Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Rosh Hashana – Expanding Our “I”

At the beginning of Elul last year, the Mir Yeshiva in Yerushalayim found itself in an overwhelming deficit. Three weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the rosh yeshiva and HaRav Benny Carlebach flew to America for a six-hour visit to meet with 150 close supporters. The situation was dire. The yeshiva was four months behind in paying the married men learning in the yeshiva kollel! The group of supporters launched a plan to raise $7 million for the yeshiva. A few close supporters offered to donate half the needed funds if the other half was raised before Rosh Hashanah. A three-week, $7 million challenge! It was frantic—dozens of meetings, working into the wee hours of the night. Thankfully, the goal was reached and the married kollel students received their checks before Rosh Hashanah, giving them and their families great relief.

I believe the dedication shown by the yeshiva’s supporters provides us with a core message for Rosh Hashanah. Parshas Nitzavim opens with Moshe addressing the entire nation before him. The Ohr Hachaim says the purpose of speaking to all of klal Yisrael was to unite the entire nation as one entity. This created arvus—a feeling of responsibility of each Jew for the other. The Zohar notes that the words “You are standing here today before Hashem…” alludes to the day when all klal Yisrael stands before Hashem in judgment—Rosh Hashanah. How is arvus related to Rosh Hashanah?

The Mishnah Rosh Hashanah tells us that on Rosh Hashanah everyone passes before Hashem as if in a flock of sheep—indicating that each person is judged individually. Conversely, Rabbi Yochanan tells us we are all judged by Hashem in one glance, implying that everyone is judged collectively. So are we judged independently or collectively?

Rav Chaim Friedlander explains there is no contradiction. Two areas of each individual’s actions are assessed on Rosh Hashanah: his performance as an individual based on his capabilities, plus his actions with regard to his family, community, the Jewish nation and the world. Even if one falls short individually, if his efforts are beneficial to and appreciated by his family and the community, then he will receive a good judgment.

It’s puzzling that both these concepts are derived from the same source in Tehillim, “Hayotzer yachad libam hameivin el kol ma’aseihem”—Hashem fashioned their hearts together and understands all their deeds. How can the individual assessment and the collective assessment both be learned from one source?

This coming week, Ashkenazi Jews start reciting Selichos. The central prayer in Selichos includes the 13 attributes of mercy. On Rosh Hashanah we recite Tashlich, which is based on a few pesukim from Micha that also correspond to the 13 attributes of mercy. One of the attributes is how Hashem relates to the Jewish nation as “She’eris Nachalaso.” Rav Moshe Cordevero explains that the word “she’er,” which usually means “remnant,” in this context means relative, teaching us that Hashem has a special relationship with klal Yisrael as we are all relatives and not strangers. Similarly, every Jew is considered a close relative to each other, as learned from the concept of arvus. The Jewish nation is one large, close-knit family, and the plight of each Jew affects all of us.

My good friend Rabbi Avrohom Weinrib, rav of Congregation Zichron Eliezer of Cincinnati, told me that Rabbi Shimon Shkop says different people mean different things when they say “I.” Some people are only referring to themselves. Others are referring to themselves and their family, while still others include their friends, community and nation. A person is capable of increasing the realm of his “I.” As Jews, our “I” needs to be inclusive of all of klal Yisrael because we are one. The greater a person is, the larger is his “I.”

We live in the “I” generation: iPad, iPod, iPhone, iCloud, iTunes… We need to expand our outlook to include others with ourselves. Think about quarantined individuals and families. Some are stuck alone in their houses. My wife mentioned to me that when I go shopping I should call someone stuck at home to offer to purchase things for them. My daughter and son-in-law went back to Eretz Yisrael last week and are now quarantining for two weeks. Their friends have been helping them purchase whatever they need. This exemplifies arvus.

Last year, close supporters of the Mir Yeshiva took upon themselves to ensure that the kollel families had food for Yom Tov. This year, Hashem has created an extra opportunity for us before Rosh Hashanah to expand our “I” to include so many other Jews. When we do that, we are judged not just as individuals but as representatives of the entire Jewish nation. Although each person individually is not guaranteed a favorable judgment, klal Yisrael as a nation has a guarantee to be judged favorably.


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!

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI- Passaic Torah Institute – Shabbos Nachamu: The Comfort of Connecting With Hashem

Last week on Rosh Chodesh Av, the Passaic/Clifton community and klal Yisrael suffered a colossal loss: the sudden passing of Rabbi Shmuel Berkovicz, z”l, menahel—principal—of Yeshiva M’kor Boruch where my son attended, rav of Khal Yeraim, and for me personally, a rebbe and close friend. He was my counsel for many chinuch questions. He was suffused with love for each person, and he loved each child in yeshiva. We are bereft.

The Gemara says the death of a tzaddik is equal to the burning of the Beis Hamikdash. While they existed, both provided the means for forging a deep connection to Hashem. We are now left without the Beis Hamikdash and without the tzaddik. I personally feel the void so immensely.

This Shabbos is called Shabbos Nachamu because the haftorah starts off with the word nachamu—comfort. Hashem tells Yeshaya the prophet to go and comfort klal Yisrael after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.

Similarly, when a mourner is sitting shiva, there is a mitzvah called nichum aveilim to visit the mourner and offer words of comfort. Can we truly offer comfort to the mourner? Rabbi Daniel Schwab told me, in the name of his illustrious grandfather, Harav Shimon Schwab, that we can’t really comfort the mourner—only Hashem can do that. Indeed, these are the words we say to the mourner: “May Hashem comfort you amongst all the mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim.” In this sentence, we refer to Hashem as Hamakom—the place—which is one of the names of Hashem, because when someone loses a close relative, there is a huge void. Only Hashem can fill that void.

Perhaps the following event relates to the comfort of Shabbos Nachamu, says Rabbi Daniel Schwab. Once he had to store a few items in his garage, but his garage was so cluttered, he had no room for them. He first had to clear everything out that wasn’t needed. On Tisha B’Av we clear out space inside ourselves. We first need to recognize the void in our lives and how much of Hashem we are missing. Once we have de-cluttered, we now have the space and the clarity to allow Hashem—Hamakom—to come fill that space inside us.

Our community feels the void without Rabbi Berkovicz. Which rebbe will love our children and care for them as deeply as he did? Who will lead his beautiful shul? Where will parents and rebbeim turn for chinuch advice? Where will I turn for my personal questions on raising my children in Passaic? There is a huge vacuum.

Perhaps there is another element to the nechama that is being offered on Shabbos Nachamu. It is almost impossible to console someone with regard to an irreplaceable loss. The Navi repeats the word nachamu twice, since there are two parties who need to be comforted concerning the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash: Hashem and klal Yisrael. Yes, Hashem also needs comforting.

The Gemara quotes an episode where Rebbe Yosse walked into one of the ruins in Yerushalayim to pray. Inside, he heard a heavenly voice saying, “Whenever I hear Jews saying the words yehei shmei rabba in Kaddish, I say, ‘Praise goes to the King because His nation praises Him in His home as such. Woe is to the father who has exiled his children and woe to the children who have been banished from their father’s table.’”

The sefer Bromo Shel Olam explains that Hashem also needs comfort for destroying the Beis Hamikdash, as His presence is now less felt in the world. Hashem is comforted when we express our yearning for Him and His dwelling place. We do this when we respond to people saying Kaddish.

The physical destruction is just temporary; the rebuilding will happen. Even in its destruction, the Beis Hamikdash retains its kedusha; the physical area remains holy and sacred. The loss of the Beis Hamikdash is not forever; we in fact “rebuild it” as we strengthen our connection with Hashem.

Similarly, upon the loss of tzadikim, the Gemara says they are considered alive even after their death, as their Torah is eternal. The lessons we have learned from Rabbi Berkowicz still live on. Living his lessons keeps him with us.

Just as Hashem grants a nechama to klal Yisrael after Tisha B’Av, so may Hashem grant a nechama to the Berkovicz family, our community and all of klal Yisrael.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Pinchas – Acting Decisively for Peace

I’d like to dedicate this dvar Torah to a very happy couple, my daughter Malka and husband Tzvi Sontag, who recently gave birth to a baby girl!

Harmony in the home leads to great blessing. Let’s explore together.

A 30-year-old Sefardi woman had been dating for many years without a match. She was a successful lawyer and decided to take a year off to spend with friends in Eretz Yisrael. She rented an apartment in Yerushalayim, and one day a friend invited her for Shabbat in Tel Aviv. She was reluctant, but her friend was convincing. “It’s nice here. Please come for Shabbos. I am sure you will be thankful for coming.” She agreed. On Shabbos morning, the single lady remembered it was her grandmother’s yahrzeit. “I have a custom to sponsor a kiddush l’iluy nishmas my grandmother on her yahrzeit. Can that be arranged?” They asked their shul’s gabbai who readily agreed.

After Shabbos, the gabbai, who was single, inquired about the lady who sponsored the kiddush and asked if it would be possible to arrange a date. This was an Ashkenazi shul, but the gabbai was …Sefardi. They went out and sure enough it was a match. Amazing! This lady had been dating for years in America and Hashem arranged for her to go to Tel Aviv for Shabbos, sponsor kiddush in an Ashkenazi shul and there meet the Sefardi gabbai who would be her match! Hashem puts us where we need to be.

In truth, every match works that way. Hashem puts people from different places together. In addition, if Hashem orchestrates the couple to meet and marry, then Hashem also wants them to stay together.

A healthy and happy Jewish marriage is a key concept depicted in Parshas Pinchas. When the Torah relates the zealous act of Pinchas killing Zimri and Kozbi, who brazenly consorted with Midianite women, it traces Pinchas’ lineage to Aharon Hakohen. The Nesivos Shalom explains that the Torah is emphasizing that Pinchas was rooted in peace, like his grandfather Aharon.

But what was peaceful about Pinchas killing those two individuals?

I believe the answer lies in defining the nature of shalom/peace within Aharon. When Aharon died, the Gemara tells us that 80,000 children all named Aharon participated in the levaya (funeral). They were named after Aharon for he was known as the peacemaker who was constantly helping married couples maintain harmony and peaceful relationships. If we make a calculation of 40 years in the desert and 80,000 children, that means Aharon counseled between five and six couples a day! (Likely, there were many more, as the number doesn’t include the baby girls…)

The brazen behavior of Zimri and Kozbi gave a stamp of approval for married Jewish men to have illicit relations with the Midianite women. That had to be stopped. A marriage is a sacred commitment, not a casual relationship. Zimri was initiating a total breakdown of the Jewish home and the future of klal Yisrael. He was creating chaos. Pinchas acted decisively. He thus restored the concept of the sanctity of marriage and peaceful relationships, just like his grandfather Aharon. For this, he was blessed with peace.

Klal Yisrael enjoyed three special miracles each day in the desert. The mun was in the merit of Moshe, the wellspring of water was in the merit of Miriam, and the “clouds of glory” were in the merit of Aharon because of his devotion to shalom in klal Yisrael. Upon Aharon’s death, the clouds of glory protecting the Jewish nation for 40 years dispersed, leaving the nation vulnerable to attack.

At times, couples will disagree, but they must be very careful not to let it develop into a full-fledged argument. The Hebrew word for such an argument is machlokes. The Shelah expounds on the letters of machlokes: mem, ches, lamed, kuf, tav. These letters show us how arguments start and fester. Usually, arguments start with something small like the letter mem, which is entirely closed and has only a little split on the bottom—as arguments start with a little rift. If not stopped, arguments expand like the bottom of the letter ches, which is entirely open. They then develop into full feuds, as signified by the tall letter lamed—as the flames of argument go flying to the sky. Next is the letter kuf where the leg extends downward, signifying that arguments bring us way down. The last letter is tav, which has two feet strongly standing on the ground, signaling an argument that is not going away.

Peaceful relationships give stability and joy to our lives. They do need purposeful nurturing and care. Hashem put us together and wants us to have shalom bayis—harmony in the home—which will serve as the bedrock for a bayis ne’eman b’Yisrael, a happy home that is faithful to Jewish traditions.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Shelach – Maintaining the Strength Of Our Convictions

When one of my daughters was four years old, she was looking out the front window and shouted in delight, “Daddy! Look! The chocolate truck is here!” I looked out the window and saw a UPS truck. To her, a brown truck was…the chocolate truck! People can look at the same thing and differ in their interpretation of it.

This is the story of the spies. Twelve highly esteemed leaders, one from each tribe, were chosen to scout out Eretz Yisrael. Ten of this group returned and gave an unfavorable report about Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish nation accepted this report. For this crime, Hashem decreed the Jews would sojourn in the desert for 40 years before entering Eretz Yisrael! Only two of the spies, Kalev and Yehoshua, gave a favorable report.

So, were the spies really outstanding leaders? The Torah at the beginning of Parshas Shelach calls them “anashim”—men—which Rashi explains to signify great stature and righteousness. Yet Rashi seems to change his mind when they return. Rashi quotes the Gemara that interprets the words, “They went and they came”: Just as they were wicked when they returned, so too were they were wicked when they set out for the mission. So—were they really good or bad?

Each spy witnessed the same events and sights, yet their interpretation was very different. They each saw funerals in all the cities they scouted. Ten of them perceived high mortality and gloom. Yet Kalev and Yehoshua saw the Hand of Hashem making the people preoccupied with their losses so they wouldn’t notice the spies. All 12 spies saw that the fruits of the land were gigantic. Ten interpreted this as abnormal, indicating a land of fearsome giants. Yet Kalev and Yehoshua saw the land as abounding in blessing. Public sentiment caused the spies to interpret the circumstances and sights in different ways.

The opinion of the public is an incredibly strong influence. We see this in our daily lives with the clothes we wear and the cars we drive. Of course, there’s no reason to completely stand out. We don’t need to make our children feel like outcasts with clothing choices. Still, it’s important to be confident in our choices and decisions without being unduly swayed by public opinion.

In the current COVID situation, we feel certain pressures. Do I need to wear a mask? Should I make the effort to maintain social distancing? What are the neighbors doing? Do I make decisions based on our rabbinic leaders’ guidance, formulated with the advice of local medical health organizations, or are my decisions based on local public behavior?

The bigger picture is subject to fluctuation as well. Groups are lobbying the governor and mayors to allow additional public activities. Should economic and political pressure influence decisions on public safety? There are multiple ways to interpret the same data, and our interests are affected by how the numbers are interpreted. As individuals and as groups, it’s easy to get swept along by public pressure.

How do we make the right choices? Rav Moshe Wolfson says we need to pray to Hashem for divine guidance. Kalev and Yehoshua would have been swept away by pressure from the nation if not for special measures that protected them. Yehoshua’s name was initially Hoshea. Moshe added the letter yud to his name (the letter yud signifying Hashem’s name), making it Yehoshua, which stands for Kah Hoshiacha, Hashem will save you. This constituted a prayer for Hashem to give Yehoshua extra support.

During the spying mission, Kalev went to daven at the Me’aras Hamachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) as a merit to not be swayed by the pressure of the other spies and the nation.

There are two connections that can give us the courage to withstand social pressures: A strong connection and adherence to the direction of our rebbeim, and a connection with our parents and grandparents.

Yehoshua was the dedicated disciple of Moshe. His rebbi, Moshe, prayed for him and thereby helped give him the strength to advocate his true opinions. Kalev connected to his grandparents. Our rebbeim, our parents and grandparents—these are the anchors we need to maintain our own value system, which allows us to act appropriately even if our actions differ from those around us.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Naso – Dealing With Life’s Challenges

My rosh yeshiva in Israel, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l (late rosh yeshiva of Mir Yerushalayim), was stricken with Parkinson’s disease for his entire tenure as rosh yeshiva. Under his leadership, the yeshiva grew from 1,000 students to 6,000 and increased from one building to seven! He gave shiurim, met with students and carried the whole yeshiva’s budget on his shoulders. In his advanced stages of Parkinson’s, he still traveled to America to raise funds, meeting donors in their offices despite the strain. Once, the rosh yeshiva asked a supporter for a much larger donation than usual. The donor wanted to excuse himself with a nicety, but shocked himself when the word “yes” jumped from his lips! It was clear, he said later, that seeing the rosh yeshiva push himself beyond his limits for the love of his students, he could not say no. The rosh yeshiva’s challenging illness actually helped him raise the millions of dollars he needed for the maintenance and growth of the yeshiva.

Parshas Naso discusses the Nazir, who accepts upon himself to refrain from drinking wine, consuming grape products, cutting his hair and touching the dead. The Torah describes the act of becoming a nazir with the words “Ish ki yaflei” a person who accepts upon himself something wondrous. The wonder of the nazir is to go against the flow. Most people engage in worldly pursuits, while ignoring the neshama (soul). The nazir, to elevate himself spiritually, accepts the challenge of undertaking to focus on his neshama and not let his body be in the driver’s seat.

Rav Gedalia Schorr notes that we say the same word (derived from the word “pelah”) daily in the bracha of Asher Yatzar after we use the restroom. The bracha concludes with the words “mafli la’assos.” The Rema (Shulchan Aruch 6:1) explains that in addition to thanking Hashem for normal bodily function, we are thanking Hashem for the wonder of keeping two opposite forces together. Man has a body and a soul, which have two opposite agendas, and Hashem makes them exist together in harmony. Indeed, the success of the soul is only due to the body, and the success of the body is only due to the soul.

In our own daily life, we sometimes let our challenges temporarily overcome us. We need to recognize that any challenges that come our way are from Hashem and therefore, in some way, for our good. Dealing with these challenges effectively might in fact be the key to our ultimate accomplishments and success.

The bracha of borei nefashos that we say after eating certain foods is an incredible bracha; it describes this exact point: It indicates that Hashem creates many different people with all their needs and sustains them with all that He created. We have our needs and Hashem provides for them.

The Bobover Rebbe would go to visit people after Shabbos morning davening in their homes. He would drink a l’chaim, pass out cake to all the people there, make a bracha, eat a small piece and then move on to the next home.

One Shabbos on his rounds, the Rebbe stopped to see Reb Zishe, who was rosh kollel of Bobov. Reb Zishe was married for 10 years but had no children. Also present was Reb Zishe’s gabbai (assistant), Reb Shmuel, who had no children after nine years of marriage. The Rebbe gave out a l’chaim and piece of cake, then uncharacteristically drank the entire cup. He motioned to Reb Zishe and Reb Shmuel and loudly recited the bracha Baruch atah… borei nefashos rabbos v’chesronam—Hashem creates many people each with their needs—l’hachoyos bahem nefesh kol chai—to give each of them life. All answered “amen!!” Within the year, Reb Zishe had a baby girl and Reb Shmuel had a baby boy. It was clear the Rebbe purposely drank a full cup to require him to say this after-bracha so he could ask for Hashem to fill their void and get all to answer amen.

Twenty years later, the Bobover Rebbe visited Reb Zishe and Reb Shmuel to drink a l’chaim on the engagement of their children to each other. Their void of being childless for so many years was destined to be filled by each other’s simcha and give them a joyous life together.

Instead of letting our difficulties hold us back, let’s instead realize the wondrous ways of Hashem and use the resources given to us by Hashem to achieve success as we conquer these difficulties.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Bamidbar – The Sustaining Environment Of Torah

On Lag B’Omer I was invited to participate in two Zoom weddings. One was in the Barn Estate in Clayton, Ohio. Yes, the wedding was taking place…in a barn! Only family attended, but since they had many brothers and sisters, they needed a large open area. This huge farm facilitated social distancing. The other wedding took place in the rural hills of Pennsylvania on a huge open field. Although the setting of either wedding was not what the chasan and kallah had dreamt of, each wedding was one of great joy.

In truth, this reminds me of my grandparents’ wedding. Theirs was the first wedding to take place after the war in the Eisenmann Shul, the only shul in Antwerp, Belgium, that was not destroyed by the Nazis. There were 35 people at the wedding, and unfortunately their parents were not in attendance since they did not survive the war. Yet, my grandmother told me the wedding was incredibly joyous.

Having a wedding in an isolated place is nothing new to klal Yisrael. The first Jewish “wedding” was in the middle of the desert at Har Sinai, with the giving of the Torah! Only the marrying parties were there: the Jewish nation and Hashem. The wedding was broadcast to the entire world. The entire world shook when Hashem said “Anochi, I am Hashem.” This was the first Zoom- equivalent wedding!

But why does the Midrash not mention a baser element that is free for the taking, air?
The Ben Yehoyada brings a Gemara that tells us that when Hashem was giving the Torah, He took the mountain of Sinai and held it over klal Yisrael “as a barrel” and said, “If you accept the Torah, good. If not, I will place the mountain down over you.” The Maharsha comments on the comparison of the mountain to a barrel. When placing an inverted barrel down, it traps whatever is underneath it. Klal Yisrael would not be squashed by the mountain; rather, they would be stuck inside the hollowed-out part of the mountain. Since fire was blazing as Hashem gave the Torah, the fire would suck up all the oxygen and there would be no air to breathe inside the mountain.

That’s why the Torah is not compared to air, because without the acceptance of the Torah by klal Yisrael, there would have been no air! Why the threat to remove the air? It signifies that the Torah is our oxygen and we can’t live without it.

But I would suggest a different approach. The Torah way of life creates its own life-supporting environment. Rabbi Akiva compared a fish needing water to a Jew needing Torah learning. Fish live in a different environment from humans. They have an entirely different way of breathing. Fish also need oxygen, but they get it from the water, something human bodies can’t do. In an analogous way, the Torah provides a life-supporting environment for its followers within klal Yisrael.

At the start of Sefer Bamidbar, the Torah outlines the journeys of the Jews in the desert. We see a unique nation, not yet arrived at its promised land. This is a nation defined by its marriage to the Almighty, with the Torah being the marriage contract. The message for us is clear: We may live in the world together with other nations, but we in fact live in an entirely different environment. We get our oxygen through Torah study and fulfillment of its mitzvos.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Lag B’Omer The Radiance of Torah Learning

When I lived in Eretz Yisrael, every year on the morning after Lag B’omer, my apartment in Yerushalayim smelled like smoke from all the bonfires which burned the night before. I would still feel the heat of the bonfires near the forest when I rode the Egged bus in Har Nof in the morning. What’s the big deal about bonfires on Lag B’omer?

The Bnei Yissaschar explains that the day that Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai taught the Zohar, the sun didn’t set, thereby lighting up the night. We therefore light bonfires to commemorate the bright light that came from the Torah of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Lag B’omer itself starts the final third of the Omer, which totals 49 days from Pesach to Shavuos. The Omer is divided into trimesters. The second trimester ends on day thirty-two, which is the Gematria of “lev” (heart.) In this part of the Omer, we focus on developing the lev. The last trimester is the one closest to Shavuos, when the light of Torah was revealed to the world. The Shem Mishmuel says just like the sun starts to illuminate the world before the day starts (at dawn), so the period of time prior to an event receives light from the upcoming period. The last trimester starts receiving light from Shavuos, when the Torah was given.

It’s during the first thirty-two days of the Omer, ending on Lag B’omer, that the disciples of Rabbi Akiva perished. They died because they did not have sufficient respect for each other; they were held to very high standards since they represented the future of Torah observance for the next generation. This teaches us the lesson that an essential part of our Torah observance must include focusing on developing our compassion and caring for others. Lag B’omer starts our focus on enhanced Torah learning and reaffirming our unwavering commitment to performing Hashem’s mitzvos. The purpose of leaving Mitzrayim was to receive the Torah on the Sixth of Sivan. Part of our preparation for this event includes the custom of studying Pirkei Avos on Shabbos afternoons during the Omer period, as these Mishnayos focus on character development. With all this background in mind, we have a new understanding of why precisely on Lag B’omer was this light of Torah revealed.

There’s an amazing insight from the B’nei Yissaschar who says Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakai told his top five disciples to discern how to achieve the best path in life. Rebbi Eliezer ben Aruch said it was to have a “good heart.” Rebbi Yochanan said this was the best approach because it included all the other opinions. A good heart in Hebrew is ‘lev tov,’ whose numerical value is 49. Lev is 32 and tov is 17. In the first 32 days of the Omer, we work on our heart — having care and concern for others. In the last part of the Omer, we prepare for the giving of the Torah on Shavuos.

The Bnei Yissaschar teaches us a fundamental idea. The first time the word tov is written in the Torah is at the completion of the first day of creation. “Hashem saw the light was tov / good.” The word tov is the 33rd word in the Torah. What was so good and special about the light? Rashi  says this was not the light of the sun, which wasn’t created until the fourth day. This was a special light that gave tremendous illumination and clarity of purpose regarding how Hashem operates the world. This light was so powerful, one could see clear across the world. But Hashem saw that this light would be dangerous in the hands of evil people, so He hid it in the Torah. If someone applies himself exceptionally well in his Torah learning, he attains this clarity. Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed elements of this clarity with the Torah he taught to the world.

Now we can better appreciate our bonfires on Lag B’omer. No matter how deep the darkness around us, learning Torah will illuminate and give clarity and purpose to all. Dovid Hamelech prayed for special divine help in understanding Torah as expressed in the pasuk in Tehillim –  Gal einai – open my eyes so that I may see the wonders of your Torah. The three-letter word “gal” has the same letters as Lag, just spelled backwards, and they both have the numerical value of 33, alluding to the special revelation of Torah that starts with the period of Lag B’omer. There is nothing that illuminates more…than Torah.

Now is the time to make a commitment to enhance our Torah study. May Hashem grant us the great clarity of purpose to follow his Torah and mitzvos. And as we conclude the first blessing of Bircas Krias Shema each morning, may we merit the clarity from the New Light that Hashem will bring to Tzion!