Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Pre-Pesach Stories Versus Testimonies: Both Count

One of my talmidim loves giving me a newly published sefer before each Yom Tov. For Pesach, he just gave me the new Chasam Sofer Haggadah by Rabbi Yisroel Besser. Last year, it was the Rav Chaim Kanievsky Haggadah, and the year prior, the Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman Haggadah. It’s easy to find new material for the Pesach Seder—each year many new Haggadahs come out. In fact, the Haggadah Shel Pesach has the most explanations of all Jewish texts.

Still, we’re retelling the same story each year. Why the need for so many new commentaries? One of the pivotal mitzvos of Seder night is Sipur yetzias Mitzrayim—telling the story of leaving Egypt. The section in the Haggadah of Maggid focuses on this mitzvah. Why does the Haggadah not call that section “Sipur”? What is the connotation of maggid—telling over something—as opposed to sipur?

There are two pesukim in the Torah that instruct us to retell the story of our journey from bondage to freedom. “Lema’an tesaper b’oznei vincha”—in order that you tell the story in the ears of your children. And “vehigadita lebincha”—and you shall tell your children. Here, both terms of sipur and maggid are used about retelling the story. What is the difference?

The Malbim explains that maggid means to tell something that is hidden to the person who needs to hear it. We see this in the pasuk about testimony—“v’im lo yagid”—if he doesn’t testify. When someone testifies, he is informing the court about information unknown to it, which the court needs to hear in order to deal with the case at hand. Similarly, Maggid in the Seder has us testify about what occurred in Mitzrayim and to disclose unknown details

Rav Avrohom Schorr explains this is perhaps why there are so many new commentaries printed each year about the Haggadah. To enhance the concept of “Maggid” in the Seder, providing new information or another perspective that wasn’t mentioned the prior year keeps the story fresh and exciting. Further, the Rambam tells us that the story of our redemption must be communicated to children according to their personalities, as the Haggadah discusses regarding the capabilities and outlooks of the Four Sons. It takes time and thought to creatively engage our children…and ourselves.

The aspect of sipur—retelling the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim—is also very important. Everyone loves a good story. Indeed, a good storyteller vividly brings out the details that helps the listener visualize and feel like he is actually experiencing the story, which is another specific mitzvah of Seder night!!

Rav Matisyahu Salomon adds that telling a story makes an impression on both the listener and the person telling the story. The pasuk that instructs us to tell the story concludes with the words “vidatem ki ani Hashem” and you (both the teller and listener) will know that I am Hashem. Both the elements of maggid and sipur are critical in communicating the story of our exodus from Egypt.

In a study at Princeton University, Israeli professor Uri Hasson found that when you listen to a well-told story, the parts of the brain that respond are the same as those that would respond if you were actually there. He connected people to an MRI machine while they listened to a story.

He found that if a storyteller describes an experience—like throwing a football, their motor cortex responds, specifically the part associated with hand and arm movement. The research found that this effect also happens to the person telling the story. So, as the story is being told, both the storyteller and the listener’s brains start lighting up in sync with one another! This is the powerful connection we feel when listening to a well-told story.

Maggid tells the story as a reality, disclosing new details about the past, while sipur makes it live and real so we can see ourselves in the story. To really fulfill the potential of this special night of Seder takes much thought and preparation. That’s part of why the Shabbos Hagadol drasha is normally given the Shabbos prior to Pesach. This year, we do this one week earlier, since Shabbos is Erev Pesach.

Let’s use this week to help make our Seder exciting and relevant to the children and participants of all ages! Personally, I like using props for the makkos (plagues). My favorite are the many “mini wild animals” I have, or the golden chariot I use for Pharaoh chasing the Jews. I even have a 5-foot skeleton in my closet that I don’t take out anymore, since it scared one of my daughters. New commentaries and explanations should be relatable to each child’s age and maturity. Consider having prizes and incentives for active participation as well. By making it exciting and actively listening when someone is talking, we make our Seder into a transformative experience for the whole family!

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Vayakhel-Pekudei – Maintaining a Relationship Grounded in Torah

I recall getting a phone call from a wife who was distressed regarding her shalom bayis at home. I met with her and her husband, who were married over 15 years and have children. Alas, it was clear the husband had no clue what it meant to be married. He had no concept that a wife needs to feel loved and considered special by her husband. The wife, meanwhile, had no idea of how to make her husband feel important and be attentive to his needs. In my eyes, I saw two people living in the same house, paying the bills and taking care of their children, but there was no caring relationship. Baruch Hashem they both realized there was a major issue and wanted to improve. In time…and with some hard work…they could have a beautiful relationship. That kind of relationship can be derived from one of this week’s parshios: Vayakhel.

Parshas Vayakhel lists the utensils that were brought into the Mishkan. Yet, it seems one item is omitted. It lists the Shulchan, Menorah, Mizbeach, the Aron and the Kapores, the cover. But it does not mention the Keruvim (angels resembling youths) on top of the Kapores. Why not?

The answer is implicit in the pasuk in Parshas Terumah, where Hashem instructs that “the Keruvim must be fashioned from the lid.” The Keruvim and the cover of the Aron must be one piece of gold. The Keruvim are not listed independently, since the Keruvim are an outgrowth of the cover of the Aron.

What is the significance of Keruvim and the cover being one entity? Rav Hirsch explains that the function of a Keruv is to be a guardian—a protector, as mentioned in Bereishis, where Keruvim were placed to protect the entrance to Gan Eden. Keruvim also function as bearers of Hashem’s glory, as mentioned in Sefer Yechezkel. The Keruvim on top of the Aron served in a double capacity: as guardians of the Aron and as bearers of Hashem’s glory. Their wings spread upward over the cover of the Aron to serve as a protection.

On the surface, the Keruvim appear to be protecting the contents inside the Aron—the Luchos (tablets). However, the Torah emphasizes their wings are actually protecting the kapores—the lid—and not the contents inside the Aron. The cover (Kapores) itself—protects the Luchos inside the Aron, and then, having accomplished this task, the cover itself forms its own Keruvim. This introduces an incredible idea, as Rav Hirsch says, “By keeping and guarding Hashem’s Torah, the Kapores becomes like a live Keruv—a protector of the Torah and a bearer of Hashem’s glory.”

For this purpose, one might say it’s sufficient to have just one Keruv. Why the need for two?

Rav Hirsch further explains that inside the Aron, underneath the Keruvim, were the Luchos that consisted of two tablets. The first half of the Luchos list five commandments between man and Hashem. The second half list mitzvos between man and man. Each Keruv on the Kapores was a separate outgrowth, deriving from each tablet.

Moreover, the Keruvim had different faces—one was the face of a young man and the other a young woman—like a newly married couple. I believe the Torah is hinting to us that every married couple serves as protectors of the Torah and bearers of Hashem’s glory.

It’s also a great lesson for a happy marriage. A couple consist of two people, the husband and wife, who see the world from two entirely different perspectives. Neither has a stronger claim to the truth. They stand and look at things from entirely different vantage points and each may differ yet be independently correct.

Just as the Keruvim faced each other and looked down at the Aron, so too, each spouse needs to carefully look at the face of the other to understand what the spouse is seeing and feeling from the other’s perspective. Each needs to understand that their viewpoint is not absolute; an entirely different perspective may be correct as well. That’s the mandate we take on in marriage. Young or old, we need to picture the youthful faces of the Keruvim, representing a youthful couple grounded in Torah observance, to keep our marriages vibrant…and flexible.

Finally, let’s remember to emulate the Keruvim in their gaze—toward the Aron. A couple must always look to the Torah, with all its mitzvos and perspectives on life, for guidance. This focus on Torah will help couples create and maintain a healthy and vibrant marriage, guarding the Torah and becoming bearers of Hashem’s glory.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Terumah – Someone Who Gave His Heart

A few weeks ago, a man who truly gave from his heart to family, friends, plus thousands of others in the local Clifton-Passaic community, around the country and in Eretz Yisrael passed away, Rabbi Mordechai Rindenow, zt”l. This was a major loss for all he touched and who he could have touched in the future. In this week’s parsha of Teruma, a pasuk says “…asher yidvenu libo (Teruma 25:2)—who will give generously from the heart. But literally it means “who gives his heart.” When building the Mishkan—a home for Hashem—one needs to give his heart. This type of giving exemplifies the life of Rabbi Rindenow.

Rabbi Rindenow helped “build” so many Jewish homes in our midst, doing so with such a full heart, it’s hard to describe. In paying tribute to him I think we’ll gain a deeper understanding of our parsha and what’s possible when we give with a full heart.

Simply put, Rabbi Rindenow made everyone feel like they mattered. Everyone felt like they were his best friend. He was a scion from the Chernobyl Rebbe dynasty, a rabbi and a psychologist. During the week he wore a colored shirt with a blazer, slacks and a tie. On Shabbos he wore a chasidic bekishe. He looked at each Jew and felt for him no matter what stripe or color he wore. Everyone could relate to him, and everyone was able to count on him; he helped so many.

It was the night of the first Seder, and a person who was visiting Rabbi Rindenow for Pesach forgot to bring along a critical medication. After Maariv on Seder night, Rabbi Rindenow walked to several pharmacies in town until he found one willing to fill the prescription without any payment. He didn’t come home to his Seder until a few hours later.

Family and guests were waiting when he finally arrived, medicine in hand. He asked his wife if she was upset about his lateness. She replied, “Not at all. Why should I be upset? I knew my husband must be doing chesed, taking care of some people.”

Another time there was an individual in a hospital in Paterson, and on Shabbos afternoon Rabbi Rindenow told his son he had to go visit this person in the hospital in Paterson. His son indicated it was a two-hour walk! He could take a car after Shabbos and be there just a half hour later than if he would walk. Rabbi Rindenow responded, “Yes, but do you know what kind of simcha (joy) I will bring to him if I show up on Shabbos? It will make his entire Shabbos!” So, he walked there.

I personally know a story of a family that wanted to move into the Jewish community, but couldn’t guarantee the lease payments. Rabbi Rindenow not only signed the lease himself, but he also paid a year’s rent in advance! Who would do that?

We at Passaic Torah Institute (PTI) enjoyed him for 20 years as a rebbe, leader of the “tish” on Shabbos, and as a friend. People in San Francisco Bay benefitted from him for 13 years. Each of us had our special connection and we now have our priceless memories of his impact on our lives. Rabbi Rindenow’s common approach was using Torah and chesed with a full heart to change the world.

There was one constant that never left him: his wife Mindy, his eizer kenegdo—his helpmate and soulmate. They were a team. Mindy was a nurse in a hospital and worked the night shift. Reb Mordechai would tend to often “bend time,” but never when it came to Mindy. He was known to say, “I have to leave; my wife is getting out from work at the hospital and I need to pick her up on time.” He valued her time more than his own.

His home was the place not only to drop in, but even to live temporarily when needed. It was open to everyone. He had a large family, but his “family” was much larger than him and his children. The little house on Rutherford Boulevard was a home to so many.

Why was he taken from us, at his prime? Why such a righteous person? There are many calculations that Hashem takes into account and we don’t understand them. Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda tells us it could be there is a shaas ha’din, a time when HaKadosh Baruch Hu wants to send a certain judgment, and many people’s lives are at stake. Sometimes Hashem takes a tzaddik who is worth many thousands of individuals as a replacement for them.

We are living in a time of judgment and people are passing away because of COVID and other illnesses. It’s a shaas ha’din. It’s very likely that Rabbi Rindenow offered not just to live for everybody else, but in leaving us, to spare others as well.

May his soul be bound eternally with the bond of life.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Tu B’Shvat – It’s All About Our Growth

A few years ago, I received an email from Dinah in the UK who heard my Tu B’Shvat shiur on Torah Anytime. Reacting to my analogy of a child’s growth, to the fact that a tree regenerates even in the winter when you can’t see it growing, she wrote, “I wanted to let you know how much your shiur on Tu B’Shvat touched me deeply. I’ve been going through parenthood challenges, not ‘seeing’ any fruits of my efforts and at times feeling disheartened. Just knowing that there is growth that can’t be seen gave me hope – I never knew this about Tu B’Shvat.” Today, I need to thank Dinah, who inspired me to delve deeper into the enigmatic yom tov of Tu B’Shvat.

Tu B’Shvat is listed in the Shulchan Aruch as one of the ‘days of happiness’ when the prayer of tachanun is not recited. The Magen Avraham  says it’s a happy occasion since Tu B’Shvat is the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) for trees. What’s so special about the New Year for trees? What is this mysterious holiday about?

To understand Tu B’Shvat, we need to understand the Jewish calendar. Although the calendar year starts from Tishrei, the order of the months starts from Nissan. There are two halves of the year: Nissan – Elul, Tishrei – Adar. The Bnei Yissaschar tells us that Yaakov and Eisav divided control over the months of the year. Eisav was supposed to receive dominance over the second half of each year. Eisav’s dominance over his half of the year results in Hashem relating to the world with the prism of din – justice – for those months. This is evident in the terrible calamities the Jews suffered through the millennia in the months of Tammuz and Av – the months of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. However, Yaakov was able to “snatch” the month of Elul and the second half of the month of Av, starting from Tu B’Av, from Eisav’s control. Why was he allowed to do so? Those time periods were necessary to prepare for the upcoming Yamim Noraim – the days of rachamim (mercy) – when Hashem relates to the Jewish people with compassion.

In addition, Rav Moshe Wolfson explains that while Eisav was supposed to control the months of Teves, Shevat, and Adar, Yaakov was able to “snatch” the month of Adar along with the second half of Shevat, starting from Tu B’Shvat. Why? Because those time periods are needed for the preparation of the upcoming days of compassion/redemption, from Pesach through Shavuos.

Tu B’Av (15th of Av) is also listed in the Shulchan Aruch as a day when tachanun is not recited. Tu B’Av is the mirror day of Tu B’Shvat, in that both represent a transition from a period of din to a period of compassion.

The Mishna lists Tu B’Shvat as the Rosh Hashanah for the Tree, in the singular tense. Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel explains that the Mishnah is referring to a specific tree! The Torah refers to a person as a tree – ki adam eitz hasadeh (for man is a tree in the field). If we divide a person’s body from head to toe into three segments, the person’s heart is at the start of the second third of the body — the same positioning as Tu B’Shvat in the calendar.

The Gemara tells us that on Tu B’Shvat, the sap rises up in the tree, bringing nutrients to the branches to start the annual process of growing leaves and fruits. Tu B’Shvat is the ‘heart.’ It pumps the blood (nutrients) through the entire body.

On Rosh Hashanah, we accept the sovereignty of Hashem and dedicate ourselves to Him. We have great plans for our personal growth at the start of the New Year, but our growth is not necessarily apparent at the beginning. Growth is a process and fruits are not seen until a much later time! It can be compared to a pregnancy, where the baby is growing during the first trimester but is not very noticeable. The first trimester after Rosh Hashanah is a time when Hashem’s relationship with Am Yisrael is somewhat concealed. Only later, in the second trimester, does the growth in our relationship with Hashem and his mercy towards us start to be noticeable. I found this “hidden growth” evident when observing boys learning in yeshiva. Those who dedicate themselves to intense Torah learning might not realize how much they are growing initially. It’s in the month of Tu B’Shvat that we start to recognize their accomplishments.

Even if we have not made any significant growth up to this point in the year, we have a tremendous opportunity now at the start of the ‘days of compassion.’ The second trimester – the heart of the year – is beginning. We can pump love, excitement, and passion into our Avodas Hashem.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Bo -The Cost Of Stubbornness

In Parshat Bo, the makkot (plagues) continue and Pharaoh remains stubborn, refusing to let the Bnei Yisrael leave, despite the devastating blows and destruction all around him. Why was Pharaoh so stubborn? Why wouldn’t he relent?

The Torah reveals to us the reason. As Hashem told Moshe, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” and therefore Pharaoh will refuse. The Rishonim are very troubled by Hashem apparently removing Pharaoh’s free will (bechira.) Every man is given free will by Hashem so he can choose to do right or wrong. How could Hashem harden Pharaoh’s heart and remove his ability to make the correct choice?

The Sforno explains that Hashem did not remove Pharaoh’s ability to choose. In fact, it was the opposite. Since the makkot were so powerful and overwhelming, it would be objectively impossible to deny Hashem’s request. Therefore, Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart to make him capable of making a free choice.

The Rambam disagrees and says Hashem did indeed remove Pharaoh’s free will because of his wickedness against the Jews. Pharaoh needed to be punished. He would feel the full force of all the makkot before letting the Jews go.

Rashi tells us that in the first makkah, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. After he continued his obstinate behavior, however, Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart and did not allow him to free the Jews, so Hashem could perform great miracles and demonstrate His power to klal Yisrael.

When I lived in Eretz Yisrael, I used to attend a weekly class with Rav Reuven Leuchter, a very popular mashgiach among both Americans and Israelis. He once spoke on a person’s ability to choose right from wrong. The sefer Mesilat Yesharim, the fundamental work on self-development, tells us that Hashem created man with the ability to choose. All self-development is based on knowing our positive qualities and deficiencies and training ourselves to make the correct decision. From this I realized that my stubborn behavior as a child was something I could overcome. I learned that stubbornness could actually prevent me from attaining many things I want.

However, a person may have a behavior characteristic which prevents him from making the right choice on his own. Whether it’s inherent or developed, mussar is not enough; he needs professional help.

The prime example is addiction. Whether it’s about a substance or behavior, an addict does not have the ability to make a choice. His urges are so strong that he must have outside help in order to conquer those urges. The same is true with certain mental health conditions. Such a person is driven to behave, act or respond in a certain way and professional help is needed.

According to the Rambam, Pharaoh lost his bechira—his ability to choose. He could no longer make a balanced decision on his own. Hashem made Pharaoh addicted to power. Even before the Almighty, he would not give up.

Sometimes, our ability to choose is hampered, but we can recover on our own…with effort. Let’s look at the Egyptian behavior in the makkah of tzefardea—frogs. Rashi quotes the midrash that the makkah started with one large frog that emerged from the Nile. Upon seeing this large scary frog, an Egyptian gave it a powerful hit. This resulted in a stream of frogs shooting out of the frog’s mouth. The Egyptian hit the frog again, sending out another stream of frogs. More Egyptians joined in. Why didn’t they get it? The more they hit the frogs, the more they multiplied!

Rav Wolbe explains this is the reality of anger. A person in a fit of anger loses his sense of reasoning. When someone gets angry, their response is not logical—it’s instinctive. The anger of the Egyptians caused them to believe they just needed more force—hit the frogs harder! They didn’t realize that they were only exacerbating the problem. In a fit of rage, a person loses his ability to make rational decisions. The solution is simple: stay far away from anger.

In areas of addiction—substances, eating disorders, lusts, gambling and other areas—professional help must be found. In areas of self-development, however, we must focus on our own strengths and weaknesses to exercise our choice to act properly. In this case, it’s within our reach. We can improve, change and maybe…get hot dogs for supper!

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Va’era – Spiritual Refinement Through Challenges

When I was learning in yeshiva I was looking for a healthy physical and emotional outlet. Some of the boys had joined a local gym with hours for men. I was skinny and not very strong. I thought the way to build muscle mass was to lift extremely heavy weights. The gym trainer clarified how it works. I needed to lift weights within my ability and then push a little more, until it hurt somewhat. Do this every time, he said. The pain was muscle fiber stretching, allowing me to really develop myself. Yes, no pain…no gain! The trainer created a workout program for me, added some protein foods, and within a couple of months, I was amazed at the results. My body was energized, and my mind was at rest.

As we learn about the miracles of the Ten Plagues—the Makkos—and how Hashem majestically took us out of Egypt, there’s a burning question: While it was great that Hashem took klal Yisrael out of Egypt, why did He put us in exile in the first place?

The answer is revealed by the Torah’s reference to Mitzrayim: “Hashem took you (klal Yisrael) out from the kur habarzel (forging pit) from Egypt in order to be a nation to Hashem.” A forging pit is used to heat up iron or metal and rid it of all its impurities. For us, as a nation, our road to purity included a long and bitter enslavement. Mitzrayim was our forging pit. Still, what was unique about Egypt compared to all the other countries?

The Maharal explains that the process of developing and refining one’s inner positive qualities is accomplished by having experiences that are contrary to those qualities. Experiencing an opposite environment will bring out the true positive nature of the person.

The Egyptians were highly immoral and led a very licentious lifestyle. Klal Yisrael was holy, pure and guarded in the area of morality. We were the polar opposites of the Egyptians. The conflict of the two opposing lifestyles was already exhibited when the wife of Potiphar attempted to seduce Yosef. Yosef withstood this temptation and risked suffering tough consequences for his refusing Potiphar’s wife. Taking this moral stand in fact led to his imprisonment in a dungeon for 10 years!

We therefore see that Hashem placed klal Yisrael specifically in Mitzrayim—a place of extremely immoral character—to refine the kedusha (sanctity) in klal Yisrael. Indeed, the purity they maintained in Mitzrayim was of such a high standard that when the Torah mentions the names of each family in each shevet (tribe), it is spelled with the letter “heh” as a prefix and the letter “yud” as a suffix. For example, the family of Chanoch is listed as Hachanochi. The letters yud and heh spell Hashem’s name. Hashem was thereby attesting that each family in each tribe had remained pure and faithful to Hashem, surrounded by Him, throughout their exile in Egypt.

Rav Dessler makes a similar observation. When a person is placed in an environment where people lead a different lifestyle, it can have one of two effects: either the person becomes attracted to and influenced by the new lifestyle, or it serves as a driving force to propel him in the opposite direction. We see this with Avraham who was raised in the home of Terach, one of the biggest idol worshipers, yet Avraham chose to follow Hashem.

Rav Wolbe often quoted his rebbe, Reb Yerucham Levovitz, who said that Hashem does not challenge us in our area of our weaknesses—only in the area of our strengths. Hashem is the ultimate trainer/coach, always presenting us with a challenge to help develop our spiritual muscles.

With the start of Sefer Shemos, we begin the period of shovavim (an acronym for the parshios of Shemos through Mishpatim), a period that is designed to work on areas of family purity.

We live in a generation and society with many decadent behaviors. We might feel we are vulnerable in this area and the challenge is overwhelming. In truth, it’s the opposite, for we are inherently kadosh (holy). We are placed in this environment to help us shine. In our generation, a person has access to see the most immoral behaviors with the click of a button. Yet, so many people choose to guard themselves against this choice, to maintain their purity, even installing filters on their phones and computers to prevent access to immoral websites. This is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is a sign of strength by making an active choice to ensure sanctity.

Let us keep refining our quality of family purity and use our society as an instrument to help us refine our own sanctity. Like our time in the gym, the results may not be seen immediately, but after a few months, we’ll be amazed at our spiritual growth.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Vayechi – A Proper Source For Blessing

My father-in-law, Rabbi Singer, attended one of the first Torah Umesorah conventions for day school principals. They had a major challenge. Many of the children came from homes that were not Torah observant. Those students knew very little, yet the learning curriculum was at a high standard, including in-depth meforshim (commentary) on the Gemara. The principals felt this was way too much to expect from the students and wanted to simplify the curriculum.

Many great Torah leaders spoke at the dinner, but all awaited the words of the generation’s leader, Hagaon Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Feinstein opened by stating that the bracha that parents give their sons at the beginning of Shabbos is based on Yaakov blessing Ephraim and Menashe: “With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Menashe.’” This is why we bless our sons with those same words.

Rav Moshe then raised his voice and asked, “Why not like Reuven, Yehuda, Yissachar or any of the other children of Yaakov? What was so unique about Ephraim and Menashe?” Rav Moshe answered it was because Ephraim and Menashe reached the highest level of Torah learning. Yaakov had taught all the complexity and secrets of Torah to Yosef, who then taught all of this Torah to Ephraim and Menashe. The blessing we give all our children is to reach the highest level of Torah learning. Sometimes the child can’t get there, but success can only be achieved if we strive for the highest level. Therefore, said Rav Moshe, the curriculum must be on a high level no matter what. The principals took in the message and felt comforted in continuing their policy.

An alternate explanation for using Ephraim and Menashe for blessing is offered by the Dinover Rebbe. Menashe was the older son, but Yaakov blessed Ephraim first as he felt he was more deserving of the blessing. Menashe did not gripe, complain or protest, nor did Ephraim gloat or act haughty over Menashe. Both brothers accepted Yaakov’s decision and maintained brotherly love for each other. From the beginning of time, there was sibling rivalry: Kayin and Hevel, Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Eisav, and Yosef and his brothers. But Ephraim and Menashe were exemplary in maintaining their brotherly love without jealousy. For this reason, we bless our children to have this love, care and unity with their siblings

Another reason offered is that Ephraim and Menashe maintained their high level in Torah and mitzvos while living in Egyptian exile. Yaakov was blessing klal Yisrael that they too should succeed in maintaining their life of Torah and mitzvos even when living among foreign nations.

I would like to suggest yet another explanation. Usually, each succeeding generation is a bit lower in Torah knowledge than prior generations. Ephraim and Menashe were different. Even though they were the grandchildren of Yaakov, they reached the same level as their uncles—the shevatim. There was no decline in their generation. Yaakov made clear that Ephraim and Menashe were equivalent in Torah level to their uncles, Yaakov’s children. Thus in blessing our children with reference to Ephraim and Menashe, we are wishing that they remain at the same powerful level of Torah learning as their ancestors and not decline.

People love to receive brachos (blessings) from tzaddikim. But how do brachos work? Can I really give someone a blessing and it will come to fruition? Rav Yerucham Levovitz notes that brachos are not magic; they can only come to fruition if the individual is deserving or suited for that blessing.

There are different approaches to offering brachos. The Chofetz Chaim would tell people who would ask him for brachos, “The Torah is the source of all blessing. If you learn Torah, you will receive bracha.” Other tzaddikim give brachos freely, since a tzaddik has a close connection to Hashem, the Source of bracha, and by giving a bracha he is sharing Hashem’s blessing with others.

When Yaakov told Ephraim and Menashe, “With you, Israel will bless,” Yaakov was giving all parents a special ability to shower their children with blessing.

This past week was the yahrzeit of my paternal grandfather, Mr. Helmut Bodenheim, Naftali ben Avraham, z”l. He was born and raised in Manheim, Germany, and was fortunate to receive a visa to immigrate to America in 1938. As a single young man on his own in New York, he had many challenges to remain steadfast in his commitment to Torah and mitzvos, yet he never wavered. He was a man of truth. He held onto his family’s German minhagim, which we still follow. I vividly remember the brachos I received from him.

May all the Torah and mitzvos of my family be a merit for his neshama, and I daven that I can effectively pass on to my children and grandchildren the bracha that my grandfather gave to me.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Asarah B’Teves: From Darkness To Light Through Torah Study

Jack was on a Birthright trip for the first time in Israel. The tour stopped at one of the largest yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael, Mir Yerushalayim. He was taken aback by the loud noise as he entered the huge study hall, with students talking in full voice, even screaming. Jack had been to many study halls where intense study was taking place. All of them were quiet like a library. Yet, he was taken in by how visibly excited and engaged the people were about the material they were studying. The guide explained that the Torah is studied in pairs, with two partners debating the concepts they are learning.

We’re barely finished Chanukah, celebrating victory over the Greeks, and now this Friday we observe the fast of Asara b’Teves, commemorating the day the siege began around Yerushalayim by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia, during the time of the first Beis Hamikdash. The Selichos lists three tragic events that occurred in the month of Teves during different time periods. The Greek king Ptolemi ordered the Torah translated into Greek on the eighth of Teves, Ezra Hasofer died on the ninth of Teves, and the siege began around Yerushalayim, leading to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash on the 10th of Teves. The Shulchan Aruch notes that darkness enveloped the world for three days when the Torah was translated into Greek, linking the eighth, ninth, and 10th of Teves to each other.

Although one would think that translating the Torah into Greek would breed clarity, it had the opposite effect, especially since the Greeks outlawed learning both the written and oral Torah law. It confined the infinite words and understanding of the Torah into a single interpretation. It also secularized Torah study, equating its study to all other disciplines, such as history, math and architecture.

The Greeks were intent to cause the Jews to forget the Torah in favor of Greek culture, and it seems they were extremely successful at that time. For a thousand years since the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai, there was no dispute on any halacha. When the Greek era began, the first dispute of halacha was between Yossi ben Yoeizer and Yossi ben Yochanan. During this period of Greek decrees forbidding the study of both the written and oral law, disputes on halacha multiplied. There are thousands of disputes recorded in the Mishnayos and Gemara. Until this very day, the effect of the Greeks is still felt. Even though the Chashmonaim won the physical war against the Greeks, our perfect clarity about Torah declined.

However, Rav Hutner says if we look at the situation from a different perspective, we will understand that the Greek era caused the opposite effect. The increase in disputes actually helped preserve and restore the Torah that might otherwise have been forgotten!

The Gemara describes all its conflicting opinions as “divrei elokim chaim”—all the opinions regarding an issue are correct, even if we only rule like one of them. How is this so? Each opinion can be considered and possibly used for halachic rulings in different situations. But even more fundamentally, the differences of opinion help crystallize the concepts involved. The back-and-forth arguments help reveal different angles on how to understand a topic, leading to deeper knowledge.

Typically, a day in yeshiva is spent learning with a chavrusa—a study partner—as opposed to individual study. The two individuals often have different approaches to understanding the topic, and together, using many different rabbinical authorities for guidance, they can come to a clear conclusion. Some of my own best chavrusos had entirely different ways of thinking and I enjoyed learning with all of them, since they helped me see the Gemara from an angle I might never have contemplated.

The increase in arguments of interpretation, starting from the Greek era, caused a major expansion of Torah. It’s noteworthy that the Mishnayos and Gemara are founded on the thousands of disputes that evolved from the era of the Greeks. These arguments continued through the centuries of the Rishonim and Acharonim until this very day. Each additional dispute adds greater clarity and understanding by detailing the respective arguments.

The Greeks did initiate confusion in our Torah learning, which is expressed by the three-day period of darkness. Let’s face it: Gemara learning is difficult. Many people tell me, “Rabbinical arguments in the Gemara are not for me. It’s all so confusing; I don’t get it.” I reassure them that one of the most rewarding feelings in Torah learning is the clarity achieved after sorting through all the confusion. Giving up is succumbing to the darkness, giving the Greeks a victory. But if we plug away, especially with a study partner, the Midrash promises that the apparent darkness of our not understanding will eventually turn into great light and clarity through the learning of our great Torah.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Chanukah – Making It Personal

Recently, I recalled part of a shiur that a friend of mine, Rabbi Yosef Greenwald, taught over 20 years ago at a Chanukah Mesibah (party). I really wanted to remember the details, since it linked to the parsha that week. It was Friday, two hours before Shabbos – a hectic time – but I called him anyway. I apologized for the hour, reminded him about the long-ago shiur and just like that, he said, “Sure, I remember that piece!” He then spent the next fifteen minutes telling over the entire shiur from 20 years ago with perfect clarity. How could he remember it so well?

I started thinking about what is key to memory. I recalled the first Dvar Torah I gave publicly in yeshiva. I remember it well! I came to the realization that good memory is all about time, energy and focus – and connecting the item to yourself! Rabbi Greenwald remembered what he spoke about because he made it personal.

Making Torah personal is the core concept of Chanukah. The tefillah of Al Hanisim, added to Shemoneh Esrei and Birkas Hamazon during Chanukah, states that the Greeks attempted to make the Jewish nation forget the Torah and to violate the laws of Hashem. This seems puzzling.  It’s one thing to make laws that persecute Jews or forbid Torah study. But how could they make us forget what we already learned?

The Greeks were attempting to assimilate the Jewish nation with exposure to Greek culture and ideology, which they made look very alluring. But they knew that as long as the Jewish nation was attached to the Torah they studied, they would resist any and all infiltration of outside values. The Greeks’ only road to success was to disconnect Klal Yisrael from their Torah study and their passion for mitzvos. To this end, they outlawed teaching Torah, keeping Shabbos, Bris Milah and observing Rosh Chodesh. The objective was to turn Judaism into a set of customs and practices, but not a way of life. Customs and practices do not have long term sustainability.

In the last two centuries, we’ve seen strong evidence of this phenomenon of casualization. Many Jews decided to only keep certain Jewish “traditions”, choosing which mitzvos to observe and which not. Each subsequent generation became more estranged and disconnected, leading to millions of intermarriages!

The Bach points out that the Greeks almost accomplished their mission, since the Jews became more casual in their study of Torah. The key to the victory of the Chashmonaim was that they made Torah life and study very “personal,” by defending it with their very lives. They launched a fierce battle against the massive Greek army – impossible odds. But the alternative of assimilation was not an option! When Hashem saw the commitment and passion of the Chashmonaim, He performed a miracle of epic proportions in which a few hundred Chashmonaim defeated the well-trained, skilled and heavily armed Greek soldiers.

Rav Chaim Friedlander notes how the words of Al Hanisim confirm this point. “Hashem took up their quarrels, judged their claims, and avenged their vengeance.” Although the future of Torah and mitzvos had been on the line, Hashem only stepped in when the Chashmonaim made defense of the Torah their personal vendetta. Indeed, their being saved – along with the whole Jewish nation – came from their taking this struggle with the Greeks very personally.

In the Mafia, before they eliminate an opponent who is a friend of theirs, they tell them, “It’s nothing personal, just business.” Judaism has just the opposite approach. Torah and mitzvos are personal! It’s not just about customs and casual practices.

Al Hanisim concludes by stating that Hashem handed the Zeidim (the Greeks) into the hands of those who toiled in Torah (the Chashmonaim). A zeid is a scoffer, someone who scorns and derides a person by stripping him of his value and importance. The toiling in Torah of the Chashmonaim demonstrated the immense value they assigned to Torah learning, which the Greek scoffers tried to devalue.

The war of “casual” Judaism versus “passionate” Judaism wages on in our generation. Chanukah is the time to assess whether we treat our performance of mitzvos and our approach to Torah study casually or personally. Chanukah is an opportunity to select one area of Torah and make it personal. Choose an area of Torah study or a specific mitzvah and really invest yourself in it.  Some goals may seem too lofty or out-of-reach, but Chanukah is a time when Hashem gives extraordinary success to those who make Torah personal.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Vayishlach – Keeping The Jewish People Holy

Cult leaders often force members into harmful behaviors by using various forms of coercion, mind control and threats of divine punishment. Most cults are usually small groups who live in an insular society detached from civilization, which gives them the ability to control the members of the group. But convincing a large population to physically harm themselves is nearly impossible unless they believe it is truly in their best interest.

In Parshas Vayishlach. Shechem, the prince of the Chivi nation, committed a terrible atrocity on Yaakov’s daughter, Dinah. Shechem and his father Chamor, the king, met with Yaakov and his sons to convince them to allow Shechem to marry Dinah. They proposed a full merger of Yaakov’s family and theirs. With a rescue plan in mind, the sons of Yaakov responded they would agree if the Chivi would all circumcise themselves. Shechem and Chamor met with their people and, shockingly, they all agreed to circumcise themselves!

This looks like cult-style leadership, convincing a group the size of a city to perform surgery on themselves! Was the opportunity to marry the children of Yaakov and have open commerce with them really so enticing that all men were willing to have this painful procedure performed?
Shechem was a prince and could marry any girl he chose. According to the Shach, Shechem was specifically attracted to Dinah because of her sanctity as the daughter of Yaakov, the Patriarch of the Jewish nation. The pasuk says Shechem’s soul became attached to the daughter of Yaakov. Shechem and Chamor were not cult leaders; there was no mind control or coercion here. The people jumped at the opportunity to attach themselves to the kedusha (holiness) of klal Yisrael. Even having open trade with Yaakov and his family was considered a connection with holiness. As the Gemara tells us, whoever marries the daughter of a talmid chacham, and one who does business with a talmid chacham, and one who gives benefit to a talmid chacham, it is as if he is clinging to the Shechina.

A midrash expounds on four different terminologies in Iyov: Lo shalavti, I was not secure; lo shakatati, I was not quiet; lo nachti, I was not at rest; and vayavo rogez, torment has come. These refer to four challenging periods in Yaakov’s life: living with Eisav and Lavan, the abduction of Dinah, and the disappearance of Yosef. Yaakov was given these four challenges to give his future generations the ability to endure and overcome future exiles. This is set forth in another midrash, which assigns these four terminologies to the four exiles klal Yisrael endured: Bavel, Madai, Yavan and Edom.

Rav Gedalia Schorr notes that the challenge of Dinah and the exile of Yavan, Greece—the source of our Chanukah story—have in common “wanting something for nothing.” Shechem and his people were willing to endure physical pain to marry into klal Yisrael in order to attach themselves to the sanctity and godliness of klal Yisrael. The Greeks were attracted to certain aspects of the kedusha of the Jewish people and wanted some of this sanctity for themselves. They used the Beis Hamikdash for their own purposes, offering their own sacrifices on the Mizbeach. They also wanted to intermarry with the Jewish people and connect with their sanctity. However, sanctity comes with responsibilities. Sanctity is not just for show; you can’t get something for nothing. Shechem and the Greeks desperately wanted to connect to and benefit from the holiness of the Jew, but they were not willing to live a life of sanctity.

People who interact with non-Jews in college, the workplace or otherwise are challenged with how to act properly in social situations and maintain their sanctity. In many businesses, social get-togethers are arranged to create close friendships and relationships among colleagues. Yaakov saw this approach with Shechem, and the Jews at the time of Chanukah saw this with the Greeks. The intrinsic holiness inside each Jew attracts outsiders, but we must tread carefully. Relationships with non-Jews expose us to their culture and ideology. Without vigilance on our part, this exposure can easily pull us away from our closeness to Hashem and our inner Godliness. We should be friendly and cordial, but close, intimate friendships are dangerous.

When we light the menorah by our window or outside our front door, we signify that the light and sanctity of the Jewish people are developed in the Jewish home and serve to illuminate the otherwise dark outside world.