.

We all have an obligation to become the best Jew that we can be. When someone steps outside those boundaries, people begin to question their seriousness!

Any serious convert to Judaism, has to think once, twice and three times about this process and what they hope to do in the future.


It's worth the effort

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


“And Yaakov settled…” (37:1); Rashi: Yaakov was seeking to live in tranquility, when the troubles of Yosef were thrust upon him. Whenever the righteous seek to live in tranquility, Hashem says, "Is it not sufficient for the righteous to have what has been prepared for them in the World to Come that they should also want to live in tranquility in this world?

Yaakov had already endured much suffering by this stage: he had learnt for fourteen years uninterruptedly without lying down, had spent twenty years with the fraudster Lovon, had met Eisov accompanied by 400 men, and had struggled with the angel. Why then was his desire for tranquility held out against him?

Yaakov ovinu, who was called Yisroel, a servant of E-l, should not have requested tranquility in this world, since that state is reserved for the world to come, whose inhabitants’ spiritual status is more or less static. In this world suffering and challenges are the tools that elevate a person both here and now and in preparation for the next world, where the fruits of those efforts will be enjoyed. The same applies to Yaakov’s descendants.

A bochur once came to Rav Sternbuch’s Rebbe, Rav Moshe Schneider zt”l to ask for a brocho before his wedding. Rav Schneider asked him what brocho he wanted, and he responded that everything should go smoothly in his life and he should have no difficulties. Rav Schneider said that that was no brocho, and blessed him instead that when faced with challenging situations, he should overcome them successfully, and added that living a tranquil existence is not an ideal. For this reason too the serpent’s curse was “dust you shall eat all the days of your life”. Dust is always freely available, and in that itself lies the curse. Something attained effortlessly has no value.


“…in the land of his father's residence” (ibid)

Chazal derive from this phrase that Yitzchok had been responsible for producing converts. We know that Avrohom, who epitomized the trait of chesed, brought many people closer to Hashem, but our image of Yitzchok is that of a holy self-contained individual, so how are we to understand this statement of Chazal?

Rav Moshe Schneider zt”l noted that there are two types of righteous individuals. Some, like Avrohom, actively engage in various public activities to disseminate yiddishkeit, whereas others, like Yitzchok, have an influence by virtue of their very avodoh performed with dedication and gevuroh (self-sacrifice). Yitzchok, unlike his father, did not travel from place to place and actively spread the Word of Hashem, but he still managed to create converts, because his very avodoh exuded holiness and truth and had an immense influence on those who witnessed it.

Similarly, neither the Vilna Gaon zt”l nor the Chazon Ish zt”l had yeshivas, kehillos, or many students, but their incomparable influence for all future generations was due to the force of their holy personalities and way of life, which inspired anybody who met them or heard about them, and created a strong desire to emulate their deeds.

In truth, all of Yitzchok’s descendants, and not only his exceptionally righteous or famous ones, must be aware of the power of their private actions, even if they remain unknown to others. Each time any yid overcomes his yetzer horo - and the greater the effort required to do so the greater the result achieved - to learn Torah or perform a mitzvah or good deed, he or she increases kedusho (holiness) in the entire universe and beyond, thus enhancing the spiritual atmosphere in our world and making it easier for other yidden to do the same and bringing the not-yet religious that much closer to Hashem and his Torah.


“For he was a son of his old age” (37:3) Rashi: Onkelos translates it: "He was a wise son to him, because everything that Yaakov had learned from Sheim and Eiver, he transmitted to Yosef.

Yaakov himself learned Torah from his father and grandfather. Would it not have been sufficient to transmit this Torah to Yosef?

Sheim lived in the generation of the mabul (flood) and Eiver in the dor haflogo (the generation which was dispersed following the building of the tower of bovel), in other words they were both surrounded by wicked people and therefore had to lead a secluded existence. The Torah of Sheim and Eiver refers to the conduct required to maintain one's righteousness in an atmosphere of total wickedness without being affected by one’s surroundings.

Yaakov Ovinu knew through ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) that Yosef would be faced with difficult challenges in Egypt and therefore taught him specifically that that even if he finds himself in an environment consisting only of wicked individuals, he had to imagine that he was the only person alive in the world and still fulfill his duties to the Creator.

Unfortunately, most of us cannot shut ourselves off entirely from elements that are reminiscent of the society in which Yosef would have to spend most of his life, so this Torah of Sheim and Eiver, which teaches us to seclude ourselves either physically, or at least intellectually and emotionally, from moral depravity, is of great relevance for us too. Moreover, on the national level, we as bnei Torah, must also make sure not to let the harangues of our ignorant brethren against Torah learning or leading a Torah lifestyle affect us or our children.


“And he made him a colorful coat” (ibid)

The obvious question is why Yaakov would want to provoke the jealousy of his other sons by showing extra love to Yosef? The Chasam Sofer zt”l explains that Yaakov wanted to demonstrate to his sons that Yosef was a bit different to them and his nature was such that he needed to wear nice clothes. For this reason too, he spent more time learning with him, because he needed that extra bit of attention to keep him on the right spiritual track.


“Come, I will send you to them” (37:13)

Why did Yaakov, who knew of his brothers’ hatred towards him, send Yosef to meet them in a secluded place without worrying for the well-being of his beloved son?

Yaakov sent him in the hope that Yosef would understand that Yaakov was concerned for them and loved them, and in order to prove to him and to the brothers that he had no bad feelings towards them. However, even before they had a chance to meet, the brothers saw him from a distance, and before he even approached them they plotted against him to kill him. That was the great tragedy in the sale of Yosef: they did not even want to speak to him, and so the chance for a dialogue was missed.

The mishna in Ovos (5:17) cites the machlokes between Hilel and Shamay as being a dispute for the sake of Heaven. The disputes between Beis Hillel and Beis Shamay were not personal disputes between two different camps, but were rather exclusively concerned with matters of halocho. On the other hand, the mishna continues that the machlokes of Korach and all his congregation was not for the sake of Heaven. Korach and Moshe themselves might have been able to come to an agreement, but once Korach’s congregation got involved, who were not interested in peace, the whole dispute became one that was not for the sake of Heaven.

Nowadays too disputes between two Rebbes can be sorted out between them, but once their followers join in it becomes a machlokes shelo lesheim shomayim. Similarly, many initially minor disputes that could have easily been settled at an early stage develop into major conflagarations once "friends" on both sides join the fray and create a seemingly irreparable chasm between the parties.


“Please recognize to whom this signet (chosemes)” (38:25)

When a person is brought to be judged by the heavenly tribunal after he passes away, he is not introduced as ploni the son of ploni. Instead, the good angels he has created as a result of performing mitzvos, as well as the mal’ochei chabolo (destructive angels) created following the commission of sins are brought before him, and he is told “please recognize these angels”, and he recognizes them and signs (chosem) his own judgment.


He would not listen to her, to lie next to her, nor to be with her” (39:10) whoever commits one sin in this world it envelops him and goes before him in the Day of Judgment…Rabi says, it remains connected to him like a dog, as it says, to lie next to her, in this world, nor to be with her in the world to come (Masseches Soto 3b)

The Chofetz Chaim zt”l explains that a person's sins accompany him to the next world, so that wherever he is, he is seen together with her and she envelops him and accompanies him to the Day of Judgment. He concludes (at the end of Shem Olom) that anybody who contemplates this thought for a moment must shudder at the thought that all his actions both bein odom lemokom and interpersonal matters, which are performed in secret, or even in the recesses of his heart, will be revealed to all eventually, and the depth of divine judgment should act as a spur in all our actions in this world.

It is also brought down in the name of the Chofetz Chaim that the telephone and movies were invented specifically for these final generations in which faith has been weakened, and the maskilim mock statements in Chazal about the heavenly "seeing eye”, which records everything for posterity, which cannot be subsequently denied, so that we now have some concrete idea about how even in this world at least our physical actions are recorded for anyone to see.

Anyone who resists temptation for no ulterior motive, such as fear, or the desire for honor, but merely to fulfill the will of Hashem, fulfils the greatest mitzvah of sanctifying the divine name (see Rambam Yesodei Hatorah 5:10). Moreover, it says in Yalkut Shimoni that in the past a person who performed a mitzvah would have his deeds recorded by the prophets, but now that there are no more prophets Eliyohu and moshiach record his deeds and Hashem Himself kivyochol signs.

Sometimes a person passes away and he or she may have accomplished much during their lifetime, either in the public sphere by dedicating themselves to the material or spiritual welfare of klal yisroel or in the private sphere in the form of victories against their yetzer horo, but they leave nothing obvious behind them to eternalize them, such as an important sefer. The medrash makes it clear that in the future such people will have the privilege of having their names recorded in a commemorative book, which will be read by everybody like a sefer Torah.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Rav Sternbuch Ask the Raavad

A Silver Menorah for the Chosson

Question: My oldest daughter just became
a kallah and we heard that we should buy our new chosson a silver Chanukah menorah. Does Rav Sternbuch think that this is the correct hanhagah?
Rabbi Gershon Unger

Answer: If you can afford to buy your chosson a silver menorah, it is certainly a good idea to do so, for it expresses chavivus for the chosson and it is a hiddur in the mitzvah. If it is financially difficult for you, then you should not strain yourself and buy him a silver menorah.


The Raavad had a son who was called “Rav Yitzchok Sagi Nahor” (literally blind), who
was a great mekubal. Rav Yitzchok, in Kuntres Sod Hadlokas Neiros Chanukah, ruled that the menorah plays an integral part of the mitzvah of hadlokas neiros Chanukah. The Avnei Nezer (Orach Chaim 500) and the Chessed L’Avrohom (grandfather of the Chidah, as cited in Kaf Hachaim 673:60) cite this understanding as the halacha, and they write that one who does not use a menorah - e.g., he merely lights wax candles on a stone surface - does not fulfill the mitzvah properly.

In order to fulfill the requirement to light in a utensil, one does not have to use a
menorah. Someone who lights olive oil in shot glasses is also considered to have lit
in a kli. However, it is preferable to use an actual menorah, since this is how the
avodah was performed in the Bais Hamikdosh.

However, the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch do not mention that one must have a
menorah to fulfill the mitzvah. According to most opinions, including the Mishnah Berurah (671:18), this is considered to be the halacha. Therefore, one fulfills his obligation even if he does not use a menorah.

At the end of Kuntres Sod Hadlokas Neiros Chanukah, Rav Yitzchok Sagi Nahor notes
that Chazal say that whoever is careful regarding neiros Chanukah will have children who are talmidei chachomim. Yet, many people light Chanukah candles and do not merit such children.

Rav Yitzchok explains that the promise of Chazal only applies to someone who lights
according to all of the hiddurim and is careful to avoid all questionable situations. Let us look at some of the details of hiddur mitzvah regarding the Chanukah lights.


The Mishnah Berurah rules: “A person should go out of his way to acquire a beautiful
menorah and candles” (Mishnah Berurah 673:28). The Mishnah Berurah implies that,
according to all opinions, it is considered to be a hiddur (beautify) to use a beautiful menorah, similar to a beautiful paroches being a hiddur for a Sefer Torah. What is considered a beautiful menorah?

The poskim inform us which types of menorahs are considered to be the most attractive. Precious metals are the most beautiful. Therefore, silver is the first choice. After that come cheaper metals that look like precious ones (golden brass followed by red brass, iron, tin and then lead). If one cannot obtain a metal menorah, one may use less expensive materials, such as glass, wood, bone, lead-lined pottery or even pottery. Therefore, if you can afford to purchase a silver menorah for your chosson, it is certainly an appropriate gift. However, since one certainly fulfills the mitzvah without a silver menorah, a person should not put himself into financial strain to buy one for himself or his


The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 673:1) rules that “all types of wicks and oils are kosher for Chanukah lights, even if the oil will not be drawn up to the wick and the light of the flame will not be held steadily by the wick. However, the best way to fulfill the mitzvah is with olive oil.”

Olive oil adds a special dimension to Chanukah lights. The Mishnah Berurah (673:4) explains that as one of the purest oils, olive oil is smoothly drawn up the wick, producing a beautiful flame. At the same time, it provides us with a direct reminder of the original miracle - the olive oil that lasted eight days (Levush and Pri Chodosh).

The Gemara (Shabbos 23a) says that all types of oil are appropriate for the
Chanukah ner. We know that in the wording of Chazal, ner usually refers to the candle
holder and not the actual light. If the beautification of using olive oil is in the lights, why does the Gemara mention the ner and not the actual Chanukah lights?

This Gemara can be understood according to the opinions that the menorah is part of the mitzvah. According to this understanding, the olive oil and the menorah join together to produce the mitzvah. Since the olive oil beautifies the menorah and the menorah helps beautify the olive oil, the Gemara states that olive oil

Ask the Raavad

Question: My wife’s cousin (her father’s sister’s daughter) passed away on Tuesday.What is the halacha in regards to attending a bar mitzvah gathering of a close friend on the upcoming Motzoei Shabbos and the wedding of her niece’s daughter on Sunday night?
Thank you.
Leib S.

Answer: According to the Rama, the halachos of aveilus that apply for thirty days (shloshim) are also practiced for cousins and uncles, as well as any other relative who one is forbidden to testify with (pesulei eidus). However, this type of semi-aveilus only applies until Motzoei Shabbos, and since your wife’s simchos are after Shabbos, she is permitted to attend both of them.


The Gemara says that anyone who a person mourns for - i.e., you will be in
mourning when that person passes away - one should join them in their mourning (Moed Kotton 20b). According to these words of Chazal, if a person’s grandfather passes away, the grandson should sit shivah together with his father or mother. Although the Shulchan Aruch cites this Gemara as the halacha, the Rama writes that the reason for this halacha is to honor those who are mourning, and the mourners are mochel this today and only the actual mourners sit shivah.

In fact, Rishonim note that if a person would keep this aveilus today, he would be considered to be making fun of the other mourners (Shach citing Hagahos Mordechai,
Moed Katan 20a). For this reason, the Rama writes that anyone who is stringent in regards to this halacha is considered to be from the matmihim (absurd) (Rama 374:6).
Thus, it is forbidden for the other relatives to sit shivah with these mourners. However, the Rama mentions that there are some halachos of aveilus relevant for
any relative who is a pasul le’eidus, i.e., one whom it is forbidden to give testimony with. This includes sheini besheini, second generation relatives, such as cousins and uncles. According to some opinions, it applies to shlishi berishon, i.e., third-generation relatives, such as great-uncles.

Why should one become a mourner if he is not obligated? Some explain that this is in deference to the honor of the deceased (Terumas Hadeshen 291 as cited by Darchei Moshe), while others explain that this is to pay honor to the other mourners (Ponim Meiros as cited in Pischei Teshuvah 374:4). Let us look at this type of mourning and try to understand what it entails.


The guidelines of this aveilusz (mourning) are different than other types of mourning, and one unusual aspect of this mourning is its time span. No matter when the mourning starts, it always ends on the same day. One starts from time of burial, and once Shabbos arrives, this mourning ends.

We have already established that some say that the reason for this aveilus is to honor the mourners. Based on this, some opinions say that if the mourners are sitting shivah in a different city, one is not obligated to keep these halachos. However, lemaaseh we view this as honor for the deceased, and these halachos are followed even in another city (Pischei Teshuvah 374:4).

Another important aspect of this mourning is that one only needs to keep the halachos
that are applicable on all thirty days of aveilus, such as washing, haircuts, and
going to weddings. Halachos that are only applicable during the first seven days -
e.g., not wearing shoes, wearing clothes of mourning, and not leaving the house - are
not applicable (Terumas Hadeshen 291, Rama ibid.).


The bottom line regarding the question posed is that a cousin passing away is sufficient reason to rule that one should not go to a bar mitzvah, wedding or any other joyous gathering. However, in your case, since your wife’s cousin passed away before Shabbos, she may attend the bar mitzvah and the wedding, which are after Shabbos. Some readers may think to themselves, “I never heard that this mourning existed before.” In fact, the Aruch Hashulchan writes that in some places, the custom is not to keep this. However, once the Rama has ruled that one should keep these halachos
Thursday, December 22, 2011

Of Angels and Animals

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


“Yaakov sent messengers ahead of him to Eisov” (32:4)

Chazal tell us that Yaakov sent 600,000 angels. These were beings that Yaakov himself had created as a result of all his Torah, mitzvos and good deeds. Every yid has to realize that each mitzvah performed by him creates an angel which acts as his defense counsel and whose importance and power depends on the concentration, dedication and joy with which his deeds are performed. The number of angels created by Yaakov may have been less than 600,000, but Chazal are referring to the way they appeared to Eisov on account of their intensity.

Why did this immense number of angels not make an impression on Eisov? Having been educated in the house of Yitzchok and Rivka, Eisov was entirely aware of the greatness of Hashem, of the superiority of holy people such as his brother, and of the effect of their actions, such as the angels, which he was witnessing: were it not so, he would not have longed for the blessings of his father so much. Therefore, even this impressive display of the results of spiritual greatness did not teach Eisov anything he did not know already, and was not sufficient to induce him to change his lifestyle: he simply preferred a way of life that catered to his desires in this world here and now, and his craving for material desires had almost completely clouded over his intellectual knowledge of the consequences of his actions.


“I lived as a stranger”. Rashi: "I have resided with the wicked Lovon and yet have kept the 613 commandments and have not learned from his wicked deeds” (32:5)

Why should this statement have moved the wicked Eisov? Yaakov thought that the source of Eisov’s hatred of him was his lust for worldly desires, and in the hope of encouraging him to change his dissolute lifestyle, he told him: “Look, I managed to remain observant in very unfavorable surroundings, and yet I still managed to acquire oxen, donkeys, sheep, servants and maidservants, so you see, it is possible to observe mitzvos and still amass possessions, you don't have to negate material things, but you can sanctify them, why then choose a life of uncontrolled license, which only leads to misery?” Since Yaakov’s intentions were to bring Eisov back to the fold, he also sent all those angels to reinforce the message that living a life of Torah and kedusho was worth it, but, as we saw, Eisov was too steeped in his desires and did not repent.

However, even someone as wicked as Eisov is affected by the sight of a tzaddik, and (at least according to Rabi Shimon: see Rashi on 33:4) when they met, Eisov cried because he was living the life of an animal in total contrast to his brother, who would be inheriting both this world and the next world, and even though they parted ways, and Eisov did not change his lifestyle, this encounter may have had had some positive effect on him in the long term too.

Rav Elya Lopian zt”l explained the possuk (33:5): “[Eisov] raised his eyes and saw the women and children. He said, ‘Who are these to you?’”as follows: “You are a spiritual person, what are you doing with so many wives, children and possessions?” Yaakov replied: “These are the children whom Hashem has graciously granted your servant”. In other words, “I possess nothing, I have been provided with all these gifts by Hashem as a guardian to hold in trust for the purpose of fulfilling His will”. We despise money knowing that it is ephemeral and without substance, because it does not accompany us to the next world. A Jew’s only possessions are his mitzvos, deeds and children who toil in Torah and follow in the steps of their holy ancestors.


“I acquired oxen, donkeys” (32:6)

A rebbe once visited the Brisker Rov zt”l when he was on vacation, and told him the following pshat: how did Yaakov in fact manage not to learn from Lovon’s wicked deeds? It was because he constantly lived with the awareness that Lovon, who was solely preoccupied with this world, was nothing but an ox and a donkey, and in that way Lovon had no influence over Yaakov. So too, concluded the rebbe, in Poland we made sure that we looked at the Zionists, the Bundists etc. in the same way to make sure that they had no influence over us. The Brisker Rov responded that the pshat is no good, but the vort is a good one!

In our generation too, when we live among people who cannot tolerate the growth of the Torah world, and preach to us to join the army, to go out to work, and to stop being parasitical etc, let us never lose sight of who we are dealing with: irrespective of whether their views and lifestyle stem from lack of education, ignorance or other factors, they unfortunately do not possess any more spirituality and are no less animalistic than their predecessors of previous generations.


“Yaakov was very frightened...I am unworthy of all the kindness and of all the faithfulness that you have done with Your servant” (32:8,11)

Yaakov was worried in case his sins should cause him to be delivered into the hands of Eisov (see Berochos 4a and Rashi on 32:11). This seems astonishing since Yaakov had received the following promise: “I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not forsake you until I have done that which I have spoken to you” (28:15). The answer is that Yaakov realized that all the bounty he had received from Hashem until then had been pure chesed, which he was not entitled to, and he was afraid that perhaps he would no longer be deemed worthy of continuing to be the recipient of such divine munificence.

The Torah is teaching us something of fundamental importance here. We in Eretz Yisroel witness the chasodim of Hashem on an ongoing daily basis. Our very existence here is becoming more miraculous by the day. However, despite our unprecedented low standing in the world, and the increasingly obvious enmity of neighboring countries, our erring brethren still put their faith in flesh and blood, our soldiers, modern technology or even the chesed of other nations. Our task is not to succumb to this outlook, and to live instead with a constant sense of gratitude for all the abundance which Hashem showers on us nationally and individually, and to endeavor to repay Him by fulfilling His will so that this astounding chesed may continue.


“For you have contended with G-d[ly beings] and with men, and you have won” (32:29)

At this stage Yaakov had not yet even met Eisov, so how can the possuk testify that he had contended with men and won? Anyone who successfully overcomes his evil inclination the way Yaakov ovinu managed to fight with and overcome the soton has subjected himself completely to Hashem and has already won the battle. He will have no problem overcoming people from now on, since Hashem will be with him. Therefore, he can be said to have already contended with men and won the battle in advance.


“He had committed an outrage against Yisrael to lie with a daughter of Yaakov. Such a thing should not be done” (34:7)

Rav Chaim Brisker zt”l was once traveling on a train from Brisk to Warsaw and Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg zt”l was in the same compartment when a Jewish fellow-traveller started pushing Rav Chaim until he almost fell. Rav Weinberg wanted to get this person to stop it but Rav Chaim told him not to. Once they reached Warsaw, and the Jewish fellow saw the great reception that awaited Chaim, he realized that he had been mistreating a great rabbinic personality. He begged Rav Chaim for forgiveness, but Rav Chaim responded that he would not forgive him, because the only reason he was asking for mechila was that he felt that he should not be treating a rabbi this way, whereas in reality no yid should endure such treatment from another yid, as it says, “He had committed an outrage against Yisrael to lie with a daughter of Yaakov”, and even if she had not been the daughter of the famous personality, “such a thing should not be done” to anyone regardless of their background or standing.

A similar incident happened to Rav Chaim’s father, the Bais Halevi zt”l who once travelled to Kamenitz, where he was not known and he did not wear any rabbinic garb that could have revealed his identity. It was very cold outside, and he knocked on the door of a Jewish guesthouse, asking the owner if he had a room to let. He said that he did not, but since the Bais Halevi had nowhere else to stay he begged him if he could not find accommodation for him anywhere at all, and so the man responded that he could stay in the basement downstairs. When the Bais Halevi switched on the light there to learn, his host told him to switch off the light since it was disturbing the other guests. After that there was suddenly big commotion upstairs. A rebbe had come to stay in this guesthouse, and when he saw the Bais Halevi he recognised him and asked him what the Brisker rov was doing there. Of course, the owner of the guesthouse almost fainted, and asked the Bais Halevi to forgive him. He responded that he would not, on the same grounds as Rav Chaim above, and told him that he must come to Brisk to stay at his house, which was always full of poor people and orphans etc. so that he could gain a greater empathy for the unfortunate. If he did so, he would forgive him.

Trials and Tribulations of the Final Golus

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


“Yaakov left Beer Sheva” (28:10).

Comparing his situation with that of Eliezer when he went to Choron to look for a wife for Yitzchok, Yaakov had every reason to despair. Eliezer had plenty of money and goods to offer, whereas he had nothing. The Medrash states that Yaakov said, “From where (mei’ayin) shall my help come? My help comes from Hashem, Who made heaven and earth.” When I acknowledge that I have nothing (ayin), and a "natural” analysis of events leads to hopelessness, I recall that Hashem created heaven and earth from nothing, and then I realize that even though I have nothing, and seemingly no hope of salvation, I deliver my future into the hands of the Creator in the expectation that He will save me.

The same applies to our situation in this final stage of golus. (exile) If we put our faith in human or other forces, such as armies or nations, imagining that our destiny is in our own hands, Hashem will leave us to the fate of those idols in which we put our trust. Only when we acknowledge that nothing (ayin) - no person, nation or force whatsoever - can be of assistance to us will we be worthy of Divine assistance. The purpose of the chevlei Moshiach, in which we experience suffering on an unprecedented scale even in terms of our tortured history, is to instill the message that only Hashem can help us. Of course, we can obviate the need for such suffering by internalizing Hashem's individual Providence nationally and individually, here and now, and living our lives accordingly.


“And he went toward Choron” (ibid.).

Rashi (on posuk 17, based on Maseches Chullin 91b) notes that when Yaakov passed the site of the Bais Hamikdosh on the way to Choron, Hashem did not detain him there, because if it had not entered Yaakov's mind to pray in the place where his fathers prayed then, why should Hashem detain him? Only once he reached Choron did Yaakov say, “Is it possible that I passed the place where my fathers prayed without my having prayed there?" He then decided to go back, and he returned as far as Bais El, at which stage he experienced kefitzas haderech.

On the way to Choron, Yaakov did nothing. He did not even think about going to daven at the site of the Bais Hamikdosh. Therefore, there was no reason for Hashem to have assisted him by detaining him in some manner in order to encourage him to pray there. It was only when Yaakov resolved upon going back, and took the first steps towards realizing his intention, that he received immediate Divine assistance in the form of kefitzas haderech.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l said that in material matters, we must have bitachon, but when it comes to spiritual matters, bitachon does not help. In ruchniyus, the level of siyata diShmaya we merit is dependent upon the amount of effort we devote toward Torah, tefillah and tikkun hamiddos (working on improving our character traits), whereas the reverse holds true in the area of gashmiyus: The more we minimize the amount of time, effort and money we invest in material affairs, and the more we place our trust exclusively in Hashem, the more He will repay us with Divine assistance, leaving us free to invest all our energy in spiritual matters, which reap eternal returns.


Why, in fact, did it not occur to Yaakov to daven where his fathers had prayed in the first place?

The Tchebiner Rov, Rav Dov Berish Weidenfeld zt”l, explained that initially Yaakov reasoned that since he was on the way to learn Torah with mesirus nefesh at the Yeshiva of Sheim and Eiver, it was not necessary to delay his journey by stopping to daven, until he eventually realized that he should not be different than his ancestors, and he went back to daven.

Tefillah is the pillar of creation and the source and key to success in Torah. A talented individual may imagine that his success in learning depends on his intellect, or even his application, but this is a mere delusion. Rav Moshe Schneider zt”l would always emphasize how crucial it is to daven properly and how our success in learning depends upon it. He would say that we must be concerned that someone who comes late for davening or does not concentrate properly on his tefillos may have the status of a Talmudic student rather than that of a yeshiva bochur. Through tefillah we acquire sanctity, and siyata diShmaya, which enables us to absorb the sanctity of Torah.


“He took some of the stones of that place and arranged them around his head” (28:11).

The Gemara (Maseches Chullin 91b) says that the stones quarreled, with each one saying, “Let this righteous one place his head on me",” until they were merged into one unit. It seems unclear how this resolved the problem, because even after the merger, Yaakov would still place his head on what used to be one particular stone. This teaches us that when there is true unity between individuals, they become a completely unified body, and everybody is happy for each other's success. Therefore, it was considered as if he placed his head on all the stones.

Similarly, Hashem never despises tefillah betzibbur, because it is much more powerful than just the sum total of ten or more prayers. Our tefillos were formulated in the plural, since each person prays not just for himself, but also for all his fellow congregants. Moreover, if a tzaddik is present, it is as if he prays all the prayers of his fellow congregants. It is worthwhile to look for a minyan that davens slowly and with proper devotion and concentration.


“A ladder was set up on the earth and the top of it reached toward heaven” (28:12).

The ladder symbolizes the Torah and tefillos which connect the Jewish nation to their Father in Heaven. The top of it reached heaven, because their avodah is accepted by Hashem. The ascending angels are the ones created by our avodah, because when we serve Hashem properly, they become elevated, but when our avodah is deficient, the angels "descend,” i.e., their level decreases accordingly.

We cannot fathom the number and size of the stars in the firmament, and the number of angels created by our actions is even greater. The quality of each angel depends on the intensity and devotion that accompanies each mitzvah or, chas veshalom, each sin. If someone standing at the bottom of a ladder attempts to shake it, this has a drastic effect on anyone standing on the upper rungs. Similarly, the upper worlds are dependent on our actions in this world. If we lived with the full awareness of the consequences of our actions, we would not sin.


“Behold it was Leah” (29:25).

Leah was meant to be one of the foremothers from the outset, so why did she marry Yaakov stealthily?

Yaakov had deceived his father with the brachos, and even though he had done so at his mother's request based on her ruach hakodesh (for the reason outlined in last week’s article), this was still capable of chipping away at the trait of truth. Hashem therefore wanted to demonstrate to him the potentially disastrous repercussions of deceit, which can even result in someone marrying the wrong person, in order to reinforce the middah of truth, which personified Yaakov.

Similarly, in addition to displaying a lack of bitachon and risking a serious chillul Hashem, dishonesty in business also affects our attachment to the fundamental middah of emes.


“Rochel was of…beautiful appearance but they seemed to him like a few days, so much did he love her” (29:17,20). Usually, if someone desires something very much, he suffers tremendously if he has to wait for the fulfillment of his desire, and yet here the Torah states the opposite.

The avos hakedoshim knew that they were establishing the basis for the Jewish nation for all future generations, and Yaakov knew that Rochel was meant to give birth to Yosef Hatzaddik, whose appearance would be as beautiful as his mother’s. As a result, he would be subjected to difficult challenges that would test his ability to maintain a high level of morality. He succeeded and thereby instilled this high level into all his descendants.

Being aware of the crucial nature of this future development, Yaakov loved Rochel, because through her the purpose of the avos would be completed. When he saw that he would have to wait another seven years before he could marry her, he assumed that this was the Soton's attempt to prevent the fulfillment of the Divine plan, so that his love for her and the desire to bring that plan to fruition became even greater.

The greatest and final test of the end of this golus lies in the area of pritzus. We should therefore not be surprised at the emergence of the internet and the unprecedented exposure to the very opposite of the sanctity which has characterized us since the time of Yosef. Anyone wishing to participate in both individual and national salvation must adhere to our historical standards.
Thursday, December 8, 2011

Eternal vs. Ephemeral

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


“And Sarah died in Kiryas Arba” (23:2).

Rashi quotes the Medrash that Sarah’s soul departed after hearing that Yitzchok had almost been slaughtered. Why was she not relieved that in the end he did not die? Furthermore, since she was no less righteous than Avrohom, why would she not have been perfectly willing to give up her son at Hashem’s request?

Our forefathers and foremothers knew that they were the pillars and prototypes for all future generations of the Jewish nation, and that their own experiences would be replicated again and again in the lives of their descendants. When Sarah heard about the Akeidah, in which two righteous and holy individuals had to endure a terribly difficult trial, she realized that, in the future, even her most righteous descendants would also have to endure extremely challenging experiences, such as the many persecutions in fact endured by the nation over the succeeding millennia, and that not even the tears and supplications of the angels could avert these events (see Rashi on 27:1). She thus began to cry ceaselessly, wondering whether her descendants would be able to withstand such enormous tests, until her soul departed due to her great distress.

Alternatively, Sarah knew that she had been allotted 127 years to live, but she thought that since she had been given a son who had to be educated and guided, she would be allowed to remain alive for as long as necessary to complete that task. When she heard that her son had been willing to give up his life altogether to fulfill Hashem's commandment, she knew that she had fulfilled her task properly and was no longer needed.


“And Avrohom weighed out the silver for Efron” (23:16).

Efron in this posuk is spelled without a Vov. The Medrash applies the following posuk in Mishlei (28:22) to Efron: "He who has an evil which hastens after riches and does not know that want shall come upon him.” Efron did not realize that his attempt to overcharge Avrohom so much would result not only in the loss of the unlawful gain, but also in many other losses.

When Rav Sternbuch was a child, Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l once came to his family for a Shabbos meal. Rav Sternbuch's mother, who had been widowed with nine young children, asked Rav Wasserman the following: “I have to have trust in Hashem, but, on the other hand, I have to make a living to support my children, and doing that takes up a lot of my time. What am I supposed to do?”

Rav Elchonon responded that he could not tell her how much time to spend in her work, but one thing he could tell her was that there is no chapping (grabbing) in this world, and someone who imagines that by working harder he will earn more and be happier is only deluding himself. Even if he does in fact make money, he may end up losing it as well as his other possessions, his wife or children may suffer health problems, etc., so that it will turn out that his chapping got him nowhere. Whatever is meant to be his will become his in any case, and the main thing is to always bear in mind that we are on the way to eternal existence and have to prepare ourselves for that instead of trying to grab some illusory ephemeral benefits. Rav Elchonon concluded by telling Mrs. Sternbuch that she should do whatever she had to do to make a living, without forgetting that her main duties were always in spiritual matters, in leading a life of Torah, and in educating each child in the path of Torah day in and day out.

In a similar vein, the Alter of Novardok zt”l said that this world is like a restaurant, where the guests ask for all sorts of food and drink and receive whatever they want, but they are presented with a bill eventually. Similarly, in this world, everyone can partake of various permitted pleasures to their heart’s content, but, in the end, they will be presented with a large bill to pay.


“She ...will be the one whom you have determined for your servant, Yitzchok” (24:14).

Targum Yonason translates: "She will be the one who has been provided by mazel (fate) for your servant, Yitzchok.” On the other hand, the Rambam in Shemoneh Perakim (Ch.8) states that finding one's marriage partner depends on free choice, since it is a mitzvah like any other mitzvah. These two opinions seem to be contradictory. Do shidduchim depend on mazel or on free choice?

The Gemara in Maseches Sotah (2a) says that a first zivug (marriage partner) depends on mazel, whereas a second zivug depends on one’s deeds (see Rashi ibid.), and the Arizal explains that zivug here is not referring to first and second marriages, but rather to types of souls. Just like each star is unique and has its own function, so too each soul has its own unique role to play in the world and is endowed with special abilities. When a man and woman are both fulfilling the purpose of their neshamos to a sufficient extent, their souls are connected at the source of their mazel and their union is considered to be a zivug rishon.(first marriage partner)
Such a marriage is extremely rare nowadays, and most marriages have the status of a zivug sheini, which are dependent on deeds.

The Rambam is talking about a zivug sheini as defined by the Arizal. However, Avrohom wanted a zivug rishon for his son; in other words, a wife who fulfilled the purpose of her neshamah in her daily life as much as Yitzchok did. That explains the Targum Yonason’s reference to mazel. For this reason, too, Eliezer had kefitzas haderech, since he needed Divine proof that Rivkah was indeed the wife designated for Yitzchok on the basis of the source of their souls and mazel.


“Perhaps (ulay) the woman will not come back with me” (24:39).

Rashi cites the Medrash which notes that ulay here is written without a Vov and can therefore be read as eilay (for me). Eliezer had a daughter and was looking for an excuse for Avrohom to tell him that he is turning to him to allow his daughter to marry Yitzchok. The meforshim ask why, according to this Medrash, when the Torah relates the initial conversation between Avrohom and Eliezer (24:4), ulay is written with a Vov. Why did Eliezer at that stage not consider his daughter to be a suitable prospective wife for Yitzchok?

Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l explains that when Eliezer was actually speaking to Avrohom, even though deep inside he intended with this question to find an excuse for his daughter to marry Yitzchok, since he had a personal interest (negiah) in this matter, he was not aware of his subconscious motivation, and he thought that his sole intention really was to ask what he should do if the woman did not agree to go with him.

However, once he saw that he had found an appropriate spouse from a member of Avrohom’s family, as his master had requested, and he no longer had any personal interest in the outcome of his trip, he realized the truth and recognized his prior personal interest. It is this that the Torah is hinting at in leaving out the Vov. Now, when relating what had happened to Lavan, Eliezer retrospectively understood his underlying thoughts. Similarly, anyone with a personal interest does not recognize his emotional prejudice and is convinced that he is thinking and speaking the truth.

The late Gerer Rebbe, the Bais Yisroel zt”l offered an alternative explanation. Eliezer initially assumed that Avrohom was looking for a wife with good lineage for Yitzchok, and therefore, in his capacity as a slave, he did not entertain any false hope for his daughter. However, when he came and saw the quality of the prospective mechutan, Lavan, he changed his mind and thought that maybe he was worthy of becoming Yitzchok’s father-in-law after all!


R“Yitzchok had just come from the well [called] Lachai Ro'i” (24:62).

Rav Avrohom, the son of the Rambam, writes that Lachai Ro'i was a place where Yitzchok secluded himself and learned Torah, and, except when it was time to daven (see the next posuk: “Yitzchok went out to pray in the field towards evening”), nothing could disturb him, not even the need to see his new wife. He concludes that this should set an example for every ben Torah.
When Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l had a boy, his rov, the Chofetz Chaim zt”l, told him that there was no need for him to spend time travelling to his home, and he could just as well appoint someone else to be his shliach for his son’s bris.

Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l was asked why there are not as many people nowadays completely conversant in Shas as there were in previous generations. He responded that in his day in Volozhin, the concept of bein hazemanim was unknown. Bochurim learned throughout the year. For example, during Nissan, no one left the yeshiva until Erev Pesach. Moreover, the Netziv and Rav Chaim Volozhiner zt”l gave shiurim every day, including Fridays and Shabbosos. He added that in light of the relative decline in the amount of time spent learning, he was surprised that there were any talmidei chachomim of stature at all these days! As for chasunos, it was unheard of for bochurim to interrupt their learning to go to friends’ weddings. Rav Isser Zalman testified about himself that he only went to two weddings, one of which was his own.

Rav Isser Zalman passed away in 1953, and it cannot be stated that what used to be the norm in his younger years has become more prevalent since he was niftar. However, the examples set by individuals such as Rav Dov Schwartzman zt”l and Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel zt”l demonstrate that the conduct of previous generations cannot just be consigned to the history books as something which took place many generations ago and has no relevance to us.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Our relationship with the not-yet righteous

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


“And Hashem appeared to him” (18:1).

Avrohom told Hashem to wait, so to speak, and ran to his guests to serve them (see Rashi on 18:3), reckoning that seeing to the needs of his guests was the most important thing to do at that moment.

They say about the Chofetz Chaim zt”l that when he invited poor people from Radin to eat at him on Friday night, he would leave out sholom aleichim because the angels could wait, whereas his guests were hungry and it was forbidden to keep them waiting. He would make Kiddush, wash, start the meal, and only then invite the angels into his house by singing sholom aleichim.

In the same vein, in the Mishna Bruro, Hilchos Sukko it says that on the first night of sukkos one must wait a while for the rain to stop before making kiddush and eating in the house, but if there are guests one should not wait at all, because each moment that the host does not feed his guests he is transgressing the prohibition of bal te’acher (delay)¸ and that overrides the obligation to wait for the rain to stop in order to make kiddush in the sukka.


“And gave it to the lad” (18:7). Rashi: this was Yishmoel, in order to train him to do mitzvos.

A parent’s job is not only to teach his child positive and negative commandments, but also how to perform chesed . Furthermore, Yishmoel, who was also on the third day after his bris at the age of 13, must also have been in pain, and Avrohom wanted to demonstrate to him that mitzvos, and specifically chesed, have to be performed even when it is difficult.

Perhaps this what is meant when it says: "For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice” (18:19). Hashem loved Avrohom for the righteousness and justice he performed with regard to actions which others belittled. Educating our children towards good middos, both by setting a personal example and by training them in practice, is the type of chinuch which Hashem loves.

Education can be such a powerful tool that the lessons taught can become ingrained second nature for life for those who benefit from it. A stark example of this is Lot who, despite his wickedness in every other respect, insisted on ensuring the security of guests whom he assumed to be Arabs, even at the cost of his daughters’ morality. This was due to the example set by Avrohom, the effect of which even all the subsequent evil acts committed by him could not erase.


“Maybe ten will be found there” (18:32).

Avrohom did not try to argue that the whole of Sdom should be saved in the merit of less than ten righteous people. The Chofetz Chaim zt”l explains that even though it says that sometimes a whole community can be saved in the merit of one righteous individual, the righteous people Avrohom was talking about were people whose actions were not completely wicked, and were thus “righteous” compared to the totally wicked population of Sdom. Even ten such people could not be found, and therefore the whole town was worthy of destruction.


“And Avrohom got up early in the morning” (19:27).

The gemara in Chulin (91a) says that a talmid chochom should not go out alone at night. Tosfos there (91b) explains that we learn this from the above possuk. Avrohom got up in the morning to pray for the people of Sdom, and did not pray for them at night, because then he would had to be accompanied by two of his servants, and since he did not want anybody to be present when he prayed for these people, he waited until the morning. The question is why did Avrohom not want anybody to be present?

Rav Sternbuch heard the following answer from the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel zt”l. It was imperative that the limud zechus (finding merit and pleading their cause) of the wicked people of Sdom should only be in the form of a private dialogue between Avrohom and Hashem. If it would be overheard by anybody, they would be likely to think that the actions of these wicked people were not so bad in reality.

Transgressors themselves must be rebuked in no uncertain terms, it is only when we will be pray to Hashem that we must ask Him to judge them favourably. Similarly, added the Satmar Rebbe, I mince no words when rebuking our wayward brethren, but when I pray to Hashem, I plead to Him to judge them favourably, after the terrible churbon in Europe, and the effect it had on many people. However, chas vesholom that anyone should be aware of my limud zechus.


“Listen to everything that Soro says to you” (21:12)

Avrohom argued that Yishmoel could be influenced for the good by Yitzchok, whereas Soro countered that the influence would be unilateral, so that only her son would be influenced for the worse by Yishmoel, whereas Yitzchok would not have a positive effect on Yishmoel. Hence, therefore he and his mother had to be driven away immediately. The Torah testifies that in this argument Soro was right.

This shows that the approach adopted by the Mizrachi, that we must attempt to influence the irreligious from within their own organisations, was doomed to failure from the outset. Fraternising with them will not influence them for the better, and will only dilute our own outlook and religiosity. The way to influence them is by intensifying our own conduct without compromises, not by direct contact with them, and certainly not on a regular basis.


“For now I know that you fear Hashem” (22:12)

When we mention the merit of our forefathers, the merit of Avrohom ovinu is emphasized more than that of Yitzchok. The Zohar says that Avrohom’s test was greater since his whole essence was that of chesed, and the commandment of the akeido appeared to be the very opposite; the essence of Yitzchok, on the other hand, was gevuro (self-control), so that his test was not as great.

Moreover, only Avrohom heard directly from Hashem that he would have descendants from Yitzchok, so that it was more difficult for him not to question Hashem about the contradiction between that promise and the commandment of the akeido.

Why was Avrohom’s act called the akeido, even though the act of binding Yitzchok appears to have been subsidiary to the seemingly more important act of putting him on the mizbeach? Yitzchok had asked his father to tie him him to make sure that he would not move and invalidate the shechito, so that this act proved that both of them desired to perform the mitzvah, and to perform it properly. For this reason, we ask Hashem to have mercy on us in the merit of the akeido¸ in particular on Rosh Hashanah, because Hashem deemed the desire of both Avrohom and Yitzchok to complete the shechito as if they had in fact done so. So too we ask Hashem to consider our genuine desire to improve our ways as if we have kept all the mitzvos properly, since the act of the akeido demonstrated the paramount importance of intentions in Hashem’s eyes.
Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Ultimate Sacrifice

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


“Hashem said to Avram, "Go from your land” (12:1)

The act of walking itself as a mitzva.

The wife of the Vilna Gaon had a friend with whom she used to to collect and distribute charity funds. The two ladies made an agreement between them that the first one to pass away would appear in a dream to the surviving friend to relate to her what takes place at the Heavenly Court. The friend passed away first and indeed came to visit her in a dream. She told her that she was not at liberty to disclose the details of the Heavenly Court, but since she had made a vow to come and tell her what was going on, she received special permission to reveal one detail.

She reminded her about one time when they were distributing charity funds and they saw a certain needy person coming towards them on the other side of the street. The friend went on: "At that point you raised your finger and gestured to the needy person to cross the street to receive the donation”. Her friend told her in the dream that in Heaven part of her merit was deducted because she should have crossed the road herself to give him the money. The Vilna Gaon’s wife told her husband about the dream, and he instructed the Vilna chevra kadisha (burial society) to make a record of it.

Both Rav Shach zt”l and Dayan Abramsky zt”l told Rav Sternbuch that they had themselves seen the records of the chevra kadisha in Vilna, which stated that the Vilna Gaon had asked them to record this incident. Dayan Abramsky added that after he read this, often when donating money to charity he would do the mitzva himself and not through a messenger. For example, he would go to the post office to mail a check overseas instead of asking someone else to go there.


I will make you into a great nation (12.2). Rashi: "Hashem promised him children, wealth and fame”

Both Rashi and the Rambam (on Ovos 5:3) state that Hashem’s commandment to Avrohom to leave Choron for an unknown destination was one of the ten trials by which he was tested. Since Hashem promised him children, wealth and fame, why was this considered to be such a great test?

The Rambam writes (Hilchos Avodo Zoro 1:3) that Avrohom brought tens of thousands of people close to Hashem by disassociating them from idol worship. The rewards for these actions was very great, because Avrohom was credited for all the good deeds performed by these people, and now Hashem was telling him to leave all his students and work and depart to an unknown destination. He had no idea whether he would be as successful in his new place of residence, but instead of telling Hashem: "please let me stay here to continue my important work", he had pure and simple trust in Him and asked no questions, in the complete conviction that everything Hashem does is for the good.

The gemara says (Brochos 61b) that "with all your might" in parashas kriyas shma refers to someone whose material possessions are dearer to him than his body. The Chofetz Chaim zt”l comments on this that someone who sacrifices his spiritual welfare for the sake of Hashem is included in this category. For example, sometimes a person gives up a great career as a lamdan (a rabbinic scholar) for the sake of devoting his time and efforts to bringing others closer to Hashem.


And I will make your name great (ibid). Rashi: This is the basis of saying: "G-d of Yaakov."

One might think that the first berachah of Shemoneh Esrei should be concluded by mentioning all three ovos, the text therefore states ‘And you will be a blessing’, only with your mention is it concluded and not with them [Yitzchok and Yaakov]

Avrohom Ovinu excelled in the trait of chesed, and therefore Hashem performed acts of chesed for him in return, without deducting any of his merits. Hashem as it were put up a shield (mogen – cf. onochi mogen loch (15:1) "I will protect you”) around his merits to protect them and ensure that they remain intact, and He acts in the same way with any of Avrohom’s descendants who perform sufficient acts of chesed.

For this reason the first brocho in shmone esrei ends with "Who protects Avrohom”: we ask Hashem to shower us with His goodness even in this world in Avrohom’s merit, and at the same time to erect a shield around any merits that we have accumulated, so that they need not be used to “pay” for Hashem's kindness to us in this world at the cost of being rewarded for them in the next world.

Chesed is the basis of success in any of our endeavors, whether material or spiritual. As we saw above, it is performed not only with our physical actions and possessions but also by giving up our time for the sake of others in order to draw them closer to Judaism, and a yeshiva bochur performs as great a deed by giving up some of his time to teach weaker boys. It is a fundamental principle of yiddishkeit that we cannot hope to attain spiritual perfection solely by acquiring spiritual merits of our own without at the same time drawing others closer to Hashem.


He took him outside and said: "Look towards the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them." He then said to him: "So [numerous] will your descendants be" (15:5)

This cannot be understood literally, since there countless billions of stars, but currently only about 13 million Jews in the world.

The Rambam notes that the stars and planets are in fact spiritual beings (Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 3:9). Many of them are larger than our planet and yet to our eyes they appear as no more than tiny dots, and some are totally invisible to the naked eye. Similarly, each Jew is a world onto his own, and the entire heavenly firmament depends on his actions, for the good and for the bad. Every mitzva or aveiro has an effect on the upper worlds, which, in turn, affects all aspects of our life in this world.

Moreover, just like each star has its unique role to play (as it says: "you count the number of the stars and gives them all their names" - Tehillim 147:4), so too is each Jew provided with a unique soul and task to fulfill in this world. Each one of us is endowed with different strengths and destined to face different challenges. In order to fulfill our task in this world we would do well to stop comparing ourselves with others. We have no knowledge or control over other people’s unique abilities and trials or their internal world. Instead, we should concentrate on becoming familiar with our own unique strengths and utilizing them to the utmost.

When Rav Sternbuch was 13 years old on his very first day at Rav Schneider’s yeshiva, Rav Schneider zt”l, told the students that they had the ability to become as great as Reb Chaim Brisker. One boy objected that he was not capable of being a Reb Chaim Brisker, so what was he expected to do? Rav Schneider replied that if he would realize his potential to the fullest extent the way that Reb Chaim did, he will have fulfilled his duty in this world.


He will be a wild, uncivilized man. His hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand will be against him" (16:12)

The angel had just comforted Hogor by reassuring her that “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they cannot be counted because of their great number…Hashem has heard your prayer” . Why, then, did he go on to make the above statement, which was surely likely to have done anything but comfort the ancestor of such people?

When Hogor gave birth to a boy, she haughtily assumed that she was more righteous than Soroh. The angel was in fact coming to rebuke her by telling her that, on the one hand, you will have a multitude of descendants, but, on the other hand, his hands will rise up against his enemies and his enemies will avenge his evil actions.

In other words, the supposed blessing contained in the previous possuk was actually a disguised curse.

The angel was teaching her not to judge actions superficially, and not to become haughty just because she had had a child, and her mistress was still barren. The workings of heaven are impenetrable, and what seem to be blessings may turn out to be curses, and what seem to be curses may turn out to be good tidings in the long-term.
Saturday, November 5, 2011

Keeping the teivo afloat

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


"Noach was a righteous man” (6:9).

Rashi quotes the gemoro (Sanhedrin 108a) that some people interpret this phrase as a tribute to Noach, and in a generation of righteous people he would have been on an even higher level whereas others argue that it is derogatory, because in the generation of Avrohom he would not have been considered righteous. Since the Torah testifies that Hashem said: "For you I have seen righteous before me in this generation” (7:1) how can we understand the view which maintains that the phrase at the beginning of the parsha is derogatory contrary both to its plain meaning and the possuk below?

In truth, according to both opinions Noach was righteous because he withstood trials on a daily basis surrounded as he was everywhere only by wicked people, and this alone entitled him to be awarded the title of a righteous person, and if he would have had the opportunity to engage in avodas Hashem in a generation which did not require him to constantly withstand tests, he would have been even more righteous, whereas those who say that he would not have been considered to be a person of stature had he lived in the generation of Avrohom contend that although he was righteous in his generation specifically because he exercised tremendous dedication, determination and self-discipline by refraining from sinning in such a challenging environment, if he would not have had to face such challenges he may not have attained such high levels. It therefore turns out that both opinions praise Noach for his actual behavior during his lifetime.

The Arizal told his student Rav Chaim Vital zt”l that his neshomo was exceptionally pure, but he responded, "who am I compared to the Tannoim and Amoro’oim”? The Arizal replied that in a generation suffering from a proliferation of tum’o and the sitra achra, Hashem grants great rewards to those who overcome such circumstances, and for this reason he had attained such high levels.

Rav Dessler zt”l pointed out that Rav Yosef Karo zt”l , a contemporary of the Arizal, stated that there were 300 rabbonim in Zfas in his time who were worthy of being appointed to be members of the Sanhedrin in the time of the Beis Hamikdosh, and yet the Arizal still termed his generation as being filled with tum’o. What, then, concluded Rav Dessler are we to make of our generation with its immorality and the spiritual poison of its media? The reward of those who withstand these challenging surroundings must be even greater and Hashem is yearning for us to grab as many mitzvos as we can. Rav Dessler passed away in 1953. It is not difficult to imagine what he would say about our generation, and the further deterioration of moral values that has taken place since his time.

It is said about several great zaddikim who lived in times of various misfortunes of klal yisroel that they promised before they died that when they would get to heaven they would not rest until Hashem would bring the final redemption. After they passed away and Moshiach still did not come they came to someone in a dream and revealed to him that in the world to come things appear different and that they now realize that for now it is better for the nation that each individual should still have the opportunity to chap more merits for all eternity in a challenging environment rather than insisting on Moshiach coming, when we will no longer have such opportunities, because free choice as we know it will no longer exist.


“For all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (6:12)
Rashi quotes the medrash that even animals mated with different species. This seems surprising since animals live by instinct and not by free choice, so why would they change their nature?

Before the mabul nature was not fixed and constant, but rather sensitive to the spiritual status of human behavior. Just like nowadays we have infectious diseases in which someone in the environment of a sick person can catch his disease, so too before the mabul human sins caused spiritual diseases which were "caught" by the animals.

The physical nature of creation was also different before the mabul. For this reason rabbomin who were told about findings of fossils in Madagascar or elsewehre were not perturbed. Firstly, the methods used to determine the age of these fossils is far from sound. Secondly, to cite these findings as proof that we are descendants of monkeys makes no scientific sense. Thirdly, scientists can have no way of measuring the age of creatures, which lived before the mabul, since their composition was fundamentally different from any post-diluvuian creatures.


“Make yourself an ark” (6:14)

The Zohar says in parshas Vayakhel that the teivas noach was not only for the generation of the mabul, but whereever there is heresy or an anti-religious environment we must flee and take refuge in the teivo.

The Alter of Novardok zt”l said that nowadays the street is full of tumoh and we are in need of a teivo.The Satmarer Rebbe zt”l once met the Chazon Ish zt”l and told him that in view of the Rambam which states that if a person finds himself in an environment full of wicked people he must run away and live in the desert (Hilchos Deos 6:1), since the streets nowadays were full of kefira (heresy) we should follow the Rambam's advice. The Chazon Ish responded that there was no need to do so, since the yeshivas, which are full of Torah and fear of Heaven were our "deserts", and there was no need to go any further than that.


“On the very same day ” (7:13)

Rashi brings the Sifri that Noach’s contemporaries threatened to kill Noach if he attempted to enter the ark. Although they believed that a deluge was imminent, they still refused to repent. Similarly, the Egyptians continued to chase the Jews who were in the sea, even after having already witnessed the miracle when the yam suf split. Miracles in and of themselves are not enough if they are not preceded by an intensified level of faith.

Rav Sternbuch was once at the Brisker Rov zt”l when an American visitor told the Brisker Rov that in America people were waiting for Moshaich to come. The Brisker Rov asked him whether people were preparing themselves for this great event. The visitor responded that moshiach should come already with or without our preparations. The Brisker Rov replied that this would not work. We must start the process of repentance and strengthening our faith now, so that we will be worthy of witnessing unprecedented miracles and welcoming moshiach.

On the topic of Americans awaiting moshiach, Rav Pardes zt”l, a rav in Chicago, told Rav Sternbuch about a meeting he had with the Chofetz Chaim zt”l where he asked him where he was from, and when Rav Pardes said that he was from America, the Chofetz Chaim asked him whether Jews in America were talking about and awaiting moshiach. Rav Pardes didn't know what to answer but decided to say “avade” – of course they are. When he heard this, the Chofetz Chaim went to a corner and started crying to Hashem as follows: It is one thing for us, who are suffering so much from poverty and other material problems to yearn for moshiach, but even our affluent brethren in America are yearning for him to come - how much longer must we wait?

As Hashem continues to shower us with more miracles in Eretz Yisroel where we are completely surrounded by hostile elements, our job is to strengthen our emuno so that we will be worthy of miracles of an unprecedented scale, may they come speedily.


“Come out of the ark” (8:17)

The Zohar contrasts Noach’s conduct with that of Moshe Rabbeinu, who asked Hashem to delete him from His Book rather than founding a new great nation. Noach too after having been told about the forthcoming mabul should have pleaded for his contemporaries to remain alive until they repent, instead of thinking only of himself and his family.

Hashem could have found another way to keep the animal world alive other than the ark, but it was a way for Noach to achieve atonement for his sinful conduct in the period leading up to the mabul. Hashem was telling Noach: “You wanted to live a solitary life, and did not care enough for your fellow men, now you will be forced to live for an extended period on your own with your family in ‘solitary confinement’ from the rest of the world. Moreover, you refused to act with kindness to your fellow men, now you will be forced to perform ceaseless acts of chesed for an entire year for all the animals”.

Since the period he was to spend inside the ark was a punishment to atone for his previous behaviour, Noach would not quickly leave it until commanded to do so, so that he could be sure that his sin had been forgiven.


“I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake ” (8:21)

The medrash says that Hashem promised that there would not be another mabul of water, but there would be one of fire, in other words prior to moshiach the world will be full of epikorsus. Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin zt”l would weep profusely at the end of the hoshana kel lemosho’os which says sholosh sho’os hoshano - which he understood to mean: Hashem, save us from the three hours before the coming of moshiach when the world will be full of heresy!

The Maharshal says at the end of the fourth chapter of Bovo Kamo that we are obligated to fight any distortions of the Torah with dedication. The Torah is a precious treasure given to us as a present which must be safeguarded with devotion. Moreover, the desert, or teivas noach of a mokom Torah, which the Chazon Ish referred to, only works if the Torah studied there is not distorted.
Everyone is entitled to voice their own personal opinion, but if a rav states as his daas Torah that it is permitted to release more than a thousand prisoners, including cruel murderers, in return for one captive soldier, citing a halachik principle, totally irrelevant in this context, that in a clash between a certainty and a doubtful scenario, the certainty prevails, then that is a distortion of the Torah.

The teiva is currently floating in a sea of heresy, but it is intact and will continue to survive. The only question is who will have the merit of remaining strong until the last moment when Hashem will reveal himself. We must pray that Hashem will save us so that we can remain within the teiva with the same dedication and determination exhibited by Noach until His Kingdom will be revealed for ever.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Celestial Lessons

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


“In the beginning Hashem created” (1:1). Rashi: “…for the sake of the Jews, who are called the first-fruits (reishis) of the increase”. Medrash Rabbo (1:4): “The world was created in the merit of three things, in the merit of challo, maasros and bikurim”.

Why was the world created in the merit of these three specific mitzvos as opposed to any of the other 610 mitzvos? These mitzvos are all characterized by the separation of a small amount from a remaining large amount. What remains after the separation retains the status of chulin (lack of sanctity), whereas the separated matter acquires sacred status.

The same applies with regard to the purpose of the creation of the world. Hashem created the various nations so that the superior sanctity of the Jewish nation should be discernible by way of contrast to the remaining nations which are chulin.

The Jewish nation is called reishis, because they are different from the rest of the nations, and the remaining nations were only created for the sake of the Jewish nation. It thus turns out that the purpose of the creation of the world is for the kodesh to be discernible specifically by way of contrast to the chol.

The importance of this principle cannot be overestimated. Since the world was created in order for the Jews to perform mitzvos and act like a holy nation to distinguish them from the other nations, if they do not act in a sanctified manner and behave in the same way as the other nations chas vesholom, they are acting in contravention to the main purpose of creation.

Although chareidi society has b”H grown by leaps and bounds over the past few decades, due to the exposure to non-Jewish or non-Torah elements in our daily lives coupled with the abundance of unprecedented technological devices purveying all the cardinal sins, this has not always been accompanied by a qualitative growth.

In addition to ensuring that our homes bear no traces of any objectionable material or media, in this day and age parents cannot take anything for granted.

For example, the fact that their neighbor bears a famous name or is in full-time learning unfortunately does not automatically mean that their son or daughter should be friendly with their neighbor's children. It is the parent’s job to conduct a thorough examination with regard to the nature of any potential friend and what he or she may be exposed to. The spiritual future of both the child and the parent depends upon it.

The more that we maintain our sanctity by disassociating ourselves from any non-Jewish or non-Torah influences, the less will we have to endure during imminent chevlei moshiach (birth pangs preceding the coming of moshiach).


Connecting the final letters of the first three words in the Torah - Bereishis boro elokim - produces the word emess. (truth) In this way the Torah emphasizes that someone who is not careful to speak the truth damages Hashem’s Creation which was based on emess from the very outset.

The medrash relates that truth argued against the creation of man since he would be full of falsehood, as did peace on the grounds that he would be full of quarrels and disputes. Hashem's response was to throw truth to the ground, as it says "and He cast down truth to the ground”.

This means that the Torah, which is the absolute truth, claimed that man, who was to be a physical being, would not be capable of fathoming the depths of the Torah, and this would result in conflicting interpretations and disputes between people regarding the real meaning of the Torah. In response, Hashem threw the Torah to this physical world, i.e. He gave it to its inhabitants so that they would observe it to the best of their human understanding.

Hence, it is an halachik principle that the "the Torah is not in heaven", and the implementation of principles such as rov (going by the majority) or deciding various laws pertaining to doubtful situations on the basis of principles which may not reflect absolute heavenly truth is dearer in Hashem's eyes than the preservation of divine truth, since this was the mechanism from the very outset through which the Torah was meant to be observed by us.


“And Hashem divided the light from the darkness” (1:5)

Chazal tell us that prior to the creation of the sun Hashem created a special light but then stored it away for the righteous in the world to come. This seems to have been a special non-solar source of illumination, the intensity of which was dependent on the degree of righteousness of the recipient. Hashem decided to postpone the implementation of this regime until the world to come, perhaps because it would all but abolish free choice. What power would be left to the evil inclination to entice people to sin if the effects of transgressing would be so ubiquitously apparent?

In any case, those who fail to make the most of their time in this world by learning Torah and performing good deeds will not merit a large amount of luminosity in their future eternal existence. This thought should surely serve as an incentive to improve our avodas Hashem.


“Let us make man in our image” (1:26)

Hashem is speaking to the angels, who were created on the second day (see Targum Yonoson), since they had a personal interest, so to speak, in the creation of man, because the status of the upper worlds, including that of the angels, depends on the actions of man in this world. Of course, Hashem does not need to hear the opinions of any being, but wished to teach us that even people less important than us must be consulted concerning any matter in which they have a personal interest.

Alternatively, Hashem is addressing man himself. The essence of man is not his physical body but rather his divine image. By observing the Torah and performing the mitzvos properly man perfects himself and completes his own original creation on a daily basis. This act of creation on man's part is in emulation of the Creator.

If we could see our spiritual image, we would get a shock. The Arizal had the ability to discern a person's spiritual form and could perceive the effects of even seemingly insignificant transgressions, such as speaking between mayim acharonim and bentshing, on a person’s spiritual form.


“And Hashem blessed the seventh day and sanctified it” (2:3)

The main purpose of Shabbos, the day of rest and sanctity is to serve as a source of blessing for the remaining six days, in which we are immersed in worldly matters and can easily lose sight of the fact that the eternal life is the only thing of paramount importance. Shabbos serves as a recurring reminder of the world to come, and symbolizes it. The six weekdays are only blessed by Shabbos if we do not become too immersed in our affairs during the week, and recognize that Shabbos is the source of any mundane success that we achieve and not the hishtadlus (efforts) we put into our work.


It is now considered beyond dispute that the heliocentric model of the universe advocated by Copernicus correctly reflects the reality created by Hashem. Jewish anti-religious elements attempted to use this theory of modern science to discredit various statements of Chazal and even of Dovid Hamelech, which seem to state clearly that the earth does not move, such as "Who establishes the earth upon its foundations, that it should not be moved forever" (Tehilim 104:5).

Scientists are at a loss to explain the phenomenon of the sun’s distance from the earth. If the sun were just a tiny bit further removed from our planet we would freeze to death, and if it would be slightly closer to us, temperatures would be much too high for any life to be feasible. It is this remarkable feature of Hashem's creation, the position of the earth vis-à-vis the sun, and not the static nature of the earth, which Dovid Hamelech is referring to in the above possuk.

The very existence of the sun and the stars and the whole science of astronomy point towards a Creator: see Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah, end of chapter 4. The Rambam also notes that the stars and planets are in fact spiritual beings (ibid, 3:9) (despite the Vilna Gaon’s admonition of the Rambam for his affinity for philosophy, the Rambam did in fact sometimes incorporate kabbalistic views into his writings).

However, although epikorsim (heretics) will clothe their views with an intellectual veneer, in reality the source of their outlook is negative character traits. Deep down they feel the emptiness of their lives, and seek to justify their licentious behavior by citing sundry intellectual “problems” they claim to have detected with regard to leading a religious lifestyle. Rav Yeshoshua Leib Diskin zt”l noted that heresy which denies the existence of Hashem, claiming that the only reality is nature, is so irrational that it can only be explained as a supernatural phenomenon created by Hashem. This explains how Amolek could have espoused such views after the unprecedented miracles of yetzias mitrayim, and how their modern-day counterparts explain the showering of numerous potentially lethal missiles on unpopulated areas as “miracles” which have nothing to do with Hashem.

This week’s parsha teaches us that the entire creation is the handiwork of Hashem Who supervises our lives with individual divine providence. We are totally dependent on Him, and must do our utmost acquire to acquire immunity to heretical views which are so pervasive in modern society, and to non-Jewish or anti-Torah views as a whole, and live with the awareness that we are constantly creating ourselves and continuing Hashem’s initial work of creation.
Sunday, October 23, 2011

Shailos Uteshuvos with Rav Moshe Sternbuch, Rosh Av Bais Din of Yerushalayim

Bloody Hands

Question: What is the Torah outlook on the recent prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit?

Answer: Pidyon shevuyim, redeeming Jewish captives, is one of the most important mitzvos in the entire Torah. However in this specific case it is forbidden to free terrorists who vow to spill more Jewish blood after they are released. Aside from the danger they pose to killing Jews, such a trade strengthens the moral of the enemy and puts all of Klal Yisrael in danger.

Freeing Captives

Pidyon shevuim, freeing Jewish captives takes precedence over supporting the poor, and there is no mitzvah greater than freeing captives. Therefore if money was collected previously for any other cause it may be used afterwards for pidyon shevuyim. This is even the case if money was collected to build a Beis Hakeneses…

…Someone who ignores the mitzvah of freeing captives transgresses the prohibitions of “not hardening one’s heart” and “one should not close one’s hand [to help others]” and “one should not stand idle by his brother’s blood”…In addition he transgresses the mitzvos of “You shall surely open your hand to help your brother” and the mitzvah of “You should insure that your brother lives with you” and “You should love your neighbour as yourself”…

…There are many other transgressions and mitzvos that relate to pidyon shevuyim. Delaying pidyon shevuyim is considered to be a very serious transgression, and whoever is able to free captives and does not do so is considered to be a murderer (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 252, 1- 3). From the words of the Shulchan Aruch we see the great significance that Chazal gave to the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim, redeeming Jewish prisoners.

Future Ramifications

Albeit the great importance that Chazal viewed the mitzvah of freeing Jewish captives, it was not without limits. There are certain cases where our Sages forbid doing so. They understood if we would go to any extent to get them out the future ramifications could be disastrous.

The Mishna writes “It is forbidden to free captives for more than their value, as a decree for the sake of tikun haolam, maintaining law and order in the world”. There are two major negative ramifications that could come from overpaying for pidyon shevuyim. On one hand this could cause the non-Jews to make a business out of taking Jewish captives, and furthermore this could drain the Jewish community from funds if the constantly have to pay for the release of captives (Gittin 45\a).

According to the first reason that we are worried about future captives, even if a family member wants to free the captives he should not overpay lest this lead to other acts of taking hostages. However according to the second explanation one may free his family members as long as he is using private funds, for this is not placing a strain on the rest of the community. The Shulchan Aruch rules like the first reason(Yoreh Deah 252, 4).

If the captive himself is putting up the funds, Chazal did not limit the amount of money a person can spend to free himself (Tosfos and Shulchan Aruch ibid.). So too, if the hostage is a talmid chacham or a future great Torah scholar, one may pay any price to get him out. However even this case is not simple, and the Mahram Rotenberg died in jail rather than letting himself be redeemed at an exorbitant price.

The Assessment of a Gadol

All of the above guidelines apply when money is being asked in exchange for a Jewish prisoner. The main concern is that such an exchange could lead to future monetary problems for the Jewish people. It does not take into account other factors.

What happens if captors are asking for the release of other prisoners who are murderers? In such a case the ramifications are much more serious. Freeing them could likely lead to the death of many other Jews, for these murderers have vowed to continue their work when they leave the confines of prison.

Rav Sternbuch ruled that one may not go ahead with the exchange, because of the grave danger that such an agreement poses to Klal Yisrael in the future. In all circumstances it is forbidden to make a deal which involves freeing murderers who have vowed to kill Jews. Whoever is involved with such an agreement is putting the lives of Jewish people in jeopardy.

The rav explained that this halacha would not change even if the prisoner was a great talmid chacham. Since Jewish lives are at stake there is no room for compromise in these areas. Even if the captive was the Gadol Hador, such an exchange would be forbidden.

Rav Sternbuch added that even more dangerous than the danger of future killings is the psychological boost that this massive trade-off provides for the Palestinians. These people are not just terrorists; their religion is killing Jews. Making such a deal with them encourages them to continue their activities on an even larger scale.

Furthermore, if they would know that there was a definite deterrent for their actions, like a lifetime jail sentence, they would think twice about their activities. Once the opportunity exists to commit massive terrorist attacks, and be released a few years later, there is nothing stopping them from spilling Jewish blood. These terrorists have not even agreed to curb future attacks on Jews.

One might argue that there are already many terrorists who are willing to kill Jews; how much of a difference does it make to release more? Rav Sternbuch said that while there are others who have threatened to kill, we do not know if they would actually go through with it. Many of the terrorists who are being freed have killed before, and have shown that they are ready to put there life in danger to kill Jews.

In regards to such a situation we should adopt a stance of total empathy with what the prisoner and his family are going through. Yet at the same time we must realize that we are bound to the will of the Torah, and in this situation personal considerations should be put aside for the sake of the Jewish people as a whole. Gedolei Torah gave up their own lives rather consenting to agreements which would cause serious harm to the Jewish people.

A Jew must always be cognizant that the Torah expects us to abide by its will in all areas of life, no matter how difficult it may be. We are forbidden to let our emotions override the dictates of the Torah, and entice us to agree to acts which are tantamount to sanctioning murder and causing great danger to Klal Yisrael. If we instead, act according to the rules that the Torah lays down, we will merit seeing the final redemption quickly.