Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Pasaic Torah Institute – Taking Advantage Of Elul

Like many people, I took my family on a little end-of-summer getaway. We loved it—change of scenery, peace and quiet; a respite before the rush of fall activities begins. This year we ended up finding a newly renovated five-bedroom home in Fleischmanns, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. It’s a tiny place known for its Jewish hotel called Oppenheimer’s. Sure enough, we felt we entered a different world up there. No hustle and bustle. Even quiet by mountain standards! Locals drove their pickup trucks and people like me drove their minivans. Nearby, we saw a retreat for Satmar chasidim with a small Satmar camp and yeshiva, plus a new shul. The air was clean, the stars were bright at night. It was just what we needed.

The Jewish calendar now puts us in the month of Elul. For many, this time of year can get overlooked because of summer plans and trips and the whirlwind of getting ready for a new school year. Often, we might only begin to think about Rosh Hashanah when Selichos begin.

It’s not surprising that some people associate Elul with a feeling of nervousness. It’s a time to focus on changing for the better…Rosh Hashanah is coming! Perhaps that’s why many people don’t like thinking about Elul—there’s so much at stake! However, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel explains that Elul should evoke a feeling of great joy, as it’s a truly auspicious time. In no other time period does Hashem openly make Himself so available to us. Elul is a gift!

Rav Wachtfogel equates Elul to spending time in a remote vacation village. We take ourselves outside our “normal” world to cocoon with the Almighty! I look back now at my time in Fleischmanns, New York, with a whole new motivational perspective.

Many pesukim allude to this 40-day period. One famous one is “ani l’dodi ve dodi li”—I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. Here, the first letters in these four words spell Elul. The Mishna Berura points out these four words all end with the letter yud, which has the numerical value of ten. The sum of these last four letters equals 40, alluding to this 40-day period.

The Bnei Yissaschar notes the minimum size of a mikveh is 40 seah of water and equates the period of Elul through Yom Kippur to a mikvah. Forty seah is equal to 960 pugin (measurement used in time of the Gemara), which is the same number of hours found in 40 days. When we emerge, we are new and purified.

The mazal (Zodiac sign) for the month of Elul is a besulah (an unmarried girl), signifying this time period is one of creating a new relationship and marriage with Hashem. The start of any relationship needs quality time and attention. As expressed in Parshas Ki Seitzei, the first year of marriage absolves a man from his army service, as he needs to be home with his new wife to develop their relationship. The month of Elul provides us with the opportunity to renew our relationship with Hashem and we need to invest time to develop this relationship.

With every step we take to get closer to Hashem, He takes a step closer to us. Everything we do pays dividends and catapults us further! In many airports you’ll see “moving floors.” Some people stand on them for the ride, not having to walk. Personally, I get a thrill to walk on them and see myself zooming by the people walking on the regular floor. Every step I take, I move at double or triple the speed! This is Elul. Every positive move we make to increase our commitment to Torah and mitzvos propels us forward spiritually for the rest of the year.

We have a gift in this 40-day period between Elul and Yom Kippur. We can accomplish so much more. Now is the time to sow simple seeds and watch them grow. With every little increase in Torah study, starting a new shiur, focusing a bit more on just one part of our davening, making a phone call to someone who needs our help—the payoff in making these efforts is huge.

A student of mine just completed learning the entire Mishna Berura; it took him five years. He studied one page a day. It took focus, persistence and perseverance. A day at a time—and he gained a life-changing accomplishment.

The most effective steps are baby steps—slow and steady wins the race. One small change can transform your Elul…and your life!

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Shoftim – An ‘Accident’ Through Divine Guidance

When I was in 12th grade, I applied to a post-high school yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. Many of my friends applied to the same place and I was looking forward to a great year. But…I received a letter from the yeshiva saying, “Thank you for applying to our yeshiva. Being that we have numerous applicants and limited space, we cannot accept everyone. We wish you success in finding the right yeshiva for you.” I could not believe that I was not accepted! This was the perfect place. I tried having one of my rebbeim contact the yeshiva, but it was to no avail. With no other choice, I applied to Yeshiva Ner Yaakov, which accepted me.

Still, my feelings of rejection lingered. One weekend, I spent a Shabbat with my friends at the yeshiva from which I was rejected. After Shabbat, I started to think, “Would this yeshiva really have been the best fit for me? Would I have really fit in with the boys, the rebbeim and the yeshiva’s strict rules?” By the end of the year, it was so clear to me that Hashem was looking out for me. If I would have attended that yeshiva, I would not have made the friends most beneficial for me, I would not have connected well to the rebbeim and I would not have been happy with their policies. At Yeshiva Ner Yaakov, however, Hashem guided me to great new friendships and a deep connection with the rebbeim. My yeshiva had all the right ingredients for me to thrive.

In Parshat Shoftim, the Torah instructs a person who accidentally kills someone to run to one of the appointed cities of refuge and remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol. These cities grant the accidental killer safety from the relatives of the individual murdered, since they have permission to avenge the blood of their relative as long the murderer is found outside the cities of refuge.

The accidental killer may well be thinking, “I don’t believe this is happening to me. I had a job, a nice home and community. Now this accident occurs, and I’m banished to this city. Why is Hashem doing this to me?”

The Gemara explains that this incident did not happen accidentally. Hashem orchestrated all this to occur since this individual had committed a prior crime and needed to be sent to exile as rehabilitation. Hashem orchestrated the accidental killing so he would have to leave his home and relocate to the city of refuge.

The Torah instructs, “Tachin lecha haderech”—prepare the road—construct paved highways to the city of refuge and place visible road signs, so the accidental killer has a clear and easy road to reach the city of refuge quickly. While the individual deserved to be sent into exile for a crime he committed secretly at an earlier time, Hashem nonetheless wants to ensure he reaches safety without delay or harm.

There is a custom to study the sefer Shaarei Teshuva of Rabbeinu Yonah during the month of Elul. Similar to the Gemara above, the first line of the sefer opens with the words, “Hashem prepares the path for the person who erred to pull himself out from the lowliness of his bad actions and the trap of sin.” This is the lesson learned from the laws regarding the accidental killer.

The circumstances of life are not random! Everything is orchestrated by Hashem—the family we are born into, our community, our job(s). Each situation is custom-made for us by our Creator. In the moment, we might not realize how it is good for us. Indeed, it’s often only in hindsight that we realize just what a blessing it was.

The laws of the city of refuge are also discussed in Parshat Mishpatim. The Torah describes the accident killing and the creation of the city of refuge with the words, “Ina l’yado v’samti lecha” Hashem orchestrated the accident and created an asylum. The first letters of these four words spells the word Elul. The B’nei Yissaschar explains that the month of Elul is likened to a city of refuge. In this special month, we properly prepare for the yamim noraim. In this month, Hashem ensures that our paths are clear and paved to make it easy for us to return to Him.

Just like Hashem set up the best path for my Torah learning years ago, so, too, Hashem arranges the best path for all of us each day. Let us recognize that any difficulty or any setback we encounter is really for our best. Instead of complaining or feeling sad about an adverse circumstance, let’s use it as an opportunity to get closer to Hashem and to intensify our adherence to Torah and mitzvot.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Re’eh – Keeping Our Children Close

I was recently listening to a shiur by noted speaker, Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein, founder of Ohr Na’ava. When he was young, his father was a traveling salesman who would only come home from work on Friday. His father was exhausted from a long week, but he had his priorities! When little Zecharia and his brothers came home from yeshiva on Friday, their father was always waiting on the front stoop of their home with a football in hand, ready to play a game with his sons. Rabbi Wallerstein recalls, “I was a rough teenager. I could have easily fallen into the wrong crowd. The only thing that kept me strong in my commitment to Yiddishkeit was my connection to my father. I saw how much Yiddishkeit meant to him and how much he loved me and realized how broken he would be if I got involved in unsuitable behavior.”

Rabbi Wallerstein’s father knew that the key to passing on Torah to the next generation is a positive parent-child relationship.

My good friend Avi had a group of rowdy friends in high school. Trouble was their middle name. He was friendly with the group, but he never participated in any of their antics. Avi had a devoted father and didn’t want to hurt his feelings. As a youngster, Avi was really into cars. His father made him a deal: Learn the entire Mishnah Berurah, be tested on it…and if he did well, he’d buy Avi a new sports car. Avi accepted the deal! The challenge was perhaps more than he realized. After two years, he had only completed the first of the six volumes of the Mishnah Berurah. He did take a test on the first volume and he aced it! His father saw the effort and the great results of his son and invested in him: He bought him the car! He also told him he should finish the other five volumes. Today, Avi is a rebbe in a yeshiva in the mornings and oversees an auto body shop that he owns, in addition to being a car dealer. He is combining both of his passions.

The power of a close parent-child relationship is learned from Parshas Re’eh. Rav Ahron Kotler says the most important pasuk in the entire Torah is “Banim atem laHashem elokeichem, You are children to Hashem your God.” The pasuk continues, “Do not cause a mark on your flesh or pull out hair from sadness of passing of relatives.” How are these points connected? Rashi explains that you should not make a mark on yourselves because you are children of Hashem and should therefore look presentable!

This teaches us the value of inherent self-worth. Our elevated status vis-à-vis the Creator prevents us from deforming ourselves physically; surely the same is true spiritually.

The bottom line is that if we truly feel we are children of Hashem and realize how much Hashem loves us, this will prevent us from getting involved in any improper behavior. Temptations are not so appealing when we feel like we’re part of a royal family—Hashem’s family.

Undoubtedly, having this attitude serves as the key to our personal success in Torah and mitzvos and to our success in passing on Torah to the next generation. The world at large recognizes this fact: they expect a higher degree of morality and refinement from us as Jewish people. We should expect the same higher standards from ourselves!

As a postscript…When I was writing this dvar Torah, I received a call from a friend who works with me to ensure funding for a teen drop-in center for troubled youth. He mentioned an idea for a fundraising campaign before Yom Tov. He said perhaps our message for this campaign should be that just like we are children to Hashem, these teens are also our children and we need to look after them. He had no idea about the theme of my dvar Torah this week, but it was a clear message to me from Hashem that my theme of the week was completely on target!