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.
Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Helping ourselves by helping others

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

Protective environment of the yeshiva

“And Yaakov left (vayaytzay) Beer Sheva and went to Choron” (28:10)

Yaakov left Beer Sheva for the purpose of escaping Eisov’s murderous designs and also in order to look for a wife in Choron. The Steipler zt”l commented that nowadays a young man needs to learn in a yeshiva for two reasons. Firstly, in order to escape from the harmful environment outside, and secondly, in order to learn and grow in yiras shomayim. Consequently, even if a bochur is not learning as well as he should, he must still continue to observe the commandment of vayaytzay by remaining within the safe confines of the yeshiva, thus  refraining from keeping undesirable company.

Rav Schneider zt”l was opposed to boys going to work before marriage, and was even more adamant that they should not attend university. He argued that even if the boy’s religious observance would not be affected, the very exposure to the behavior and manner of speech prevalent in such environments would have a detrimental effect on him. For this reason he felt a boy should not be thrown out of yeshiva into a street environment, and that those responsible for such an action would be held accountable before the heavenly court. Although the main protection afforded by the sanctity of the Torah is when we are immersed in studying it, just being present in an environment of bnei Torah also saves a person from sin and has a salubrious effect on him.

Rav Sternbuch recalls the time when a young sailor from Greece, about 20 years old, somehow found his way to Rav Schneider’s Yeshiva in London. Once Rav Schneider had ascertained that he was indeed Jewish, he made sure that this young man should be taught aleph beis, krias shema, tefillin etc. Even though the yeshiva was not designed for such people, since Rav Schneider could not find a suitable alternative, the commandment to look after a "lost body and soul" applied to this visitor. Had he not come of his own accord we might have been exempt from helping him out, Rav Schneider reasoned, but since he had fallen into our hands, we are forbidden to send him away.

Spiritual charity

“And everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You” (28:22)

The obligation to share the gifts with which Hashem has endowed us with others is not only limited to money. It is brought down in the name of Rav Shimon Shkop’s students that just like financial charity is the recipe for the economic enrichment of the donor, so too someone who shares his talents and knowledge with others will be rewarded several times over in the spiritual realm.

Rav Moshe Schneider emphasized this point, and in fact instituted the practice in his own yeshiva whereby an hour a day was set aside in which weaker talmidim were taught by other students. He considered this time to be a period of avodas hakodesh (holy work). Dedicating this time to others would not be at the expense of one's own growth in Torah. On the contrary, someone who has a student in his youth is likely to become the recipient of Hashem's blessings and merit to have many students throughout his life.

Rav Sternbuch notes having heard from several yeshiva bochurim who had not been successful in their learning and whose prayers in this regard had not been answered, that it was only when they started to devote even a small amount of time every day to help a weaker boy that their own learning started to flourish. Such is the power of tzedoko in spiritual matters.

Money as a litmus test

“A ladder (sulom) was set up on the earth and its top reached towards heaven” (28:12)

The Baal Haturim says that sulom has the same gematria as momon (money) and oni (poverty).

Money appears to be like a ladder set up on the earth, since a person’s status in this world appears to be dependent on his financial situation, but its top reaches towards heaven, because a person’s main test in this world revolves around money. The test of wealth consists in determining whether a rich person minimizes the time spent in worldly affairs in order to busy himself with Torah and other matters through which he acquires eternity, or whether he constantly seeks only to become more enriched, and also whether he gives sufficient charity and does so by granting the proper honor to the recipient.

The poor man, on the other hand, is tested to see whether he complains against the ways of Hashem, and whether he attempts to obtain money through illegitimate means. That is why the Baal Haturim states that the top of the ladder - meaning money - reaches towards heaven, because money is the litmus test for determining a person’s spiritual status.

Spiritual growth

“And if I return in peace (besholom) to my father's house, and Hashem will be my G-d” (28:21)

The gemarah in Masseches Berochos (64a) says that a person taking leave of his friend says "lech lesholom”, whereas someone taking leave of a deceased person says "lech besholom”. This teaches us that lech lesholom is the appropriate phrase when addressing someone who is still alive, and can continue his activities and lech besholom should be used when taking leave of a deceased person whose activities have come to an end. Why then did Yaakov Ovinu, who was still alive, say “if I return besholom, as if he was expecting this to be his final stop.

The Arizal explains that when Yaakov was asking Hashem to be his G-d (Elokim) he was asking Him to treat him with a strict attribute of justice (symbolized by Elokim) without any admixture of mercy, just like Rabi Akiva. However, he did not make this request for an indefinite period but only for a specific limited one, namely until he would reach his father's house. Once he had done so, he would decide whether to continue to ask to be judged in this extremely demanding manner. That is why it says "and I will return besholom”. Besholom is used in the context of termination, and here too Yaakov stipulated in advance that the elevated level which he was seeking would cease when he reached his father’s house (and possibly be resumed subsequently).

This teaches us an important principle of great practical application. Whenever we wish to make progress in a certain area we should not resolve to uproot previous negative behavior permanently, but rather make a determined resolution to maintain the desired conduct for a limited period. For example, a bochur who wishes to increase his level of hasmodo should not make do with some vague resolution never to idle away his time again, but should rather take upon himself to maintain a strict learning schedule for a specific period, say three days, until he habituates himself to his new conduct.

The same applies to someone attempting to uproot a negative character trait. The main thing is to start straightaway for a three-day period, and not in three days’ time. That way his good intentions are far more likely to be crowned with success.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Refusing to Rest on our Laurels

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

Playing down miracles

“And these are the generations of Yitzchok the son of Avrohom; Avrohom begot Yitzchok” (25:19). Rashi: the mockers of the generation were saying that Sarah had conceived from Avimelech

If these mockers were attempting to deny any miracle, this allegation would seem to be insufficient, since even if it were true, Sarah was also far beyond childbearing age and could only have conceived with a miracle. The Brisker Rov noted that even when non-believers cannot explain away a phenomenon with natural causes they still seek to attempt to minimize the extent of a miracle, or look for "natural" explanations for supernatural events. Thus, newspaper headlines may refer to “miracles” such as numerous potentially lethal missiles causing relatively little damage and loss of life, without referring to Hashem at all.

Rav Moshe Schneider asked why this medrash quoted by Rashi refers to “mockers”. These people were seeking to uproot faith in Hashem and in miracles, so we would have expected them to be termed “wicked heretics” rather than “mockers”. He replied that this teaches us that the danger posed by those who mock and belittle talmidei chachomim or anything connected to kedusho is potentially even greater than the danger posed by outright heretics.

Real Baal Teshuva

“And Yitzchok prayed to Hashem opposite his wife, for she was barren, and Hashem accepted his prayer” (25:21)

Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Yevamos (64a) that Hashem listened to "his" (Yitzchok’s) prayer and not hers (Rivkah’s) “for the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a righteous person cannot be compared to the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of an evil person.” We would have thought that someone who has overcome a negative family environment to become righteous has more merit than another person who has not had to deal with such challenges.

One explanation is that Yitzchok had to overcome a challenge of his own, namely the tendency to rely on the righteousness of his parents or his own achievements and merits.

It is related about Rav Hai Gaon that he once spent the night at an inn, hoping to remain anonymous and undisturbed, but his plans were thwarted and his identity was somehow discovered. His host then apologized to him profusely for not having treated him respectfully. Rav Hai responded: “but you did treat me with respect”, but the host insisted: "yes, but I did not accord the rov the respect due to the great Rav Hai Gaon”.

Rav Hai Gaon then noted that this episode had taught him an important lesson. He now realized that each day he should be like a different person, since the experiences of the previous day should make him achieve greater clarity in fathoming the greatness of the Creator, and his avodas Hashem should improve accordingly.

Similarly, Yitzchok did not rest on his laurels. He faced each day with renewed vigor endeavoring to reach ever higher levels of spiritual greatness and closeness to Hashem. This is in fact the definition of a true ba’al teshuva: someone who is constantly learning from his experiences or any lapses, and seeking to improve his level of avodas Hashem.

Keeping good company

“And the children struggled within her” (25:22). Rashi: When she passed by the entrances of the Torah academies of Shem and Eiver, Yaakov would run and struggle to come out; when she passed the entrance of a temple of idolatry, Eisov would run and struggle to come out

We can understand why Eisov wanted to come out, but Yaakov was being taught Torah by an angel at the time, so why would he have wanted to come out? The Brisker Rov is said to have commented that even being taught Torah by an angel is not worthwhile at the cost of having to live in close quarters with an evil person. Even though there was no obvious detrimental effect, just being in close proximity to a person like Eisov is damaging, especially for someone like Yaakov, whose image is engraved underneath the Kisei Hakavod.

Rav Sternbuch was once asked whether a child should be sent to a cheder with excellent teachers and a very high academic level, but the class in question also had some boys with bad middos, or to another institution with a much lower level of learning but in which the boys in the class did not have bad middos and came from strong homes. Rav Sternbuch instructed the parent to choose the institution with the better boys because that was the most important issue, since even a minority of children with bad middos can have a very detrimental effect on their friends.

“And the youths grew up” (25:27). Rashi: As long as they were small, they were not recognizable through their deeds, and no one scrutinized them to determine their characters. As soon as they became thirteen years old, this one parted to the houses of study, and that one parted to idol worship

Some people are not particular about the company their young children keep, or about the quality of their teachers, in the mistaken belief that at a young age children are not so vulnerable. They are making a grave mistake, because the precedent of Yaakov and Eisov teaches us that even at the youngest age a child's character is developed, even though it may not manifest itself until he becomes thirteen years old.

If a child keeps bad company, is exposed to immodesty, or is taught by teachers who do not serve as positive role models, this is absorbed by the child, even though the harmful effects may not become apparent until he grows older. Anyone who has his child's best interests in mind would do well to be aware of this and do what he can to ensure that his child is exposed to the best possible social and academic environments during his or her formative years.

real talmid chachom

“… and Eisov was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Yaakov was an innocent man (ish tom), dwelling in tents” (ibid)

Temimus in spoken Hebrew today means na├»ve, innocent and unsuspecting, but this can surely not be the correct translation here, because Yaakov knew how to outsmart cunning people like Lovon. The Targum Yonoson has the following rendering: “and Yaakov was a man who was perfect in his actions and studied in the houses of study of Shem and Eiver [and] sought instruction from Hashem”. This means that he sought to learn and grow in Torah and fear of heaven. Just like someone who dwells in a tent is not satisfied with his current situation and yearns for a permanent home, so too was Yaakov never satisfied with his current level but yearned for constant growth.

Yaakov’s temimus consisted in a yearning for perfection (temimus) and being honest (tomim) with oneself by realizing how far one is from completely actualizing one's potential for greatness. This is in fact the avodo of every genuine talmid chochom who lives with the awareness that however far he has come, he has not reached a level higher than that of the talmid of a chochom. Truly great people are genuinely humble because no matter how much honor they may be accorded by others for their knowledge or righteousness, they are aware of their potential for greatness on the one hand, and how far they still have to go to completely actualize it, on the other hand.

The test of prosperity

“And Yitzchok became exceedingly afraid” (27:23)

The Medrash on this possuk says that Yitzchok became afraid twice, once when he was tied up to become a sacrifice on the altar, and the second time when Eisov brought before him the tasty foods, and he realized that the recipient of his blessings had not been Eisov. The Medrash notes that the fear felt by Yitzchok on the latter occasion was greater (as it says "exceedingly afraid").

The fear felt by him at the time of the akeido may have been similar to that experienced by Sarah before she died (see last week's article), i.e. he may have been worried about whether his descendants would possess the same fortitude as him to withstand physical persecutions throughout the generations.

Yitzchok intended to bestow material blessings upon Eisov in the hope that this would be for his spiritual benefit. Upon learning that that it was Yaakov who had become the recipient of those material blessings, Yitzchok felt an exceedingly great fear, because he knew that the test of material abundance would be even greater than that of physical persecutions. He knew that it would be easier for his descendants to march to the stake or the gas chambers with joy singing shema yisroel or ani maamin than it would be to withstand the trials of material abundance.

For example, notwithstanding our enemies’ determined attempts to dehumanize us during the Second World War, the Holocaust brought out the best in most observant Jews. By contrast, as soon as they Ghetto walls were torn down and the Jews’ material situation improved rapidly even a town of the spiritual stature of Frankfurt became totally destroyed in Torah terms. The birthplace of the Chasam Sofer and many other gedolei olom did not possess a minyan by the time Rav Shimshon Refoel Hirsch came to rebuild the spiritual ashes just two generations later. Similarly, they say that since the Second World War, and the unparalleled prosperity and freedom for Jews that followed, about 5 million Jews have become completely assimilated in the United States.

Eternal investment

“And I will bless you for the sake of Avrohom, My servant” (26:24)

The Moshav Zekeinim wonders why the blessing is attributed to the merit of Avrohom. Surely Yitzchok himself was worthy of these blessings. He proves from this that if someone is righteous, learns Torah, and instructs his sons to learn and follow the proper path, the mitzvos performed by his descendants after his death are attributed to him as if he himself had performed them. That is why it says "for the sake of Avrohom My servant", because all the mitzvos performed by Yitzchok were performed in the wake of the education received from his father, and therefore Hashem deemed them as having been performed by Avrohom himself.

We would do well to be cognizant of this fact whenever we experience any za’ar gidul bonim. (difficulties raising children) Putting our hearts and souls into our children's education and serving as positive role models is not only an important mitzva in and of itself, but an investment bearing short-term, long-term and eternal benefits.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Red Alert to Klal Yisrael

              By Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch

The following was written during the war in Gaza, when Eretz Yisrael was under attack from its enemies.

The Jewish people are witnessing miracles in Israel. The missiles fired at us have the power to level buildings, yet miracles took place and we were spared from mass destruction. Even the most secular newspapers report that there is no way to explain these events according to natural law.
While the word "miracle" has been liberally splashed around by the media, neither the secular nor the religious press grasped the vital message of the hour. The situation arouses an urgent and critical obligation for each Jew to ask himself: "Why is Hashem performing these miracles for us? How should I be conducting myself in these extraordinary times?"
If we do not deal with these questions immediately this current security crisis could escalate into the most dangerous period in Jewish history. Hashem performs miracles for the Jewish people so that we will become more aware of His Presence in our lives. In recent days, He has made perfectly clear that He alone wields power in the world and that no missile can harm so much as a hair on the head of a Jew without His consent. Every rocket has an address that He predetermines, though the terrorists may believe that they can aim at a particular target.
Miracles are Hashem's alarm bells, "a red alert" that we must wake up and become truly conscious of Hashem's hashgachah of our daily lives. If we ignore these messages and conclude that miracles are just a natural part of living in Israel, the tables will quickly turn. We will in fact be handed over to natural law, and the missiles inexplicably will begin to hit their targets with greater frequency. And that means that the lives of our fellow Jews – our brothers and sisters living in Israel – are in mortal danger.
We must learn this lesson from the story of the meraglim (spies). When they returned from Eretz Yisrael they claimed this land was a place where miracles were apparent on a daily basis, and therefore an extremely high spiritual level would be demanded of those who dwelled there. There was no way that Klal Yisrael as a nation could maintain such a level, and therefore the spies, who were all Gedolei Yisrael, ruled that the people should not enter the land.
 The opinion of the meraglim was brought before the Sanhedrin and they concurred with their ruling. It may seem, on the surface, that their reasoning was sound, and logic dictated that it was unwise to enter Eretz Yisrael. Yet we see from the grave punishment incurred by that generation that they could not have been further from the truth. What was the mistake in their reasoning?
The answer is simple. If Hashem told us to enter Eretz Yisrael, He obviously knew that we would ascend to the spiritual level necessary for a nation that sees miracles on a daily basis. For this reason, the claim of the meraglim was heresy, and we suffer from its bitter consequences to this very day.
 In more recent times, Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg once told Rav Sternbuch about a meeting of secular non-Jewish and Jewish professors to discuss the authorship of the Torah. Their conclusion was that while the Torah was far too complex to be man-made, they were not ready to attribute it to a  Divine source that they knew nothing about. Like the meraglim they perceived the significance of the Divine influence, but refused to follow through by accepting the full import of this conclusion.
 During the current military operation, we are facing the very  same challenge. Hashem is sending us a message that we must make real changes in our lives and raise our level of consciousness of His Presence, to the point where we are worthy of such supernatural treatment. If we rise to the occasion and raise our level of emunah as a result of these miracles, then we will pass the nisayon (test), and it is very likely that Moshiach will arrive shortly.
Chazal offer us practical advice in this area, and write that reciting a hundred brachos every day and saying Amen yehei Shmei Rabba has the power to annul decrees. Reciting Tehillim is important, but we need to make sure that our tefilah is also said with the proper kavanah. Everyone should take upon themselves to do something small to raise their level of emunah.
  We must consider ourselves warned by the lessons of our history: If Hashem shows us miracles and we do not respond by strengthening our emunah, His mercy turns to fury and we are handed over to the forces of natural law. We dare not speak about what this could lead to, but we all understand the ruthless nature and implacable hatred of the enemy we face.
  Now is the time, while Hasehm continues to shower His miracles upon us, to recognize His hand in our lives on a national and individual level, to turn to Him in tefilah and teshuvah, and eagerly watch the redemption unfold before our eyes.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Live like a zaddik, don’t wait to be buried next to one

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

Living martyrdom

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

Rashi quotes the Medrash that Soroh’s soul departed after hearing that Yitzchok had been prepared for slaughter and had almost been slaughtered. Why was Soroh not relieved that in the end he did not die? Furthermore, since Chazal tell us that Soroh was even more righteous than Avrohom, why would she not have been willing to give up her son at Hashem’s request?

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

Alternatively, in the Maggid Meishorim it is recorded that the Beis Yosef, Rav Yosef Karo, was promised by the maggid (angelic teacher) that he would merit dying a martyr’s death al kiddush Hashem. Towards the end of his life, when he was already well into his 80s, the Beis Yosef expressed his surprise to the maggid that even though he had put into practice all the preparations taught by him for the purpose of meriting this form of death it had not yet happened. The maggid responded that he should not be upset since he had merited an even greater mitzvah than a martyr's death: he had dedicated himself completely day in and day out to fulfilling the Will of the Creator. Dying a martyr's death, as great a mitzvah as it is, only consists of a one-time act of self-dedication, but you, he told him, have performed endless acts of self-dedication throughout your life.

Similarly, Soroh was distressed that her son had almost been put in a situation where he would no longer be able to sanctify Hashem's name here on earth, and would consequently no longer be able to achieve a higher level than he could by being offered up on the altar.

JOY after performing mitzvos

“And Avrohom came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her (livkoso)” (ibid)

The kof in livkoso is truncated to indicate that Avrohom’s hesped was relatively subdued. Few couples in history have been as close as Avrohom and Soroh and anyway Chazal tell us that a wife dies "only for her husband”, i.e. he is the most affected by her death, so how can we understand this restraint on the part of Avrohom?

We say in birkas hashkivenu in ma’ariv: "Remove the soton from before us and from behind us." Before we do a mitzvah the yetzer horo attempts to convince us not to do it, and once we have done it, he attempts to dampen the joy and enthusiasm we are supposed to feel after performing Hashem’s Will.

Avrohom’s paramount concern in all his endeavors was to increase kvod shomayim and any personal emotions were subjected to this goal. After Soroh’s death Avrohom was worried that people would think to themselves that after displaying such unbelievable self-sacrifice during the akeido Avrohom was "rewarded" by his wife's death. If Avrohom would have given vent publicly to the real extent of his emotions after Soroh’s death during his eulogy, this might have increased the confusion people were feeling about this sad event. On the other hand, if they would witness his self-composure that would cause a great kiddush Hashem, because the listeners would realize that Avrohom’s intense joy and sense of satisfaction at having withstood the greatest of the trials had not been diminished even by Soroh’s death.

Choosing Burial plots

“Give me burial property with you” (23:4)

The Torah expounds at some length how Avrohom dedicated himself to finding an appropriate place to bury Soroh and to eulogize her in order to teach us the basic article of faith that some nitzoz ("spark") of a person’s neshomo remains with his body and his place of burial. This is the basis for the custom to pray in the vicinity of the grave of a righteous person, and beseech Hashem to answer our prayers in his merit.

 For this reason too it is forbidden to bury a righteous person next to a wicked one, and even people who were subject to different types of death penalties should not be buried next to each other, but only next to those subjected to the same type, because a person’s degree of iniquity differs as between the different types of death penalties.

Only some two weeks after Rav Sternbuch first arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa with a mission to spread Torah to a largely non-observant community back in the 1980s, he was already involved in a "scandal" that made the newspapers. Upon visiting the local cemetery he noticed to his dismay that mechalelei Shabbos (people who don't keep Shabbos) were being buried next to Shabbos observers. Rav Sternbuch naturally insisted straightaway that this blatant breach of halocho be remedied. The secular press was outraged: a new Rabbi had arrived from Israel, they said, and not only was he persecuting living members of the community, but he was pursuing them to their very graves! Rav Sternbuch responded calmly by calling a meeting at his house the following Sunday. The meeting was packed.

Rav Sternbuch said that once the members of the community will be called before the heavenly court and asked why they did not keep Shabbos in South Africa, and they will argue in their defense that it was just too difficult for them, the prosecuting counsel will note that their “neighbor” in the adjacent grave who had lived in the same place and faced the same challenges had nevertheless managed to keep Shabbos. This counter-argument will surely remain unanswered. I have come here to try to help you, concluded Rav Sternbuch, and in response you tell me that I'm persecuting you!

Those attending this meeting were convinced by the force of this argument, and in fact the head of the chevra kadisha (himself a mechalel Shabbos befarhesi’a unfortunately) came up to Rav Sternbuch straight away and told him that he now understood what this was all about and insisted that when the time came he should be buried next to fellow mechalelei Shabbos rather than the "frummies”, and others joined him in his request.

Nowadays you come across wealthy people who pay extravagant sums during their lifetime to buy burial plots in the vicinity of gedolim and zaddikim in the hope that this will be for the benefit of their souls after they die, but in reality it is likely to be for their detriment, because they are presumably far removed from the levels achieved by these people, and it is a halocho leMoshe miSinai that only people who we were on similar spiritual levels during their lifetime should be buried next to each other. Burial societies who observe halocho properly are very particular about this.

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

            The Torah expounds at great length how Eliezer searched for and found a wife for Yitzchok in order to emphasize the Divine Providence which is prevalent in all aspects of our daily lives, but most obviously evident in the sphere of shidduchim. In fact the Chazon Ish said this was one of the last remaining areas in which ordinary people experience revealed Divine Providence.

            For example, a shidduch that seems perfect does not materialize, or someone with all the right qualities for marriage finds it difficult to find his or her partner, in contrast to others lacking such qualities who have a much easier time. The Brisker Rov once noted that our human efforts put into finding a partner do not always seem to bear fruit, and are only designed to reassure ourselves that we are doing something, whereas the real zivug (divinely ordained marriage partner) appears like a lost object at the appropriate time.

            On the other hand, the Brisker Rov also noted that Eliezer did not rely on the miracles he experienced on the way, such as a kefitzas haderech, in order to determine whether this was indeed Yitzhok’s zivug. Instead, he made a point of examining thoroughly whether Rivka’s acts of chesed and her character traits and yirash shomayim were on a sufficiently high level for his master’s son. We too must surely examine the midos of any potential girl as much as possible. The Chazon Ish told Rav Sternbuch that the main quality to look for in a girl is that she should be easy going and not stubborn, since such a character trait can cause a marriage to fail. This may be due to the fact that stubbornness stems from pride, and a proud girl may wish to stand out and prove herself, and such characteristics obviously do not make for a good wife.

Satisfied with our lot

“And Hashem blessed Avrohom with everything” (24:1)

Being in possession of many assets is not usually the source of blessing for a person, since he is so busy looking after his property and businesses that he has no peace of mind and is also constantly striving to become even wealthier. Avrohom, on the other hand, was blessed with everything that he had, because he felt Hashem's blessing in his property and that he lacked nothing.

In a similar vein, the Shlo Hakodosh explains that it says "and they who seek Hashem shall not want any good” as opposed to "they shall have all the good", because the promise for the righteous is not that they shall not lack any material possessions, but only that they will be blessed by Hashem and not feel that they lack anything, irrespective of their actual material situation.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Convert Controversy

A newly minted Orthodox Jew discovers the promise and perils of blogging her religious journey.
Megan Greenwell is an Angeleno and a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine.
Dylan C. Lathrop is a designer that thought it was yesterday all day.

A decade ago, Amanda Edwards was attending Christian youth meetings at the University of Nebraska. Today, her name is Chaviva Galatz. She is one of the most prominent Orthodox Jewish bloggers in the world and a recent immigrant to Israel, alternately hailed as a poster child for conversion and vilified as a false prophet.  
A casual reader of her blog, which includes nuanced examinations of complicated Torah passages and critiques of people who talk in synagogue or don’t keep fully kosher, would assume she’s been Orthodox since birth. Watching the 29-year-old fluently recite Hebrew prayers at a Seder, even a rabbi likely wouldn’t guess that she grew up nominally Christian and had never heard of Passover until sophomore year of college. They’d both be wrong—a fact that illustrates a centuries-old debate over the role of converts in the strictest branch of Judaism. But Chaviva’s story has a 21st-century twist.
Judaism, one of the only religions that prohibits proselytizing to nonbelievers, has always had a fraught relationship with converts, particularly in the Orthodox tradition. Even the Talmud itself, which is formatted as a discussion among ancient rabbis, is inconsistent on the merits of conversion. In some sections, the rabbis suggest converts occupy a privileged place in Judaism because they chose a Jewish life instead of simply inheriting it from their mothers. In others, the tone is grave: Converts are a blight on Israel. The uncertainty lingers to this day. The conversion process can take years, and many of those who have completed it successfully say they’re still forced to prove themselves to born Jews suspicious of their intentions.
The rise of social media has complicated matters further. Potential converts are no longer reliant on religious leaders or scholars for information. A blogger who’s only been reading about Judaism for a couple of years can become a trusted resource for those starting the process. That enables people to build informal support networks and ask questions they might be too intimidated to take to a rabbi. Yet empowering lay leaders without divinity degrees or years of experience also creates the potential for spreading false information.
And sets the stage for a deep sense of betrayal when a blogger doesn’t want to be a role model anymore.
Chaviva’s path to Judaism began as a search for a new family. When she was growing up in Missouri and Nebraska, her family lived in near-poverty. They had their car and furniture repossessed when Chaviva was 12. She began working at fast-food restaurants at age 14 so she could lend her parents money. When she was 17, they asked her to sign up for a credit card because they needed to fix the family van and couldn't get financing themselves.
Her mother, Debbie, who had struggled with mental illness for years, buckled under the stress. One night, the family was driving and Debbie and Robert were fighting in the front seat. Chaviva can't remember the subject all these years later, but she knows it was at least tangentially about her. "And my mom turned around and looked right at me and said 'I wish you'd never been born,' " she recounts. Sitting in her living room under a framed piece of Hebrew calligraphy and a poster proclaiming “I love you blogs and coffee,” she tells the story calmly, her huge brown eyes betraying no hint of pain. Sharing the most intimate details of her life has always come naturally to her.
So years later, when she learned in a Jewish history course at the University of Nebraska that every Jew is considered a son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah, the teachings spoke to her. An online "What Religion Are You?" quiz she took in high school had suggested she might be Jewish at heart, but she forgot all about it until she began exploring Judaism in college.
Jews aren't common in Lincoln, Nebraska, and her one Jewish friend stopped accompanying her to synagogue after a couple of trips. She marked Passover 2004 by eating matzo alone in her dorm room, having already decided to convert and move somewhere with a larger Jewish family to join.
Because she had always been a curious student, reading about Jewish history and learning Hebrew were a major part of the appeal, so she sailed through the study process with a rabbi in Lincoln and converted to Reform Judaism, the religion’s least observant branch, in 2006.
"I suddenly belonged, I had people, I had a history, I had a shared dream. I had a home," she wrote later on Kvetching Editor, the blog she started around that time to chronicle her conversion process.
I suddenly belonged, I had people, I had a history, I had a shared dream. I had home.
But joining a family involves taking on its squabbles as well as its celebration dinners, and choosing Judaism dropped Chaviva into long-running dispute over the role of converts—especially after she decided to pursue a full Orthodox conversion in 2008. Because Orthodox Judaism is the only denomination that holds strictly to Talmudic principles, and because neither Orthodox rabbis nor the Israeli government accepts Conservative or Reform conversions, the debate over the validity of conversions is largely limited to the strictest branch of the religion. And although technically all Jewish people are descendants of a convert—Ruth, the great-grandmother of David—that hasn't made it much easier for her modern-day followers seeking an Orthodox life.
Just 13 percent of American Jews identify as Orthodox, which requires dedicating one's entire life to religious practice through 613 commandments, or mitzvot. Women must dress modestly, forsaking pants and covering their elbows, knees, and—if they are married—hair. Services and even parties are gender-segregated, and people are not allowed to touch non-family members of the opposite sex—which means couples have no physical contact until their wedding day. Keeping kosher requires not just abstaining from pork and shellfish, but owning separate dishes for meat and milk, buying only ingredients certified by licensed rabbis, and not eating out at restaurants or friends' homes that don't follow the rules. During the Sabbath, which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, Orthodox Jews may not handle money, drive a car, ride in an elevator, or use a computer. The rules have not changed in centuries and can make Orthodox followers feel isolated from mainstream culture and even other Jews.
Until 2006, requirements for Orthodox converting were largely left up to individual rabbis. That year, the Israeli Rabbinate, which controls all matters of Jewish law throughout the world, announced a new, more restrictive standard for conversions, calling into question thousands that had been completed and hundreds of rabbis who had performed them. To comply with the new restrictions, the Rabbinical Council of America mandated a new curriculum. Potential converts now must undertake months (sometimes years) of study with a rabbi. They must appear three times in front of a beth din, a panel of three rabbis aiming to weed out people who aren't doing it for the right reasons or who they don't believe will follow all the laws. (There are only 11 authorized beth dins in America.) Male converts must be circumcised.
The conversion process can cost hundreds of dollars—or more, for people who don't live near an established Orthodox community. But Rabbi Barry Freundel, who oversaw the revision of the standards as chair of the RCA’s conversion committee, says the results have been wholly positive. “There were wildly divergent standards, and that's not good for anybody,” he says. “Now, if someone moves to a new community, their new rabbi knows that conversion has been done the right way.”
The move called into question conversions that didn’t live up to the new standards, and upset many rabbis, who argued they were the best judges of how to convert members of their own communities. Among many converts, a culture of fear set in. At any moment and for any reason, they fret, the Rabbinate could invalidate their conversions. Nobody knows if that’s a real possibility, and that’s part of the problem—the RCA isn't known for its transparency or clarity. Whispered accusations of breaking the rules are enough to earn a conversion candidate an interrogation from the beth din.
As she worked toward acceptance in the Jewish family. Chaviva had no trouble following the rules. Around the time she started exploring her options for an Orthodox conversion, the readership of her blog began climbing steadily. People began asking for her advice, and Chaviva began offering more unsolicited opinions, too. “I get all tingly and excited when I talk about my blog and how I’ve managed to help people get through the conversion process, how I've been able to calm fears,” she wrote.
Between 75 and 100 Americans successfully convert to Orthodox Judaism each year, so the community is tight-knit. And when a convert—especially a prominent one—breaks the rules, many others take it personally.
After a little more than a year of study, Chaviva’s beth din declared her ready to convert to Orthodox Judaism on New Year's Eve 2009. The next day, the first of 2010, she arrived at a nondescript building on Manhattan's Upper West Side to enter the mikvah, the ritual bath that signifies purity. The years of preparation culminated in a process that took just a few minutes. She verbally committed to lead a Jewish life, then entered the water and dipped three times, reciting blessings in between. And then she was an Orthodox Jew. 
“I stand firmly by the idea that my entire life I have carried within me the Jewish neshama that has shined so brightly these past six or seven years,” she wrote. “But standing there, looking into that mirror and later listening to the rabbi bestow upon me my name as a Jewess, I felt different.”
Chaviva embraced her status as a role model for aspiring converts. In May 2010, she married a man she had met on the Jewish dating website JDate and moved to Teaneck, a heavily Orthodox community in northern New Jersey. She earned a master’s degree in Judaic studies from the University of Connecticut and soon started working toward a second master’s at New York University. She wanted, she wrote on her blog, "to throw myself into the tidy box of Orthodoxy—Get Married, Move to a Big Orthodox Community, Have Only Orthodox Friends, Dress the Part, Wear the Headcovering, Go to the Mikvah, Live and Breathe the Box of Orthodoxy."  She wanted to show converts that they could be just as Orthodox as someone born in Teaneck.
By 2009, Chaviva's Kvetching Editor blog was drawing several thousand visitors a month. Bethany Mandel was one of them. She frequently emailed Chaviva with questions about conversion and always received a response. But Chaviva also demonstrated a stricter side, warning her, for example, that there were no exceptions to dietary laws. "She relished in it, and she was good at it,” Mandel says. “She was judgmental, but she knew her stuff."
Chaviva admits she was occasionally harsh on her fellow Jews. In one post, she confessed to thinking badly of friends who didn't uphold the strict kosher standards she maintained in her own home or didn't dress as modestly as she did. "I go through these phases of feeling like a horrible person because I don't feel comfortable being around people that a year ago or even six months ago I was completely comfortable around," she wrote. " Have I become a monster? To look at my fellow Orthodox Jew and think, Shame on you."  In a follow-up comment, she added, " Hypocrisy in all things bothers me in a way that nothing else bothers me."
Several readers responded that Chaviva had crossed a line. "Who the hell are you to judge your fellow Jew like that? This kind of attitude will be your downfall in the Jewish community, or perhaps your ticket to ultra-Orthodoxy. You make the call," wrote someone using the pseudonym Tamar Halivni. Three weeks later, when Chaviva took offense at the opening of a Manhattan pork-centric restaurant called Traif (which means non-kosher), other commenters said she had become what she had always claimed to hate: a self-appointed judge of whether other people were "Jewish enough."
The accusations underscored a paradox created by the combination of the new conversion rules and the rise of social media. Though Orthodox Judaism is officially governed by a handful of Israeli rabbis, their secrecy empowered Chaviva to pass judgment on what it means to be Jewish after just a few years in the faith. ”You chose to be what you are,” one commenter wrote on her blog. “How is it right to judge those who had no choice?
Between 75 and 100 Americans convert to Orthodox Judaism each year, so the community is tight-knit. And when a convert - especially a prominent one - breaks the rules, many others take it personally.
Last fall, Chaviva asked for a divorce after just 16 months of marriage. The week the divorce was finalized, she packed her car and drove to Denver, where she had once spent a summer, to escape the Orthodox bubble of Teaneck. Naturally, she blogged the entire journey, leaving out only the intimate details of her marital problems. She moved into a sprawling apartment complex on the decommissioned Lowry Air Force Base, where much of Denver’s small Orthodox community lives. But unlike in Teaneck, living among Orthodox Jews in Denver does not mean living exclusively among Orthodox Jews. Walking around Teaneck, "there were a lot of strangers, but they were always Jewish strangers," Chaviva says. In Denver, the strangers came in all religious affiliations.
Including the attractive, charming strangers. Chaviva had noticed the barista with the spiky hair and the wire-rimmed glasses at her local Starbucks, but didn't think much about him until he started flirting with her about a month after she moved to town. Though that branch of the coffee shop is so popular with the Orthodox community that it's known as "Jewbucks," it didn't take much sleuthing for Chaviva to realize that Taylor Hibbs wasn't Jewish. But she didn't have a ton of friends yet, and none of the 613 commandments prohibit talking to a nice guy in a public place. Having him over for dinner, though? Kissing him? Spending the night together? The Talmud is pretty clear on the answers to those questions.
For weeks, she didn't tell anybody, including her best friend in Denver, who lived just across the parking lot from her. But the rumors didn't wait for an official announcement, and they spread all the way to Teaneck. So, fittingly for someone who had chronicled six years of her life on the internet, she wrote a post titled "The Big Reveal."
"Right now, he's perfection for me. He makes me laugh, he makes me smile, he makes me feel okay being me," she wrote. She also confessed that she had begun eating out at non-kosher restaurants—first, only vegetarian ones, then others that had good vegetarian options—though she still maintained a kosher kitchen. She would watch TV or use the elevator on the Sabbath if Hibbs pressed the buttons.
Nobody from her congregation back in Teaneck has gotten in touch since she moved, she says. Just under two years after her Orthodox conversion, she removed the word "Orthodox" from the header of her blog, relabeling herself "Underconstructionist." "I don't want to be in a box," she says, though she went through years of study and hardship to earn entrance to that box just two years ago. " I've sort of seen the fluid nature of what I believe and what I practice."
For many of the people who had seen Chaviva as a role model for a perfect post-conversion Orthodox life, the news hit like a bomb. In blog comments, Facebook wall posts, and emails, people told her that her actions were chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. That she was lost and they’d pray for her to find her way back. That she was setting a bad example. Some friends stuck up for her, but others turned their backs. The woman she had once referred to as her “Yiddish mama,” a friend from Teaneck, sent her an email expressing disapproval, then stopped talking to her—except for a text message sent from Chaviva’s ex-husband’s wedding.
Devoted readers of her blog, including many Chaviva had helped guide through the conversion process, were also worried. They’d heard stories of Jews whose conversions were invalidated or questioned, and they feared a prominent Orthodox blogger’s fall could undermine their own conversions in the eyes of the Rabbinate. “Your actions, especially after conversion, matter,” Skylar Curtis, who was converted by the same beth din as Chaviva, wrote on her own blog. “We rely on each other to be good Jews and give converts a good name. When one convert ‘goes bad,’ we all suffer for it.” Mandel says she doesn’t care who Chaviva dates, but wishes she didn’t feel compelled to spill the details on the internet. “You’ve been warning for years about people setting a good example for just this reason.” The outcry prompted Chaviva to temporarily disable her blog.
Rabbis agree that highly public cases like Chaviva’s give the conversion process a bad name, but they say Israel would never revoke other people's conversions based on her reveal. They emphasize that once a conversion is completed, that person is Jewish no matter what. “The hardest test of a convert is not when they’re going through the classes; it’s after they convert, because then nobody's checking up on them,” says Rabbi Chaim Coffman, an American living in Israel who runs online classes for conversion candidates. “She’s not the first to violate her conversion so soon after the fact, but the fact that she's this public figure who’s still offering to help people while living off the derech is really a problem.”
Meanwhile, Chaviva is reconsidering her definition of family. In April, she broke up with Hibbs—she was frustrated with his lack of career ambition and decided she needed more time to recover from her divorce. She stopped going to synagogue while they were dating because she felt judged. Since the breakup, she’s only been to services a handful of times. Sitting among happily married couples and their parents at a Passover Seder, she says, made her feel like an orphan.
So now she's back on the Orthodox path. She’s starting to think about how to create her own family in Jerusalem. She’s looking forward to meeting an Israeli man and remarrying. And although she’s still blogging, her writing these days focuses much more onA the events of her daily life than on analyzing the Torah or other Jews’ behavior. For the moment, at least, she’s happy to leave role modeling to the professionals.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Kiddush Hashem

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

Trusting Hashem

“And Hashem said to Avram, "Go from your land” (12:1) Rashi: for your benefit and for your good
  This commandment was one of the ten trials enumerated by Chazal with which Avrohom was tested. If Hashem assured Avrohom that this move would be for his benefit, why was it was it considered to be a test?
   In Choron Avrohom Ovinu not only lived in physical luxury like a king, but he and his wife also thrived on the spiritual plane, having been successful in drawing myriads of people closer to Hashem. It seemed to make little sense to uproot himself and emigrate to the unknown territory of Kna’an. To believe wholeheartedly in Hashem's assurance that this step would be for his good instead of saying: "please Hashem, I would rather do without these benefits and stay right where I am” required complete emuno, and Avrohom’s unquestioning faith is therefore considered to have been one of the ten trials.
   For this reason too it says in the parsha of the akeido (the binding of Isaac) “Go [lech lecho] to the land of Moriah”. This phrase too indicates that the instruction was for Avrohom’s benefit and for his good, even though it seemed contrary to logical considerations. What would happen to the promise of descendants through Yitzchok and how could he continue to fight against child sacrifices? The akeido was the ultimate trial, and only someone like Avrohom who had internalized the fact that only Hashem knows what is best for us, could have withstood it.
      On the possuk "And Avrom took Sarai his wife” the Medrash says that Avrom had to convince his wife to move with him to Kna’an. Why should she have needed to be convinced to move together with her husband? Avrohom had received direct divine reassurance that the requirement to move immediately would be for his benefit, but she had not been told anything by Hashem, and so she might have thought this instruction did not apply to her and felt that she specifically should remain in Choron and continue her important for work of bringing people closer to Hashem. Hence she needed to be convinced.


“And you shall be a blessing” (12:2)

The Medrash reads brocho as breicho (pool) - just as a pool (mikveh) purifies the impure, so shall you purify those who are far removed from Hashem. The Avnei Nezer zt”l comments on this that not only does a mikveh purify, but it also does not receive any tumoh. Similarly, someone engaging in outreach work must be like a mikveh: not only must he possess the ability to bring others closer to Hashem, but he must also be completely immune to the pernicious influences that are usually prevalent in the environments in which he is forced to engage in this holy activity.

It is true that someone who sacrifices his ruchniyus for the sake of drawing others closer to avodas Hashem will not decrease, but in fact increase, his share in the world to come, and he will also receive His blessings in this world (a lesson we learn learn from Avrohom Ovinu himself), this only applies if the person’s character and own spiritual level are sufficiently high to be impervious to any external influences. Sacrificing one’s own ruchniyus in the sense of slowing down our spiritual growth, by reducing the amount of time spent in accumulating Torah knowledge, for example, is one thing, but to engage in outreach work at the cost of actual encroachments on our current level of avodas Hashem is something that must be avoided at all costs.


“Please say that you are my sister, in order that it go well with me because of you, and that my soul may live because of you” (12:13) Rashi: They will give me gifts

We know that Avrohom kept the whole of the Torah, so why did he say about his wife that she was his sister, thereby exposing her to the danger of immorality which, according to some opinions, even females must give up their life for rather than transgressing it?

Before matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) divorce was effected by a mere expression of will on the part of the husband to separate from his wife, followed by an act of separation. Avrohom was therefore saying that if they would take her she should say that she was his sister. That constituted a conditional act of divorce, and the condition was fulfilled when Soroh made this statement and was taken away. She was therefore no longer a married woman, but Paroh was still punished, because taking Soroh away forcibly and forcing her to be his maidservant, constituted an act of theft.

Avrohom was interested in obtaining the gifts subsequently, not because of a desire to become enriched, but in order to publicise the greatness of the Creator, in that Paroh who had intended to steal Soroh had not only been prevented by Hashem from doing so, but had even presented Avrohom with an abundance of gifts, and sent guards to watch over Avrohom and Soroh. This kiddush Hashem would help Avrohom in his efforts to draw people closer to Hashem.


“And he gave him a tithe from all” (14:20)

Rashi cites the Medrash that Avrohom gave Malkizedek a tithe from all the spoils that he had taken, because he was a priest. He probably did so because he did not want to benefit from the property of the wicked, since no success comes from such assets. The Ohr Hachayim Hakodosh zt”l comments that although Avrohom was entitled to waive his right to the spoils of the war in favor of the King of Sedom, as soon as someone gains possession of property, the obligation to separate ma’aser in favour of the poor comes into play, and the ma’aser acquires a quasi-hekdesh quality, which is incapable of being “renounced” by the owner of the property: even if he returns the property to the original owner, he must still separate the ma'aser¸ because it has been acquired by the poor.

Although it is forbidden to give a present or return a lost object to an akum, the Rambam rules that is it is permitted to return it if his intention is to create a sanctification of the divine name, and since Avrohom intended to publicize the fact that he had not waged war for the purpose of monetary gain but only to save lives, it was permitted, and in fact a mitzvah, to return the spoils.

Cost of miracles

“Fear not, Avrom; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great” (15:1)
Chazal say that Avrohom was worried about losing part of his portion in the world to come. This seems surprising since he had already demonstrated self-sacrifice and been the beneficiary of miracles, for example in the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim. However, when Hashem changes the course of nature and reveals Himself through open miracles, this calls for correspondingly superior behaviour on the part of the beneficiaries of such miracles, and, in the absence of such behavior, the punishment can be very severe.
  That was also the motive of the meraglim who did not want to enter Eretz Yisroel: they knew from personal experience that Hashem was perfectly capable of performing any miracle to ensure their continued survival even in the most hostile surroundings, but were worried that the nation was not on a level to live up to the standards required of the beneficiaries of the miracles that would occur, were they to enter Eretz Yisroel.

Countering Yishmoel

“And Yishmoel his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised of the flesh of his foreskin” (17:25)
The descendants of Yishmoel continue to practice milo (albeit without perioh) and the Zohar notes that the merit of this act is sufficient to provide them with the right to dwell in Eretz Yisroel for a long time, and gives them the ability to persecute us in the last generations before moshiach.
    Since their power stems from the bris milo we are able to counteract their influence by observing our own bris, by guarding our eyes and keeping away from printed or electronic media, which purvey immorality. Strengthening the sanctity of the os bris provides us with the ability to weaken the power of Yishmoel’s descendants, and even if other nations join them to wage war against us, we will be in position to subjugate them. May it happen speedily in our days.