About Me

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, March 31, 2011

Aharon’s Silence

Rav Moshe Sternbuch

Eternal Renewal

“And Moshe said, This is the thing which Hashem commanded you to do, that the glory of Hashem may appear on you”.
The simple meaning of this posuk is that if we do everything in accordance with halachah, we will be worthy of having Hashem’s glory appear on us. On another level, the Torah is warning us against keeping mitzvos by rote. Many people are observant merely as a matter of tradition, whereas they should be feeling as if they have been commanded this very minute to keep the Torah. This point is reflected in the wording of the brachos: “…Who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us…” The only way to acquire any sanctity is by continuously observing the Torah as if we have received it today and not by rote.

Pure intentions not Enough

“And Moshe said to Aharon, ‘Draw near to the mizbei’ach.’”
Rashi says that Aharon was ashamed and afraid to come close and Moshe told him, “Why are you ashamed? For this you were chosen”. To be ashamed of a sin is the main prerequisite for obtaining atonement for it, and as long as this aspect is missing, it is impossible to achieve complete kapparah (atonement). Although Aharon’s involvement in the chet ha’Eigel (sin of the golden calf) in reality constituted a minuscule sin, he was still embarrassed by it and felt that an element of that event still marred his soul This embarrassment was the proof that Aharon was worthy of being forgiven completely and of bringing a calf for his atonement.
The Maggid Meshorim from the Bais Yosef notes that Aharon’s sin was so subtle that it did not even require atonement as an inadvertent (shogeg) transgression. However, his delaying tactics resulted in people assuming that he was on their side, and even though his intentions were totally pure, namely to prevent the nation from sinning, since his actions resulted in a desecration of the Divine name, he was commanded to bring a korban for his atonement.
Almost all of us are looked up to by someone else, be they our children, our students, our friends or our congregants, and we do not always realize how much our actions have an impact on the perceptions others have of us. We must consider any possible repercussions of our actions very carefully, because even the best intentions are not an excuse when chillul Hashem (a desecration of G-d’s Name) is at stake.

Pointing the Finger at Ourselves

“And Moshe and Aharon went into the Ohel Moed, and came out, and blessed the people”.
Rashi: “Once Aharon saw that all the korbanos had been offered up, all the actions had been performed and the Shechinah had not descended on the nation, he became upset and said, ‘I know that Hashem was angry with me and because of me the Shechinah did not descend on the nation….”
Aharon Hakoehn immediately attributed the absence of the Shechinah to his own faults, just like Yonah Hanovi said, “This storm is on account of me..” Whenever a calamity happens, the Torah approach is not to disown our part by ascribing it to the sins of other individuals of the public, but to perform a thorough examination of our own deeds in order to determine our shortcomings and what we can do to amend them.

When the Righteous Suffer

“Through those who are close to me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified (ekoveid)”.
Rav Boruch Safrin, the Kamarna Rebbe, witnessed the merciless slaughter inflicted on his fellow Jews during the churban in World War II. The posuk above was poignantly interpreted by him as follows: Only those who are close to Hashem sanctify him, by appreciating the profound judgment inherent in His conduct, and acknowledging that the purpose of suffering in the world is to cleanse us for the eternal World to Come, but for the remainder of the nation, the way in which Hashem’s attribute of judgment affects the righteous appears very difficult to comprehend (interpreting ekoveid as “heavy” or difficult”). The Rebbe called on his Chassidim to become sanctified during that terrible time and come close to Hashem. He had rejected offers to be taken to safety, refusing to leave his community, and eventually perished himself.

Dayan Abramsky Demands Silence

“And Aharon held his peace.”
Rav Sternbuch recalls a conference that took place in London after the war, which was attended by representatives from Jewish communities all over Europe, as well as survivors of Bergen Belsen, Dachau and other camps. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss why Hashem had meted out such terrible suffering on the nation. One speaker got up and said that it was due to widespread chillul shabbos in Europe before the war. Another one said that it was because of rampant immorality. A third speaker said that not enough had been done to protest the sins of the public. Yet another speaker argued that more should have been done for Eretz Yisrael.
At that point, Dayan Yechezke Abramsky zt”l suddenly banged his fist on the table and declared that we are not allowed to judge Hashem. When Aharon’s two righteous sons passed away, he reacted by holding his peace and accepting Hashem’s judgment. We have to accept that some things are beyond our comprehension. Why are some people rich, some poor, some sick and some healthy? Why do some have children and some remain childless? We do not know the answer to these questions, but Aharon Hakohen taught us that we must respond to calamities with silence. There were no more speakers after Dayan Abramsky’s intervention.
Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l noted that to do al Kiddush Hashem presupposes that those who are killed have a complete and unquestioning acceptance of the Divine Will, and there is a special place (pargod) reserved in Shomayim for those who attain such a high level.
Yaakov Avinu is considered the greatest of our forefathers, and yet he was the one whose life was a series of endless suffering and misfortune. When the righteous are judged so rigorously in this world for miniscule transgressions, this gives us some idea of the difficult judgment awaiting us in the next world, which is the main place where Divine punishment takes place. That is the message for the survivors of the churban and their descendants. Our task is to strive to attain the level of those kedoshim who accepted the din Shomayim and recognized that they were experiencing a period of hester ponim (Hashem’s hidden countenance), and not some natural manifestation. IF we do so, we will merit salvation.

Feeling Joy in Challenging Circumstances

Rashi: “Aharon received reward for his silence when Hashem communicated with him exclusively and told him alone the section dealing with intoxication”.
It seem sdifficult to understand the reward had to do with Aharon’s elevated silence. We can understand this as follows. When a person loses two extremely righteous sons, it would be only natural for him to fall into such a state of depression that he is unable to speak. Rashi is telling us that Aharon’s silence did not stem from sadness over his son’s premature passing, but rather signaled complete joyful acceptance of the Divine decree and the Kiddush Hashem which resulted from their death. AS a reward for this reaction on Aharon’s part, Hashem communicated with him exclusively, thereby proving that the silence had signified kabbolas hadin (accepting Divine Judgement) and not sadness, because the Shechinah only dwells with a person in a happy and contented state of mind.
Just one or two generations ago, one could witness the lofty heights reached by some survivors of the caliber of the Kausenberger Rebbe zt”l. he survived Auschwitz and lost his wife and eleven children during the war, but he did not succumb to any feelings of depression. After the war, people were amazed at how profoundly he felt joy for others and for their simchos.

Observing Halacha in Trying Times

“And he (Moshe) was angry with Elazer and Isamar”. Rashi on this posuk cites the Medrash that Moshe was actually upset with Aharon and not his sons. Moshe was aware that Aharon had just endured the sudden death of his two children and although Aharon remained content enough to have Hashem communicate with him afterwards, he must still have been in some state of confusion. Nevertheless, Moshe made no allowances for this and was angry at him for apparently forgetting the halachah that an onen may not eat kodshim. This teaches us that we are required to maintain our composure and clarity of mind at all times and to observe every detail of halachah even in the most trying circumstances.

Kosher Pork?

The Kli Yakor explains that the pig is the ultimate symbol of a treife animal because of its kosher sign. Its cloven hoof misleads people into thinking that it is kosher. The most dangerous type of person is someone who is not what he seems to be, and we must keep the greatest distance from such a person.
The medrash on Tehillim states that in the future, Hashem will give the pig back to the Jewish nation. This does not mean that the Torah will change, chas veshalom, in the times of Moshiach. The meforshim (commentators) explain that the nature of the pig will change so that it will possess both kosher signs. However, if that is so then, on the face of it, we are not longer dealing with the same animal.
The Medrash is telling us that in the future, we will no longer have to fear hypocrites, because they will not be in a position to deceive anyone. When the Medrash says that Hashem will give the pig back to the Jewish nation, it means that the reason for the prohibition will be abolished, and the pig will no longer be the epitome of a treife animal, but its halachic status will not change.
The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (155b) says, “No one is poorer than the dog and no one is wealthier than the pig”. The Vilna Gaon explains this on the basis of the Gemara in Maseches Pesachim (118a) which states, “Anyone who relates lashon harah anyone who accepts lashon hara…is worthy of being thrown to the dogs”. The prohibition against eating a pig and the prohibition against speaking or accepting lashon harah both have an identical status (a lav) but in general, people are much more careful about observing the former prohibition. “No one is poorer than the dog” – the prohibition against lashon harah – has comparatively few adherents as opposed to the pig, which is “wealthy”, since most of the nation adheres to the prohibition against eating it.

The Mother’s Share

At the end of the parsha it says, And between the living thing (chaya) that may be eaten and living thing that may not be eaten”. Chaya can also mean a woman who is giving birth, so we can understand this posuk to be telling us about the effect a mother’s actions have on her child both before and after it is born. If she eats forbidden food, the tumah will be passed on to the child, but if she is careful to refrain from any questionable food and, in general observe the guidelines of kedushah, such as by not contaminating her mind with unsuitable literature, the child which derives its sustenance from her will be born with taharah and this taharah will assist it to grow in Torah and good deeds.

Para Admumah – Utilizing Pride to Attain Greatness

The Chovos Halevavos says that humility is the paramount moral quality. However, this is not true in the absolute sense. The Para Adumah (red heifer) makes tahor those who are tamei whereas it makes tamei those who are tahor. Although the mitzvah of Parah Adumah is the archetypal chok, whose ultimate reason could not be fathomed even by Shlomo Hamelech, we can still derive certain lessons from it.
Both the Seforno and the Baal Shem Tov note that the ashes from the Parah Adumah were combined with cedar, a very tall tree, symbolizing a proud person, and hyssop, which grows to only very small heights, symbolizing a humble person. A person who takes credit for himself instead of attributing his qualities to Hashem’s kindness is indeed in need of a good dosage of humility. His pride is metamei his qualities. On the other hand, the “humility” of someone who says to himself, “What’s the point of trying to learn Torah? I’ll never become a talmid chochom anyway”, is tamei. Such a person must be made aware of his merits and great potential and be told that many people started off with mediocre abilities but applied themselves and eventually became gedolim whose works we still study today. For such a person, humility is tamei and must be made tahor with a generous dosage of pride in his capabilities.

The Art of Appreciation

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

Passion for Torah

“This is the law (Torah) of the burnt offering (olah)”
The posuk is hinting that if we want to succeed in becoming one with Torah, we must sacrifice ourselves completely to Hashem like an olah, and not hanker for the pleasures and vanities of this world, and also, and in particular, that Torah must be learned with a holy enthusiasm, resembling the fire of the sacrifices. If we appreciate the Torah and realize that it is not just another form of wisdom but the blueprint of creation and the essence of our lives, we will be able to resist the pull of all those forces inimical to our approaching Torah in this way.
The Targum Yonaason translates this phrase as follows: “This is the law of the burnt offering which comes to atone for sinful thoughts”. The Rambam (Issurei Bi’ah 22:21) says that someone whose mind is completely preoccupied with Torah will not have immoral thoughts, because such thoughts only dwell in a vacant mind. We may therefore understand the Targum to be saying that the Torah resembles an olah. Just like the main function of an olah is to atone for sinful thoughts, so too, the Torah itself acts like an olah by ensuring that we do not have any sinful thoughts in the first place.

State of Elevation

Rashi says that the posuk above teaches us, inter alia, about the laws of sacrifices, which have been offered despite a certain flaw. The Gemara in Maseches Zevachim (68b) says that if the flaw is one which arose after shechitah, if such a sacrifice has already been placed on the mizbeiach, it must be removed, because the deficiency arose after the animal had already acquired a certain degree of sanctity. But if the flaw derives from a fundamental blemish, such as the fact that it was a treifah from the outset, such a deficiency predates the attainment of sanctity, and the animal must be removed from the mizbeiach even if it had already been placed on it.
This halachah teaches us an important lesson. IF someone “sanctifies” himself properly by adopting an appropriate lifestyle and educating his children in Torah and mitzvos, then even if he stumbles more than once, he must not lose heart because he does not lose his basic state of elevation. However, if someone does not have the strength to completely accept on himself the yoke of Torah and mitzvos, his level of sanctity is flawed from the outset and if he stumbles, his only remedy is to resolve wholeheartedly to “sanctify” himself by adopting a proper attitude and way of life.

Immunity to Society

“And the kohein shall put on his linen (bad) garment.” The word bad can be read as levad, alone. In our times, talmidei chochomim are the equivalent of kohanim, and they too must consider only what the Torah expects of them and not be affected in any way by the opinion of others. They must consider themselves to be answerable only to Hashem and act as if they were standing alone before Him.
“And he shall carry the ashes outside the camp.” The Chovos Halevavos (6:6) says that Hashem imposed the duty of removing the ashes every day on the kohen, who has greater inborn sanctity, in order to induce humility in him and remove haughtiness from his heart. Through this seemingly undignified daily act, the kohen internalizes the lesson that true honor is not derived from wealth, social position or even wisdom, but from being ready at any time to joyfully fulfill the will of the Creator with love.
In a similar vein, the Torah accords Moshe Rabbeinu the title of “servant of Hashem,” and not “hayachsan” (a person with a distinguished pedigree), “hagaon” or “hatzaddik”. This demonstrates that more than anything, our ultimate goal is to fulfill the will of Hashem faithfully and without taking into account what others think of us.

Sanctity of Life

“And he shall take off his garments, put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.” Rashi comments that it is not befitting for the kohein to wear the same clothes when officiating as he does when he takes out the ashes. Although the ashes themselves also have a certain degree of sanctity, it bears no comparison to the sanctity of a sacrifice, which has not yet been offered, so that the latter mitzvah calls for more beautiful clothes to be worn by the kohen.
Similarly, as long as a person’s neshama is still inside his body and he is able to serve the Creator and perform mitzvos, each moment is infused with immense sanctity and although the body maintains a certain degree of sanctity even after the neshama departs, it is far less intense than the sanctity which attaches to a person as long as he is still alive and can serve the Creator. Someone who appreciates the sanctity and potential of every moment will clearly run his life very differently than a person living without such an awareness.

Absorbing Sanctity

“And the flesh that touches ay unclean thing shall not be eaten” We see from the Gemara in Maseches Zevachim 97a) that tumah is transmitted by a mere touch, whereas the holiness of kodshim has to actually be absorbed before it can be conveyed.
In the days of the Baal Hatanya, rumors started spreading about someone that he was becoming friendly with maskilim and heretics. When the Baal Hatanya warned this person about the pernicious influence of wicked people, he defended himself with the argument that his connections with people had no influence on him. As proof of this, he cited the fact that he had been frequenting the company of Chassidim for several years and had not been influenced by them at all. The Baal Hatanya responded that this was hardly surprising, since in order to cleave to kedushah and become holy, mere contact is not enough, as we have to actually absorb kedushah, whereas to become tamei, mere contact is indeed enough. “This applies all the more so to you,” concluded the Baal Hatanya, “since instead of absorbing kedusha, you have satisfied yourself superficial contact, whereas you have absorbed the tumah of your friends wholeheartedly”.
Nowadays, our exposure to tumah is not limited to friendships with undesirable people. Much is said about the potentially disastrous influence wielded by the various media. If we appreciate the terrible consequences of even the most superficial contact with tumah, we will hopefully be better motivated to avoid it altogether and expend our energy on absorbing kedushah instead.

Appreciating Mitzvos

“Take Aharon and his sons with him.” Rashi cites the Medrash: “Take him with words and attract him”. Aharon was not compelled or excessively goaded into accepting his tasks, but was rather coaxed and appeared to in a pleasant manner. This teaches us the importance of performing mitzvos voluntarily with complete understanding and appreciation of their value.
“And Moshe did as Hashem commanded him, and the congregation was assembled at the door of the Ohel Moed.” The actions performed by Moshe wee perfect in accordance with the instructions of Hashem. AS a result of these actions, the Bnei Ysirael merited to cleave to the Shechinah through their leader, and the congregation assembled at the door of the Ohel Moed in order to imbibe Moshe’s kedushah and learn from his ways. It was not necessary to publish a call for the people to come or to convince the nation to congregate around him. Everybody came of their own accord. A true tzaddik attracts others like a magnet through his very being.
A parent and teacher must realize that you cannot force a child into good behavior. The only way to succeed in any educational endeavor is to demonstrate positively the beauty of Torah and mitzvos, and the infinite benefits to be derived from a Torah lifestyle. In addition, we must serve as positive role models. The Rambam says that everyone has the potential to become as great as Moshe Rabbeinu. However, even if we cannot be the greatest role models, we should strive at least to minimize any major character or other defect that could have a negative impact on our children or students.

Double Appreciation

The Medrash says, “Whoever offers the korban todah horns (yechabdoneni) Me’ (Tehillim 50:23). It does not say yechabdeni but yechabdoneni, to teach us that such a person gives one honor after the other.” A person brings a korban todah after having been saved from danger should realize that the tribulations he endured were themselves inflicted for his benefit, for one of two reasons. They may remind him to improve his ways, jut like a father punishes his son for the same purpose. Once has matured, a child is also grateful for the education he received from his parents, even if it involved unpleasant punishments. Alternatively, they may come to atone for his sins and purify him through suffering in this world.
“One honor after the other” refers to the gratitude felt not only for the salvation, but also for the misfortune itself. Of course, it is easier to feel this way once we are no longer suffering from the misfortune, but an appreciation of the purpose of hardship makes it much easier to deal with even before it is over.

How to be saved from Chevlei Moshiach

It says in Medrash Tanchumah (Emor 14) that when Moshiach comes all the korbanos will be abolished, except for the korban today. During that period, when the world will be full of the knowledge of Hashem, there will be no sin, and no one will require atonement through sacrifices. However the korban todah will be even more relevant than it is today, since only then will we appreciate the true extent of our obligation to praise Hashem for His great mercy and kindness, and for all the hidden miracles of the past and present. Only then will Hashem reveal to us the reason for our suffering in golus.
Similarly, Chazal tell us that the Yomim Tovim (holidays) will be abolished when Moshiach comes except for Purim. This is not to be understood literally, since there will be no change in the halachos of any of the Yomim Tovaim. Opurim is about Hashem’s hidden Presence within nature. This will become completely manifest only when Moshiach comes. Dayan Yechezkel abramsky zt”l asks why it says at the end of the Megillah, “And all the acts of his power and of his might…are they not written in the book of the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?” Why should we be interested in what those books have to say? The Megillah is telling us that if you are interested in reading a storybook, then go read those books, but for us the Megillah is a lesson in hashgacha protis (Divine Providence) and is kodesh.
The Yomim Tovim will not be actually be abolished, but they will pale in significance compared to Purim. The purpose of the chevlei Moshaich is to impress on us indelibly the message that Hashem is in charge and is the only Source of our salvation. If we completely internalize the message of the Megillah we will be saved from those travails, because they will become superfluous.
Friday, March 25, 2011


By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

Wake-Up Calls

Chazal tell us that earthquakes happen on account of our actions, even if we are not the actual victims. So the events in Japan are a wake-up call for us. However, ideally, our wake-up calls should not be of such seismic proportions, but should rather take a subtler and far more pleasant form.
“And Moshe was called and Hashem spoke to him out of the Ohel Moed saying.” Why does it not say in the pasuk who called Moshe, and why does it not say what Moshe was told? Every communication from Hashem to Moshe was preceded by a feeling of profound closeness and spiritual elevation as a result of which Moshe reached the state of disembodiment required for his unique level of perceiving the Word of Hashem. “Moshe was called” refers to this preliminary d’veikus (closeness) felt by Moshe, which served as a sign that Hashem was about to speak to him. Since Moshe did not yet hear the voice of Hashem speaking to him during this stage, the posuk does not say, “And Hashem spoke to Moshe nor are we told the content of any communication, since nothing was conveyed to him yet.
There are times in the life of every Yid when he feels closeness to the Shechinah, an isarusa dele’eila (a spiritual uplift from above), which is not preceded by any specific act on his part. Sometimes, in the middle of davening, he may feel a wonderful awakening and intense desire to come closer to Hashem, and his prayer becomes imbued with great devotion, or he may suddenly be overwhelmed by the insignificance and pettiness of his daily affairs and feel the need to improve his ways. Whatever the source of such unexpected elevated states, be it the merits of one’s ancestors or that his shoresh haneshema (the source of his soul) is now worthy of receiving something resembling a call from Hashem, anyone fortunate enough to experience such states, would be foolish not to react by thanking Hashem for this immense opportunity and beseeching His assistance that these sensations should indeed serve as an impetus for real change in his conduct.

Holy Beginnings

The Medrash says that when a boy first learns to read, we start teaching him Vayikrah, so that those with a holy unsullied neshama should first be taught the topic of holy korbanos (sacrifices). On a plain level, the reason we do not start with Bereishis is because if children would first be exposed to the narrative part of the Torah, they would think that it is merely a storybook, without any special sanctity, but when we teach them about korbanos, which epitomize mitzvos whose reason we cannot completely understand, they immediately realize that learning Chumash is about the will of Hashem and is a holy endeavor.

Sacrificial Mechanisms

Despite the explanations proposed by the Rishonim (early commentators), the ultimate rationale for korbanos and how they effect atonement remains a mystery. However, on a plain level, we can understand that what distinguishes a human being from an animal is his intellectual capacity, and when a person sins, it is due to his failure to utilize it. A sinner loses his superiority over animals. He has either let his intellect be overcome by an “insane spirit” (ruach shuts) or, I not the case of an inadvertent transgression, he has failed to use it at all. For this reason semichah (literally leaning on the animal) must be performed specifically on the head of the korban to bring home the point that when sinning, a sinner lowers himself to the level of this animal, and when he offers it up, he must realize that he was actually the one deserving of punishment, and therefore both he animal and the sinner receive their tikkun.
However, the action of bringing the korban is only the final stage an dmust be preceded by a complete process of teshuvah. This is clearly illustrated by the wording of the confession to be recited at the time for the semichah, which is cited by the Rambam (Maasei Hakorbanos 5:15): “…I have done such and such and have repented…” In other words, this viduy is made on the korban and is not part of the teshuvah process, because he has already said viduy previously as part of his teshuvah. In other words, the act of bringing a korban is not a substitute for teshuvah but its culmination. Similarly, we have to do teshuvah before davening or learning Torah if we want our tefillas (prayers) or Torah to have the optimum effect.
In Moreh Nevuchim (the Guide for the Perplexed), the Rambam says that the purpose of korbanos is to counteract idol worship, and in Hilchos Deos he talks about the influence of the environment. Even hearing about the acts of idol worshippers can cause a degree of intellectual confusion, even though one feels no emotional connection to them at all. Although we cannot comprehend the ultimate reason for korbanos or gain a complete understanding of how they work, the Rambam is telling us that the performance of this mitzvah properly, with all its details will neutralize such confusion and subjugate any urge for idol worship, leaving our hearts and minds free to serve the Creator.
Nowadays, most of us are not exposed to avodah zarah in the conventional sense, but we are bombarded on a daily basis with heretical messages, denying the very existence of a Creator or the fact that He runs every aspect of our lives. Although we are prevented from fulfilling the mitzvah of bringing korbanos reciting the parshiyos hakorbanos can have the effect of removing the pernicious influence of this contemporary yitzra de’avodah zarah. (the negative influence of avodah zarah)

All in the Same Boat

At the beginning of the parsha, it says, “When a man brings (singular)…you (plural) shall bring your offering.” Why is there a sudden change of tense?
When a person sins, it has an affect not only on himself but also on the public as a whole. Consequently, when he brings a korban and amends his actions, the blemish which attached to the nation also becomes removed, and the whole nation becomes elevated as a result. Therefore, the beginning of the posuk is referring to the individual sinner wishing to repent and the end of the posuk refers to the stage where the offering has already been sacrificed and had the effect of showering an abundance of shefah (heavenly influence) on the whole world, and the whole nation has been purified.

Elevating the Physical

An olah is brought for the non-performance of positive commandments and a chatas for the inadvertent transgression of aveiros (sins) punishable by krisus (being spiritually cut off), whereas an olah is consumed entirely by the mizbeiach. Thus, chatos seems to be the less severe korban, so why is it the one brought by someone who committed the more serious sin?
The kohanim’s consumption of the chatos is an integral part of the atonement achieved by the sinner. This elevated act must be performed completely lesheim Shomayim (for the sake of Heaven) without any element of personal pleasure. This is one of the more challenging tasks of the kohanim in the Bias Hamikdash. It is much easier to burn the entire olah on the mizbeiach. Similarly, in many respects it is easier to fast on Yom Kippur than it is to eat lesheim Shomayim on Shabbos. Therefore, the olah is the appropriate korban for the less severe sin.
This concept also sheds light on the halachah in the Gemara that for anon-Jew, the equivalent of shelamim are olos. The non-Jewish concept of serving Hashem is through a complete negation of anything physical. The notion of eating for the sake of Heaven as an elevated act is completely foreign to them. Thus, the only korban with which they can feel any affinity is an olah, which does not involve any eating.
The story is told tahat one of the supporters of the Volozhiner Yeshiva in the days of its founder, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, once refused to give his donation to an emissary from the yeshiva, saying that he wanted to give the money directly to the Rosh Yeshiva himself. The donor felt that since the emissary took a small percentage of the donation for himself for his trouble it would be preferable if his complete donation would be used for its designated purpose. When he met Rav Chaim, Rav Chaim told the donor that his attitude was inappropriate for someone of Jewish lineage. The Jewish attitude is to be pleased with the opportunity to help a fellow Jew, just like Hashem takes pleasure in “sharing” a korban shelamim with the kohen and the owner of the korban.

Unintentional Transgressions

“If anyone commits a trespass and sins through error”. This phrase may be understood in accordance with the Vilna Gaon’s explanation on Mishlei (13:6) that person does not sin inadvertently unless he has previously sinned intentionally. The intentional sin caused him to stumble subsequently even without his knowledge. According to that, the posuk here is saying that only a person capable of intentionally transgressing against his Creator (simol maal) will then sin through error (vechata beshegaga) and can only obtain atonement by paying keren vechomesh and bringing a korban asham.

Character Blemishes

It says in the Pesikta, “Just like an offering will not be accepted without blemish, so too must a person be without blemish in order to be accepted”. This means that even if a person refrains from sinning in practice, in order for his actions to be acceptable he must be “perfect”. This perfection consists of cleansing himself from negative character traits which lead to sin, and which are also sinful per se.

Happiness not related to Economic Status

Every korban requires salt. Meat without salt is not food fit for a King. So too, the mitzvos have to be performed with taste and fragrance, in other words, with enthusiasm and devotion. Although the obligation to add salt applies to every korban, it is mentioned in the context of the minchah offering. This is in order to convey the idea that Hashem wants a poor person, who may have every reason to fell downcast, to still offer his minchas ani with complete joy and enthusiasm. Even if he cannot quite achieve this, any effort he makes towards improving his emunah and bitachon (belief in G-d) will go a long way.
Thursday, March 17, 2011

Heavenly Hierarchies

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

Undeniable Reality

The medrash says that the statement “These are the accounts of the mishkan” was an atonement for the statement made by the erev rav (mixed multitude) at the time of the chet haegel (sin of the golden calf), “These are your gods, Yisrael”. Their sin had been based on the terrible misconception shared by the first idol worshippers that Hashem is too lofty to be involved in the affairs of ordinary mortals and wants us to serve Him through intermediaries. Once Moshe Rabbeinu had disappeared from the scene, they felt the need for a substitute. The calf miraculously showed sings of animation, and this seemed to corroborate the arguments of the erev rav.
Rashi in this week’s parsha cites the medrash that Moshe gave the nation a blessing that the shechiah should dwell on the fruits of their labor. Thus, “the accounts of the mishkan” constituted the antidote to the fallacy of the erev rav because in the mishkan the shechinah and Hashem’s direct connection to us were completely evident, so that their theory no longer had any chance of gaining a foothold. If anyone still harbored any doubts that may have been sowed by the erev rav at the time of the chet haegel about Hashem’s intimate and direct connection to us, these were shattered by the undeniable reality experienced by the entire nation.

Equal Opportunities

Although this reality was experienced equally by everybody, the degree of hasgochah pratis (Divine providence) earned by each individual differed and was based on their level of avodas Hashem. We mentioned two weeks ago that Moshe did not understand why specifically half a shekel was required to be given, and that Hashem’s response was that the physical act of giving only constituted half of the mitzvah, whereas the emotion accompanying the act and the desire to perform the will of Hashem are complementary and indispensable ingredients.
Moshe initially also did not understand why both a poor and wealthy person should contribute the same amount, and Hashem’s response was that He specifically wanted everyone’s contribution to be identical, in order to demonstrate that somebody’s financial or social status are completely irrelevant and that He is mainly interested not in the physical half-shekel donation, but in the other half consisting of our subjective intentions and devotion, and each person’s reward is based on the quality of that complementary half.
It is that complimentary half which primarily determines the status of our neshomah, and this naturally differs from person to person. Every time we perform a mitzvah we create an angel who serves as our defense counsel when the time comes for our heavenly trial, but that angel’s ability to plead our case depends on the extent to which we put our heart and should into the specific mitzvah by reason of which he was created in the first place, and the extent which we had to overcome our evil inclination when doing so. If the mitzvah was performed properly the angel created as a result of it has the power to counteract many prosecuting angels created by our sins.
The Chofetz Chaim once sent a message to an Orthodox member of the Rothschild family, who was gravely sick. His total wealth was estimated at some 50 million marks, a fabulous fortune at the time. The Chofetz Chaim suggested to him that if he made a donation of one million marks to rescue the Russian yeshivos, which were experiencing dire financial straits, he would receive a portion in the world to come. No response was forthcoming, but when the man passed away, his children were contacted to establish whether he had issued any instructions before his death or made any relevant provision in his will. The answer was in the negative. To this day it is known whether his heirs were telling the truth, or whether they intentionally concealed some information.
In any case, the Chofetz Chaim’s response was that it was totally illogical for a dying man who had lived an Orthodox lifestyle to refuse the offer of parting with one fiftieth of his wealth in order to acquire a portion in the world to come, and Hashem must be telling us that He wants many more people to be given the opportunity to participate in this important mitzvah. Hashem prefers the yeshivos to be supported by the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe, since many small donations accompanied by superior intentions and self-sacrifice are dearer in His eyes.

Imputed Creation

It says in Tehillim (62,13): “Also unto You, Hashem, belongs loving kindness for you render unto every man according to his actions”. The Baal Shem Tov asks why mercy has to come into play if Hashem is merely rewarding us for our actions. Surely even the requirements of strict justice require Hashem to do this, without the need to enlist chesed? The possuk in Tehillim is telling us that Hshem will reward us for each angel created as a result of our mitzvos as if we had actually created the angel ourselves, even though we are obviously incapable of doing so in the literal sense, and this is indeed a major chesed on the part of Hashem.
As we mentioned above, Moshe gave the bnei ysirael a blessing that the shechinah should dwell on the fruits of their labor (maasei yedeihem). This request can also be understood in the same light: Moshe was asking Hashem to give the bnei Yisrael credit as if they themselves, with their own hands (maasei yedeihim), so to speak, had been responsible for bringing down the shechinah to dwell in the mishkan.

Torah Fragrances

Even among the truly righteous, we find different hierarchies. The Targrum Yonoson on this week’s parsha (40,5) says that the ketores represents chachomim whose Torah exudes a pleasant fragrance. The oron hakodesh which contained the Torah in a closed concealed manner symbolizes the 36 concealed tzadikkim of each generation. The ketores represents revealed tzadikkim.
The actual ketores offering both on Yom Kippur and every day took place in the heichol and was not witnessed by anybody, but its fraganace could not be confined to the quarters of the heichal. Similarly, every genuine tzadik endeavors not to publicize himself or his actions. However, the fragrance of his Torah and good deeds cannot easily be contained, and he is willing and even eager to share them with others in order to influence the. For a tzadik to remain anonymous is, on the one hand, a great virtue, and can increase his reward in the world to come, because had he been given honor in this world this could detract from his reward in the next world. However, the revealed tzadik is on an even higher level, because his concern for the spiritual status of his fellow Jews overcomes any other considerations.
Rav Moshe Schneider told Rav Sternbuch that when he was living in Memel, Lithuania, the town was dominated by anti-religious circles and religious Jews were few and far between. However, there was one exceptional individual who was a true tzadik nistar (concealed tzadik). On one occasion Rav Shneider told the son-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Hirsch Levinson, who was visiting Memel, about this tzadik. After he met him, Rav Levinson commented to Rav Schneider that this man was certainly a great tzadik, but Memel needed tzaddikim geluyim (revealed tzadikkim) to stem the anti-religious tide, and not tzaddikim of this kind who had no influence on the population.

Productive Rest

At the very end of this week’s parshah, Rashi states that in all the journeys undertaken by the bnei Yisrael, the onon (clouds of glory) dwelled with them, and that the locations where the bnei Yisrael encamped were also considered journeys. This seemingly paradoxical statement teaches us that in our avodas Hashem having a rest is not a means in itself, but rather a preparation for future activity.
As we mentioned two weeks ago, time is the most precious entity we have, and a ben Torah’s hours of rest should be limited to the amount of time required for revitalizing himself of the next seder during the zman, or for the next zman during bein hazmanim. As a gadol once noted, “I’m not interested in resing more than is absolutely necessary, there will come a time when I will be forced to rest as much as I want, so for now I want to make the most of the time allotted me”. If we strive to emulate talmidei chachomim and make our times of rest into preparations for the next journey, so that we can attain ever higher leves, the onon Hashem will dwell with us in our lives.
Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ben Torah Every Step of the Way

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

Unmistakable Identity

It says that “all of the congregation of the Bnei Yisrael departed from the presence of (milifnei) Moshe”. The mashgiach, Rav Elya Lopian zt”l, commented that it does not say “mei’eis,” but “milifnei,” because even after they had departed from Moshe and were no longer in his physical presence, his influence left its imprint on all aspects of their behavior and it was as if they were still standing before him.

Rav Sternbuch adds that this also contains a powerful message for future generations, namely that a genuine ben Torah acts the same way irrespective of whether or not he is situated physically between the four walls of a yeshiva or kollel, or in the supportive environment of a chareidi community, where his conduct may be determined to some extent by social pressure. Even during bein hazemanim (the times there is no formal yeshiva learning) or during a business trip far from any Jewish community, his learning schedule does not slacken, and his ethical conduct remains based on the standards of a ben Torah, just like the inhabitant of a town (ben ir) maintains his status even if he is physically situated in a town surrounded by a wall (k’rach), because his essence is not contingent on where he is physically located.

Understanding Charity

One of the things that exemplify a ben Torah is how he earns his money and what he does with it. The Zohar says that “take from among you an offering” comes to exclude gezel (stealing). Gezel does not only include outright theft, but also any type of dishonesty.

Centuries ago, the Maharsha (Kesubos 67) already complained about the many people in his generation who accumulate wealth dishonestly, such as through gezel akum (stealing from non-Jews), thereby creating a chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s Name) and subsequently give donations in the hope of making that money “kosher,” Although these people may be given much honor for their actions, the Zohar emphasizes that is someone donates to charity from money gained through dishonest means, his actions will not be a source of any merits, but will only serve as a reminder of his sinful behavior.

Even if the source of our charitable donations is beyond reproach, we must still make an effort to make them with the proper intentions. On the pasuk, “And Betzalel made the Aron,” Rashi cites the Medrash that the Aron was in Betzalel’s name, because he devoted himself entirely to his work. Since the Aron was placed in the Kodesh Hakodoshim (the Holy of Holies), its construction called for special kavanos, which only someone of the stature of Betzalel was capable of, and he devoted himself entirely to ensuring that this crucial task was performed properly. That is why the Aron was called in his name.

If a person builds a yeshiva from his money or by inducing others to contribute funds and he dedicates himself to its continued existence, it will be called in his name, but if his sole purpose in making a donation is to see his name on a plaque in a prominent place in the yeshiva, it will not be genuinely called in his name. This will only take place if he puts his heart and soul into it and acts lesheim Shomayim (for the sake of Heaven)

Eating Habits

“On the seventh day there shall be in you a holy day,” One way of sanctifying Shabbos is by eating in a proper manner. Rabbeinu Yonah suggests a novel reason for the obligatory third meal on Shabbos. He says that the introduction of an additional meal at an unusual time, especially during the winter, forces us to control the amount of food we consume in the second, main Shabbos meal, so that we will be able to eat the third meal, with sufficient appetite. This compels us to exercise self-discipline and also ensures that we do not spend all our time eating, leaving little time for learning Torah. By eating lesheim Shomayim we infuse kedushah into Shabbos. This also teaches us not to spend too much time during the rest of the week on eating, and not to overeat in general. A ben Torah is not preoccupied with food and does not waste his dime discussing it. Even this basic function should be a source of kedushah at all times.

According to Kabbalah, the time of seudah shlishis is a propitious one, especially close to nightfall, when the souls go back to gehennom, and our time then should be spent exclusively on the seduas mitzvah, on divrei Torah and inspiring divrei Chazal, or on saying Tehillim, because this time of the day is especially appropriate for acquiring the sanctity, and we should be careful not to waste it with nonsense or worse.

Educational Vocation

“And He has put in his heart that he may teach.” The art of being a teacher requires the ability to understand the mindset of a child in order to be able to explain the material properly to him according to his own understanding. Hashem put into Betzalel’s heart the ability to make himself understood.

Not everybody is cut out to teach. Teaching young children in particular often calls for a great amount of patience, and one who does not love his pupils sufficiently will not make a successful teacher. As for older boys, Rav Sternbuch heard several times from Rav Smiatizky zt”l that being a ram (rebbe in a Yeshiva) is a special art, and one should not automatically assume that every talmid chochom is able to teach Torah to others. He felt that the ga’onei hador (wisest of the generation) together with well-respected ramim should grant a type of semicha (rabbinical ordination) to candidates wishing to teach in yeshivos or kollelim, just like people receive semichah for the rabbinate. A thorough examination should be undertaken before awarding such a “semichah”, and nobody should be allowed to take up a teaching position without it.

In any case, when it comes to choosing a vocation, a ben Torah will not rely blindly on his own opinion and feelings about himself, but will seek objective Torah guidance before deciding on such a vital issue.

Fiery Enthusiasm

“And He has filled him with the spirit of Hashem, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge.” The pasuk says that Hashem filled Betzalel with the spirit of Hashem and Targum Onkelos translates it to mean “a spirit from before Hashem.” Betzalel’s superior level did not stem from his intellectual knowledge or understanding, but from the Divine spirit throbbing in his heart. It was the fiery enthusiasm to serve Hashem and do His will which set him apart.

“Every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work which Hashem had commanded by the hand of Moshe to be made”. By employing such lengthy phraseology, the Torah is teaching us that the Mishkan was not only constructed through the contributions of money and labor, but also by virtue of the generous and benevolent emotions (nedivus lev) which accompanied those contributions, because the Shechinah will only dwell in the Mishkan, i.e. amongst the Jewish nation, if they have a strong desire to come close to Hashem, and because of their nedivus lev. Am Yisrael merited to have the Shechinah dwell amongst them.

Although a ben Torah’s life is run by his intellect, neither it nor even his deeds alone characterize him. Rather, he is characterized by the degree to which all his actions are guided by the will of Hashem, and the extent to which they are suffused with passionate fervor to serve Him.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Worthy Investments

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

Heart of the Matter

Rashi quotes the Medrash that Moshe had difficulties with the machatzis hashekel (1/2 shekel), so Hashem showed him the form of a fiery coin. Why did Moshe have difficulties in understanding the shape of a coin, and what was the significance of the fire?

Moshe did not understand why specifically half a shekel was required. Hashem’s response was the physical act of giving only constituted half of the mitzvah, whereas the emotion accompanying the act and the desire to perform the will of Hashem are complementary and indispensable ingredients. If these are lacking, then not even half of the mitzvah has been performed. Since these aspects of the mitzvah are intangible, they are compared to fire, which cannot be touched.

Similarly, it says that someone giving tzedakah to a fellow Jew with a sour face loses his reward. The act of giving is only an empty shell that has to be filled with passionate and genuine love and concern for the recipient based on the recognition that the money with which we are parting is not ours in the first place and that by means of this act, money is being handed over to its rightful owner, and the oni (poor person) has enabled us to come closer to Hashem.

Day of Rest?

Another mitzvah mentioned in this week’s parsha requiring investment of time and effort on our part is kedushas Shabbos. We must not be influenced by the non-Jewish concept of a day of rest when we merely recharge our batteries. Shabbis is not a day when we refrain from physical labor. Many of the forbidden melachos do not involve any physical effort at all. It is rather a day when we acknowledge that Hashem rules the world and provides us with all our needs on the remaining days.

In this week’s parsha, it says, “You shall keep my Shabboses,” the emphasis being on “My”. Hashem is telling us that He determines the nature, quality and content of this day. In Minchah on Shabbos, we say that Hashem has given us a day of menuchah (rest) and kedushah. Kedushah in this context means learning Torah, saying divrei Torah, singing zemiros and conveying fundamental messages to our children at the Shabbos table.

Shabbos is not merely a time when we refrain from certain forbidden actions, but a day of positive, active kedushah, a day when we must strive to create (“la’asos es haShabbos”) our own Shabbos reality, an otherworldly experience, and to recharge our spiritual batteries, thereby sanctifying ourselves and this holiest day.

Holy Wealth

Rashi quotes the Medrash that Moshe rabbeinu became very rich from the remnants of the Luchos (tablets). Chazal are clearly not telling us that this was a profitable business venture for Moshe Rabbeinu. They are rather referring to the spiritual blessings bestowed on him due to the fact that he was in contact with the holy Luchos. Their kedushah was the source of these blessings. Similarly, we find in Tanach that the inhabitants of any place fortunate enough to house the Aron were blessed with wisdom, health, children and so on.

In addition, the pasuk in Tehillim says that “they who seek Hashem do not lack any good thing”. Wealth for the righteous does not consist of material possessions, but of the ability to feel that we lack nothing, and that, too, is the wealth with which Moshe Rabbeinu was blessed.

Constructive Destruction

The Aron was the source of many blessings, because it housed the Luchos, which are Kodesh Kodoshim. However, if someone learns Torah and does not observe it, the Torah serves no purpose, and for this reason Chazal tell us that Hashem praised Moshe for breaking the Luchos.

Paradigm Student

The posuk calls Yehoshua a youth (naar). However, the Ibn Ezra calculates that he was in fact 56 years old at the time. The reason he is still given this designation is to convey to us that despite his age, he acted like a young child, who is completely subjugated to his father, and like a student who subordinates himself to his teacher entirely.

Unlike Moshe Rabbeinu, we are not fortunate enough to be in close proximity to the shvtei Luchos, but the Gemara says that a talmid chochom (rabbinic scholar) is a source of even greater kedushah that the Torah itself, and everybody can and should make it their business to cleave to a talmid chochom.

Rav Sternbuch once spoke to the Brisker Rov about a certain person who had learned with his father, Rav Chaim Brisker, for three years. The Brisker Rov commented to Rav Sternbuch that although that person had indeed learned with his father, he could not be called his father’s talmid (student) since he had not sufficiently absorbed his father’s inner qualities, his character traits, outlook and daas Torah.

Yehoshua was a paradigm talmid and Hashem sees to it that every generation is blessed with sufficient gedolim whom we can adhere to, so that we can follow Yehoshua’s example, should we only invest the effort to do so.

Hidden Secrets

“Show me I pray You Your glory”. The Gemara tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu was asking Hashem to reveal to him why the righteous suffer and other related matters. Hashem responded, “You cannot see My face for man shall not see Me and live,” meaning that in this life we cannot be privy to the answers to such questions.

“You shall see My back (achorai) but My face (ponai) shall not be seen. Hashem is telling Moshe as follows: When the time comes for the Day of Judgment, you will understand retroactively (achorai) the secrets of My conduct in this world, but it is not possible for you to grasp these matters before that time (ponai). I have intentionally created the world in a way that such matters will remain unfathomable nisyonos (trials) until I choose to reveal the hidden explanations behind them.

Mutual Responsibility

Although some life situations call for absolute and passive acceptance of Hashem’s will, and the realization that, for now, some things will remain beyond our understanding, in certain circumstances we are expected to behave with unrestrained activism.

In the chet ha’Egel (sin of the Golden Calf), only 3,000 people actually sinned, but Hashem still wanted to destroy the entire nation because the majority had not done enough to protest the actions of the minority. Silence and inaction constitute consent. At Har Sinai we accepted on ourselves mutual reasonability (arvus) for all future generations, which means that everybody’s actions impact on the whole nation.

Indispensable Shechinah

“If your presence does not go with me, carry us not up from here”. We were not willing to enter Eretz Yisrael without the Shechinah. Similarly, we will not be able to remain here should the Shechinah chas vesholom depart from us. This is why we must be careful to be diligent in limud haTorah (learning Torah) and all aspects of our avodas Hashem in the King’s palace.

Moreover, the Gemara in Maseches Kiddushin states that the Shechinah only dwells with families whose lineage is clearly Jewish. If we countenance a situation in which there is any confusion about yichus matters, this can chas veshalom cause the Shechinah to depart from us.

Pure Intentions

We have considered several examples of how we can invest in various aspects of our avodas Hashem. These investments may take the form of enhancing our mitzvah performance, connecting to a gadol, accepting the Divine will, or when appropriate, adopting activism in order to ensure that we do not become associated in any shape or form with forces diametrically antithetical to kavod ha’Torah (honor for the Torah) and kavod Shamayim (honor for Heaven). If our actions are completely lesheim Shomayim (for the sake of Heaven) they will surely be crowned with success.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When Should a Rabbi say they don't know?

Over the years, I have had the privilege to meet many world -class rabbinical authorities. I have heard pearls of wisdom from all of them and was truly impressed how they internalize the lessons of the Torah and make it part of their everyday life.

The most important lesson from all these experiences that I learned was to know when to say "I don't know" better than giving a bad answer. That to me showed the ultimate in humility and honesty. No one is expected to know everything but even more importantly, when we don't know or are not sure or we have to speak to someone greater than ourselves for advice, we shouldn't hesitate to do so.

This also leads to another important point. Even the greatest rabbinical authorities have to know if they are in disagreement with their contemporaries, they have to know when to 'bow' out and go according to the majority. That means when there is a difference of opinion on a certain matter and many other contemporaries disagree with their point, one must be humble and conform with the majority.

I have seen very often in rabbinic literature, that a Talmudic giant will give an opinion on a certain question but will say that even though they think their opinion is right and they have spent the entire responsa proving it, because no contemporary authorities agree with them, they will not 'die' for their opinion.

This means that even if they have all the proofs to back up their theory, they have to be in line with the rabbinical authorities of their time. The Talmud is clear that we have to go according to the majority. We have to know when to bend our will to others when we are in the minority.