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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, December 25, 2014

Parshas Vayigash: What will we Answer when G-d Calls

"And Yosef said to his brothers, 'I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?' But his brothers could not answer him because they were left disconcerted before him" (Genesis: 45:3)

Truly an amazing story here. Yosef has been badgering his brothers, accusing them of being spies, taking Shimon and Benyamin as hostages, so-to-speak and causing pain to his father all the years he was in Egypt! After all that, he couldn't take it any more and reveals himself to his brothers.

They are in shock and cannot answer. They understood through all the accusations that what they did with him wasn't right, even if they thought so. At the same time, they searched and searched for Yosef and didn't find him, this revelation by Yosef caught them totally by surprise!

This is a premonition for what will happen to each of us in the future. G-d will judge us for our actions and what we did in this world. We won't be able to contradict Him because He will show us exactly what we have done in this world.

We will be like the brothers and not be able to answer. We won't be able to say we didn't do this or that, it will be there right in front of us. This will shake us to our spiritual core, totally embarrassing us for what we have done.

Many rabbinical authorities are of the opinion that this is one aspect of what gehinom (hell) is like. It will be the utter embarrassment of the actions that we performed that took us away from doing what is right in G-d's eyes.

Gehinom in a sense is a cleansing process that helps rectify the mistakes we have made in our lives to help us get our soul back to where it was when it was brought down to this world. That rectification will allow to get to Gan Eden (the garden of Eden) or the spiritual world where we will be able to get the benefit of the good things we did in this world.

There is a certain payback if you may for the bad things we have done in this world that took away G-d's presence. G-d will judge us what our intention was when we did them, where we were holding at the time and give us a judgment to rectify the corruption that we have caused ourselves.

This is a tremendous chesed (compassion) from G-d that even though we mess up He allows us to still draw close to Him. Most people are not inherently evil that they deserve their soul to be obliterated. Nonetheless, the soul has to be cleansed to be able to benefit from the next world!

The story of Yosef and the brothers helps us understand this more clearly. Just as the brothers weren't able to answer Yosef when he revealed himself because of their utter embarrassment, so too we won't be able to answer G-d when we have to account for our actions.

G-d in His infinite wisdom will have mercy on us as long as we admit and sincerely regret what we have done. Nothing stands in the way of repentance and even though we don't always do the right thing, we can't live in the past otherwise we will have no future!

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 4: ;Mishna 8: Honor the Torah or be Disgraced by it

"Rabbi Yosi said, 'Whoever honors the Torah will himself be honored by men; whoever dishonors the Torah will himself be dishonored by men".

The Torah itself has kept the Jewish people together throughout the millennia. By its laws, ethics and teachings, the Jewish people have survived without a land of their own being dispersed around the world amongst the nations.

The ones who keep it properly and are G-d's ambassadors to the world have a tremendous responsibility of making sure that it is taught properly and not distorted. Therefore the Mishna here tells us that one who honors Torah in the end will be honored by it.

Honoring Torah can mean not placing holy books on the floor or sitting on a chair or bench that has Torah books on them. It can also mean that a person stands up when the Torah is being taken out of the ark to be read from.

We can also honor Torah by honoring rabbinic scholars and others who observe Torah. These people are the guardians of G-d's wisdom and ceaselessly work to teach and inspire others!

These people are the ones that live by its ideals and go beyond the letter of the law to uphold its teachings. The Torah will give testimony to this and will honor these people in their lifetimes.

This does not mean they will be rich or powerful but others will get the message that these people are different than everyone else. In the ideal sense, they are G-d's patrons who will be looked up to by others.

The Mishna should not be misunderstood that the reason we learn Torah and hold by its ideals is because we will get honor by it later. We live Torah because we believe it is the will of G-d and this is what He wants from us.

The Torah can change us as we internalize its ideals and make them part of our everyday life. When we do that, then others will take notice and G-d's name will be sanctified.

If we don't do this and give the Torah lip service so-to-speak, then will be dishonored by the Torah. If people G-d forbid, do not live by its laws, make fun of others that do...they in the end will be disgraced.

This punishment is measure for measure. The one who doesn't take Torah seriously or makes fun of its followers, in the end will come to be dishonored as well. As mentioned previously, the Torah is the life-force that has kept the Jewish people alive throughout the centuries as they suffered anti-Semitic pogroms and holocausts!

"The Torah is a tree of life to those that grab a hold of it". If we don't want it or we make fun of others that keep it, then we ourselves will be disgraced because of it! The Torah has the ability to transform us; the flip side is that go away from it and scoff at those that keep it. This will lead them to a path of destruction!
Thursday, December 18, 2014

Parshas Miketz: Taking Revenge is Forbidden

"Joseph saw his brothers and he recognized them, but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke with them harshly. He asked the, 'From where do you come?' And they said, 'From the land of Canaan to buy food'". (Genesis 42:7)

The whole episode between the brothers and Joseph is hard to understand. Joseph was greater than them in knowledge, the prodigy that Yaakov loved and taught. At the same time, after all his trials and tribulations being sent to Egypt and then to prison and then rising to the second-in-command next to Pharaoh, do we really believe that this was his character trait to be mean to them?

The brothers hated him because they thought his dreams were showing that he would have dominion and rule over them. Joseph was obligated to tell the brothers these dreams because he received prophecy and when a person has it, they have an obligation to give it over to others, even to the extent that it could have endangered his life.The brothers did not take too kindly to what he said and thereby wanted him killed.

He was instead sold into slavery and suffered tremendously for it. When he sees the brothers, though he seemingly changes his tune and treats them poorly and disrespects them. How could he have done this, he is not allowed to take revenge as the Torah tells us later!

We could answer that since the Torah wasn't given yet, they weren't obligated to keep it so even if he did take revenge it would have been ok. On the other hand, we know that the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their children kept the entire Torah before it was given. How can we reconcile this?

Joseph wasn't taking revenge against his brothers. As we will see later, he tells them not worry about what they did to him because it was all G-d's will that he should go to Egypt and save them! This is how the Divine providence worked and everything worked out in the end.

The purpose of his actions was to purge any sin whatsoever from his brothers by making them admit their transgression on their level for selling him. Once he hears their remorse and the willingness to bring Benjamin to him, he finally forgives them and tells them that he is Joseph.

Although the brothers acted in a proper way (at least they thought so) they still did not show the compassion for him as they should. Only after they realize what is happening to them in Egypt do they see that G-d has orchestrated everything and is punishing them for what they have done.

After the final admission and having sincere regret for their actions does Joseph reveal himself. This teaches us a great lesson of self-control. Even if someone has wronged us, we are not allowed to take revenge against them.

This does not mean I have to be best friends with them or even have anything to do with them. I am forbidden though to take revenge against them. This is certainly not an easy thing to do as we may enjoy seeing our enemies suffer but G-d wants us to reach an even higher level, and that is if anyone has wronged us, we are not allowed to take revenge against them!

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 4: Mishna 7: Use the Torah Appropriately

"Rabbi Tzadok said, 'Do not make of the Torah a crown wherewith to magnify yourself, nor a spade wherewith to dig. Hillel used to say, 'He who makes unworthy use of the crown of Torah shall perish'. So whoever makes selfish use of the Torah, takes his own life'.

The first part of the Mishna explains that we are not allowed to use our Torah learning for the sake of receiving honor! The purpose of learning Torah is to make us better people so that we can internalize and live according to its ways.

There is another Mishin in Ethics of our Fathers that explains how a person can never be haughty if they learned a lot of Torah because that is what you created to do in the first place! What would be the point of trying to receive honor for something that you have an obligation to do anyway?

The Torah in reality should make us humble as the more we learn, the more we understand how much we don't know which makes us feel quite small! This leads us to the next part of the Mishna which tells us that we are not allowed to derive benefit for learning Torah.

This is hard to understand because aren't there people who charge for the classes they give? What about rabbis who teach children, why according to this would they not be allowed to get a salary for their work?

The Talmud tells us that when it comes to a rabbi teaching children, he is not getting paid for his teaching but rather the fact that he is getting to paid to watch over them so that they don't cause damage to others. Even if he is teaching them, the main part of his salary is keeping them orderly!

Today people are paid to learn Torah or to teach like in anything other profession. The idea here is that getting paid for teaching or giving classes helps that person continue learning and inspiring others. This could be why that it is not such a lucrative field because if it was then people would have ulterior motives and it would not be the pure Torah that would help others.

The last part of the Mishna tells us the severity of what could happen to a person if they misuse the crown the Torah. This means that even to save one's life, if one could have done it in another way and they used Torah to save themselves, they are held liable. The reason is that they could have done something else to save themselves.

This is showing misappropriation in the usage of Torah. If a person is in a life and death situation then they can do whatever they can to save themselves. The question is if they used Torah to save themselves when they could have used a different medium.

This is why it is as if they have forfeited their life. They have taken something so precious and misused it. The Torah is something so important and life altering that we are not allowed to just use it for what we want. We have to honor it and give it the respect it deserves!
Friday, December 12, 2014

Parshas Vayeshev: Let G-d Run the World

"Yet the chamberlain of the cupbrarers did not remember Yosef, but he forgot him" (Genesis 40;23)

If the chamberlain did not remember Yosef, doesn't that mean that he forgot him? What is the purpose here of saying the same thing seemingly twice?

Yosef is punished and had to wait several years before he was remembered by the chamberlain of the cupbearers. It would seem that Yosef lacked faith in G-d that He would save him by reminding the chamberlain to remember him. Isn't Yosef just putting his best foot forward to get himself out of his predicament?

Rav Moshe Feinstein in Derash Moshe tells us that Yosef understood through this trial in jail that he would be a free man through these people, therefore he should not have asked them to remember him. He should have understood that this was not a chance happening meeting with these two individuals but they were his ticket out and he should have realized that.

Yosef was on a very high level spiritually and was given this test to work on him emunah in G-d. He should have continued living his life focusing on G-d's interaction with the world and his purpose in it. Because he failed in this way, G-d punished him.

This is hard for us to understand. We are not on the level of Yosef or even close. At the same time, it is a timely message for future generations. We have an obligation to keep the Torah and mitzvos to the best of our ability.

We are also obligated to believe in G-d through knowledge and that He runs the world. The problem is that we live in a world of G-d's hiddeness and is very difficult to fathom the chaos that the world is in. Even through the chaos, there is order; we are just not privy to see exactly how that order works.

At the end of the book of Job, Elihu tells Job that G-d is not going to reveal himself to him and explain all the workings of the world. He can't understand it but has to realize that G-d has a purpose for how things are done. We have to try and make sense of it but still have to live our lives!!

This can be challenging when we see terrible things go on around us without having any control whatsoever. We have to let go and let G-d run the world as He sees fit! Our small minds cannot understand the bigger picture. We have to take everything in stride trying to make sense of it and continue to serve Him no matter what.

Yosef taught us a valuable lesson in emunah. It is always something that needs to be strengthened. On our level, we have to constantly strive and put our best foot forward. We are not on the level to sit back and watch as things unfold and let G-d take care of what He needs to do.

Yosef was on a higher level and judged accordingly. He should have understood the message of relying on G-d and letting Him run the world. When we all do this and become subservient to Him, the world will be a better place, bringing godliness to the world!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 4 Mishna 6: Live and Breath Torah

"Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yosi says, 'One who studies Torah in order to teach is given the means to study and to teach; and one who studies in order to practice is given the means to study and to teach, to observe and to practice'"

The first part of the Mishna tells us that one who studies Torah in order to teach is given t e means to study and to teach. Does this mean that they don't practice what they learn  and implement it into their everyday lives?

Absolutely not! Rabbenu Yonah here explains that when they learn and teach they don't do it to their fullest capacity. This means they are able to learn and even teach others but they don't delve deeply enough to find out if there are forbidden things they may be doing.

They take what they learn at face value and don't get very far. It is interesting to note that the knowledge they receive from their dedication to learning is able to be given over to others, albeit at a relatively superficial level. This is why the Mishna tells us that they will only be able to study and teach but not to observe and practice.

The second part of the Mishna explains that the learning that is done to be able to practice is on a much higher level. These people learn for the sake of the truth and are willing to spend hours upon hours to understand even a small point.

The most important things in their lives is to learn to derive the absolute truth so they can implement these ideas into their lives. We see from here there are different ways in which a person can learn.

One way is to learn and understand to the best of our ability. This does not take into account accountability of any kind and at best is superficial. The goal is not to get to the absolute truth but to put some effort in but not too much. It is not like these type of people would  be bothered by a question that would keep them up all night

These type of people will never be the rabbinic scholars of the next generation; they will be the pretenders to the throne. Only those willing to be bothered and dig deeper when they have a question and cannot find a satisfactory answer will be the future Torah leaders. They will turn over the world until they find what they are looking for and will not rest until they have satisfactorily answered their burning question.

People like that will grow into great Torah scholars which will lead to actions based on what they learn. The will  disseminate the Torah to the masses, inspiring them to keep the high standard the Torah has set for us. We then have to live up to those standards and be receptacles and implement these timeless words into our everyday life.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Parshas Vayishlach: We only Bow to G-d!

"Then he himself went on ahead of them and bowed earthward seven time suntil he reached his brother" (Genesis 33:3).

How could Yaakov have bowed down to his brother and not transgressed the prohibition of bowing down to others? Isn't that idol worship? The Zohar answers that when he bowed down, his only intention was to go G-d and not worshiping his brother, G-d forbid. The verse says explicitly that he bowed to the ground and not to Esav!

Rav Moshe Sternbuch Shlit'a in Ta'am V'Da'as explains that is a timely message for all generations! Even though sometimes we may have to ingratiate ourselves to Esav, we have to remember that this is because of the decree of our exile that we have to do this.

The Jewish people are the chosen people and we cannot forget the importance that we have to be a light unto the nations. At the same time, we have to get along with our non-Jewish neighbors and do things we may not like to so that they find favor in our eyes. Throughout the generations, we have sadly not learned this properly.

Many have not only ingratiated themselves to the non-Jews but have embraced them and their customs! They claim that one of the main reasons that the nations give us a hard time and persecute us is because we are not more like them. Why should we be separate, have our different laws about kashrus, shabbos, the holidays...which make us different?

If we were more like them, assimilated into their culture and married their children, they would have proper respect for us! Isn't this what the Greeks wanted us to do? Be like them, enter their gymnasiums, go to their universities, and do everything that they did?

The result has been an utter disaster! Intermarriage rates have skyrocketed to over 60% and there are 13 million Jews out there that know nothing about their precious heritage! When we become like the nations and think that is the only to find grace with them so there is peace, we are shortchanging and robbing ourselves of our priceless heritage!

It is forbidden for us to antagonize the nations but at the same time, the Jewish people have to remain separate from them and keep our unique status. That means not be ashamed to keep the mitzvos and learn Torah to the best of our ability, not just be a Jew inside his house.

Yaakov here teaches us that although it may be true that we have flatter and charm the nations, it may because we have no choice because of this long exile. We have to remember though we have no one else to rely on except the one Above! The nations will never come to our rescue as history has borne out.

The Torah is what separates us and makes the people that we are. Our uniqueness is the driving force to unity which allows us to pass our priceless heritage to the future generations!

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 4: Mishna 5: G-d is Watching You!

"Rabbi Yochanan ben Berokah said: 'Whoever profanes the name of G-d secretly is punished publicly, whether the profanation is committed intentionally or unintentionally."

When we speak about a profanation of G-d's name the connotation is something that has taken place in public. The desecration of G-d's name will depend on the level where the person is holding spiritually. 

The Talmud gives an example of a rabbi who bought meat but didn't pay for it immediately. Each one will get judged according to their own level. We learn this out from Yishmael because when he was a child and dying of thirst, G-d did not allow him to die.

The angels asked why he was allowed to live if in the future his progeny would inflict great punishment and make the Jewish people suffer. G-d answered by asking if the child right now is guilty or innocent whereby the angels answered innocent. G-d then told them that since he is innocent now, I cannot punish him for what he may do in the future because I am judging him as he is now! 

 The Mishna here explicitly tells us that the transgression we do in our homes where others don't see us will eventually come out in public whether we did them intentionally or not. This is truly remarkable because many times we hear of things that people did that we never would have known had it not been made public.

This teaches us a number of lessons. One is how careful we have to be in our actions even in the privacy of our own homes! if we don't then we could eventually be exposed even for the most private of things!

There's an old saying: what goes around comes around. This seems to mean that a person's actions whether they are good or bad have consequences. We can run but we can't hide. G-d knows the thoughts and actions of all men and will expose those things that we so desperately try and hide.

This is similar to what the Zohar says at the end of a person's life, they will be shown two movies. One movie is what they did in their lives and the other is what they had the potential to do. Before the invention of video recorders. we would not know what this is referring to.

Now that we see things can be recorded and saved, G-d too does the same thing and will play all our actions that we have done when He renders His final judgement! The true righteous person is careful with their actions in public but we must be careful with them in private as well.

This shows true fear of heaven that all our actions regardless of where we may be have to be proper in G-d's eyes. This is not an easy task but G-d is with us no matter where we are and that is something we all have to remember!
Thursday, November 27, 2014

Parshas Vayeitze: Be careful what you say

"Then Yaakov became angered and he took up his grievance with Lavan. Yaakov spoke up and said to Lavan, 'What is my transgression? What is my sin that you have hotly pursued me?'" (Genesis 31:31)

Imagine how hard Yaakov worked for Lavan. He toiled 7 years for Rachel, had Lavan switch her with Leah and then another 7 years for Rachel. He took care of Lavan's flocks diligently, never losing one and being an expert keeper of his flocks. How could Lavan have deceived him so many times without Yaakov getting angry?

Here we see the greatness of our Yaakov. Although he had every right to get upset hundreds of times before, here we finally see the anger come out. He was justified in what he felt and said and finally could not take it anymore.

What transpired, though, was something that he could not foresee. Lavan's tirade about his missing idols were the straw that broke the camel's back. Yaakov fired back and told him that all the years he worked for him nothing was missing and everything was in order. All of sudden Lavan has claims against Yaakov because of his idols.

We understand who Lavan was and what he represented. He was an evil trickster who would drive anyone mad. At this point though, Yaakov couldn't take it anymore and lashed out, deservedly so.

He was so sure that he or anyone else didn't take his idols that he said that whoever took them should die. Little did he know that his wife Rachel took them and it caused her to die prematurely.

When we look back at this, it is quite hard to understand why she should die early. After all, isn't it praiseworthy that her father is no longer worshiping idols? Isn't that against the 7 Noahide laws? 

Even so, we learn a valuable lesson. Yaakov was justified in what he said to Lavan. Wouldn't we have lashed out at him many times before? Our patriarchs are held to a higher standard and Yaakov should have been more careful in what he said. Had he known that Rachel took the idols he never would have said that.

This is a lesson for us as well. When we speak, we have to be careful what we say and how we say it. Our words have repercussions and can cause great damage. May we merit to always be careful what we say!

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 4 Mishna 4: Haughtiness and Hubris is not a Jewish concept!

"Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said: 'Be exceedingly humble, since the end of man is worms"

The Mishna here is teaching about the importance of being humble to the extent that we should think of what our end will be which will help us do this. After all, how could someone be haughty and pompous when at the end of the day they will go to the grave and be eaten by worms?

The Rambam explains that normally when it comes to character traits we should find a happy medium and take the middle path. For example, if a person wants to be benevolent and give money to charity, they shouldn't give away all their money or they will be broke. Also, a person shouldn't be cruel and overly compassionate as well.

This means that we have to treat others properly but we shouldn't have compassion on people that want to cause us harm. We have an obligation to guard and defend ourselves against those who want to do us harm.

The commentaries here explain, though, when it comes to haughtiness and hubris, we shouldn't take the middle path but go to the opposite extreme and do whatever it takes so that we do possess this bad character trait. It is so bad, that the majority of our sins are attributed to it. If we don't have some level of haughtiness, though does that not make us weak and have low self-esteem?

The answer is that everyone has to have some level of self-esteem but ti should not be at the expense of others. We are not allowed to look down upon people or think we are better based on our social status or pedigree. Like anything, we have to find a middle ground that allows to be productive members of the society without stepping on others or putting them down in the process!

I once asked a great rabbi about boosting the egos of our children and always praising them for their actions. Wouldn't that lead to them to think that they are better than others or lead to haughtiness?

The rabbi answered that we live in a generation today that is so weak that most people don't have proper self-esteem and get walked and stomped on by others. Our praise to our children will make them feel good about themselves and want to strive to reach higher spiritual levels.

We always have to be on our guard and make sure if we are successful at something or get that prestigious job that we exhibit humbleness and realize where it all comes from. Woe to the person that thinks that everything that comes to them is based on the work of their own hands with G-d overseeing their actions and helping them along the way.

Is it really possible to think of our greatness as something positive if at the end of the day we will only go to the grave and be eaten by worms? This is what the Mishna here is telling us. We have to take a nice look in the mirror and see if our actions reflect humbleness or G-d forbid haughtiness and work hard to uproot that bad character trait from our hearts!
Thursday, November 20, 2014

When Tragedy Occurs

Words cannot describe the terrible tragedy that occurred in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof. I happen to learn in the neighborhood every day down the block from that synagogue and the words "SHOCK" doesn't do it justice.

There is outrage and demand that something must be done to stop all the violence. What is the Jewish perspective on what is going on?

Unfortunately, tragedy is not new to the Jewish people. We have persevered over the millennia through many; the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, the Chimenliki massacres, the Inquisition, the Holocaust...G-d's ways are hidden and we often do not understand what our eyes see.

There are a few things to take away from what has happened. 1) Never has there been an attack in Israel that occurred in a synagogue like this 2) The sheer brutality and lack of concern in the way this attack took place was just horrific.

The problem is that if we know that G-d is good and He alone runs the world, how do we explain what happened? There are no satisfactory answers but we do know that tzdikkim (righteous people) are taken as an atonement for us.

That means when there is a greater decree sometimes G-d has to take the best of our people as an atonement for the sins of the masses. This means that as the Talmud tells us the Jewish people are responsible one for the other, we have to look inward at what we possibly could do better so that these tragedies don't happen in the future.

At the same time, we sometimes get a glimpse in the future of why these things happen. Just like the three teens that were killed over the summer, the result was finding and destroying hundreds of tunnels that could have caused unthinkable damage. It just so happens that these three boys had to be the "sacrifice" for that to be uncovered.

This may add a little comfort for the grieving parents but it shows that nothing happens for no reason. Every bullet has its mark so-to-speak and G-d is the one who ultimately judges and makes it happen.

We with our tiny brains cannot fathom this. We just see things with lack of vision. We see destruction, murder and blood; chaos for no apparent reason. There is a bigger picture that we are not privy too but everything from above is calculated.

G-d runs the world and we have to accept that. He is the true judge. May we know no more sorrow and may He bring Moshiach speedily in our days!

Parshas Toldos: Esav Despises his Birthright

"Yaakov gave Esav bread and lentil stew and he ate and drank, got up and left; therefore, Esav spurned his birthright" (Genesis: 25:34).

Esav comes home after exhausted after killing and plundering thinking he was on the verge of death. Yaakov has food cooking and Esav demands that he give him some. He agrees only if Esav will sell his birthright and swear to him that he will do so!! Esav is incredulous at the actions of his brother, agrees, swears and after eating ravenously despises his birthright. Aren't his actions justified?

When we look back at what transpires between Yaakov and Esav we cannot but be amazed at the fact that Esav grows up in the house of Yitzchak. How could it be that he is not interested in a spiritual life? After all, doesn't he come from a strong pedigree with Yitzchak as his father and Avraham as his grandfather?

The Torah tells us that it is not an inheritance. Just because our parents were religious or our grandparents were righteous people will insure that their kids or grandchildren will be like that. It definitely helps to have that but it is no guarantee for the future.

Esav understands where he came from and the importance of his pedigree. The problem is that he was so steeped in his desires that they overcame him and destroyed him. He was unable to control himself which inevitably caused his downfall.

He still understood the importance of the blessing and what it represented. Even if he did not want to follow the Torah or its laws, he nonetheless understood why he should follow it. He had respect but did not want any part of it.

This struggle between Esav and Yaakov is the struggle between the Jewish people and the nations throughout the generations. When Yaakov, ie the Jewish people are doing what they need to do they will be successful and on top. When we don't do what G-d wants, then the nations have the upper hand over us.

The Esav's of the world want to destroy Torah and make us like them. We should go to their schools, be part of their extra curricular activities and intermarry with them as well. The Jewish people in their eyes should not be unique and not stand out and be different. This has been the claim throughout the generations by our brethren that if we would only be like the non-Jews around us they would surely embrace us.

If not for the fact that we openly display our differences that they hate us. If we look at the Holocaust in perspective we see that this is not the case. Hitler, may his name be blotted out only wanted to destroy the Jewish people and didn't make any distinctions whether Jews were religious or not. He wanted to be rid of them as a whole group!

Anti-semitism exists because it exists. No matter what the Jewish people do, they are hated. If they have money, they are despised; if they poor they are not liked...No matter what we do we bring out the ire of the nations of the world. What should we do then?

G-d separated us a nation to make us a light to them. That means we have uphold our end of the bargain and do what we are supposed to do. When we do that, we bring light to the world and illuminate it; when we don't there is darkness and tragedy!

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 4 Mishna 3: Our Actions Matter

"He used to say: 'Do not despise any man, and do not consider anything as impossible; for there is not a man who does not have his hour, and there is not a thing that does not have its place'".

The first part of the Mishna should be obvious that a person is not allowed to despise anyone else. It is forbidden to look down upon someone, even if they feel justified in doing so.

Maybe that person wronged us or caused us damage in some way thereby making them despised in our eyes. The Mishna, though gives us a different reason for this. The Mishna tells us the reason we are not allowed to do this is because we shouldn't think that this person in the future could not possibly damage us because there is a no person who does not his hour.

What is the meaning of this? There is no person that is always down suffering. They have ups and downs which test a person. Therefore if we despise someone and look down upon them, who is to say that they can't effect us negatively in the future.

After all, we may actually need that person in the future. There are countless stories of someone helping another person when they were younger and then at some point, the one that helped that person needed their help in the future. Had they not been gracious enough to help them in the past, they would have surely suffered that future event.

Everything is calculated from above even to a hair's breadth. We don't always see it or understand but there is definitely irony in everyday life. Sometimes the most miniscule event in our lives have ramifications for the future which we are not even aware of!

The problem is that we don't see the value of our actions or think that they matter. We sometimes are able to see and get glimpses of what happens in our lives and how things are intertwined. Although that doesn't happen all that often, nonetheless when we do see it, we need to take stock of it and internalize the message.

Rav Chaim of Volozhin, the famed student of the Vilna Gaon brings down this idea in his epic work Nefesh HaChaim. He tells us that a person should never think what they do is meaningless. We have the ability to change the world with our actions, either for better or worse.

The Rambam tells us that we should look at the world like a big scale that is teetering to either side and our action right now will make the scale in either direction. This shows how important our actions are and what they are capable of doing!
Thursday, November 13, 2014

Parshas Chayei Sarah: Passing the Torch of Torah

"Now Avraham was old, well on in years, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything" (Genesis 24:1)

Rashi explains that the world "bekol" in gematriya (taking the letters and putting a number equivalent to them) is the same as "ben" or son and now that he has a son, he has to find him a wife. Rav Moshe Feinstein z"l in Derash Moshe asks that the Torah tells us explicitly that he had a son without any hints so why does the Torah here have to give a hint that he has been blessed with a son?

Even though Avraham was blessed with everything including a son, he knew that if there were no future generations to guard the Torah and keep like it is supposed to be kept, all the goodness, wealth and good deeds aren't worth very much unless there is a future continuation! Therefore when he is blessed with everything which represents a son, once he sees that he has future generations that will come from him, then all of his actions and righteousness will have been for the benefit of the future generations.

This is an important lesson for us to learn. Not only do our actions matter and how we interact with others but we have to show our children the importance of what we do in keeping the Torah. When they see our enthusiasm in doing G-d's will, it will have a positive effect that they will want to continue in the same path.

The test of what we do is what our offspring look like. This means we have to give over to them to the best of our ability of the importance of guarding the Torah. Even when things are difficult or we are having a hard time, we nonetheless have to show them how much we enjoy it!

As other so-called movements in Judaism will tell you that the Torah has to change and there must be innovations for Judaism to be relevant in the "modern world". Tthe results of these actions are disastrous. Even without the philosophical questions that they may have, how does their beliefs transcend to their kids?

With a skyrocketing intermarriage rate together with a lack of proper Jewish education for most, the results are catastrophic! if their brand of Torah does not trickle down to their kids on any level then the next generation becomes weaker and will eventually disappear into spiritual oblivion!

The future generations are the ones who will get the message either for good or bad which will result in whether the Torah will continue to be observed or not. Hitler, may his name be blotted out, killed over one and a half million children. This is a hard thing to fathom.

He did so because he understood that if there was no one to teach in the future Judaism will die. It has to perpetuated in the best way possible and if it cannot be passed down to the next generation, then the philosophy of those parents and their ideals are all for nought.

Avraham understood that he had to find a wife for Yitzchak because of the importance of passing the ideas of Torah to the next generation!

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 4 Mishna 2:The Importance of Mitzvah Observance

"Ben Azzai said, 'Run to perform even a minor mitzvah, and flee from transgression; for one good deed draws (in its train) another good deed, and one transgression leads to another; for the reward of a good deed is a good deed, and the reward of sin is sin" (virtue is its one reward, and sin its own penalty).

Rabbenu Yonah explains that the purpose of running to perform even a minor mitzvah is because we don't know the merit we receive for doing so. Even though we perform mitzvos because we believe it's the right thing to do, nonetheless we know that we will receive our reward for them in the next world.

Ben Azzai adds that we should run towards a minor mitzvah and stay from transgression. Why does he mention the idea of a minor mitzvah here? If a person does a minor mitzvah once, that will draw him close to G-d and put him in the proper frame of mind to perform other mitzvos as well. This is why we educate our children even from a young age to participate in doing mitzvos so they will regularly want to do them in the future!

When a person performs this mitzvah it leads him to do other mitzvos as we explained. Even though the merit for doing the mitzvah is only in the next world, we get the benefit of the mitzvos we do which allows to do other mitzvos. The purpose of what we do makes us closer to G-d and continues the cycle of our good deeds.

If a person though chooses to transgress, then in the same way that will lead to other transgressions and make it difficult for them to do teshuvah (repent). Everyone has free will and G-d will let a person to choose whatever path they want. Their choice, though has repercussions.

Even if we choose to do good, the yetzer hara (evil inclination) will not rest and will continue to try and convince to do the wrong thing. At the same time, we arm ourselves spiritually with learning Torah and performing mitzvos to offset this. In reality, there will be this constant struggle but if we continue to do G-d's will, then that will lead us down one path; or if choose transgression, it leads to a different path.

We live in a world that is full of temptation which would seemingly throw us off our path to living a spiritual life. We have to insulate ourselves to the point where we are constantly reinforcing the good values that will lead us to keep the Torah the way in which it should be! This is not something that is easily acquired and takes great effort and perseverance.
Thursday, November 6, 2014

Parshas Vaera: Uncovering our Potential

"And it happened after these things that G-d tested Avraham and said to him, "Abraham," and he replied, "Here I am." And He said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love - Yitzchak and go to the land of Moria; bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you." (Genesis 22:1,2)

Avraham is given ten trials, this being the last of them. This one, though seems to be the most difficult as G-d has promised him a son after so many years in his old age, told him that he will inherit him...and now he is commanded to bring him up as a sacrifice. Why is Avraham given this last test?

One of the 13 principles of faith of Maimonides (the Rambam) is that G-d knows the thoughts of man. If that is true, why make Avraham goes through this trial, knowing that he would do what G-d commanded him and leave it at that. Why put him through this last test if G-d knows he will faithfully do it anyway?

The commentaries explain that it is true that he passed the other tests that he was given and was indeed a great man and prophet. At the same time, G-d wanted him to reach even greater potential that had he not gone through this trial, he would have been the great Avraham!

This is indeed remarkable because what this means is that a person's untapped potential, if not realized and come to the forefront, is just that unreachable potential. Even if G-d understands that the person will pass the test, nonetheless, if they are not given it, that potential for that particular thing will not have been realized.

A person is given different trials and tribulations throughout their life. While we pray everyday that we should not have them, we see that without them, we don't grow spiritually like we should. In essence we are not the same person without them.

Even if a person suffers because of a particular trial, they become better people because of it unless they are broken by it. We don't understand why things happen to us but these trials are given to those people for specific reason which we are not privy to!

G-d created each person with potential. Each one has their special mission that they were created for in this world and only they can fulfill it; no one else can fulfill another's potential. If that is true, how do we know what our mission is in this world?

One great rabbi explained to me once that if a person would think about the hardest thing for them to do, whatever it may be, that could be what they are here in this world to fix up. It could be that someone has a hard time with thanking people for helping them or giving money to charity...

Whatever it is that we may be doing here, we have to utilize our days and our lives perfecting ourselves to the best of our ability. Even if things are hard or don't always go our way, we have to overcome these tests and continue on.

If you were to ask people about difficult things that they have persevered in their lives, they will tell you that they are better people because of it. They will also tell you that even if that is the case, they wish that they did not have to go through it!

May we all use our strengths to uncover that hidden potential!

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of Our Fathers: Chapter 4 Mishna 1: Subduing our Desires

"Ben Zoma says, 'Who is wise? He who learns from every person as it is said: 'From all my teachers I grew wise.' Who is strong? He who subdues his personal inclination, as it is said: 'He who is slow to anger is better than the strong man, and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city.' Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot, as it is said: 'When you eat of the labor of yoru hands, you are praiseworthy and all is well with you.' You are praiseworthy' - in this world; 'and all is well with you' - in the World to Come. Who is honored? He who honors others, as it is said: "For those who honor Me I will honor, and those who scorn Me shall be degraded.'

The first part of the Mishna tells us that someone is wise if they learn from every person. Wisdom, the Rabbenu Yona tells us if it is desired and loved, a person may not attain it per se, but he is still called wise. Why should this be the case?

The reason is because if a person wants to expand their knowledge, it can lead them to fear of G-d. This may not always happen but since one has the right desire to do so, he will gain more knowledge. This will lead that individual to the realization that they are really insignificant in the bigger scheme of things of how the world is run which will make them humble.

Another aspect of this idea is that a person may have a big ego because of what and how much they know and refuse to listen to the ideas of those not at their level. The Mishna here teaches us that we can learn from all people and add to our wisdom. When a person humbles themselves and envelops this idea, they begin the path in reaching wisdom!

The next part of the Mishna tells us that the really strong individuals are the ones who can conquer their evil inclination. Physical strength is limited because as a person ages, his vigor and power diminish.

Real strength is the ability to overcome the evil inclination because it never ceases to trap a person to do things that they shouldn't. It works 24/7 figuring out different ways to trap a person. We are given the evil inclination so that we can work on overcoming it and mastering the physical world.

This is easier said than done because most people just act at what is thrown their way without thinking. They are subjected to societies' whims and submit to its influence. The real power is working on their character development and not being slaves to themselves!

The next part of the Mishna speaks about the one who is rich. Someone who has lots of money and assets works very hard to make sure they will stay intact for years on end so they can live the lifestyle they are accustomed to. The question though is: how many rich people do we know that are really happy?

They spend their days and nights worrying about keeping ahead without losing what they have worked so hard for. The Mishna here points out that it doesn't matter how much money or property we have but are we happy with what G-d has given us?

Having more certainly doesn't insure happiness. Whether we have a little or a lot or just get by, we have to realize that everything comes from G-d and we need to appreciate it. Many will say it is easier to appreciate what we have when we have a lot. Even the little that we have can make us grateful as well!

These are eternal lessons of how we have to deal with the secular world while keeping our values strong. We don't capitulate to our surroundings and make every effort to strive and become the great people that we can be.
Thursday, October 30, 2014

Parshas Lech Lecha: Enjoyment of the Physical World

"And it occurred, as he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, "See now I have known that you are a woman of beautiful appearance." (Genesis: 12:11)

Avraham tells Sarah to tell the Egyptians that she is his sister because he is afraid that if she says she is his wife they will kill him and take her. Why is that after so many years being married to her, Avraham only recognizes her beauty in the face of danger what might happen to him? Didn't he recognize that she was beautiful during all the previous years they were together?

The Talmud tells us that a person is not allowed to get married unless they are attracted to each other. so it could not have been that Avraham didn't look at his wife and wasn't attracted to her. The love that Avraham had for his wife is what a Jewish marriage is all about.

Even though to some the system in which religious Jews marry seems archaic, going through a matchmaker and such, the system has been successful throughout the  millennium with a very small divorce rate compared to the overall divorce rate.

The reason is that there are laws that govern marriages whereby the husband has no choice but to develop a relationship with his wife. G-d gave man this strong urge but it is supposed to be harnessed and not abused.

It is looked as a very special thing when it is used in the right way. If it is only looked at as a physical relationship, then once the novelty wears off, the relationship crumbles and there is nothing left. Avraham understood how beautiful his wife was but concentrated his life based on her virtues and character traits.

These are essential elements for a strong and vibrant marriage. Communication is key as well as having common goals and desires.This is the reason that so many people stay happily married.

Judaism in this way differs from other religions in the sense of how the world is viewed. We are created from the dust of the earth and have physical bodies. At the same time, we are given a special soul that helps us reach closer to G-d.

There is always the conflict between the physical and spiritual but no where do we say that physical acts that give us pleasure are forbidden; it depends on how we do them. Although we live in a world of instant gratification the goal is sanctify it as best as possible.

G-d has given us urges from which to enjoy this world but we have to know how to use them properly so we can sanctify His name. The physical is good and should be enjoyed the way the Torah wants us to.

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 3: Mishna 23: Essential Laws vs Complements

"Rabbi Eliezer ben Chisma said; The laws of bird-offerings, and the laws regarding the beginning of menstrual periods - these are the essential laws; astronomy and mathematics are like the seasonings of wisdom"

The first part of the mishna talks about the bird-pair offerings that a woman must bring shortly after childbirth (as well as in other situations).  There is great discussion s regarding these sacrifices and what happens if different women mixed them up as well.

Menstrual periods refer to the necessary calculations to determine the start date of her period. They also refer to the relevant restrictions when her period begins. These can include what types of blood indicate a menstrual flow or off-cycle spotting, blood spots found on clothing...

These are called the essential laws because they are crucial in maintaining the Jewish home. A man is not allowed to look at his wife as an object of his desires but must have a relationship that is outside the physical.

This is a great protection for women as it insures proper guidelines in this area. Although this is one of the most powerful urges a person can have, G-d gave it to us to harness it properly and not abuse it. The relationship between husband and wife is enhanced tremendously if these laws are kept because the marriage is not just viewed in terms of physical satisfaction.

Astronomy and numerical values are subjects which complement the Torah. Astronomy referred here is the calculation of the cycles of the moon and the seasons. Mathematics is important for formulating the Jewish calendar and helps to reconcile the discrepancy between the lunar calendar and solar one. Each holiday must fall out in it's proper time, Passover in the spring, Sukkos in the fall and since the lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar one, there needs to be an adjustment of the calendar to make sure the holidays fall out when they need to.

The last part of the mishna refers to numeric values or what we call gematriya which refers to assigning of number values to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet whereby alef=1, bet=2...) Certain forms of rabbinical homiletic interpretation are based on inferences made from these values.

 The reason that these two are not considered as essential is because they help demonstrate one aspect of the Torah's beauty and can illustrate the hidden wisdom of the Hebrew alphabet. We can brings hints or ideas from these things showing the power of the Torah's wisdom.

When we hear of homiletic wisdom coming from the order of the letters of a particular passage or a statement that corresponds to the numerical value of another statement is nothing short of incredible. These things enhance our study of Torah and reveal it's true hidden wisdom.

We also see the great wisdom of the rabbis who in their foresight had to come up with a way to compensate the problem that would ensue with the calendar. Without "technological" advances given to them, they were able to establish a system that would continue for all future generations.

Many often make the mistake and think that these people were "medieval", not to bright and backwards, to say the least. We see from here, just the opposite, men of great wisdom and virtue!!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Parshas Noach: Noach's lack of Emunah

"They came to Noach into the ark, two by two of all flesh in which there was a breath of life. Thus they that came , came male and female of all flesh , as G-d had commanded him. And Hashem shut it on his behalf". (Genesis: 7: 15-16). 

The Torah goes into great detail explaining all the measurements of the ark and all the hard work that Noach did in building it for 120 years. The people of his generation made fun of him, persecuted him and even wanted to hurt him. This is why the commentaries tell us that there were lions and bears at the entrance of the ark that protected him.

We also know that the only people saved from the flood were Noach and his family. While he was a prophet and did what G-d commanded him, nonetheless the commentaries explain that he was somewhat lacking faith.How can we explain this?

The second of the Rambam's thirteen principles of faith is that G-d is unique and there is no being like him either physical or spiritual. This principle is based on the first verse of the Shema "Hear O Israel, The L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is one".

According to this principle then, if G-d is absolute and unique in this world then it conflicts with the idea of how the righteous suffer and how evil people seem to have it easy in this world. If we were to say that there are other forces controlling things, then we may be able to live with the suffering that we around us.

If we believe, though that G-d is unique in this world and represents goodness, they questions may make us feel uncomfortable. Ultimately we don't understand how things work in this world. How does this apply to Noach?

Noach understood that the world he lived in was corrupt. Even so, he was able to overcome his environment and fulfill G-d's will. Why is then at the last second, G-d has to push him into the ark so-to-speak as the waters are quickly rising? Where was his faith that G-d was going to bring the flood?

Noach surely believed that G-d could it. He thought though that his overwhelming attribute of compassion would override His judgment and for that he was wrong. G-d does have tremendous compassion but sometimes that compassion has to be put aside and justice has to be done.

To wipe out the entire world, Noach couldn't imagine that G-d's compassion would not be stirred to save His creation. For that the commentaries explain was the flaw in Noach's emunah.

What we see around us many times does not make sense and we witness a lot of suffering in the world. We must continue to serve Him with even stronger belief  even when we don't necessarily understand why?

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of Our Fathers: Chapter 3 Mishna 22: Actions vs Widsom

"He used to say, 'One whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, to what is he like? To a tree that has many branches and few roots, so that when the wind comes, it plucks it up and turns it over, as it is said, 'And he shall be like a lonely tree in the desert, and shall not see the coming of the good; he shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, a salt land and uninhabited'. But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom, to what is he like? To a tree that has few branches and many roots , so that even if all the winds in the world come and blow upon it, they cannot move it out of its place, as it is said, 'And he shall be like a tree planted by waters that spreads out its roots beside a stream; it sees not the coming of the heat, and its leaves are ever green; in a year of drought it is not troubled, and ceases not to bear fruit'.

The Mishna here teaches us the fundamental principle that knowledge by itself will not last and make a person a moral individual. The reason is because knowledge doesn't necessarily change a person.

If a person learns something which they feel will have no impact on their lives, what is it worth? Torah is about taking action. Learning Torah teaches us what is permissible and forbidden. They are not lessons just for the sake of learning ie like mathematics; they are principles for a meaningful life.

The first book of the Torah tells us about the roots of history and the character traits of our ancestors. It goes into great detail about the actions of these incredible people which have made a lasting impression throughout the generations. One may mistakenly look at these "stories" as just that, describing our historical roots.

This is tragic. Noach, for example gave us the ability thousands of years later to have the strength to fight against our environment and become great people despite who are neighbors may be. After all, he and his family were the only ones that survived the flood!

We have seen through the generations the "greatest, most intelligent people" who were immoral and outright cruel. How do we explain that the doctors, lawyers and academics were the first ones to join Hitler's third Reich and believed in his doctrine to wipe out the Jews.

Did they really believe that treating animals properly was better than treating a Jew as if to Jews weren't even human and deserved everything that they received? This is where education and wisdom left to its own elements cannot produce moral individuals.

If it is not harnessed properly and given the right values then wisdom can only take a person so far. The famous example of this is with Bertram Russel, the famed university teacher of ethics. When one of his students asked him how he could teach ethics and be unethical, his response was "if I would teach mathematics you would expect me to be a square"?

Our actions and what is behind them is what matters. A person could perform a mitzvah with all the kabblastic intentions and receive unbelievable merit for what he has done while at the same time, a simple Jew could do the same mitzvah and also receive great merit.

The more we learn, the more we understand our limitations and the great responsibility we have to serve G-d properly. This will in turn give us true wisdom which allows us to control our desires and do the mitzvos properly!
Thursday, September 4, 2014

Parshas Ki Tetze: Erasing the beliefs of Amalek

"Remember what Amalek did to you by the way when you came out of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 23:17)

 The Torah at the end of the parsha tells us that we have to remember what Amalek did to us. This is of such importance that on the shabbos before Purim we read these three verses as a Torah obligation! What is so significant that we must remember what Amalek did to us?

If we go back in history, we see that the Jewish people were on the biggest roll of their lives. They saw the miracles that occurred in Egypt with their decimation; they witnessed the sea split and the Egyptians die and ate the manna that was given to them in the desert.

After seeing G-d face to face and receiving the Torah the people of Amalek strike. At first glance this makes no sense because who would want to start up with the Jewish people at this time?

Since the people of Amalek didn't believe in the supernatural or of miracles, they didn't think twice about attacking the Jewish people. How could they if at this time, the Jewish people could have annihilated them at the level they were at?

There is a parable given to explain this. It is as if one person enters a very very hot bath. Even if he goes in, he will get severely burned but at the same time, he will cool it off a little bit for the next person. The next person will do the same thing for the person after him until the water is warm enough to go in.

The people of Amalek understood what they were facing. They attempted to cool off the Jewish people, even if it meant sacrificing many of their own people. The danger of Amalek is that they spread doubt into the world; doubt of an existing G-d who runs the world.

Unfortunately that has continued throughout history where there are many who believe that G-d not only doesn't have control over his creation but in fact does not exist. The Torah tells us explicitly that we must work to the best of our ability to counteract this.

We do this by keeping the Torah and its mitzvos and bringing light to the world. Even though G-ds ways are hidden in this world, we have to publicize and make known to the world of His existence.

Just over the last few months with all the rocket attacks on Israel, G-d's presence can surely be seen. Of all the missiles sent in from Gaza, 80% hit open areas where 10% were knocked down by the Patriot missiles. That means that roughly 10% of all rocket fire hit something in Israel and caused damage.

These are missiles that are very accurate. Very hard to say statistically that 80% will hit open areas even if you are shooting from 5 miles away. G-d is here running the show, we just have to be able to see His hand in action

Even this one small thing gives us strength and answers the "doubts" of all the Amalekites in the world today. This brings G-d's rule to the world which eliminates the heretical thoughts of Amalek and the like.

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 3 Mishna 21: Without a proper understanding of Torah we lack everything!

"Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said, 'When there is no Torah there is no proper conduct, when there is no proper conduct there is no Torah. When there is no wisdom there is no reverence; when there is no reverence there is no wisdom. When there is no knowledge there is no understanding; when there is no understanding there is no knowledge.When there is no bread there is no Torah; when there is no Torah there is no bread."

The first part of the Mishna explains that one must learn Torah to perfect one's character traits. The reason is because the Torah speaks at great length about character traits one must emulate to reach their spiritual potential.

The book of Genesis tells story after story about our forefathers and the great character traits they possessed. The Torah throughout the book of Numbers explains some of the failures of the Jewish people to inject in the future generations the importance of adherence to G-d's laws!

If we don't work on our character development, how can we learn Torah? This means that these two things go hand in hand. IF we see a Torah observant Jew steal or do other things that are in direct violation of the Torah, what does that say about his Torah learning?

We could say that a person is human and makes mistakes and will grow from them. That is true but at the same time, we see that his learning is not up to par and that individual does not actualize what the Torah wants from him!

The next part of the Mishna explains that without wisdom there is no reverence and vice-versa. When one learns and acquires wisdom, we realize how much we don't know which should humble us. The more we learn, the more we see how small we really are in the context of the world at large.

At the same time, if one has wisdom but does not incorporate reverence with that, an individual is then doing mental gymnastics. This means that the learning really has no relevance to their lives and they don't put it into action.

Learning is about doing and embellishing it. It is not like another academic subject, it is our life! Our goal is to incorporate these ideas in our lives and pass our priceless heritage onto our children.

The next part of the Mishna explains how much we have to concentrate on our learning to be able to understand it. We cannot just give a superficial overview of what the Torah tells us but we have to try and understand its depths to the best of our ability.

If we don't, then our learning will only become confusing and won't have the impact that it should. This is why it is important to have good teachers that can explain these things to us so we can explore the intricacies of Torah!

The last part of the Mishna tells us that when there is no bread there is no Torah and without Torah there is no bread. If we don't have money or a livelihood, how can we learn Torah? We have to make our best effort to put food on the table.

At the same time, we have to realize that even if we have ample livelihood, what is it worth without Torah? Torah is the essence of our lives; livelihood is just a means to be able to survive in this world but it is not the essence of who we are. We often forget this!
Thursday, August 28, 2014

Parshas Shoftim: Take Precaution in Guarding our Precous Souls

"Judges and officers shall you make in all your gates which the L-rd your G-d gives you throughout your tribes and you shall judge the people with righteous judgement" (Deuteronomy 16:18).

Rav Moshe Feinstein in Derash Moshe asks why does it say for you, it would seem superfluous here. Rav Moshe learns that a person has to be a judge over himself to see if his actions are good and fitting in this world, He also has to "police" himself to see if he is doing what the "judge" wants him to!

This is how a Jew is supposed to look at the world. How can I better serve my creator? How can I guard myself against transgression? How can I better defend myself against the evil inclination and succeed against it?

Although this is how we should live everyday, we take more stock of our actions during the month of Elul as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We are preparing ourselves for the ultimate judgement which will effect our lives!

During this time, we examine and reexamine what we have been doing and what we could possibly do better. We will take on extra stringencies to show G-d we want to reach higher spiritual levels as we prepare for these awesome days.

The Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah (laws of repentance) tells us that we have to look at our everyday life as if the scale is hanging in the balance between good and evil and my action right now will determine if the scale goes to one side or the other. We may think that our actions don't matter or are insignificant but in reality they have the ability to change the world!

G-d gave us a pure soul and we have to do our best to guard it against the impurity of the physical world! We have to tune into our spiritual selves keeping and guarding the Torah to the best of our ability. We are human and make mistakes but even so, we have to brush ourselves off, get up and continue again in our quest for spiritual potential!

We are guarding our precious soul for the "judge" who has given it to us. May we use these precious days to give our judge the proper respect and love He deserves!

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 3 Mishna 20: Enjoying this world comes at a price

"He used to say: 'Everything is given on pledge, and a net is spread for all the living (none can escape divine justice) ; the store is open and the storekeeper (G-d) allows credit; the ledger is open and the hand writes; whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow, but the collectors go around regularly every day and exact punishment from man, whether or not he realizes (that he is punished for his sins); they have good authority on which they can rely, since the judgement is just;  and all is prepared for the banquet (the reward for the righteous is assured).

The first part of the Mishna explains that whatever we have in this world is loaned to us and we shouldn't think that we will pass it on to our kids or our loved ones. The reason is because everything belongs to G-d and He can decide to take it away if He chooses. This is the reality which we must live by.

Rabbenu Yonah gives us a parable with which to understand this. A person walks into a certain place and doesn't find anybody there. He walks into a house and finds a table set up and on it many delicacies of food and drink. He eats and drinks and says, 'All this I have merited and I will do with it what I wish! He doesn't realize that someone else must have brought it there and in the end he will have to pay back what he benefited from'.

This means that even though we are given free reign to live as we want, we will have to give an accounting for our actions after we die. Even in justice G-d has mercy and He will judge a person measure for measure.

The rest of the Mishna explains in terms of a shopkeeper and credit that he gives to his customers. They come and borrow on credit but at the end, they still have to pay. This is a parable to life in this world.

We are given the opportunity to enjoy this world and everything inside it. We have to know how to do that! G-d has given us instructions in the form of the Torah that guide our everyday life from when we wake up in the morning until we go to sleep at night.

If we use the world properly, then everything is good; the rain will come in its proper time,there will be peace in the land... If we don't do what we are supposed to do, then there is strife and evil runs rampant.

Everyone has to take stock of their lives and try and change to live as G-d wants to do. There are repercussions for our actions as well. We will only understand to what extent after death when G-d shows us what we did in our lives and what we had the potential to do,

Woe to the person that had great potential and wasted it on their desires in this world. G-d gave us a great world where we could strive to great spiritual heights.. Let's use it properly and grab it!
Thursday, August 7, 2014

Parshas Ve'eschanan: If you add or subtract mitzvos from the Torah, you only lose out

"You shall not add to the word  which I command you, neither shall you diminish it, that you may keep the commandments of the L-rd your G-d which I command you , Your eyes  have seen what the L-rd did because of Ba'al Pe'or: for all men that followed Ba'al Pe'or, the L-rd destroyed them from among you." (Devarim 4:2-3)

Rav Moshe Feinstein z"l in Derash Moshe asks what is the connection of not adding or subtracting from the mitzvos to serving Ba'al Pe'or? He tells us that the mistake of Enosh and his generation was that they thought serving idols was a sanctification of G-d's name.

After all, if G-d created the stars, planets..and they are so big and serve a tremendous purpose in our solar system and galaxy, then G-d must have put them there for us to worship as well. This does not mean we don't need to worship G-d but these creations that come from Him are also worthy of worship!

The problem is that G-d never gave us a command to worship them. Not only that, they are adding on to the mitzvos that G-d has given us and that is part of the fundamental mistake they made. This led to G-d being forgotten and these other creations being worshiped entirely!

How far that generation and future generations fell! They recognized that G-d created the world and everything in it. They also thought that these things were so incredible that they could be worshiped as well.

In essence these things were worshiped and G-d was forgotten about! This Rav Moshe continues, led the Jewish people to even worship the idol of Ba'al Pe'or. They added on to mitzvos that had no business being added on to!

The Torah is very specific of what we have to do and what we are not allowed to do. When we start adding on or detracting from the mitzvos, we are saying that we know better than Torah. Maybe this mitzvah doesn't apply today, or we have to make it fit in to the times we live in...However we want to define it, we only lose out when we try to add or subtract mitzvos!

We can see from the so called other movements what happens when you decide to play G-d and delete mitzvos from the Torah: assimilation and intermarriage. These are the two biggest things today that threaten the Jewish people from going into oblivion.

This is what the Torah is teaching us. We have to understand the mitzvos in their entirety and keep them to the best of our ability to sanctify G-d's name in this world!

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 3 Misna 19: If G-d knows what we will do, what happened to free will?

"Everything is foreseen (by G-d), yet freewill is granted (to man); the world is ruled with Divine goodness, yet all is according to the amount of man's work"

The first part of the Mishna explains that G-d foresees everything we do. If this is true, how do we reconcile the next statement that we have freewill? After all, if G-d knows what we are going to do, how am I really free to do what I want?

The commentaries explains that we have the ability to do either good or bad. We have free choice to go in either one direction or the other. This does not contradict the fact that G-d knows what we are going to do. We still have to go out and do it!

The reason that G-d set up the world like this is so that we will get more reward for the positive actions that we do. If we were created only do His will, we would be robots. This is not what G-d wants! He put us in this world with different character traits, drives and urges to help us reach our potential.

These actions can also cause G-d's ire when we have not done what He wants us to do! Although the first man ate from the tree of knowledge, he made our challenges that much more difficult.

His intention was to bring the evil, so-to-speak inside of us so that we would have to constantly fight against our evil inclination. That way, when we were presented with different options of what do do in a particular situation, if we chose the right way, we would get even more merit for our good actions but at the same time suffer the consequences when we did the wrong thing.

The only problem with this, though is that the Talmud tells us that G-d calls him an apikorus (heretic). The reason being is that even though Adam may have been right in his thinking, nonetheless, it was not the way G-d established the world to be run!

This leads to the last part of the Mishna about G-d's judgement. G-d has tremendous compassion when looking at what man does. In reality, we have no one to blame but ourselves for what happens to us because ultimately we are responsible for our actions.

The only question is when we do something that G-d doesn't want us to do, how does He view it? He takes into account what the action was, why we did it and where we were holding at the time. He therefore judges us at the present time, not for what great things we may do in the future, thereby making the judgement harsher.

This is a tremendous act of chesed G-d does for us. Even though He may put us in precarious situations to see how we will react, nonetheless, He doesn't put us in a situation we can't handle! We are judged by what we do, not by what our future holds!
Thursday, July 31, 2014

Parshas Devarim: Know how to give rebuke

"These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Yisrael on the other side of the Jordan river in the wilderness over against Suf, between Paran, and Tofel and Lavan, and Hazertot and Di-zahav" (Deuteronomy 1:1)

Rashi explains that Moshe reminds the Jewish people of their sins through a hint and not directly because of the honor of the Jewish people. Rav Moshe Feinstein z"l asks in Derash Moshe  that there are also verses that specifically mention their sins like by the spies and in parshas Ekev the sin of the golden calf so why here are the sins only mentioned through a hint while other places they are spelled out clearly?

Rav Moshe explains those sins and punishment that are spoken about in great detail is because the Jewish people have to be reminded of the severity of that particular transgression. This, though was only for the previous generation but by the the present generation that did not do those particular transgressions, there is no need for them to be rebuked for what was done previously.

Therefore, they are mentioned only through a hint since the present generation also needs to be rebuked for the transgressions of the previous generation. The reason for this is because each person has to know that if they see someone else sins, they should not say that this person made a mistake and it could never happen to me because I know that this particular thing is forbidden in the Torah and I would never do it!

This person also has what to fear that he could fall in the same trap as his friend and also transgress unless he uproots those negative character traits that constantly prey upon him! A person should not rely on their knowledge or laurels that they could never find themselves in such a situation but they should increase their Torah study and mussar learning to constantly fight against their desires and temptations.

As long as we are not working and striving for this goal, then we are puppets in the hands of our evil inclination. Another thing that we learn out from here is that if we have the ability to rebuke someone, we should do so through a hint and not with harsh words.

We should also never remind someone of what they have done wrong in the past. This will not help them to correct their ways and change. Giving rebuke is something that has been lost in this generation as we do not know how to do it properly. We need to embrace people with an overflowing amount of love.

There was a person in the yeshiva of Radin who smoked on shabbos and was about to leave. The saintly Chofetz Chaim met with him, grabbed his hand and with burning tears just said the word shabbos. This made such an impression on the boy that because of how the Chofetz Chaim approached him, he did not profane shabbos again.

Although we may not be on the level of the Chofetz Chaim, we can still try and help others with positive reinforcement instead of trying to "help" them with harsh words and rebuke.

Shabbat Shalom