Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Vayetze – Unblocking Our Prayers

When you’re a father in a house mostly filled with girls, you put on the fixer-man hat quite often. Last week I was Baruch the Plumber, sent to unclog a sink drain full of hair. I rolled up my sleeves, gathered my strength, and went into the bathroom with my trusty snake to clear that drain. Baruch Hashem, I emerged successful!

Believe it or not, this little episode reminded me of an incredible insight from the Sfas Emes on Parshas Vayeitzei.

Yaakov arrives at the outskirts of Charan and sees many shepherds gathered around a well. They are all waiting for extra hands to appear to lift the massive boulder covering the well. As Yaakov comes closer, he sees a young girl approaching the well with a flock of sheep. He confirms this girl was Rochel, the daughter of Lavan, his uncle. Seeing she will need water for her flock, Yaakov walks over to the well and removes the boulder all by himself. Rochel and the other shepherds are in awe. Rashi quotes the midrash that says that Yaakov removed the rock from the well like a cork from a bottle. Why did Rashi describe it this way—like a cork from a bottle? How was Yaakov able to do this when many shepherds together could not?

The Sfas Emes explains the symbolism of the stone on the mouth of the well. The well represents our ability to draw forth tefillah (prayer) and Torah from within ourselves. The stone represents the blockages that prevent us from opening our mouths in prayer or Torah study. Often, we want to daven or learn Torah, but we find we just can’t focus. The shepherds needed a lot of help to move the stone—similar to our needing a minyan (a group of at least 10 men) to gather together to pray.

The same can be said of learning Torah. It’s much more easily done in a group.

So how was Yaakov able to remove the heavy boulder by himself? There was a fundamental difference between Yaakov and the shepherds. The shepherds viewed the rock as a heavy obstacle blocking their access to water. Yaakov viewed the rock as a cork in a bottle. A cork serves a very important function—it protects the contents of the bottle. The rock wasn’t just preventing access to the water; it was also protecting the water in the well from foreign substances falling inside.

Similarly, we may sometimes feel the words of prayer are blocked from our mouths. In truth, it may be Hashem helping us to slow down. When we are compelled to dig deeper and work harder at our davening, our words gain a new dimension of sincerity and meaning.

There was a young man I befriended who was very estranged from Torah and mitzvos. He had been challenged with addictions and abuse for many years. One Yom Kippur, I was delighted to see him enter the shul. This was the first time he had walked into a shul in 10 years! I greeted him with a big smile. I kept glancing at him throughout the day and saw on his face that he was struggling. Yet, near the end of the day, at the powerful and moving Neilah prayer, I saw tears streaming down his cheeks.

The next time we met I told him how proud I was of him and asked him to share his Yom Kippur experience with me. He said, “I came into shul and wanted to pray, but I couldn’t do it. All my struggles were creating a wall in front of me. How could I pray after all I have done? How can I open my mouth in prayer to Hashem? Finally, at Neilah, I remembered the gates were fully open at that time. Hashem now wanted to hear my prayers and I started to cry. The words just started flowing. I was so happy—I was able to pray again!”

Whenever we struggle to find the words, or to capture the feeling in our davening, let’s remember not to view our struggle as trying to lift a heavy rock from a well, but rather removing a cork from a bottle, which was placed there to keep our prayers pure and sincere.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI- Passaic Torah institute – The Road To Developing Character

When visiting friends, I remarked that their main floor looked like it had quite a makeover. The wife laughed, saying there was a funny story behind it. “Our living room carpet was old and worn so we took the plunge and chose a replacement for $3,000. Then I realized the paint in the room wouldn’t match and was 15 years old, so we decided to paint the living room. Next, I couldn’t help noticing our old couches. And then there was the adjacent dining room—how would it look next to our new living room? So, we painted the dining room as well. In the end, we had entirely redone our living room with new carpet, paint job and furniture. And our dining room was repainted, a new hardwood floor was installed, and a brand-new dining room table and chairs were purchased. Our modest carpet replacement ended up as a $40,000 makeover!”

I am reminded of this story when I think of the mission Eliezer was sent on by Avraham to find a suitable wife for his son Yitzchak. Eliezer decided on a sign: he would ask an unmarried girl for some water to drink. If she then gave him water and volunteered to draw water for his camels as well, she would be the match for Yitzchak. Soon after, Rivka came by and he asked for a little water to drink from her pitcher. She gave him water, then refilled the pitcher for his whole entourage. Rivka then proceeded to draw buckets and buckets of water to fill the trough for all their camels to drink. Eliezer’s prayer had been answered.

Rav Hirsch explains this was the definitive sign of a future matriarch of the Jewish nation. She possessed the sterling attribute of kindness, part of the Jewish DNA, so she merited to be part of the foundation of klal Yisrael.

The Alter of Novardok asks a penetrating question. Certainly, Rivka demonstrated great hospitality and kindness. But maybe this was the one area in which she excelled, but other aspects of Rivka’s character might not be so praiseworthy.

The Alter of Novardok answers that when someone demonstrates perfection in one area, it shows they are on the path to perfecting other areas as well. Our inner qualities, he says, are all intertwined. Rivka’s display of perfection in the area of chesed (kindness) was proof she aimed for overall perfection. Eliezer was correct: her great chesed at the well showed she was the right mate for Yitzchak to become one of the matriarchs. Just like when someone starts to redecorate a room, it often ends up with an entirely new facelift, so too, when someone demonstrates refinement in one area, it indicates they are refining themselves in all areas.

Let me share another story of perfecting chesed. A close friend in Israel had to have a serious medical procedure to remove a growth. He was advised to have it performed in New York, as they had a technique that could hopefully remove the growth without the need for any other treatments. He managed with help to connect with a top specialist, flying in to visit this doctor at his home on a Sunday afternoon. The doctor reviewed the many scans and advised him that another surgeon from a different hospital would be a better choice to do this special surgery. This kind doctor refused any payment since he would not be performing the surgery, and personally contacted the other surgeon to make the arrangements.

As we were sitting in the waiting room at 6:45 a.m. to meet the other surgeon, the referring doctor walked into the waiting room. We were incredulous! This was a very busy specialist, head of a department in a competing hospital and someone who was not getting paid for this case. What was he doing here? He walked over to us and said, “This surgeon is the best. I want to make sure he is clear on what I recommend, to ensure you have a completely successful surgery without the need for any other treatments and a quick recovery.”

That’s called chesed to perfection. When a person strives for perfection in one area, it leads to a path of striving to perfect all areas.

All of us have areas we struggle with. We all want to improve! Often, we just don’t know where to start and we feel immobilized. The lesson we learn from Eliezer in choosing Rivka is that it doesn’t matter where we start. Start anywhere; once we work on perfecting one area of our character, that positively affects our attitude and approach to all other areas. May we all go from strength to strength.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Vayera – Kindness Under Torah’s Umbrella

My friend Moshe was driving on a busy street one day when suddenly, the car in front of him came to a sudden stop. Moshe slammed on his brakes, avoiding a serious collision by a couple of inches. Thinking the worst, that a child had run out in front of the car, my friend bounded from his car to see if he could help. No child in sight. What just happened? The driver rolled down his window and said, “I’m sorry I had to stop. A squirrel ran in front of my car and I didn’t want to harm it.” My friend was incredulous. “But you almost killed me and my family! I almost slammed right into your car and we all could have died!”

The driver had good intentions to not run over a squirrel, but common sense tells us that it does not justify risking human life to save an animal. Kindness to animals is praiseworthy, but in this case, it was dangerous and irresponsible.

Avraham was the paradigm of chesed (kindness.) The Jewish nation possesses this trait-it’s passed down in the DNA of every Jew from Avraham, our patriarch. Avraham perfected his own attribute of chesed by doing chesed whenever possible, such as running to greet unknown guests to serve them his best delicacies. Further, he shared with everyone he met about the kindness that Hashem showers upon man and the need to thank Him.

The Mishnah in Avos tells us Avraham was tried with ten tests. While one would assume these would all be designed to fine-tune his chesed, most of them involved challenging Avraham to perform activities contradictory to chesed. The test of Lech Lecha had Avraham move away from his family, his hometown and the people he loved and cared for. The test of Avraham fighting against the four mighty kings to save Lot his cousin, involved killing people in war. Hashem instructed Avraham to circumcise himself, which set Avraham apart from the rest of mankind, jeopardizing his ability to connect to others, since they would now view Avraham as markedly different from themselves. He was challenged to divorce Hagar and send her away along with his own son, Yishmael. The last and hardest of all the tests was the Akeidas Yitzchak, in which he would sacrifice his own son — the total opposite of kindness!!

Why would Hashem test Avraham to act in ways seemingly contrary to the quality of chesed he was developing and perfecting?

Rav Dessler enlightens us that any quality pushed to an extreme is dangerous. Indeed, the chesed of Avraham needed to be balanced. Chesed without boundaries can lead to giving away more money than one can afford. It can lead one to aid cruel people. A giver may choose to borrow money to give away and not have the means to pay it back. A person with unchecked chesed may give money to an addict to fill his destructive need.

Avraham was instructed by Hashem to perform acts we may perceive as the opposite of chesed, to ensure that his chesed would be performed subject to the will of Hashem. Indeed, Hashem was perfecting Avraham’s chesed, for kindness performed out of the realm of mitzvos is a corruption of chesed.

I had a conversation with a Jew who owns a private plane. He is a caring person and belongs to a group called Angel Flights that provide free air transportation to qualifying patients and their families by arranging flights to distant medical facilities, delivering supplies to disaster areas, and reuniting families during desperate times. These pilots volunteer their time, services, and the flight expense to transport these patients or family members for free to the location they need. This person told me he often spends his weekends, including Shabbos, volunteering to fly. Although these flights are solely for non-life-threatening situations and he knows the Torah does not permit it, he feels performing these acts of kindness is what Hashem wants more than keeping the laws of Shabbos.

This man’s actions are noble and generous, but not in tune with the will of the Almighty. Hashem does not want him to fly on Shabbos; that is not the chesed Hashem wants him to perform, unless it is halachically mandated.

Hashem was teaching Avraham that even though his desire to perform acts of chesed is genuine and admirable, his performance of chesed must always be under the umbrella of Hashem’s laws and direction. Without this, a person could save the life of a squirrel and kill an entire family, chas v’shalom. What is kind…and what is not…must always be rooted in the Torah’s teachings.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Lech Lecha – Accepting Hashem’s Majesty

Titles and introductions mean a lot. About a year ago, I went to the Friday night Shalom Zachor of the grandson of one of our popular elected officials. Of course, there were many people that night, and the atmosphere was festive. When the host saw me, he gave me a very warm greeting and led me to sit next to a distinguished man in his mid-thirties, wearing a yarmulke and a pink shirt. “Rabbi, meet my friend Mayer Lora.” We started doing the shmooze, and I realized he didn’t know very much Jewishly. Maybe my friend wanted me to invite this fellow to learn in our yeshiva! After a little more time and pleasant banter, I came to realize this man was actually Mayor Lora, the mayor of our city! Yes, titles and introductions are important, and sometimes need to be spelled out very clearly to effectively communicate!

The Gemara Brachos (7b) tells us Avraham was the first person in the world to refer to Hashem as Adon – Master, (Parshas Lech Lecha 15:8) Additionally, Daniel was saved from the lion’s den because when he cried out to Hashem in prayer, Daniel referred to Hashem as Adon. He was therefore saved in the merit of Avraham, who also referred to Hashem as Adon. Yet, we know that Adam, Shem and Noach all prayed to Hashem. What was this special practice that Avraham developed of referring to Hashem as Adon?

We presently refer to Hashem as Adon with one of the first prayers of the day, Adon Olam. We also start Shemoneh Esrei with the words “Adon-ai sefasei tiftach” – Hashem, may you open our lips. Rav Sherira Gaon says that when one recites the prayer of Adon Olam with proper concentration, all his prayers of the day will be answered, the Satan will be removed from him, and his prayers on the High Holidays will be accepted! What is so special about this prayer that makes it an “ace in the hole?”

The Magid Tzedek says that we start the prayers in the morning and the Shemoneh Esrei with the word Adon, precisely to invoke the merit of Avraham, who referred to Hashem as Adon.  However, we still need to explain what is so special about referring to Hashem as Adon?

Rav Shimon Schwab quotes Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch who explained that Adon means master, signifying the more personal connection that a servant has to the King, as opposed to the relationship between the King and His nation. But what makes AdonOlam really special is when at the end, it says “Vehu Keli” – “Hashem is My G-d.” That is the uniqueness of Adon Olam and the novel idea that Avraham introduced to the world. Avraham referred to Hashem not just as Adon – Master, but as Ado – noimy Master. Avraham had a personal relationship with Hashem; one in which he could speak freely and ask anything.

Over the years, I’ve often wondered why young children, for the first few years of their Jewish education, are taught the first few paragraphs of the morning prayers like Ma TovuAdon Olam, and Yigdal. Yet, they are not taught the more obligatory prayers, such as the blessings of Krias Shema or Shemoneh Esrei.

Now, I realize that these initial prayers really set the stage for our relationship with Hashem. If we have proper concentration, then we will recognize that Hashem – the Master of the world – is interested in me and He listens and cares for me personally. He is my Master and I have a personal relationship with Him. Davening – praying – is a 1 to 1 conversation with Hashem!

I believe this explains the next words in Adon Olam, “V’hu Nisi” – Hashem is my banner. The word Neis has multiple meanings, including banner, miracle and test. Nisi in this case means Hashem is testing me for the purpose of raising me up to a higher level. Hashem is my personal coach, whose sole objective is to get me to perform at my fullest potential.

In facing our daily challenges, in attempting to tap into our desired potential, in conversing with the Almighty, let us recognize the special relationship that we have with Hashem, and allow His encouraging Hand to guide us through our daily endeavors.

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Noach – Going The Extra Mile With Kindness

Before I gave my parsha shiur late Thursday night, I was wiped out from Sukkos and all the lectures I gave on Yom Tov, and I expected sparse attendance. “Maybe I should skip this week,” I thought. Nevertheless, I pushed myself to prepare, and while it was a smaller crowd, I gave it my best. The next morning, an old friend who is a rabbi in a different community called me. “Baruch, I was searching on Torah Anytime for a shiur on the parsha and I saw your name, so I downloaded it. It was fabulous! Can you tell me about the sources you used? I want to use this in my Shabbos drasha.”

Wow, I thought to myself. Hashem is sending me a message. I made the effort to spread Torah and inspired another rav and who knows how many others through him. After Shabbos, my friend sent me a text that his drasha went very well. This whole interaction gave me a tremendous insight into Parshas Noach.

Hashem instructed Noach to build a teiva (ark) to save himself and his family from the bubbling hot waters of the flood. Indeed, anything outside the teiva was destroyed. However, Chazal tell us that Eretz Yisrael was unaffected by the flood! So why didn’t Hashem send Noach and all the animals to Eretz Yisrael to be spared? Why did Noach need to become the caretaker of the largest zoo in world history, spending day and night feeding all the animals of the world?

Rav Dessler, expounding on Rashi, explains that the Torah refers to Noach as a tzadik, a righteous person, while Avraham is referred to as a chasid, someone who does chesed (kindness). The difference between a tzadik and a chasid is the latter goes above and beyond the call of duty for others. Hashem had informed Noach of the upcoming destruction of the world, while Avraham was informed of the upcoming destruction of Sodom. Yet their reactions were very different. Noach built a teiva to save himself and his family, giving up on the wicked people, while Avraham prayed to Hashem to spare the lives of the people of Sodom. The Lev Simcha notes that Noach was given 100 years to build the teiva, to convince the world in that time to change its ways. However, Noach only spoke to those who approached and inquired why he was building this massive boat, while Avraham traveled far and wide to tell people about Hashem.

Noach was righteous, but he did not measure up to Avraham in chesed. Chazal tell us, “Olam chesed yibaneh”—Hashem built the world with chesed. My rebbe, Rav Asher Arieli, related that since the teiva was a “re-creation of the world,” it had to be built on chesed. That’s why Noach had to be busy with chesed the entire time.

Looking further, we see the decree to destroy the world was because of the crimes of chamas—extortion and immoral relations (in both men and beasts). Both of these crimes are rooted in selfishness and a lack of chesed.

Since the world lacked chesed, it was essential for Noach to build a teiva for himself and all the animals of the world, so he and his family would be literally steeped in chesed, caring for others day and night. Even though Eretz Yisrael was spared, Noach and his family did not merit to be saved unless they had the protection of chesed.

Klal Yisrael as a people possess three special characteristics: compassion, shame as a result of sin, and benevolence (chesed). The Gemara in Yevamos tells us chesed was inserted into our DNA by Avraham. All Jews possess this quality of chesed. We are constantly presented with opportunities to help others, but sometimes we might think our actions won’t help: “I tried presenting a shidduch to that family and they said no. I’m sure they will turn down the next one, so why bother.” “Last week I picked up groceries for my neighbors and they didn’t even say thank you. Why do it again?” “Why bother giving my $10 gift when they need to raise a million dollars?”

Similar thinking may have been on Noach’s mind. “Why bother talking to them—they don’t want to listen!” Yet, we are descendants of Avraham, who left no stone unturned in the pursuit of chesed. I was going down that road myself in my thoughts of skipping my Thursday night shiur. Hashem sent me a message that it was worth the extra mile.

Let’s always remember: we have so many opportunities, every day of the week, to do an act of chesed. Each act of chesed helps sustain the world!!

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Nitzavim/Rosh Hashanah – United We Stand

Last month, a dream came true. Thanks to the help of some dear relatives, my son and I were able to go to Eretz Yisrael for a whole week before my son’s Bar Mitzvah. We went to learn in the Mir Yeshiva and Ponevezh. We davened at the Kotel. We met with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, Rabbi Povarsky, Rabbi Binyamin Finkel and many great talmidei chachamim. And we had fun, too! Indeed, my father advised me to make sure to plan a fun activity to do there. My son chose jeeping in the Judean desert. On a Friday, we found ourselves bouncing around in the back of a jeep. It was spectacular! We were surrounded by the magnificent Judean desert mountains. We stopped on top of a mountain and our tour guide, Bentzy, told us, “Look at that mountain on the other side of the Jordan River. That is where the Bnei Yisrael stood before they crossed into Eretz Yisrael. That is where Moshe Rabbeinu, on the last day of his life, said, “Atem Nitzavim Hayom” – “You are standing here today.” We could not believe it! He was quoting and pointing to portions of my son’s Bar Mitzvah parsha — Nitzavim!

Parshas Nitzavim is always read the Shabbos prior to Rosh Hashanah. The parsha opens with the words,” Atem Nitzavim hayom…” The Zohar says the word “hayom” (today) is referring to Rosh Hashanah, as that is the day all Klal Yisrael stand before Hashem in judgment. The Nesivos Shalom explains that the parsha is giving us a strategy to approach this special day of Rosh Hashanah. It’s contained in the words “Atem Nitzavim” You are all standing! What was the purpose of this great assembly before Hashem?

The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh says it was to unite all Bnei Yisrael, to create a pact that each Jew is connected to and responsible for one another. This is the principle of Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh. The Gemara tells us that “Arvus” gives a Jew the ability to make a blessing for another Jew, because he is responsible for him. But how is it possible to make a bracha for someone else, when you already fulfilled your own obligation? Reb Chaim Brisker says the root of the word Arvus is Areiv. An Areiv is a guarantor. When it comes to loans, there are two types of guarantors: a regular Areiv and an Areiv Kablan. A regular guarantor can only be approached after the borrower refuses to pay. However, an Areiv Kablan can be approached directly-it’s as if he personally borrowed the money. Reb Chaim says each Jew is on the level of an Areiv Kablan! If another Jew does not fulfill a mitzvah, we personally are missing that mitzvah. That is what gives a Jew the ability to make a bracha for another Jew, because it is our bracha. The Ritva says this new pact of Arvus united the Jewish nation together as one body.

Reb Yisroel Salanter goes even further. He tells us this concept of focusing on others is the only winning strategy in our impending court case on Rosh Hashanah. As directed by the Shulchan Aruch, we wear nice clothing, get a haircut, and eat a yom tov meal on Rosh Hashanah. Yet, it’s perplexing–shouldn’t we be too nervous to eat? So much is at stake!! No. The Jewish nation as a whole is guaranteed it will be meritorious in judgment. But…this guarantee is for the nation, not for each person.

For an individual to win his or her own case, Reb Yisroel tells we must leave self-absorption behind and sincerely look out for the needs of others. Helping others could be a family member or a neighbor or someone sitting next to you at work or in shul. We are all given different talents and personalities, and we’re to use these attributes to be kind to others around us. Hashem will judge us based on how well we use the abilities He gave us.

Will we succeed? Some people feel ill-prepared to help others. Reb Yisroel Salanter would emphasize an addition we say in our prayers during this time period: “Zochreinu l’chaim….” — may you remember us for life for your sake, Hashem. That is our ticket for success. If we dedicate our service for the sake of Hashem, Who is crowned on Rosh Hashanah, we will find that our efforts will succeed and we will be rewarded as well.

May we all stand truly united this Rosh Hashanah and translate into action, our focus on the needs of others, as we proclaim from the depth of our hearts, “Hashem is the King.” Wishing everyone a k’siva v’chasima tova – a happy, healthy and sweet new year.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Ki Tavo – Having An Attitude Of Gratitude

Many store owners post a dollar bill on the wall behind the cash register to remember their first dollar of profit. We have a related concept in this parsha, where we take the first fruit from that year’s crop and bring it to the Beis Hamikdash. There, we recite a special thank you to Hashem for the bounty we received. Recognizing all the good things Hashem gives us—and saying thank you out loud—is fundamental to who we are as Jews. Every morning we wake up and immediately give thanks to Hashem!

Antonio Avizorone grew up in a small town in Italy. One day he came across a Jewish prayer book that was translated into Italian. He opened it up and read the first prayer, Modeh Ani, Thank You, Hashem for waking me up in the morning. He was startled. “This is how Jews start their day?” He was so moved and impressed, he decided to convert to Judaism and became Avraham Avizorone.

Parshas Ki Savo opens with the mitzvah of bringing bikkurim (the first fruits) to the Beis Hamikdash, to recognize that Hashem is the One who made the produce grow. The mitzvah of bikkurim is so critical, the Midrash Tanchuma tells us that Moshe was worried about this mitzvah the most when he foresaw the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash (Temples) and the resulting exile. This prompted him to start the practice that Jews should pray three times a day. This midrash is quite perplexing. How could it be that regarding the entire destruction of the two Batei Mikdash and exile of the whole Jewish nation, Moshe’s only concern was the inability to bring bikkurim??

I believe the midrash is teaching us the necessity for hakaras hatov—being grateful. Our survival in exile depends on this trait. Without observing the mitzvah of bikkurim, we are in jeopardy of losing our sensitivity and our focus on being grateful to Hashem and connecting with Hashem. To ensure the Jewish people would maintain its appreciation and express its thanks to Hashem, Moshe instituted the practice of davening three times a day. This was later formalized by the Anshei Knesses Hagedola to the davening we have today.

Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach was always very careful to recite birkas hamazon from a bentcher and had great concentration. One time he finished saying birkas hamazon and began saying it all over again. Why? Rav Shach responded that while he was saying the second blessing of the bentching, Nodeh Lecha, which deals with thanking Hashem—he himself lost focus. And since this paragraph is thanking the Almighty, a mindless thank you would not suffice. He had to repeat it.

During these days of Elul there is a great emphasis on tefillah. This Motzei Shabbos we start reciting Selichos to ask Hashem for forgiveness. It’s our opening attempt to connect to Hashem and perhaps be worthy to ask for what we want. I’m sure we all have many requests! But we must not lose focus on the blessings and good that Hashem showers upon us on a daily basis and thank Him for it.

A friend of mine heard a great piece of advice from his rosh yeshiva, who said to pause a moment during the Modim part of our Amidah. That paragraph is all about thanking Hashem. The rosh yeshiva said to pause before saying the word v’tovosecha, “thank You for your kindness,” and to think of a specific kindness that happened to you that day and thank Hashem for that while saying the word v’tovosecha. This idea was reinforced by another friend who told me that while he was fully observant he did not feel a real connection with Hashem until someone suggested that he write down one or two items he was grateful for at the end of each day. As he saw the list of items build over time, he felt closer and closer to Hashem.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Hashem as my first/only son celebrates his bar mitzvah this week!

As we enter the beginning of the new year, let’s focus on all the good we receive, thank Hashem for it and allow ourselves to feel a real connection with Hashem. We will all be the better for it.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Ki Teitzei – It’s Time To Wake Up!

Last week, my wife woke me up at 1:30 am, saying “Get up quickly! Someone is knocking on the front door!” I was half asleep and tried to ignore reality. “Get up now! Somebody’s knocking on the door and I heard the phone and your cell ringing.” Sure enough, there was pounding at the door and the doorbell was ringing. At this point, we were both scared. What could be happening at 1:30 in the morning? So, I dialed the number that called my cell phone. It was the Passaic Police. “Why did you call me?” I asked. “We’re responding to a call about an attempted break-in at your house. The Police are at your front door right now!”

At that hour, my brain was still in a fog. A break-in? Here? Police? I looked out the window to see three police cars and several officers on my front porch. This wasn’t a dream. I opened the door to let the police come in. They had already checked the perimeter of the property and found nothing. Then with our permission, they did a sweep of our house. Nothing again. It seems the caller gave the wrong address – likely Crescent Place, not Crescent Ave. When they left, our hearts were still pounding. Baruch Hashem, no one broke in. Still…my wife said, “It’s Elul and Hashem sent these policemen in the middle of the night to wake us up! The shofar started blowing at shul, but we needed a greater awakening.” We recited Tehillim at our dining room table, with thanks for all of us being safe. What a night!

The shofar blasts reverberate throughout our communities every morning in Elul at the end of Shacharis. The Rambam says the reason we blow shofar is to wake us up from our slumber. We certainly got woken up at our house that night! Now, it’s time to take the message to a higher level to awaken our sleepy soul. Elul is the time to do that! Each day is precious.

From Rosh Chodesh Elul through Yom Kippur is a forty-day period. The Chofetz Chaim says these days are most auspicious, since Moshe spent that amount of time in heaven writing the second luchos (tablets), which he brought down on Yom Kippur. Hashem providing the second set of luchos let us know that He accepted the repentance of the Jewish Nation regarding the sin of the golden calf and once more chose the Bnei Yisroel to be His nation by giving them the Torah.

The number forty is highly significant. The Bnei Yissaschar notes it’s the minimum volume of water required for a kosher Mikvah – 40 Se’ah (measurement of volume in the Gemara era). Each day of the 40 day period from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur corresponds to one Se’ah of the Mikvah and purifies one part of the person that became defiled. Forty days also corresponds to the development of a fetus and determines the gender of the baby. Each day is crucial. Each day is important

Rabbi Moshe Wolfson notes that in Parshas Ki Teitzei we also find the number forty in the punishment of lashes mentioned. Yet the offender, who transgressed a negative commandment, only receives thirty-nine lashes, for the sages extrapolate the verse to mean forty minus one-thirty-nine. Each of the lashes is meant to purify part of the person who was defiled. If we perfect thirty-nine areas of the person, then Hashem makes the final product, the fortieth portion, complete.

The same concept is found in Shabbos, since Shabbos is the day in which the world was completed. There are thirty-nine base melachosthat one may not do on Shabbos. The fortieth is Godly — that’s why Yom Kippur is the fortieth day of this time period. In each day of this time period the alarm sounds via the shofar, reminding us to wake up and make each day count.

Rabbi Nosson Wachtfogel (late Mashgiach of Beis Medrash Govoha) stressed that we should focus on the positive and not the negative during this time. Focusing on our faults is not useful. Rather, it’s the time period to be diligent about performance of mitzvos and Torah learning and to resolve to improve ourselves. Some people take on a little something extra. Every activity we do to better ourselves in Elul has extra power and impact.

The Shofar is blowing. Don’t require the police to be pounding on the door! Let us listen to the wake-up call! Do at least one positive action, as small as it might be, but let’s not press snooze and go back to sleep. In Elul, each day makes a difference.

Do at least one positive action, as small as it might be, but let’s not press snooze and go back to sleep. In Elul, each day makes a difference.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Shoftim – Wholesome Simplicity

A friend of mine discovered a growth and underwent tests. The results put him into an exclusive club no one wants to join: cancer. He underwent surgery, chemo treatments and radiation. Throughout this ordeal, I was deeply moved by his attitude and trust in Hashem. In one conversation, he told me, “Hashem has a plan for me. Whatever happens is meant to be.” His words linger with me to this day.

Everyone has challenges and setbacks which at times can be overwhelming, even depressing, yet we can get our needed inspiration to bounce back, from individuals who undergo life-threatening situations and navigate their trials with courage and faith in Hashem. Their approach to life with such clarity in their belief in Hashem, gives us our needed comfort and focus.

This reflects a fundamental life lesson in Parshas Shoftim. “Tamim tihyeh im Hashem Elokecha” — you shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d (18:13). Since there is no punctuation in a Sefer Torah, the reading of one verse can change by where one places a comma. The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh says there are two ways to read this pasuk, depending where we place the punctuation. The word “tihyeh” can be read together with tamim – “You shall be wholehearted with Hashem …,” meaning that you should have unwavering belief in Hashem and then Hashem will be with you. Or, we can place the comma after the word tamim, with the end of the verse saying “tihyeh im Hashem” – if you will be wholesome, then you will be with Hashem. The Torah wrote this ambiguity on purpose because both readings are correct! The Torah is telling us that if one is “tamim,” then he is with Hashem. This explains Rashi, who comments that if we are “tamim,”then Hashem will be proud to consider us “Amcha and Nachlascha” – His nation and His representatives.

But what’s the true meaning of being “tamim” – wholesome? The root of the word is “tam” – simple. Yaakov Avinu is referred to as “Ish tam” – a simple man. One of the four sons discussed in the Haggadah on Seder night is the Tam – the simple son. Usually, this attribute connotes simple, as in not being learned, and is not referred to with the greatest sense of praise. So why the praise of simplicity??

There are two types of simplicity. Simplicity can come from plain ignorance, or it can be seen in someone who is very knowledgeable, yet acts in a simple, straightforward manner, without any deviousness. The latter person lives his life with a simple reliance on Hashem. Be it in business, communal affairs or in relationships, this person acts in a straightforward and wholesome way, without any trace of deviousness. It’s not an easy task! A person who is very intelligent can use this attribute to achieve an unfair advantage over his fellow man. It takes a special strength of character to be very learned and still put simple reliance in Hashem in every aspect of our lives, as did Yaakov Avinu, without any need to act in a devious manner.

There’s another point to bring out in this verse. In the Sefer Torah, the letter Tav in the word “tamim” is written larger than all the other letters. The Baal Haturim explains this means someone who behaves with temimos is considered as if he fulfilled the entire Torah, which is comprised of all the letters from Aleph to Tav.

It’s a most appropriate lesson for these early days of Elul. Rav Avrohom Schorr quotes Rabbeinu Ephraim who points out the numerical value of the words “tamim tihyeh” is 910 — the same numerical value of the word Tishrei. Tishrei ushers in Rosh Hashana. Tishrei begins our New Year. It’s a powerful reminder that as we begin a whole new cycle of life with Tishrei, our focus should be on making ourselves tamim –wholesome and simple in our faith in Hashem and in our practice of the Almighty’s mitzvos.

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Re’eh – Beginning Near The End

Last summer, my wife and I went to Lake Placid, NY and toured the Olympic bobsled track training center. We learned a very interesting detail: the competition in this sport is so close that the race is won by a mere 1/1000th of a second! A crucial part of the race is the loading – how quickly the bobsledders run and load themselves onto the bobsled. If they are a second too slow, the race may already be lost. The opening move is pivotal; speed means either victory or certain defeat.

Parshas Re’eh begins with the words, See, I have placed in front of you today the various blessings and the curses.” Why the emphasis on the word today? The Chidushei Harim explains “today” is there to teach us that each day is a new beginning. Even if yesterday did not go as planned, today is still a new day with its own potential for mitzvos and blessings.

Ever wonder why Hashem made day and night and the need to sleep? It’s all part of the Divine Plan. We wake up in the morning to a fresh new start. Each day, Hashem renews our ability to make proper and correct decisions. We see this in the first of the morning blessings — hanosen lasechvi binah — Hashem gives man a new perspective every day. The same is true for each new week and each new month.

This Shabbos, Parshas Re’eh occurs on Rosh Chodesh Elul. It’s time for a fresh start in this very last month of the year. Earlier, in Parshas Eikev, it says Hashem is watching over from “Reishis hashana ad acharis shana” – from the beginning of the year until the end of the year, Why does the first mention of the word shana have the letter “heh” in front of it and the second mention doesn’t? The “heh” at the beginning of a word refers to a specific item or event. – the year.

The Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, gives a most insightful explanation. Our sages tell us Reishis Hashana – the beginning of the year, is referring to Rosh Hashana. At the start of a new year, it is common for people to say this year is going to be “the year.” Last year was not so great. I didn’t meet my goals or accomplish all that I planned or wished for, but this year I’m going to make it happen. This year is going to be “the year!” That why Reishis Hashana — the beginning of the year — is spelled with a “heh.” However, at the end of the year, it often happens for people to realize they did not make it “the year they wanted it to be.” It was just…another year. That is why it says acharis shana – at year end, without the “heh”; it was not “the year,” but just another year.

The Sefard version of Kedusha in Shabbos Musaf, says “Hein goalti eschem acharis k’reishis“– the redemption will come when the end of the year is like the beginning of the year. Indeed, this is the formula to achieve redemption – when we carry through to the end of the year the development of the plans we began at the beginning of the year, making the current year into “the year.”

We are now at the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the year. By giving us a new perspective each day, Hashem is telling us, – “You can start again today!” Even if we have not yet met our goals and expectations, we can still start again now, today. Unlike the bobsled race, a quick start is not critical. Today is still a fresh opportunity. We can look back and review the plans we set for ourselves last Rosh Hashana, see what has been completed and do our best to accomplish more or even all of our goals. We still have a chance to make “the end like the beginning” and with this opportunity, we can make it “the year.”

And how do we do that? What is a key activity that will enable us to link our noble beginning to our humble “now? It’s easy:” Torah study. We start the day reciting Modeh Ani and conclude with the words “Torah tziva lanu Moshe” — Moshe taught the Jewish nation Torah. If we haven’t yet made a sufficient effort, Elul is a special time to reconnect to Hashem’s Torah. Let us begin this opportune month of Elul with a great start and make the last month of the year even more successful than our first. In this way, may we merit that this year really be “the year,” And welcome Moshiach as well!