Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Chukat – Receiving Full Credit For Best Learning Efforts

Rav Mordechai Gifter worked very hard to remember the Torah he learned. As he aged, he was stricken with an illness affecting his memory. This troubled him terribly. “How will I be able to answer the questions I’ll be asked by the Heavenly Tribunal when I come to heaven?” he would lament. Rav Gifter went to a specialist and expressed his anguish for not being able to recall his Torah learning. The doctor said, “There are two parts of the brain: one for retaining information and one for recalling the information. The recall part of your brain is compromised, but you still retain all the information. When you get to heaven, you won’t have this physical challenge and you will be able to recall all that you learned!” Rav Gifter told the doctor, “You have comforted me.”

Many of us feel similarly when we learn Torah, especially after spending a lengthy time delving into a topic we still do not comprehend. We sometimes wonder, “What am I accomplishing? I don’t understand the material, let alone remember it!”

This feeling of working and not accomplishing can be depressing. I once read a story about a Jew who was sentenced to back-breaking labor in Siberia. His job was to push a heavy piece of wood outside a millhouse all day long in subzero temperatures. He was told his labor turned a millstone in the millhouse, grinding grain into flour. For 30 years he worked tirelessly. One day, the guard came and told him, “Good news. Your time in Siberia is up. You are being released.” He was so excited! The guard escorted him through the millhouse, but the man saw no trace of grain. “Where is all the grain? Where are all the piles of flour?” asked the man incredulously. The guard said, “This is Siberia. There is no grain here! We just make people work for no reason to torture them.” Upon hearing that his 30 years of labor produced nothing, the man collapsed on the floor. The thought of all those years of fruitless labor was too much to bear.

Laboring in Torah is different. Even if we don’t fully comprehend the Torah we learn, we are still accomplishing tremendously! This lesson is learned from Parshas Chukas. “Zos haTorah adam ki yamus b’ohel, this is the law about a person who dies in a tent.” The Gemara Brachos provides a novel interpretation to this verse. The Torah is giving us a formula on how one needs to learn Torah. Zos haTorah—this is the way to learn Torah. Adam ki yamus b’ohel—a person needs to kill himself (in the sense of pushing himself tirelessly) to understand and learn the Torah. It’s back-breaking labor! The Gemara is sharing a great secret. If we toil in Torah, even without understanding it fully, our extreme effort allows us to “acquire” the Torah we are working on. What counts is the effort we put in!

The parsha starts off with the same word, “zos.” “Zos chukas haTorah”—this is the law of the Torah. The word chok means a law without a rationale. Chok also means to etch or to inscribe.

We can thus say that every time we exert ourselves in Torah, even if we do not understand the reasoning, we are etching the Torah deeper and deeper into ourselves, as every effort makes an impression.

The Chofetz Chaim echoes this sentiment. He says that whenever we learn a topic that we don’t understand fully, when we come to the yeshiva in heaven our limitations will be gone and we’ll be able to fully grasp what we tried to learn down here.

This is the profound lesson of zos chukas haTorah. The world around us operates on the concept of “show me the money!” Results. Facts on the ground. No one cares about the time and effort it took you. Torah is not like that at all. Hashem treasures every minute you spend; every moment you sacrifice for His Torah. Your effort…is everything! It helps complete your soul’s mission.

Ultimately, if we put in the effort that we can, Hashem will give us maximum credit for our efforts! But the true reward for our efforts in learning Torah is the resulting closeness we feel with our Creator.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Korach – A Goal Of Peaceful Conflict

Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the Chief Rabbi of Yerushalayim, and Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael in the early 1900’s, embodied very different views concerning the Jewish people and the development of the State of Israel. One time, they were both asked to attend a bris. They reached the door of the shul at the same time. Rav Sonnenfeld said to Rav Kook, “You are the Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael — you should enter first.” Rav Kook responded, “We are in Yerushalayim and you are the chief rabbi of this city. You should go first.” In the end, they agreed to walk in at the same time. These two great rabbis, despite their many disagreements, had tremendous respect and feelings of friendship for each other.

When learning the parsha of Korach and Korach’s revolt, we picture a rabble rouser who attempted a coup against Moshe and Aharon. The Mishna in Avos (5:20) contrasts the dispute between Hillel and Shammai with Korach and his assembly. Any argument for the sake of heaven is like that of Hillel and Shammai – it will have a constructive outcome. But any argument that is not for the sake of heaven is like that of Korach and his assembly – it will not have a constructive outcome. This Mishna is puzzling: the only description the Mishna can find about the argument of Korach is that it wasn’t for the sake of heaven! Isn’t it obvious the whole scenario was based on pure greed and inflated ego?

Rav Yeruchom Levovitz explains the Mishna is teaching us that Korach was indeed a very righteous and worthy person and had a special desire to come close to Hashem. This inner drive propelled his wish to be Kohen Gadol and leader of Klal Yisroel. Korach truly believed he was disagreeing with Moshe being Kohen Gadol for theright reasons! However, deep down, Korach’s argument was rooted in an ulterior motive. His true motive of desiring honor was very subtle and almost undetected. If not for the Mishna revealing it to us, we would not have known. This is illustrated by the fact Moshe had to request a public miracle from Hashem to clearly demonstrate that Korach and his entourage were incorrect. Therefore, the earth miraculously opened and swallowed up Korach and his assembly to demonstrate to all, Hashem’s choice of Moshe and Aharon.

This is a very telling lesson. People have disagreements, arguments, and disputes. Yet, who can truly say that their disagreement is one hundred percent for the sake of heaven? The Maharal says that machlokes – argument – has a magnetic pull that draws others in. People will rationalize and justify, but in truth, they would be better off realizing machlokes is like a burning fire we should run away from. Even more so when we know we are right!

The Zohar says Korach, with his argumentativeness, did not follow the true concept of Shabbos. The Sfas Emes explains that Shabbos is the symbol of peace – shalom. The two go hand in hand. In the Friday night tefilos (prayers), we conclude Lecho Dodiwith the words Bo’i beshalom – come in peace – as we welcome in the Shabbos. Indeed, we greet each other on Shabbos with Shabbat Shalom.

Shalom is a sign of true harmony. There is a special attribute of peace and harmony which is present on Shabbos. No matter what happens in a particular week, Shabbos comes and brings shalom. Shabbos is a time we can recognize that even when having a disagreement with someone, we are both servants of Hashem. And Hashem wants…that we get along!

The litmus test to determine whether an argument is for proper reasons is whether we can sit down at the same table together and enjoy the other person’s company. This is expressed on Shabbos as families come together and eat Shabbos meals together. Communally, we come together to daven on Shabbos. If we can’t sit together, there’s a problem. Remember that Rav Sonnenfeld and Rav Kook were able to walk through the door together and have a wonderful friendship, despite their diametrically opposed views.

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Shelach – A Covering Of Significance

A close friend of mine is the head of an out-of-town yeshiva high school. One day, one of the parents sponsored a “tzitzis project” so the boys could learn to tie their own tzitzis. When the supplies arrived, the tzitzis strings were already attached to the garments! The rosh yeshiva quickly switched gears. The new plan was now for the boys to decorate the tzitzis garments, each in their unique style, since the Gemara Shabbos says one should have beautiful tzitzis, which Rashi explains is a nice garment for the attachment of tzitzis. It was a huge hit! Even the boys who were reluctant to wear tzitzis were now wearing them proudly.

Hashem instructs the Bnei Yisrael with the mitzvah of tzitzis at the end of Parshas Shelach. This mitzvah was given to Bnei Yisrael as a reward for the actions of their great-grandfather Shem. When Noach became drunk and was standing unclothed in his tent, Shem and Yefes took a blanket and covered their father. Rashi says that in reward for clothing their father, they both received a “type of a covering” in the future. Yefes will be rewarded in the final war of Armageddon, where all his descendants who perish will be buried and not lay as corpses in the fields. Shem was rewarded with his grandchildren (Bnei Yisrael) being given the mitzvah of tzitzis. Chom, who ridiculed and degraded his father and did nothing to cover him, was punished with his descendants becoming slaves.

Why was the reward for Shem and Yefes different, since they both acted to clothe their father? Rashi notes that Shem initiated the idea to clothe their father, as is hinted in the word vayikach—and he (Shem) took, rather than vayikchu (pl.)—and they took (since Shem and Yefes both carried the blanket together). And why specifically are Shem’s descendants rewarded in their lifetimes with the mitzvah of tzitzis, as opposed to Yefes, whose descendants will be rewarded with respect in a specific instance after their demise?

The Shem Mishmuel enlightens us on the three sons and their differences. Chom was unfazed and unabashed by his father being unclothed, as he related to man no differently than to an animal. Just as animals do not wear clothing, neither do humans need clothing. Therefore, he was punished to be a slave to serve his fellow man, just as animals function for the service of man.

Yefes recognized the beauty and dignity of man and felt it was out of place for man to be unclothed. Therefore, his reward was to be accorded the proper respect for men to be buried and not lay as carcasses in the open field.

Shem recognized something deeper. Shem saw the neshama (soul) inside man and his inner spiritual beauty. He recognized that the body of a human is like a garment to the soul. Not only was it undignified for Noach to be unclothed, and a disgrace to the holy neshama that’s inside, but he also recognized that the body itself is holy and needs to be covered. This prompted him to jump and initiate the covering of his father. Therefore, Shem was rewarded with a garment that not only clothes his body, but also has the dimension of a mitzvah. The tzitzis transforms and gives a new life to the garment, recognizing that the body-soul relationship adds sanctity to the body itself.

Chom, Yefes and Shem’s view on the human being is alluded to in their names. Chom is rooted in the word cham—heat. Chom connected to the base urges and desires of man as an animal. Yefes means yafeh—beautiful—as he recognized the beauty and dignity of man. Shem means “name,” which defines the essence of something, as Shem recognized the spiritual essence of man.

The mitzvah of tzitzis reminds us of the reality that we are a neshama that is clothed by a body and that our body itself is therefore holy and special. The strings attached to the garment elevate the garment to be a mitzvah; it not only clothes a person, but gives him eternal reward. The Torah says, “One shall see the tzitzis and remember all the mitzvos of Hashem.” The tzitzis have the ability to remind us of all the mitzvos, as they are the reward for Shem’s recognizing the spiritual essence of man and how it elevates man’s body. This recognition is to be expressed in the way we act, talk, walk and dress.

Let us always realize that we were created to be holy and elevated. Every action we take and every word we utter can have sparks of kedusha (holiness.) This awareness will ensure that our behavior reflects our refined status.

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Behaalotecha – Making the Right Choices

Avi was sitting in a Jerusalem restaurant with a group of Israelis who had recently committed to keeping Torah and mitzvos. The waiter brought watermelon for dessert. One of the men picked up a watermelon slice and very loudly recited “Baruch atah … shehakol nihiyeh bidvoro” and took a big bite. Avi said to the man, “That was such a beautiful blessing. Thank you for allowing us to say ‘Amen’ to the bracha.” Avi then said, “I’m not sure you’re aware that since watermelon grows from the ground, the correct bracha is ha-adamah.” The man replied, “I know, but let me tell you a story. I was in the Six-Day war. My platoon was surrounded by Syrian tanks. We were low on ammunition and on soldiers. There was no way out. The commander said we should recite a prayer to save us from this very big danger. I did not know any prayers, but for some reason I knew the bracha of ‘Baruch atah … shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro,’ so I screamed the words as a prayer, placed a mortar in the cannon, shot and blew up a Syrian tank! Upon seeing what just happened, another soldier got up, said the same bracha shot his cannon and had another direct hit on the enemy tanks. This repeated itself over and over. I said to myself just now, if the blessing of shehakol was good enough for a Syrian tank, it’s good enough for a watermelon!”

It doesn’t exactly work that way. In Parshas Beha’aloscha, the Jews complained about missing the fish, squash and watermelon they freely ate in Egypt. How could they complain they ate fish and other delicacies when they didn’t even receive straw to make the bricks? Rashi quotes the Sifri who explains that their complaint was not about the food. The issue was that they now felt bound by the Torah’s mitzvos, whereas in Egypt, they were free of any commitments.

Rav Wolbe cautions that it is hard for us today to comprehend the complaints of the lofty generation who received the Torah. They weren’t looking to be free to do whatever they pleased. Rather, their complaints related to the mun. Delivery of the mun to individuals was very revealing! The midrash tells us the mun fell in different areas, depending on the person’s connection to Hashem. For the extremely righteous, the mun landed on their doorstep; the righteous – a few meters away from their house; the least righteous – outside of the camp. This made for a daily, very public display of where each person was spiritually! Many wanted to be free to eat their mun without their shortcomings being on display for everyone to see.

Indeed, one of the greatest gifts Hashem gave us is the ability to exercise free choice (bechira chafshis) to follow Hashem’s Torah. Although we are always bound and obligated to perform mitzvos, when we exercise our free choice to do so, this connects us to the Torah in a deeper way and makes the reward much greater.

We can also relate to the concept of free choice through Yom Kippur. We hopefully achieve high spiritual standards by the conclusion of Yom Kippur, but it’s hard to maintain these standards all year. As weeks pass, we don’t have the clarity and focus that we achieved on Yom Kippur. If we commit a sin and are not punished on the spot, that’s part of Hashem’s plan to give us free choice. The fork in the road is always there for us—good or bad—it’s our free choice.

My rebbe, Rabbi Elefant of the Mir Yerushalayim, says most of our daily decisions are not an exercise of free choice. Deciding which ice cream or flavored coffee we want is not exercising free choice. Real bechira is deciding to do a mitzvah or holding back from doing an aveirah (sin.) For example, we may restrain ourselves from saying a derogatory comment. Intellectually, it’s an easy choice. But in the moment, for some, it’s a big challenge! Or like our soldier earlier, do we use our own emotional approach to mitzvos and say “shehakol” on the watermelon, or follow the Shulchan Aruch and say “ha-adamah?”

How do we help ensure that we make the right choice?

Reb Yisrael Salanter suggests we study a topic of Torah a few minutes a day, specifically in an area we want to strengthen or perfect. For example, we may study the laws of kedusha (sanctity) of a shul/bais medrash, to help us refrain from talking during davening.

The mun was there for the Jews in the desert and its delivery method provided immediate spiritual feedback. We have free choice, but usually without immediate feedback. It’s our gift…and our opportunity for spiritual advancement.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Emor / Pesach Sheini – Seeking Spiritual Food

Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore went on their first long journey to Eretz Yisrael in 1827. On the way from Malta to Alexandria, Egypt, there was a major storm that threatened to capsize the boat. They said tehillim fervently. The captain told everyone to prepare for the end! Finally, the Montefiores had a thought. By Italian Sephardic custom, they had held on to a piece of afikomen — for safe journeys. They retrieved it from their trunk, made their way to the deck and threw it into the stormy sea. Within minutes, the storm calmed, clouds dissipated, and their journey returned to its calm beginning. The Montefiores gave thanks to Hashem for saving them, continued onto Eretz Yisrael, and there rekindled their link to Torah.

Nowadays after Pesach people often ask, “What do I do with all my leftover Matzah?” Based on the Sephardic custom, some still keep a piece of afikomen matzah for protection. More commonly, the practice is to save it for Pesach Sheini, on the 14th of Iyar (this coming Sunday). For the Torah tells us during the time of the Beis Hamikdash that anyone who wasn’t able to bring the Korban Pesach on 14th of Nisan, for reasons out of their control, could bring a Korban Pesach the following month on the 14th of Iyar and eat it on the night of the fifteenth, together with matzah.

Last year I was puzzled with a question. The custom of eating matzah and not saying Tachanun occurs on the fourteenth. Yet, the Torah says they ate the Pesach Sheini on the fifteenth.  Shouldn’t we honor these customs on the fifteenth?

Rav Avrohom Schorr quotes the Ramah Mipanau, who praises one who also eats matzah on the fifteenth of Iyar because of this question! The Siddur Yavetz and Ramah Mipanau explain that the matzah that had baked on their backs as they left Mitzrayim lasted until the fifteenth of Iyar and on that day, the mon (manna) started to fall. (Rashi Beshalach 16:1) Rav Avrohom Schorr explains that when they finished eating the last piece of matzah, they complained they had no food left to eat. So why is this a cause for celebration today??

The Sfas Emes notes that when they complained about the lack of food, the Torah does not tell us there was in fact no food. The only indication of the lack of food was their complaint they were going to “die in the desert from hunger” (Beshalach 16:1-3) Unlike other commentators who saw the complaining as a negative, the Sfas Emes says the hunger here was not physical hunger, but rather a spiritual hunger. Even though they ran out of matzah, they were not worried – they believed Hashem was going to give them food. The “food” for which they yearned was a deep connection to Hashem. Just as the matzah they ate was a constant reminder of the miracle Hashem did to take them out of Mitzrayim, they wanted “food” that would connect them to Hashem in a similar way.

As a response to this request, Hashem granted the Bnei Yisroel the gift of Mon – heavenly bread – for forty years.

The following year, on their first Pesach in the desert, the people who were tamei (ritually impure) and couldn’t bring the Korban Pesach on time, said they didn’t want to lose out on the mitzvah. Therefore, Hashem caused the new Yom Tov of Pesach Sheini to come into being.

It’s important to note that Parshas Emor lists all the Yom Tovim, without mentioning the possibility of a makeup date for a Yom Tov. So why did Hashem grant a makeup date for those who were unable to bring the Korban Pesach? Rav Gedalia Schorr explains that precisely because the people verbalized their feeling of loss of the mitzvah, Hashem told Moses He was going to create an ability for them to still perform it – because they asked!

Pesach Sheini is a game-changer in our avodas Hashem (serving Hashem.) It demonstrates that the desire to connect to Hashem can actually afford us another chance! Our interest creates new opportunities.

People tell me sometimes they don’t want to eat a sandwich for a meal since they would need to recite Birkas Hamazon. Perhaps we should look at it in the reverse — by looking for opportunities to eat bread, we can fulfill a mitzvah from the Torah to recite Birkas Hamazon!

Pesach Sheini marks a time period which signifies our yearning to do more mitzvos. It reminds us to look for opportunities. Who can I help? My wife, parents, children, neighbors, friends? What new learning or Torah initiative can I start? Or what existing mitzvah can I reinvigorate?

If we but ask, Hashem will open up the door.

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah institute – Parsha Kedoshim – Bringing Ourselves Into Hashem’s Presence

Pesach ended with a heavy heart for Jews around the world, as we were met with the horrific news of the attack on those davening in the Chabad of Poway in California, and the death of Lori Kaye a”h, along with the others who were wounded in that attack. On a personal level, I experienced the painful loss of my beloved grandmother, Mrs. Hansi Bodenheim a”h, who passed away the week after Pesach.

How does Hashem want us to act when informed of such tragic news?

It all happened in the week of Parshas Acharei Mos. It’s quite puzzling that Aharon was taught the laws of Yom Kippur, our holiest day, right after learning of the death of his two sons. Why that moment? Rav Gedalia Schorr quotes the verse, “And it was after the death of Nadav and Avihu, when they came close in front of Hashem and died.” Nadav and Avihu had an extreme desire to be close to Hashem and were “in front of Hashem,” but unfortunately took their attempt at closeness beyond prescribed boundaries. The lesson Aharon taught was that all Jews have the capacity to achieve this level of Lifnei Hashem – being in front of Hashem – on Yom Kippur, as the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) enters the Holy of Holies in the prescribed manner, as the representative of the Jewish people.

This Shabbos, we read Parshas Kedoshim. Often, Acharei Mos is read together with Kedoshim. They are connected. We use the term “kedoshim” (holy ones) for those who died for being a Jew. Yet, Parshas Kedoshim tells us that kedoshim also describes those who live their lives like a Jew.

The parsha begins with the order, “Kedoshim tihyu” – all Jews should be kadosh (holy). What does that mean? Rashi defines it as “perushim” – separate or unique. Why? Because “ki kadosh ani” – because Hashem is holy. Indeed, every Jew is special and unique, possessing an extra element of godliness in themselves. Every Jew lives “in front of Hashem.” The tragic loss of Aharon’s two sons and the tragic loss we read about in Poway tell us that those who die al kiddush hashem (to sanctify the name of G-d by being holy) effect an ability for us to come closer to Hashem. They give us the ability to become kadosh and appreciate the gift of being a Jew.

My Grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and lived her life feeling she was always with Hashem. Six million kedoshim perished in the war, but Hashem granted her life. She had many near-death experiences — strafing from German fighter planes, being captured by the Gestapo, living through Mengele’s section lines. Indeed, she was an extremely thin girl, but in the selection line, she stared him down and after a long pause, he sent her to the right, to a life as a concentration inmate with back-breaking labor. She told me she survived the horrors only due to her reliance on Hashem which she acquired from her parents. She saw so many die around her, but her connection to Hashem kept her going.

My grandmother lost her parents, grandparents, and many other family members. She suffered personal deprivation and torture throughout the war. She could have been bitter, angry, and depressed as a result of her devastating experiences, but she chose to live her life in a positive manner, as a believer in Hashem. She dedicated her life to living as a Jew. Instead of pain and hate, she exuded love and care. For close to fifty years, she served as a kindergarten teacher and librarian, and led the students in davening at the Torah Academy of Philadelphia. She was a true role model for the children she loved. Students from decades earlier would still stay in touch. On Fridays, her phone would ring constantly, with students, neighbors, and friends calling to wish her a good Shabbos. Each day, she would pack extra lunches in case children forgot their lunch — they knew to come to her. She lived with Godliness inside of her and saw the Godliness in all Jews, no matter their background or situation.

Kedusha is an approach to life. The more we are in touch with the uniqueness of our relationship with Hashem, the more we reflect that in our actions. Let us learn from those that passed away as kedoshim, by carrying on their legacy and living like kedoshim ourselves. Let the way we act, talk, walk and do business, always be “Lifnei Hashem.”

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Sefiras Haomer/Acharei Mot – Building Our Character

I took my children to an indoor video game arcade on a rainy day of Chol Hamoed. Most of the people there were children and teenagers, but two people really caught my attention. One was an elderly man playing video games all alone in a motorized wheelchair with an oxygen tank. The second was an elderly lady in a wheelchair, accompanying her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. Clearly, this was not an easy trip for either one. The elderly grandmother seemed to have various aches and pains, but I saw the visible pleasure on her face as she watched her grandchildren play and choose prizes, while she encouraged and congratulated them. The elderly man was laboring to breathe, exerting himself to play game after game. The similarity — and the contrast — between the two was striking.

I pondered: What makes a person exert himself – his own pleasure or that of others? In parshas Acharei Mos, Hashem instructs Moshe about the Yom Kippur service: Take two identical goats in the Beis Hamikdash and cast a lottery. One will be slaughtered, with its blood sprinkled inside the kodesh hakodashim – the Holy of Holies. The other will be pushed off a steep cliff. Although both goats will be killed, on first glance it seems the slaughtered one represents a greater atonement. Yet, the pasuk (verse) says the goat pushed off the cliff “will stand in front of Hashem alive to achieve an atonement” (16:10). Clearly, they were both an integral part of the service to Hashem, to effect forgiveness for Klal Yisroel – they each had an important role.

In a similar way, our “lot,” i.e., our current condition, is determined by Hashem, but what we do with it is up to us. We can choose to serve Hashem with our current resources. Both of these elderly individuals were handicapped. Both were challenged. Both were entitled to enjoyment, but the grandmother elevated her challenged “lot” by focusing on the joy of others.

This vignette also adds perspective to the days of Sefiras Haomer (counting of the Omer.) We started counting from the second day of Pesach towards Shavuos. Many ask: Why do we count UP and not count DOWN towards our goal of Shavuos? At races, at rocket launches—we always count down!

Rav Shimshon Pincus says that typically, when there’s a gap of time between two events, we count down because time is a barrier and we want to rid ourselves of it. However, the time between Pesach and Shavuos is different: it’s a build-up, where each day is crucial, and each day can mean another accomplishment!

This is illustrated in the wording of the pasuk, “Usefartem Lachem” – you should count for yourselves. (Emor 23:16) What does it mean for yourselves? The Chasam Sofer explains that the counting is to build ourselves up! With each day, we should try to develop ourselves further, so we can be ready to acquire the Torah on Shavuos.

Parents feel this all the time with small milestones: a baby’s first rolling over, first time sitting, crawling, speaking…Each stage is an achievement. No one wants the child to be stuck. It is exciting for a baby to start crawling, but very concerning if they are three years old and can only crawl. Crawling, walking, talking- each stage is crucial in developing the individual.

Each day of Sefira is available to build us up to approach Shavuos. Each week as well. We count both the days and the weeks of the Omer. This is why if we forget to count one day, we can no longer count with a blessing, because each day is crucial to the counting! But the Torah doesn’t guide us much regarding our focus. That’s because every person is different. It’s a personal counting where we need to determine and work on the areas in which we need development. We need to make our own plan of action. We can help ourselves with the custom of learning Pirkei Avos each Shabbos of Sefira. As Rav Chaim Vital tells us, working on our character traits is the key pathway to instilling Torah in ourselves.

We all have our own personal challenges and difficulties. During these days of sefira, we need to choose to make each day count —to do something greater than achieving our own personal pleasure. Pick one area. Do something very small and work on it. It’s our choice: are we like the elderly man laboring to play and enjoy another video game, or like the wheelchair-bound grandmother exerting herself to give enjoyment to her family? Let’s exert ourselves to make others happy. This will make us much happier as well and help lead us to a state of readiness to receive the Torah on Shavuos.

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Metzora And Shabbos HaGadol – Making The Most Of Your Soul

The Shabbos before Pesach is called Shabbos Hagadol, the great or large Shabbos. How is this Shabbos different from every other Shabbos?

At a bris, we give the newborn baby the blessing of “zeh hakatan gadol yihyeh, this baby shall be a gadol.” Simply put, we are referring to becoming a bar mitzvah at age 13. The Shulchan Aruch refers to a girl of 12 or boy of 13 as a gadol, since they no longer are minors.

Are we then just blessing the newborn baby to become an adult? What does it really mean to be a gadol?

The Sfas Emes explains that a bar/bat mitzvah is called a gadol because they receive a new neshama (soul) at that time. Although the yetzer hara/evil inclination enters a person when they are born, the yetzer tov/good inclination only enters when they become 13/12. This is why they are now considered a gadol—because they now have a yetzer tov! The new neshama makes them great. Similarly, the Shabbos before Pesach is called Shabbos Hagadol because on the eve of leaving Egypt klal Yisrael received their new neshama, and each year at this time we receive this extra dimension of self.

The Gemara Beitza tells us that every Shabbos we receive a neshama yeseira, an extra neshama. What does that mean? Are we more alive on Shabbos? The Sfas Emes explains the extra neshama gives us the ability to sense and experience both Hashem’s existence and our purpose in life. That’s when we become a gadol: when we experience a more expansive neshama. On Shabbos Hagadol we receive an extremely expansive and powerful ability to experience the miraculous ways Hashem dealt with us in Yetzias Mitzrayim (leaving Egypt).

We learn this idea of a Shabbos neshama from the words in Mishpatim (13:17), where it states that in six days Hashem created the heaven and earth, and “b’yom hashevi’i shavas (on the seventh day He rested) vayinafash.” The word vayinafash is a hybrid of three words, vay avdah nefesh, woe, we have lost our soul. This teaches us that at the end of Shabbos we lose a soul. Hence, we infer that at the beginning of Shabbos we receive an extra neshama. (Gemara Beitza)

The wording here is a little troubling. We start observing Shabbos with the expectation of losing a soul when Shabbos is over? Why the sobering tone? Why not just say that when Shabbos begins, we get an extra soul for the day? It sounds much more positive…

I heard a remarkable answer from Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz in the name of the Baal Shem Tov. Getting a message that we’re getting an extra neshama for the next 25 hours is uplifting. But it must be tempered with a warning to use it properly

My rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, was stricken with Parkinson’s. He had a chavrusa with a young man each Shabbos afternoon right after lunch. After a short while, the young man would often start to feel drowsy and fight to keep himself awake. He always marveled how the rosh yeshiva, despite the Parkinson’s, would not even put his head down. One Shabbos, he mustered the courage to inquire, “Rebbe, how is it that you learn Torah the entire afternoon and never seem to tire?” Rabbi Finkel replied, “Every Shabbos I receive an extra neshama. After Shabbos, it will return to Hashem to report. Hashem will ask, ‘What did you do for the 25 hours with the extra neshama I placed in you, Nosson Tzvi?’ I do not want the answer to just be that I ate chicken soup, kugel, cholent and slept. I want to take advantage of every moment I have with it, to return the neshama back to Hashem with accomplishment!”

On Shabbos Hagadol we receive and should feel a super-charged sense of purpose to connect to Pesach. This feeling will leave after Pesach. We need to absorb the lesson of vayinafash, to properly utilize every moment we have with our extra neshama. Use it to understand and relay the miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim to our families. Use it to daven and study more Torah. We can then return that neshama to Hashem with a “mission accomplished.”

A Torah leader is referred to with the title “gadol.” In truth, we all have areas where we excel and can be a gadol. Let’s use our greatness and the extra sense of mission we receive from this Shabbos and from Pesach and apply it to our lives forever. When we find and use that which is gadol in ourselves, we will become true gedolim, true giants.

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Tazria – Words Count

Last year, I had the privilege of hosting Rabbi Noach Orlowek, a prominent mashgiach and noted lecturer. I offered him the use of my study, lined wall-to-wall with seforim. When I came down in the morning, I saw only one sefer pulled out — the sefer Chofetz Chaim – the laws regarding lashon harah (evil speech.) Rav Orlowek later asked me, “Would it be alright to bring this sefer to my room?” Rav Orlowek has no doubt learned the sefer many times, but of all the choices at his disposal, he put this at the top of his list. This encounter taught me how important it is to constantly review these laws, especially when we counsel and teach others.

Parshas Tazria deals with the affliction of tzora’as, a skin affliction usually caused by lashon harah. However, the Gemara (Eruchin) lists a few other sins which cause this spiritual affliction. One of the other causes is tzora’as eyin – being stingy. I believe this sin can also be included under the category of negative speech, as we can sometimes be guilty of being stingy with our words. Sometimes, we have nice words we could say and we hold back. This is a form of miserliness — withholding complimentary words.

There is a lot of press on the damage caused by lashon harah and negative words. But if we really want to use our speech properly, we need to focus on the power of positive speech. In Mishlei (18:21) it says, “Mavess v’chaim b’yad haloshon” — death and life is determined by the tongue. Everyone recognizes the appropriateness of the word “death,” but what about “life?”  The answer is, we must certainly prevent our speech from doing harm, but we must also strive to do good! Proper speech can be both healing and life-giving.

Hal Urban, an expert on sales and marketing, wrote a book about using positive words to sell products. Based on his research, he concluded a person speaks an average of 40,000 words a day! Just imagine if we were able to use all forty-thousand words to compliment and encourage! Wouldn’t the recipients of these words be truly transformed?

An environmental group in Indiana wanted to make a point. They made a chain of pennies on the road as far as they could. The chain extended for 40 miles! It consisted of 3.3 million pennies, amounting to $33,000 dollars. Just as one penny added to another can total an enormous sum, so too, our words can build towers of goodness.

I am close to a noted Rabbi who is sought out by many for his counsel. Alas, his doctor found a growth in him that required surgery. It was a life-or-death procedure. He told me that when he was diagnosed, he decided to do something as a zechus (merit.) Together with his wife, they took upon themselves not to say another negative word about anyone…ever. Period! He counsels thousands of people, so this is no easy task. Baruch Hashem, the surgery was successful and he’s back in full force! This was a real fulfilment of the verse Mavess v’chaim byad haloshon –death and life is determined by the tongue.

We can do it. We just need to train ourselves.

This Shabbos, we will also read the section for Parshas Hachodesh. Here, the Torah discusses the mitzvah of establishing the lunar calendar and declaring the new month based on the sighting of the new moon. This mitzvah was the precursor to the miracle of Hashem taking the Jews out of Mitzrayim. The Sfas Emes notes the word “chodesh” – month – has the same letters as chadash – new. We thus learn that Bnei Yisrael always have the ability to become something new, creating lifelong changes.

The Zohar says that when the Jews were in Egypt, they had a “speech deficiency”- they were not able to express themselves properly. This is illustrated by the name of our holiday where we leave Egypt — “Pesach.” The name is a combination of two words:peh sach – mouth speaks. At that time, we acquired the freedom to express ourselves properly, both to Hashem and to man.

Let’s do it! Choose one person a day to give compliments and endearing words. It can be anyone you choose – a spouse, child, parent, friend or coworker. It’s a total win-win! Make a checklist of people and don’t go to sleep until one is checked off. In a pinch, send an email or text if it’s late, since most people would not appreciate being woken up, even if we have the nicest things to say!

With this new commitment, may we merit that this Pesach should be the Final Redemption.

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Shemini And Para – To Err Is Human; To Accept Responsibility Is Divine

When I was in high school, my rebbe, Rabbi Farber, z”l, took our class to a restaurant to celebrate our completing a Gemara, a siyum. One boy ordered shish kebab on big skewers. As young teenage boys, we thought these long metal skewers were quite cool. Some of us took on a dare: to take one of the skewers from the restaurant. I accepted the challenge and hid the long skewer under my coat. When we came back to class, everyone was playing with it and Rabbi Farber saw the commotion, with one boy wielding the long skewer like a sword. He was very upset to discover I had taken something that didn’t belong to me.

With sensitivity but firmness he motioned me to go with him outside the classroom to speak privately. He explained how businesses lose money with such pranks and that I needed to return it with a full apology. “But the restaurant is in downtown Manhattan and I have no way of getting it back there,” I said. “No problem,” he replied. “Tomorrow after school I will drive you there and you will go inside and tell the owner what happened and apologize.”

I was very embarrassed by what I did and asked if the rebbe could return it for me and I would call the owner to apologize. But Rabbi Farber insisted I return it personally. As we were driving, I was nervous and very ashamed. I apologized and the owner was forgiving and told me that this should be a lesson to never take something that is not mine, even as a joke or for fun. It was a memorable life lesson that it’s important to own up to a mistake.

Parshas Shemini opens with the korbanos (sacrifices). Moshe instructs Aharon and his sons to bring on the eighth and final day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, a young calf as a korban chatas (sin offering) for his involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf and to demonstrate that Hashem is forgiving him.

Aharon hesitated and, still embarrassed, he approached the mizbei’ach to offer the calf. In fact, the Midrash Tanchuma tells us that when Aharon approached the mizbei’ach, he saw an image of a cow! To Aharon, the corners of the mizbei’ach looked like cow horns and he felt shame for his involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf. The Baal Haturim says this is alluded to in the word krav (approach), where the letter “reish” has two crowns on it, which resemble two horns of a cow. Rashi explains this is why Moshe told Aharon the following words of encouragement: “Why are you ashamed? This is precisely why you were chosen.”

Moshe’s words are curious: How was Aharon’s involvement in the Golden Calf debacle a reason for him to be chosen as the kohen gadol? The Sfas Emes answers brilliantly that Aharon’s profound embarrassment for doing any misdeed was precisely why he was chosen for greatness. He had internalized his lesson. Indeed, the quality of being ashamed of a misdeed is a gift Hashem granted Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai.

At times we might slip up and do something we regret. This feeling can paralyze us! We need to recognize that a deep feeling of remorse for our mistakes is the first step back to potential greatness. Our job is then to convert our feelings into action by apologizing and asking for forgiveness, or doing whatever it takes to rectify the situation.

This week we also read Parshas Parah, where Bnei Yisrael are instructed to take a red cow and use its ashes in the purification process of those who are defiled from coming in contact with a deceased person. Rashi tells us that the Parah Aduma (red heifer) is our means to attain forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. In effect, we let the mother cow come and clean up the mess caused by the baby (golden) calf.

When I was newly married, my parents hosted a Shabbos meal for me and my young married friends with their small children. In the middle of the meal, a curious 2-year-old walked into the living room and thought the planter was a sandbox, as was evident from the dirt that was all over him and the floor. The mother washed the child, but the dirt on the floor was muktzah so it stayed there. After Shabbos, my friend came back to clean up the mess.

Embarrassment is well…embarrassing!! But the more clearly we recognize and deeply feel embarrassment for a misdeed, and take any necessary steps to remedy what we’ve done, the more potential we have, like Aharon Hakohen, to achieve personal greatness.