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, January 26, 2012

AsktheRaavad: Shecheyanu for a Baby Girl

Question: I just had a baby girl, and I heard that the minhag is not to make a Shehecheyanu on the birth
of a daughter. Is this, in fact, the case? Can the rov also tell me when the best time to name our daughter
is and if we should make a kiddush?
Thank you.
Ami Brachen


The Mishnah Berurah (223:2) rules that one can make a Shehecheyanu when he sees his newborn daughter for the first time. However, the minhag regarding this halacha differs, and Rav Sternbuch rules that the answer to this question depends on the circumstances of the birth. If you did not make the bracha at the time of the birth, you should not make it afterwards. You should name your daughter
at the first opportunity at krias haTorah during the week, unless there will be significantly more people at your Shabbos minyan.

Mazel Tov!

Perhaps there is no greater joy than the birth of a baby. The Gemara states that when a baby boy is born, a parent should express this simcha by reciting the bracha of hatov vehameitiv (Shulchan Aruch 223:1). Even if one missed the opportunity to make this bracha at the time of birth, it can still be said as long as the parent is excited and telling the news to others. While the halacha regarding a boy is
clear, the Gemara does not say how one should act when a girl is born.

Every father waits for the moment when he can see his newborn baby for the first time. The excitement that he experiences when he finally sees his baby can be compared to someone who has not seen his friend for a long time and then suddenly meets up with him. The Mishnah Berurah (223:2) draws this comparison and, based on it, rules that a parent recites Shehecheyanu upon seeing a baby girl
for the first time after birth.

We cannot deny that seeing one’s child for the first time is an exciting moment for a father. However, it is not clear that this feeling is reason for the father to recite Shehecheyanu. There are many happy circumstances when one does not make this bracha. This bracha of Shehecheyanu was established specifically over the joy of seeing someone he has not seen in a long time. One only recites this bracha on a very close friend whom he has a great yearning to meet. A father has simcha over the successful birth of a healthy child and not exclusively over the joy of seeing the baby for the first time.

Since the Rama writes that the bracha of Shehecheyanu is not an obligatory one, one should do as follows. If a person has a number of boys and was hoping for a girl, or he had a specific reason to want to have a baby daughter (e.g., to name her after a parent or grandparent), one can make a Shehecheyanu on the birth. However, if he was hoping for a boy, or he had no particular preference for a boy or a girl,
then it is preferable not to make the bracha.

All of the above applies when one saw the baby for the first time. Once this experienced had lapsed, the simcha lessens. Therefore, if a parent did not make the bracha the first time he saw her, then it is too late to make a Shehecheyanu. If he wishes, he can recite Shehecheyanu on a new fruit and have in mind his newborn daughter, as is the practice on the second day of Rosh Hashanah to avoid the safeik Shehecheyanu with a new fruit.

The Best Time For A Name

The best time to give the name also depends on the circumstances. Tosafos (Gitten 59b) writes that the naming should be done in public. Therefore, if the father davens in a large minyan on a Monday and a Thursday when there is a Torah reading, then he should give the name right away and not leave his daughter without a name. However, if the weekday minyan is very small and he will be davening in a significantly larger minyan on Shabbos, he should wait for Shabbos to give the name. This way, the name will be given with the greatest publicity. However, one should not wait beyond Shabbos. In order to aid the publicity of the name, many have the minhag to make a kiddush upon the birth of a baby daughter. This way, the name is publicized amongst all those who attend. Another reason to make a kiddush is because the child who is born can be compared to a prisoner who was released from captivity, and the kiddush serves as a seudas hoda’ah.

May Hashem bless you with much nachas from your newborn daughter and all of your children.

Tumah and Kedushah

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


“I revealed Myself to Avrohom, to Yitzchok, and to Yaakov as Keil Shakai, but My Name Hashem [Adnus] I did not make known to them” (6:3).

The name Shakai refers to Hashem's restriction of His greatness in this world which enables us to recognize Him. Kabbalistic and Chassidic books discuss the concept of tzimtzum at great length, but for us it is sufficient to know that neither mortal beings nor even angels can comprehend Hashem's greatness. Even our forefathers, who attained supreme levels, were only capable of grasping the Creator’s greatness on the basis of what He, in his wisdom, allows a human being to understand.

Moshe Rabbeinu, with whom Hashem spoke peh el peh, had the merit of communicating with Hashem and recognizing Him on a level that was less clouded by tzimtzum. Hashem taught Moshe that the main aspect of Hashem's greatness is to be found in the Sheim Havaya, which teaches us that He wishes to suppress His anger and conduct the world with the trait of mercy. Of course, not even Moshe Rabbeinu could truly understand Hashem's greatness, but whatever he did comprehend, on the basis of the middos taught to him by Hashem, surpassed the levels of understanding attained by our forefathers.


“You will know that I am Hashem (Sheim Adnus), your G-d (Elokeichem), Who is bringing you out from under the burdens of Egypt” (6:7).

When we were still suffering in Egypt, we only felt the trait of din (justice), but after having been taken out and made into a nation by Hashem, we realized that even whilst we were still subject to the middas hadin (Elokim), it was actually intermingled with great rachamim (Sheim Adnus).

The experience of the unprecedented cruelty inflicted on us during the churban at the hands of the Germans, supposedly the most cultured of nations, demonstrated that any nation would behave in this way were it not for Hashem's constant chessed and Providence, which bridle their intentions. When we do our best to keep the Torah and the mitzvos, and behave with mutual responsibility to try to ensure that every member of Hashem's nation observes the mitzvos, Hashem ensures our peaceful existence in golus both overseas and here in Eretz Yisroel.

We cannot fathom the ways of Hashem, nor are we able to perceive how even His actions which do not appear so are in truth manifestations of mercy and loving-kindness, but this will become clear on the future day of judgment. However, one thing we do know is that those who suffer during the period of chevlei Moshiach (birth pangs preceding the coming of Moshiach) enjoy a special existence in the afterlife.


“Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon, commanding them regarding the Bnei Yisroel and Paroh, king of Egypt” (6:12). Rashi: “To treat him with respect when speaking to him.”

When Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin zt”l was accused of kidnapping a child and brought to court for a hearing to discuss his fate, he refused to look at the judge’s face, since the Gemara says that it is forbidden to look at the face of a wicked person. The people present in the courtroom begged him not to behave in this way, since this could incur the wrath of the judge, but he refused, saying that no harm could befall him by following the instructions of Chazal. The judge was so impressed by the conduct of the accused rabbi who would not compromise on his principles even at the risk of receiving the death penalty that he realized that he would not have been capable of committing such a crime, and he released Rav Yehoshua Leib on condition that he leave the country immediately, which he did, heading straight for Eretz Yisroel, where he spent the rest of his life.

If this is the proper way to behave towards a wicked person, why did Hashem Himself command Moshe and Aharon to treat Paroh with the respect due to a monarch?

Whenever Hashem "deviates" from the course of nature and performs revealed miracles, He wishes to diminish from the extent of the deviation. If Paroh would have become angry by the failure to accord him proper respect, he would have become incensed against the whole nation, and would have reasoned to himself that they deserved to be humiliated and persecuted because their leaders lacked basic manners, and he had every right to hate them for it. As a consequence, Hashem would have had to increase the miracles, and that was something He wanted to avoid.

The real reason for the intensified persecutions against the Jews in Egypt was their increased assimilation into Egyptian society and their unwillingness to remain isolated from it in Goshen. Hashem showed us in Egypt that drawing closer to the non-Jews only has the effect of driving a greater wedge between them and us and increasing their hatred of us. The increased hatred and persecution had no real connection with the conversations that took place between Moshe and Aharon and Paroh and the demands made of him.


“The sorcerers of Egypt also did likewise with their magic art” (7:11).

The chartumim managed to turn a stick into a snake and water into blood using kishuf. We do not encounter the ability to perform such actions either before or after this generation of Yetzias Mitzrayim. How was it possible?

During periods of hester ponim (Hashem hiding His face from us, as it were), our challenge is to see through the veneer of nature and recognize that Hashem runs it, but when revealed miracles are prevalent and exceptional holy individuals such as Moshe and Aharon are in our midst, Hashem grants great powers to the forces of tumah in order to maintain the required balance of free choice. We can then either choose to be misled by such forces or contemplate the actions and writings of the righteous individuals of the generation who explain the difference between the forces of holiness and those of tumah, whose only goals are to fulfill the desires of their hearts.

The Rambam writes in his commentary on the Mishnah that there are no sheidim (loosely translated as "demons"), and the Vilna Gaon takes him to task for that statement, arguing that the accursed philosophy which he studied misled him. However, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt"l says in Emes LeYaakov that the Rambam’s statement is indeed correct with respect to his generation, and all the more so with regard to succeeding generations.

In the time of Chazal, when miracles were still commonplace and the forces of kedushah were still strong, sheidim did indeed exist - and the Rambam did not wish to deny this - because the forces of kedushah had to be counterbalanced by corresponding forces of tumah, but in the Rambam’s time, the hester ponim was already so strong that there was no longer any need for such forces. However, various contemporary sects alleged that they made use of such forces in an attempt to destroy our faith. It was these attempts which the Rambam was fighting against.


“So that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the earth” (8:18).

The first idol worshippers and philosophers throughout the generations argued that although Hashem did create the world, He does not get involved with events on earth. In Egypt, this fallacy was put to rest for good.

The Kiddush we recite on Friday night is not only a declaration that Hashem is Creator of the world (zeicher lemaaseh bereishis), but also that He controls it with individual Divine Providence and is intensely involved in our world (zeicher leYetzias Mitzrayim). By recollecting the Egyptian experiences, we reinforce our belief in Hashgachah Protis, and by refraining from work on Shabbos we demonstrate our belief that Hashem's Providence showers us with enough sustenance if we work only for six days, and whatever has been set aside for us will reach us irrespective of when or how much we work.


“And Moshe said to him, ‘When I leave the city, I will spread my hands [in prayer] to Hashem.’” (9:29). Rashi: “But within the city he would not pray because it was full of idols.”

Why did Moshe only leave the city during the seventh plague of hail? The posuk says, “He who feared the word of Hashem among Paroh's servants made his...livestock flee into the houses" (9:20). The livestock in question, flocks of sheep and goats, were worshipped by the Egyptians as avodah zara (see 8:22), and now that they had been taken into people’s homes, this was the first occasion on which these objects of idol worship were situated within the municipal boundaries. During all the previous plagues, they were still located outside the city, and so there had been no impediment to Moshe’s praying inside the city.

Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest of all prophets, had to leave the city and would not have had his prayers accepted had he been in close proximity to this tumah in the form of avodah zara, even though he himself had no contact or connection with it, and even though the actual owners of the flock presumably also did not worship them as idols, since the Torah emphasizes that it was only those who feared the word of Hashem who made their livestock flee into their houses.

This is really an eye-opener and teaches us that if we want our prayers to be accepted, we must remove any material containing tumahi, such as heretical or anti-Torah views and immorality, from our homes. Even if such printed, electronic or digital material is not read or accessed, the very fact that they are situated in our homes creates a barrier between us and Hashem. If, in addition, we also strive to work on our character traits and, for example, eschew anger, which is itself a form of tumah, our homes will serve as appropriate environments for absorbing sanctity and allow us to instill genuine Torah values in our children, thus ensuring our own happiness.
Friday, January 20, 2012

Do I need to eat at a Sheva Brachos to be able to say on of the Sheva Brachos?

Question: Recently, during a sheva brachos, I was asked to say one of the sheva brachos at the end of the meal. However, when the host found out that I had not eaten anything during the seudah, he said that I should not recite the bracha. Can you please clarify this halacha?

Thank you.
Rabbi Yonason Lyons

Answer: One should only honor someone to recite one of the sheva brachos if he ate during the seudah.


Chazal understood that one day is generally not enough time for a chosson and kallah
to internalize the simcha of their new life together and therefore instituted seven days of rejoicing for them. During these seven days, sheva brachos are recited for the chosson and kallah. The Gemara does not clarify under which circumstances these brachos are recited.

Maseches Sofrim (19:11) states that the minhag is to recite sheva brachos
for a chosson and a kallah in the morning before ten people. If
there are ponim chadashos, then one recites them all
seven days. One also recites them at night before
the seudah.

Maseches Sofrim does not specify that the brachos were made in the morning before a meal. Furthermore, the implication is that at night the brachos were recited
before the seudah. The Ran (Kesubos 3b) learns from Maseches Sofrim
that one recites sheva brachos even without a

Other Rishonim disagree with the Ran and write that sheva brachos are only recited when a seudah is made. The Vilna Gaon, in fact, writes that the correct wording of the Maseches Sofrim is that sheva brachos were only recited after the meal. The halacha follows this understanding and we only recite sheva brachos after a seudah.


Although the consensus of the Rishonim is that one only recites sheva brachos during a meal, this does not mean that the person who recites the brachos has to have eaten. Some poskim write that one may recite them even if he did not partake in the actual meal (Be’er Moshe 2:118).

However, the Rambam (Brachos 2:9-10) cites the halacha of sheva brachos together
with the halachos of Birkas Hamazon. The placement of the Rambam implies that sheva
brachos are part of Birkas Hamazon. This means that one can only recite them if he ate bread during the meal.

In the same vein, the Shulchan Aruch (Even Ha’ezer 62:7) writes, “If there were
people who had not eaten previously at one of the seudos (ponim chadashos), then one can make sheva brachos after Birkas Hamazon.” The Shulchan Aruch implies that the brachos are part of Birkas Hamazon, and without eating bread one should not recite them.

One should try and follow implication of the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch and give
the sheva brachos to guests who washed and ate bread. However, it is permitted to honor a guest who did not wash for bread, but ate something significant during the meal, e.g., he came at the end of the meal. Since he partook of the meal, he is still included in the simcha of the seudah and can recite sheva brachos.


In addition to the requirement of eating bread, there are two other important halachos stated in the Shulchan Aruch. One can only make sheva brachos if there are ponim chadashos, people who have not attended any of the other wedding seudos. The exception to this rule is Shabbos, which is given the same status as an important
guest (Even Ha’ezer 62:7).

The Shulchan Aruch also writes that sheva brachos are only recited in the
house of the chosson. If anyone else makes the seudah, then only one of the sheva
brachos (asher bara) are recited. Sefardim follow this practice (Even
Ha’ezer 62:10).

Amongst Ashkenazi poskim, Rav Nosson Adler ruled that one should only say sheva brachos in the house of the chosson. However, the prevalent Ashkenazi
custom is that one recites all of the sheva brachos even if the seudah was not made in the house of the chosson.
Thursday, January 19, 2012

Expecting and Praying for the Redemption

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

History repeats itself

“A new king came into power over Egypt” (1:8) Rashi: “Rav and Shmuel, one said literally a new king, while the other said his edicts were renewed.”

According to the latter opinion, if these edicts were renewed, what were the contents of the original edicts?

Initially, Paroh wanted his Jewish subjects to become totally assimilated and he was opposed to the territory of Goshen becoming a semi-autonomous kingdom. Thus, he had
suggested to “appoint them livestock officers over my cattle” (Bereishis 47:6). In other words: “Let us all become one nation and let them serve our religion.” When this attempt failed and our ancestors refused to change their names, language or clothing, Paroh decided to enact new laws that denied them any rights as citizens, and emphasized that they were nothing more than slaves and a nation unto themselves.

This scenario repeated itself in Western Europe. When the ghetto walls were removed,
we were enticed into assimilating into the surrounding non-Jewish culture by being offered equal rights and opportunities. Unfortunately, this strategy succeeded only too well in many countries, and after more than a century, the country, which up to that time in many ways epitomized everything that Western culture had to offer, renewed its edicts. Within a very short period, these new laws resulted in crimes which by common consent outdid even the terrible misdeeds of Paroh’s compatriots.

Slaves of Hashem

“The Egyptians enslaved the Bnei Yisroel with body-breaking labor [beforech]” (1:13).

Chazal expound: “befe rach - with soft words.” Just like in Germany, the persecutions
did not start overnight. At first, Paroh announced that he would be paying for the Jews’ labor, and they worked overtime. He then rebuked them: “You see, for money you are willing to work overtime; from now on you will do back-breaking work for me overtime without any payment!”

Similarly, when Hashem will put us on trial le’achar mei’ah ve’esrim and ask us why we did not sufficiently accept on ourselves the yoke of Torah, and we will argue in our defense that it was too difficult for us and surely it was enough to have served Hashem for a few hours a day, we will be told: “To earn some more cash you were willing to work more with all your energy, so surely for the sake of your avodas Hashem and earning eternal life you could have worked harder.”

Taking no credit

“But the midwives feared Hashem [Elokim] and did not do as the Egyptian king had told
them” (1:17).

Fear of Hashem is a motive for complying with halacha, but the conduct of Yocheved and Miriam went far beyond what they were required to do. On the face of it, these acts which put them at risk of their lives were acts of self-dedication and were not performed out of fear of sinning, so why does the posuk specifically
stress the aspect of yiras Hashem?

Great people don’t consider acts of this magnitude to be acts of chessed. They know
no boundaries between the letter of the halachah and its spirit, which consists of the will of Hashem. The midwives feared Elokim (symbolizing the trait of judgment): If this was the behavior that Hashem wanted and expected, then that is what the din requires. With such an attitude, there is no room for patting oneself on the back, since one is merely performing Hashem’s will. Therefore, the posuk is not understating the motives of the midwives, but is in fact paying them the ultimate compliment of any true baal chessed, who does not feel that he is doing chessed with his spouse, child, relative, neighbor, or total stranger. He is merely doing what he is bound to do according to the dictates of Hashem.

This point applies to all areas of avodas Hashem. For example, it is related that Rav
Akiva Eger zt”l was once sitting in a carriage traveling to Warsaw when he noticed a large crowd of people coming towards him. He asked what it was all about and was told that they were coming to welcome him to the city. He responded in disbelief: How could he, a simple Yid, be mistaken for some important personality
worthy of such a reception?

Rav Akiva Eger was of course not blind to his many qualities, but he refused to take credit for them. He felt that since he had been blessed with talent and other traits facilitating avodas Hashem, notwithstanding his constant spiritual growth, he
could always have achieved more. And what was he compared to his illustrious ancestors? And besides, what was he compared to Hashem, Who had bestowed on him the ability to learn so much Torah and perform so many acts of chessed? He
was just a simple Yid, who, at best, was doing what Hashem expected him to.

Judging our expectations

“And his sister stood herself at a distance to see what would happen to him” (2:4).

Chazal say that because she waited here, Miriam was rewarded by having the whole nation wait for her when she became a meztora after she spoke negatively about Moshe Rabbeinu. On the face of it, she did little more than satisfy her natural curiosity to see what would transpire with her baby brother, so why did this
act deserve such a great reward?

The first thing we will be asked when we are judged is whether we expected (tzipisa) the redemption. Rav Yecheskel Abramsky zt”l noted that it does not say “kivisa leyeshuah,” because every believing Jew hopes for the redemption. The question we will be asked is whether we expected it the same way that we expect someone to arrive for an appointment at a prearranged time. We don’t hope that the person will arrive.
We expect him to. Hashem has not revealed a prearranged date for Moshiach to come, but we are meant to hope and wait for him in eager anticipation and expectation bechol yom sheyavo.

Similarly, Miriam waited with the conviction that the yeshuah would come for her
brother. She did not know exactly how, but she harbored no doubts that he would be saved, and she merely waited to see what form the salvation
would take.

Education starts at birth

“She named him Moshe, for she said, ‘I drew him from the water’” (2:10).

The Medrash says that Moshe was known by several other names. Why is he known in the Torah by this name? Both his natural and his adopted natural mothers exhibited extraordinary mesirus nefesh in raising him. Basya risked incurring the wrath
of her father by saving the Jewish child and she entrusted him with Yocheved to bring him up for a while, which she did, at great personal risk, in order to ensure that he received a proper Torah education.

As we saw in last week’s column, if we want a child to grow up to become a gadol beYisroel, it is imperative for parents to have the right intentions from the very beginning and to take the appropriate steps to make sure those desires are realized. Moshe Rabbeinu is known to us by that name in order to bring home this
fundamental point.

Purity of speech

“I am slow of speech [kevad peh] and of a slow tongue” (4:10).

The Ran says that Moshe was burdened with these speech defects so that we could not
subsequently claim that we had been persuaded into accepting the Torah by his oratory skills. Since he had those speech impediments, it was clear that we only accepted the Torah because of our own conviction and not because of some
external compulsion.

The Rashbam, on the other hand, says that Moshe was not fluent in Egyptian, because he left the country when he was young, and he cites proofs from other pesukim that kevad peh refers to someone who is not familiar with the language of royalty. Moshe preferred to speak the language of Midyan rather than Egyptian, because, being steeped in immorality, the language of the Egyptians was full of vulgar expressions.

As we saw above, the Jews in Egypt also refused to converse in Egyptian and, historically too, the languages spoken by us were not sullied with unsuitable expressions, at least not for as long as the only people speaking them were religious and G-d-fearing.

The virtues of a donkey

“Moshe took his wife and his sons and set them to ride on the donkey” (4:20). Rashi:
“The special donkey, the same donkey which Avrohom saddled for Akeidas Yitzchok, the
same one on which Moshiach is due to reveal himself.”

This is not referring to literally the same donkey, but rather alludes to an important concept. The donkey is the symbol of foolishness and submission. Avrohom Avinu set out for the Akeidah riding on a donkey to perform the will of Hashem, even though he had just been told that Yitzchok would perpetuate his name and deeds, and now he had been told to slaughter him. Similarly, Moshe Rabbeinu was safe and sound in Midyan and was told by Hashem to go back to Egypt where his brethren were suffering unspeakable persecution. Neither Avrohom nor Moshe asked any questions.

Similarly, Moshiach will reveal himself when we are very “poor” in deeds, and he will
wonder why he has been sent on this mission specifically in such a generation, and why so many previous generations, which seemed to have been so much more worthy, did not merit the redemption. Moshiach, too, will not ask any questions, but will fulfill the will of Hashem.

Utilizing the potential of the Shovevim Period

“Now [ve’atah], behold, the cry of the Bnei Yisroel has come to Me” (3:9).

What is the meaning of ve’atah in this posuk? Perhaps the prayers of the nation in Egypt had not been recited with sufficient outpouring of emotion, but Hashem, taking into account their dire situation and suffering, said He would nevertheless be willing to accept their prayers “now” even though they had not sufficiently repented, because of the state of the generation. We, too, should plead with Hashem to consider the condition of our generation and hasten our redemption.

We have entered the period of Shovavim, and the commentaries make a distinction between superior [illa’a] and inferior [tata’a] repentance, saying that although, strictly speaking, in order for repentance to be effective the sinner must achieve the level described by the Rambam (that He Who knows the hidden secrets of our hearts knows that we will not repeat the sin even when faced with the same situation), in our situation today in this bitter exile, when tumah is so pervasive to such an unprecedented scale, Hashem listens to the cry of the Bnei Yisroel and makes do with “low grade” repentance. The main thing is to regret the past and remove any trace of tumah from our homes. If we do so, Hashem will surely have pity on us and listen to our prayers.
Thursday, January 12, 2012

Torah the Ultimate Happiness

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


“Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years” (47:28)

Instead of vayechi we would have expected the possuk to say vayogor, that Yaakov dwelt in Egypt. Until he moved to Egypt Yaakov suffered from Eisov, Lovon, Elifas, Dinah and Yosef. It was only during his last 17 years in Egypt that he enjoyed an undisturbed existence. Although Yaakov accepted his misfortunes with love and they forged his character to ever greater heights, the Torah employs the word vayechi to make the point that only in those last 17 years was he truly "alive" and able to lead a peaceful existence.

“The days of Yaakov, the years of his life were 147 years…“the days of Yisroel's death drew near” (47:28-29)

The life of a tzaddik consists of the sum total of all his days, since he utilizes them to the fullest extent by engaging in Torah and avodas Hashem and conducting an account of his actions at the end of each day. Such days are complete and add up to complete years. This is what the possuk is emphasizing by mentioning both Yaakov’s days and his years.

In a similar vein, the Zohar hakodosh says here that a day filled with Torah and mitzvos is a complete day whereas a day tainted by sin is a defective one. When a person has to account for his actions before the heavenly tribunal he or she will be shown what they have accomplished, and whether any days have been lost by being spent on sinful or unnecessary activity. However, in Shulchan Hatohor Rav Aharon Roth zt”l notes that as part of the process of teshuva days which have been taken from us are returned to our credit.

Yaakov utilized the potential inherent in each day of his life to the utmost, both during the periods when he suffered from hardship, and in the last stage of his life, when he was finally able to live a secluded undisturbed existence in Goshen.


“He [Yaakov] said, "Swear to me," and he swore to him. Yisroel prostrated himself at the head of the bed” (47:31) Rashi: for his bed was perfect and none of his offspring was wicked. Witness the fact that Yosef was a king who was also a captive among the non-Jews, yet, he was steadfast in his righteousness

Yosef, the second most powerful man in Egypt, was asked by his father to take an oath. Someone else in Yosef’s position would have been likely to get angry that his father did not trust him to fulfill his request after having told him “I will do as you say”, but Yosef subjugated himself completely to his father and without saying anything unhesitatingly and immediately took an oath. When Yaakov Ovinu saw this response and realized the extent of the kibbud av voem exhibited even by Yosef, who had spent so much time in the Egyptian environment and had become a powerful figure there, he was satisfied that his bed was indeed perfect.

Under the laws prevailing in Egypt, Yosef, as a royal figure, was forbidden to visit a commoner, such as his father, and so the medrash says that for 17 years Yosef did not visit his father in Goshen. Instead, he sent his son Efraim to learn Torah with him. Perhaps Yosef comforted himself with the maxim of Rabi Yochonon: "Happy is the person who has not seen them [his parents]” (Kiddushin 31b), Rashi: “because it is not possible to honor them as much as necessary, and he is punished on their account”. Rabi Yochonon’s own father passed away before he was born, and his mother passed away in childbirth.

Kibbud av voem is a critical component in the education of our children. With us it is a given that the closer a person is to maamad har Sinai the more do we look up to him. By contrast, according to the non-Jewish or secular attitude as technology, science, and medicine progress so do we, and the further a person is removed from these advances the more are they looked down upon. As a corollary to this approach, the relationship between parents and children has become almost egalitarian. Unfortunately, elements of this attitude have seeped through to us so that some parents have become more lax in insisting that their children observe all the details of kibbud av voem. This can sometimes have catastrophic results.

“And I will lie with my fathers” (47:30)

Yaakov was privileged to have children following his path, and someone who passes away leaving behind children following the path of the Torah has not died, but is merely "lying”. The Zohar in bechukosai states that it is a great merit for a father in gan eden if his son follows in the path of the Torah. In fact, the mitzvah of kibbud av voem after a parent has passed away is even stricter then when he was alive, and when a son or daughter lead a Torah lifestyle Hashem has pity on the parents in gan eden and they go mechayil el chayail in the heavenly echelons.

Whenever the Baal Hapardes performed a mitzvah he would say that he was performing it in order to fulfill the will of Hashem and also for the mitzvah to be a merit for his father and mother in gan eden. Some people think that the main tikun ("rectification" of the soul) they can do for a deceased parent is to say kaddish and be a chazan, but they are making a mistake. The medrash does indeed emphasize the importance of these actions, but it is more important - especially during the first year when the judgment of the neshomo is still strong - to endeavor to add additional hours of learning, to pray with greater devotion, and give more charity, and whenever doing so, to say expressly "I am giving this leiluy nishmas (to elevate the soul) of father/mother followed by their name and their mother's name”.


“And he blessed them on that day saying: "Through you shall [the People of] Yisroel bless saying; 'May Hashem make you as Ephraim and Menasheh and he placed Ephraim ahead of Menasheh” (48:20)

The greatest blessing a person could hope for is to be blessed with sons who are talmidei chachomim. As we just saw, such a person will live forever. Efraim was placed ahead of his older brother, as he was the one who learnt Torah from Yaakov, in order to teach us that the foremost priority of any father must be to educate his son to become a godol beyisroel and dedicate his life to Torah. The alternative is to educate our sons to be like Menashe, who learnt from Yosef how to behave like a ben Torah in every situation in life, but this must always remain only the second-best option.

Targum Yonoson on this possuk comments that "that day" refers to the day of a child’s bris milo. Already on that day the parents must resolve to do everything in their power that their son should grow up to become a godol batorah and not merely a simple baal habos, since ultimate happiness in this world and the next for both parent and child is to be found only in the Torah. Although we do not have a custom to verbalize the blessing contained in this possuk at a bris parents should certainly have the message in mind and act accordingly in the years to come.

By referring to Ephraim and Menasheh when blessing our children we also pray that there will be harmony between our children, just like there was between Ephraim and Menasheh when Menasheh was not upset and did not envy his younger brother for being mentioned first by Yaakov.


“Hashem who was my shepherd from my inception until this day, the angel who redeemed me from all evil” (48:15-16)

Only Hashem Himself takes care of our livelihood, because angels cannot comprehend why a person would be so preoccupied with his worldly needs in this temporal existence. Similarly, in the parasha of bikurim it says, “View, from Your sacred residence, from the heavens, and bless Your people”: we ask Hashem directly to bless us with His material abundance. However, when we are in trouble and in need of redemption, we can appeal to the Angels to redeem us, because that is something they can understand.

To a superficial observer the geulo is a greater miracle than parnoso, but in reality the reverse is the case: unlike geulo, parnoso comes straight from Hashem. The efforts we expend in making a living are not the cause of our income, but merely mandatory hishtadlus (human effort). As we have emphasized in previous articles, putting in too much hishtadlus can only be counter-productive, if not in the short-term then in the long-term.


“Gather around and I will tell you” (49:1)

The Medrash says that Yaakov warned his sons against disputes and told them to maintain unity, that they should all be like one joint gathering. In our times there are different communities, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, litvish and chassidish, but we are all united by the Torah and each community conducts itself in the way it thinks is most conducive to increasing kvod shomayim. When there is unity amongst us, we have the power to overcome our enemies who wish to destroy us.

However, there can be no unity with those who rebel against the Torah. In fact, we have to make sure to keep our distance from them and not let their outlook, or way of life, have any effect whatsoever on us. Even if they want "unity" with us, that is merely a call for us to assimilate into their way of life, and all the more reason for us to keep our distance.
Thursday, January 5, 2012

Gevuro is the answer to anti-religious incitement

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch


“Let your servant speak a word in my master’s ears” (44:18) Rashi: "may my words penetrate your ears”.

The Brisker Rov zt”l related that before the war the Polish government enacted a decree requiring everybody to learn Polish and mathematics. The rabbonim considers this to be a grave interference by the government with their internal affairs, and convened a meeting which was attended by all the rabbonim and admorim in order to discuss ways to abolish this decree. The rabbonim decided that the best way to proceed would be to send a delegation of gedolei yisroel to the Minister of Education and explain to him why this matter was of such deep concern to them. None of the rabbonim spoke Polish except for one rov, and it was proposed to send him as a spokesman. However, the Chofetz Chaim zt”l opposed this, arguing that the authorities would be likely to respond: "you see, you can produce enlightened Polish-speaking rabbis, so why are you opposed to our new law?”

Instead, the Chofetz Chaim, who like all the others only spoke Yiddish, offered to be the spokesman himself. When he appeared for the interview with the Minister, he started to speak in Yiddish but quickly burst into uncontrollable tears. Although he did not understand a word of what the Chofetz Chaim was saying, the Minister was much moved. He said that he had not realized that this issue was so important for the rabbis, and assured them that he would issue instructions for the decree to be abolished.

Similarly, Yehuda thought that Yosef did not speak Hebrew, but he decided to speak it nevertheless in the hope that his words would penetrate Yosef’s ears and heart.


“"I am Yosef, is my father still alive?" His brothers could not answer him for they were shocked at his presence” (45:3) Medrash:”Woe onto us from the Day of Judgment, woe unto us from the Day of Rebuke! Yosef, the youngest of the tribes [rebuked his brothers and] they were unable to answer him, when Hashem will come and rebuke each individual according to who he is...how much more so [will we not be able to answer].

The Bais Halevi explains that Yosef's statement "is my father still alive?" was made in astonishment and by way of rebuke: "I don't understand how my father can still be alive after all the sorrow he has endured until now because of my absence”. Yehuda had claimed that their father would not be able to live with the anguish of Binyomin’s absence, to which Yosef was now responding: "If that is so, why were you not worried about our father’s sorrow when you sold me?"

The above medrash, adds the Bais Halevi, is to be understood accordingly. In the future the inconsistency of our very own words will also be pointed out to us. For example, if we will be asked why we did not give more charity, and reply that our financial situation did not allow for any greater generosity, the heavenly tribunal will respond by noting how much money we invested forbidden things or even permitted material things - where did we find the money from for those things? Or if we will be asked why we did not spend more time learning, and reply that we were so busy making a living, bringing up a family etc, we will be shown how much time we wasted on stupid or unnecessary things.


“Tell my father about all my honor in Egypt” (45:13)

Why did Yosef think that Yaakov would be pleased that the Egyptians were honoring him? In truth, Yosef was conveying to his father that even though he enjoyed royal influence he had not abandoned the Torah or the way of life which he had been taught at home, neither during his time as a servant, nor now that he was in a position of power. He wanted to emphasize to Yaakov that he had remained faithful to everything his father stood for and conveyed to him, even in the most trying circumstances.

By contrast, the gemoro in masseches Brochos (32b) brings Moshe Rabbeinu’s argument in defense of the Jewish nation that they had sinned with the Golden Calf due to the abundance of silver and gold which Hashem had showered upon them. In other words, following the test of poverty as slaves in Egypt, which they had withstood admirably, Hashem then tested them with wealth, but this proved too much for them, to such an extent that Hashem wished to destroy the whole nation.

Just two generations ago, just after the end of the Second World War, Rav Mordechai Programanski zt”l told Rav Sternbuch that following the slaughter of millions of Jews, the nation would now be tested with wealth. There was about to be an unprecedented phenomenon: dozens of strictly religious Jewish millionaires, who would be tested to see whether they would use their wealth for the purpose supporting the needy and Torah institutions. If they will pass this test, added Rav Programanski, the redemption will come imminently.


“He said to them, "Do not be troubled along the way” (45:24); Rashi: “Do not become involved in halachic discussion lest the road become a menace to you".

The Brisker Rov zt”l expressed amazement at the righteousness of the tribes. Anyone else in their situation would most likely have discussed the latest astonishing developments of the discovery of Yosef all the way home, but Yosef knew his brothers and their great love of Torah, and that they would not waste their time with stories, but only talk (it says al tisasku - don't delve) in learning. That was why he had to warn them of the perils on the road.

Contemplating how much time valuable time we waste discussing topics that should not concern us, such as politics and current affairs, must make us shudder. It says that we are obliged to say, "When will our actions reach (yagiu) the actions of our forefathers". Even if we cannot emulate their actions altogether, let us do our utmost to at least touch (lagaat) them.


“Yisrael…offered sacrifices to the G-d of his father Yitzchok” (46:1)

The commentators struggle to explain the phrase "the G-d of his father Yitzchok". Why is no mention made of Avrohom?

Avrohom’s avodas Hashem was based on chesed and bringing people closer to Hashem, whereas Yitzchok’s had the aspect of yiroh and gevuro, which involves focusing more on oneself. Even though Avrohom surely also endeavored to acquire fear of Hashem, and Yitzchok also dealt in chesed, Avrohom’s main avoda concerned chesed and Yitzchok’s dealt with yiroh and gevuro.

Avrohom received no guidance from his father and was completely self-taught. Following investigations about the nature of the universe, he reached the conclusion that there must be a creator, and since the source of his faith was intellectual he continued in his path until he acquired love of Hashem, so that he was strong in his faith and was not afraid to reach out to the wicked and draw them closer to Hashem. Yitzchok’s faith, on the other hand, was based on what his father taught him, and therefore the main aspect of his avoda was fear of Hashem. He dedicated himself to becoming an olo temimo and strengthening himself in his avoda more and more all the time.

For as long as he was in Eretz Yisroel Yaakov ovinu chose the trait of truth, i.e. Torah, in his avodas Hashem (serving of G-d), but when he moved to Egypt, the source of tumoh and immorality, he decided to adopt the path of his father, Yitzchok, by developing ever greater yiras Hashem reasoning that that was the only way he could be saved from the tumoh of Egypt, and he secluded himself in Goshen learning Torah day and night with gevuro (self-discipline and fortitude).

Nowadays the tumoh of Egypt is prevalent everywhere, so that we must adopt the same approach as Yaakov ovinu when he moved to Egypt. Although we should not of course ignore the trait of chesed and charity, and do everything in our power to try to bring our erring brethren back to their source, our avoda must focus primarily on strengthening ourselves in Torah and yiras shomayim.

We have recently been witnessing incitement against Torah Jews, Judaism and Torah values. However, this hatred should not bother us; in fact it is to our benefit. When we were in exile amongst non-Jews, as long as the surrounding environment was that of enmity, or at best neutrality, our spiritual status was not affected, but with the dawn of emancipation and equal rights, large parts of the nation in Western Europe decided to avidly embrace their host cultures. This approach led to total assimilation in many cases, and culminated in the Holocaust one and a half centuries later.

The same applies to our exile amongst yiden in Eretz Yisroel. We have to be forever wary of any attempts by them to assimilate us into their culture. It is far better when their latent enmity towards us becomes manifest: that way they show their true colors, and the weaker elements amongst us will be less tempted to join any elements of their society.

What should bother us though is an advertisement which appeared on the front page of the Hebrew chareidi press last week asking the public for suggestions about how to dispel the separation and hate between us and the secular public and strengthen unity and love.

The Brisker Rov zt”l said that the Nazis killed our bodies, but the Zionists are killing both the bodies (a Yid without Torah is spiritually dead) and the souls of our Sephardi brethren. More recently, about a million people - many of them non-Jews - were imported into the Jewish state from the former Soviet Union with the express purpose of attempting to ensure the continued secular nature of the state. Never mind the fact that many of these non-Jews are anti-Semitic and likely to be a fifth column in a war, the main priority is to maintain the secular nature of the state.

Instead of encouraging unity and love we should follow in Yaakov's footsteps by strengthening our Torah and yiras shomayim with fortitude and looking with disdain at both the non-Jewish elements of society today, which are so reminiscent of Egyptian culture and at those of our brethren who seek to absorb us into their culture, which is so antithetical to that of the Torah. Our erring brethren will disappear off the face of the earth just like their Hellenistic or other “enlightened” predecessors, but Torah Jews will outlive their foes, as they have always done.